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No Evidence Needed? War on Salvia Divinorum Heating Up -- YouTube Videos Play Role

Nearly a year ago, we reported on mounting efforts to ban salvia divinorum in states and localities around the country. Since then, the war on the hallucinogenic plant has only intensified, despite the lack of any evidence that its use is widespread or that it has any harmful physical effects on its users.
salvia leaves (courtesy
Salvia is a member of the mint family from Mexico, where it has been used by Mazatec curanderos (medicine men) for centuries. Within the past decade, awareness of its powerful hallucinogenic properties has begun to seep into the popular consciousness. Now, it is widely available at head shops and via the Internet, where it can be purchased in a smokeable form that produces almost instantaneous intoxication and a freight train of a trip lasting a handful of minutes.

Fueled largely by the appearance of salvia-intoxicated youths on YouTube (there were some 3,500 such videos at last count), law enforcement's reflexive desire to prohibit any mind-altering substances, and legislators' wishes to "do something" about youth drug use, efforts to ban the plant are spreading. While some states have stopped at limiting salvia's use to adults, most recently Maine, more have banned it outright. Legislative measures affecting salvia have been filed in 16 more states too, as well as a number of towns and cities.

In 2005, Louisiana became the first state to ban salvia, making it a proscribed Schedule I controlled substance. Since then, Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, North Dakota, and Tennessee have joined the list. (Tennessee bans ingestion -- it's a Class A misdemeanor -- but not possession. All the others excepting North Dakota have placed it in Schedule I.) In Oklahoma, only concentrated salvia is banned. Salvia is also a controlled substance in Australia, Belgium, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Italy, Spain and Sweden.

The press has also played a role in stoking fears of salvia and misstating its popularity. "Salvia: The Next Marijuana?," asked the Associated Press in a widely-reprinted story earlier this month.

Chris Bennett, proprietor of Urban Shaman Ethnobotanicals in downtown Vancouver, just laughed at the "salvia is the next marijuana" meme. "Anyone who says that is demonstrating their complete lack of knowledge of either salvia or marijuana," he said. "There is just no comparison. Cannabis is a mild relaxant and euphoric, while salvia is a very fast-acting visionary substance where some people report out of body experiences."

Researchers say that while salvia's effects on consciousness may be disquieting, the plant has not been shown to be toxic to humans, its effects are so potent is unlikely to be used repeatedly, and its active property, salvinorin A, could assist in the development of medicines for mood disorders. While action at the state level would unlikely affect research, a move by the DEA to put it on the controlled substances list could.

There are hazards to messing with hallucinogens, one expert was quick to point out. "It's an hallucinogen, and while its hallucinogenic actions are different from those induced by LSD and other hallucinogens, it has the liabilities that hallucinogens do," said Bryan Roth, a professor of pharmacology at University of North Carolina's School of Medicine, the man who isolated salvinorin A. "When people take it, they are disoriented. If you don't know where you are and you're driving a car, that would be a bad experience."

Still, said Roth, while it may make you freak out, it isn't going to kill you. "There is no evidence of any overt toxicity, there are no reports in the medical literature that anyone has died from it. The caveat is that there have been no formal studies done on humans, but the animal data suggests that it doesn't kill animals given massive doses, and that's usually -- but not always -- predictive for human pharmacology."

The DEA has been evaluating salvia for several years now, but there is no sign that it is ready to take action. "Salvia is a drug we are currently looking at to see if it should or should not be scheduled," said Rogene Waite, a spokesperson for the DEA, which is tasked with evaluating potential drug "threats." The agency has initiated the process of evaluating the eight factors listed in the Controlled Substances Act in determining whether or not to schedule a drug, she said. "There is no time frame or limit on this process," she said, providing no further hint on when or if ever the DEA would move to add salvia onto the federal list of controlled substances.

But legislators across the land are not waiting for the DEA. In California, Assemblyman Anthony Adams (R-Hesperia) introduced a bill that would ban salvia for minors at the urging of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, he told the Riverside Press-Enquirer. "If you have the opportunity to get in front of an emerging drug, I think, geez, you should do that," said Adams, whose district includes San Bernardino and Redlands.

On the other side of the country, Massachusetts state Rep. Vinny deMacedo (R-Plymouth) is cosponsoring legislation that would criminalize salvia possession. "I believe by not making this drug illegal we are sending a message to our youth that it is okay, and there is no way that a drug that causes such mind altering effects on an individual should be considered legal," deMacedo told the Plymouth News.

Again, legislators took action after being alerted by law enforcement. DeMacedo said he agreed to sponsor the bill after hearing from Plymouth County Sheriff Joseph MacDonald. "I'd never heard of it before," deMacedo said. "It creates this psychedelic-type, mind-altering high, similar to LSD. I thought, 'You've got to be kidding. Something like this is legal?'"

In Florida, Rep. Mary Brandenburg wants to save the kids by sending anyone possessing salvia to prison for up to five years. "As soon as we make one drug illegal, kids start looking around for other drugs they can buy legally. This is just the next one," she explained.

While legislators attempt to stay ahead of the curve by banning any new, potentially mind-altering substances at the drop of hat, their efforts are misdirected, said Urban Shaman's Bennett. The YouTube kids may be the public face of salvia, but they are only a minority of users, he said. "It's all ages," he said, adding that his store does not sell to people under 18. "Every time there is some media attention, I get a bunch of middle-aged people coming in and asking for it."

Salvia is not a party drug, said Bennett. "The most serious users are people seeking a classic shamanic experience, seeking a visionary experience as part of their spiritual path. They feel they're accessing a higher level of consciousness," he explained. "And even they don't seem to use it more than once a month or so."

For all the commotion surrounding salvia, there is very little evidence of actual harm to anyone, said Bennett. "You'll notice you don't hear anybody talking about organic damage to the human organism," he said. "This is all purely fear and loathing of people having a visionary experience."

What little data there is on salvia use and its effects tends to bear him out. There are no reported deaths from salvia use, with the exception of a Delaware teenager who committed suicide in 2006 at some point after using it. (That unfortunate young man is widely cited by the proponents of banning salvia, even though there is no concomitant wave of salvia-linked suicides. Also, he was reportedly taking an acne medication linked to depression and had been using alcohol.) Users are not showing up with any frequency in mental hospitals or hospital emergency rooms.

While the YouTube kids may present a problematic public face of salvia use, there's not much to be done about that, said Bennett. "You can't control that," he shrugged. "And so what? Some kids are having a powerful visionary experience for five minutes on YouTube. Why is that somehow more threatening than watching someone in the jungle take ayahuasca or something on National Geographic?"

Bennett, for one, has no use for a ban on salvia -- or any other plant, for that matter. "We have a fundamental natural right to have access to all plants, and I don't care if it's salvia or marijuana or poppy or coca. That's just as clear-cut as our right to air and water," he said.

But Bennett's perspective is not one widely shared by legislators in the US. Instead, they reflexively reach to prohibit that which they do not understand. And the very "kids" they claim to be saving will be the ones going to prison.

Latin America: First Coca Plantations, Cocaine Lab Found in Brazil

In an ominous sign for US coca eradication efforts in South America, the Brazilian military said Sunday it had for the first time discovered coca plantations and a cocaine laboratory on its national territory. Coca has been grown by indigenous people in the Andes for thousands of years, and in recent years, three countries -- Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia -- have accounted for all the world's coca leaf.
coca seedlings
The Brazilian army used helicopters and small boats to reach the coca fields and lab in a remote area near the northwestern city of Tabatinga, close to the borders with Peru and Colombia. The fields were discovered when satellite photos showed large clearings hacked out of the jungle.

Lt. Col. Antônio Elcio Franco Filho told reporters Sunday finding coca plants was a surprise. "It is the first time these plantations have been found in Brazil," he said, adding that the find had prompted authorities to look for more fields in the region.

"This is new in Brazil and it's a concern," Walter Maierovitch, an organized crime expert who once headed Brazil's anti-drug efforts, told the government's Agência Brasil news service. "It could mean a change in the geo-strategy of some Colombian cartels."

While coca grows well in the Andean-Amazon highlands, the climate in the Amazon basin is not believed to be favorable to coca cultivation. But according to Franco Filho, the leaf growing in Brazil could be adapted to that climate.

"We believe they are using a transgenic or an adaptation of the leaf used in the Andean region," Franco Filho said. "They are probably trying to find new locations to grow this, so we need to stay alert. Authorities need to crack down on them immediately. If we don't do anything it might even become a source of deforestation."

By Monday, US anti-drug officials were raising alarms. "Brazilian law enforcement is going to have to be vigilant on this front, so it doesn't become a major producer," DEA spokesman Garrison Courtney told the Associated Press. If coca can be successful grown there, said Courtney, "the Amazon would be a perfect area, with all the brush and uninhabited areas. It almost creates a perfect opportunity. Drug traffickers and organizations are always moving to new areas."

No one was arrested in the raid. Brazil, whose status as the world's number two cocaine consumer nation may be threatened by the rising popularity of the drug in Europe, may now be about to join the elite ranks of the coca producing nations.

DEA Opens Drug War Fantasy Camp

Last year, the DEA was teaching people how to cook meth. Now they're teaching people how to shoot other people with guns.

Just watch this news report about the DEA's exciting public outreach program, which shows almost nothing except a bunch of people shooting guns and seemingly having an exhilarating experience. There sure is a lot of shooting involved in saving us from drugs.

Of particular interest is the instructor's reaction when the participating FOX reporter accidentally shoots an unarmed suspect. He laments the inevitable newspaper headlines, as though bad press is the real tragedy when someone is accidentally shot in the drug war. To be fair, we don't get to hear everything he may have said, but the clip is creepy either way when one glances over at the pile of innocent bodies our drug war has accumulated.

As an undergrad criminal justice major, I had the opportunity to take on a million dollar "shoot/don't shoot" simulator at a sophisticated police training facility. It was a unique opportunity to appreciate the difficult positions police officers can find themselves in. The weapon was a real glock, outfitted to shoot invisible lasers instead of live ammo. When you pulled the trigger, an amplified boom shook the floor and a simulated kickback threatened to rip the weapon from your grasp.

More than a few of my classmates panicked quickly, emptying their clips at the slightest provocation, and earning admonishment from the instructor. I performed well, taking down a disgruntled employee on a shooting rampage in an office building, then managing not to shoot an angry motorist who reached for his wallet in an aggressive manner. I've spoken ever since of my newfound appreciation for the awesome responsibility law enforcement officers bear when making life and death decision within a fraction of a second.

I've also never been more convinced that police must not be asked to make such decisions in the name of preventing drug transactions between consenting adults. The risk is too great and the reward far too small.

                                                                                                                                                                        [Thanks, Paul]

United States

Judge Throws Out DEA Agents' Lawsuit Against "American Gangster"

I had a feeling this wasn't going very far:
A Manhattan federal judge Thursday tossed out a $55 million suit filed by former federal drug agents who say the movie "American Gangster" tagged them as criminals.

Three former Drug Enforcement Administration agents sued NBC Universal last month, contending they were slandered by an on-screen claim that Harlem druglord Frank Lucas' cooperation "led to the convictions of three-quarters of New York City's Drug Enforcement Agency."

For starters, Judge Colleen McMahon said, the New York City Drug Enforcement Agency doesn't exist.

"It would behoove a major corporation like Universal (which is owned by a major news organization, NBC) not to put inaccurate statements at the end of popular films," McMahon wrote. "However, nothing in this particular untrue statement is actionable." [NY Daily News]
Cool. And now that we've thrown DEA out of civil court, let's toss a few of their criminal cases too. Starting with this one
United States

Press Release: Advocates Urge Presidential Candidates to End DEA Raids by Executive Order

For Immediate Release: January 29, 2008 Contact: ASA Media Liaison Kris Hermes (510) 681-6361 or ASA Director of Government Affairs Caren Woodson (510) 388-0546 Advocates Urge Presidential Candidates to End DEA Raids by Executive Order Nationwide campaign launched today to end federal enforcement against medical marijuana Washington, D.C. -- With only a week left until Super Tuesday, medical marijuana advocates launched a nationwide campaign today to urge presidential candidates to end federal raids in states with medical marijuana laws. The campaign urges candidates to issue an Executive Order upon taking office that would end federal interference in state-sanctioned medical marijuana laws. The proposed Executive Order would deny funds to the Department of Justice for federal enforcement efforts against patients and providers in states that have adopted medical marijuana laws. "To match the increased level of federal interference in states with medical marijuana laws, we're asking candidates to clearly state their opposition by pledging to issue an Executive Order, if elected." said Caren Woodson, Director of Government Affairs at Americans for Safe Access, the advocacy group that launched the campaign. "We're spending millions of dollars on law enforcement actions that harm our most vulnerable citizens," continued Woodson. "And, the President wields the power to stop it at any time." Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has stepped up its enforcement actions against medial marijuana patients and providers. While federal interference has occurred in multiple medical marijuana states, some have been hit harder than others. In California, the DEA has conducted more than 100 raids and threatened more than 300 landlords with criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture if they continue to lease to medical marijuana dispensing collectives (dispensaries). In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently prosecuting more than 100 medical marijuana-related cases. The campaign focuses on candidates that have already made supportive statements on medical marijuana: Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, former Senator John Edwards, and Representative Ron Paul. These candidates are being asked to officiate their support by pledging to issue an Executive Order, which states that: "No funds made available to the Department of Justice shall be used to prevent States from implementing adopted laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana. In particular, no funds shall be used to investigate, seize, arrest or prosecute in association with the distribution of medical marijuana, unless such distribution has been found by adjudication to violate state or local law." DEA actions have already garnered opposition from both local and federal lawmakers, including Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and House Judiciary Chair John Conyers. In December, Mayor Dellums made a public statement condemning DEA tactics. The same month, Chairman Conyers publicly voiced his "deep concern" over DEA "efforts to undermine California state law," and he committed to sharply question these tactics in oversight hearings. Further information: ASA Executive Order Campaign Page: Proposed Executive Order: Background Information on Increased DEA Actions: Video footage of Candidates' Position on Medical Marijuana: Statement by House Judiciary Chair John Conyers: # # #
Washington, DC
United States

Medical Marijuana: Berkeley Declares Itself a Sanctuary City

The Berkeley City Council gave a collective raised middle finger to the DEA Tuesday night, unanimously approving a resolution declaring the city a sanctuary in the event the federal agency attempts to interfere with its medical marijuana dispensaries. Passage of the resolution was greeted with loud applause, according to the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at Cal Berkeley.

The resolution was opposed by the DEA, and softened last month to accommodate grumbling from Police Chief Douglas Hambleton and City Manager Phil Kamlarz, but it still puts the city on record as "opposing the attempts by the US Drug Enforcement Administration to close medical marijuana dispensaries, and declaring the City of Berkeley as a sanctuary for medicinal cannabis use, cultivation, and distribution that complies with State law and local ordinances in the event that" the DEA tried to raid one of the city's regulated dispensaries.

The resolution also reinforces a 2002 Berkeley policy directing police not to cooperate in federal medical marijuana investigations. City police were criticized last fall after arriving at the scene of a DEA action related to a raid on a Los Angeles dispensary. The resolution reemphasizes that the Berkeley police and the city attorney's office are not to cooperate with the DEA in "investigations of, raids upon, or threats against physicians, individual patients or their primary caregivers, and medical cannabis dispensaries and operators" operating within California law.

In addition, the resolution directs the city clerk to send letters to Alameda County, of which Berkeley is a part, to state Attorney General Jerry Brown, and to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging them to appropriately support medical marijuana.

The city of Berkeley has now committed itself to ensuring that its residents have access to medical marijuana, but it's not clear just yet exactly what that means. The resolution directs the police chief and the city manager to try to find ways to turn the resolution into reality. If the DEA shuts down Berkeley's dispensaries, will the city provide medical marijuana? Will it help new dispensaries set up? The answers are in the making.

Law Enforcement: Snitch Culture Gone Bad in Ohio -- 15 Prisoners to Go Free Because of Informant's Tainted Testimony

In a case that has been stinking up northeast Ohio for several years now, a federal judge in Cleveland Tuesday decided that 15 Mansfield men imprisoned on drug charges should be freed because their convictions were based on the testimony of a lying DEA informant. The men, convicted on crack cocaine dealing charges, have collectively served 30 years already.

The men were all convicted solely on the testimony of informant Jerrell Bray and his handler, DEA Special Agent Lee Lucas. But Bray has since admitted lying in the Mansfield drug cases and has since been sentenced to 15 years in prison on perjury and civil rights charges. He is now working with a US Justice Department task force investigating what went wrong in the cases.

"It's about time," said Danielle Young, the mother of Nolan Lovett, who was serving a five-year sentence but could be home by the end of the month. "This is long, long overdue. These boys will finally get justice, even if it is late," she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

US District Judge John Adams told attorneys Tuesday he hopes to have the men returned to Northeast Ohio from federal prisons across the county. Then, federal prosecutors can formally ask Adams to drop the charges because there is no evidence to convict the men. That could have happened as early as this week.

Bray and Lucas originally collaborated on a massive drug investigation that resulted in 26 indictments for drug conspiracy. Three people were sentenced to probation, judges or juries tossed eight cases, and 15 men were sent to prison. But that was before Bray's lies were exposed.

The Plain Dealer noted that 14 of the 15 had pleaded guilty, a fact the paper naively said made the situation "unique," but then pointed out that they may have pleaded after seeing what had happened to Geneva France, a young mother with no criminal record who was indicted, but refused to plea bargain and steadfastly maintained her innocence. Convicted on the testimony of Bray and Lucas, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

France served 16 months before being freed after Bray's perjury came to light. In a heart-rending article this week, the Plain Dealer recounted France's sorry tale. Her real offense? Refusing to date the informant.

While the victims of Bray and Lucas are about to be freed, the case isn't over yet, and now, the hunter has become the hunted. According to the Plain Dealer, Lucas is the focus of the Justice Department investigation. But it is the snitch system itself that should really be on trial.

Editorial: A Matter of Basic Fairness in the Marc Emery Case

David Borden, Executive Director
David Borden
This week it was reported that Marc Emery, Canada's famed marijuana law reformer and one-time seed merchant, has tentatively reached a plea agreement with the US Dept. of Justice that will spare co-defendants Michelle Rainey and Greg Williams prosecution, and will spare him extradition to the US, but will place him behind bars in Canada for the next five years. The reports were premature -- the deal has yet to be accepted by both countries, either could reject it, according to Jodie Emery, posting on talk groups -- but that is the way things may go as they are looking at this point.

The Emery case highlights two issues of basic fairness where the US and Canadian governments both fell short. One is the root injustice of prohibition. As Emery pointed out to media, no one was harmed by his business. Therefore taking away his freedom -- putting him in prison -- is unjust. Even just shutting down his business was unjust, based on this idea, because the law is an unjust one. This is an unfairness applying to the vast majority of drug prohibition prosecutions.

The other fairness issue flows from the fact that Emery carried out his business completely in the open, with full knowledge of authorities on both sides of the border, for almost a decade. His office is literally in the center of downtown Vancouver, and the magazine headquarters and bookstore across the street have an open storefront. I've seen these places myself. Anyone searching the Internet could find out what he was up to -- if they didn't already know from him directly, at a rally or reading his quotes in the media.

Setting aside the wrongfulness of prohibition itself, one could argue that because prohibition is the law now, the government had the right to tell him to stop until the law one day gets changed. In this view, the fair approach would have been to inform Emery that things had changed, and that he had to stop selling seeds or risk US or Canadian ire moving forward. Unfortunately that's not what happened. Having done nothing to move against him for all of those years, and not having warned him, instead one day the DEA moved in, filed extradition papers, and announced that Emery and his friends were facing 20-to-life. And Canada -- having tolerated him for years and years, even having accepted $600,000 or so in taxes, according to reports, knowing that he gave most of it away -- cooperated fully.

This second fairness issue is one that is fairly specific to Marc Emery's case, more perhaps than to any other. But it also reflects on the character of the criminal justice system -- many of us refer to it as the (in)justice system -- that the people making the decisions on how they would proceed would choose this route instead of the other, and that the sentences Emery and Rainey and Williams could face are so obscenely long to begin with. We have many prisoners here in the so-called land of the free who will serve decades before seeing freedom, if they ever do. It's a dark sign of the times that in part what I feel about this outcome is relief that he may only serve five years.

But make no mistake, five years is a big chunk of a life, a very severe punishment and a very long time. Try to imagine if you were about to be incarcerated, only for one year, how you would feel. Even a year in prison is a very severe punishment, if we are going to be realistic about it. But the "tough-on-crime" hawks who have dominated policymaking as of late have forgotten this. Too bad for Marc that that has happened. But too bad for all of us too.

Law Enforcement: Snitches Gone Bad

Just last week, Drug War Chronicle reviewed Ethan Brown's "Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice," which tells the story of the corruption and misdeeds fostered by federal drugs laws that virtually impel people who've been arrested to find others to inform on in order to avoid prison time themselves. We don't know if it's synchronicity or what, but in the week since then, bad snitch stories seem to be popping up all over. Here are three we've spotted in the past few days:

In Twin Falls, Idaho, a man charged in a Twin Falls murder was working as an informant for the Blaine County Narcotics Enforcement Team. John Henry McElhiney of Hailey is charged with killing an 18-year-old Twin Falls man in September. In response to press inquiries, the Blaine County Sheriff's Office has confirmed that McElhiney worked drug cases for the drug squad. The office stopped short of calling him a "confidential informant," however, instead referring to him as a "cooperative individual." It is unclear from local press accounts whether McElhiney became a snitch for money, to avoid prison time himself, or for some other reason. It is also unclear whether his assistance actually led to any other arrests. He awaits trial on the murder charge.

In Seattle, a "cooperating witness" pleaded guilty last Friday to framing people for drug sales offenses. Snitch Tina Rivard, 40, had been arrested in May for forging prescriptions, but instead of charging her, agents with the Cowlitz-Wahkiakum Narcotics Task Force offered her a deal: leniency in exchange for helping to build cases against prescription drug dealers. Rivard helped in one case, but in a second, she framed a 21-year-old man on Oxycontin dealing charges by undermining the task force's "controlled buy" system. Although agents would punch the suspect's phone number into Rivard's phone, she would then secretly hit speed-dial and instead call a friend posing as the suspect. He would then make incriminating statements and set up drug deals. Rivard also faked a drug buy from the suspect under the agents' noses, having her friend actually bring the drugs she claimed to have bought. The 21-year-old was indicted and faced up to 20 years in prison, but Rivard eventually admitted she had set him up. Now the indictment against him has been dropped, and she faces 20 years.

In Cleveland, Ohio, an informant for the DEA has been convicted of framing innocent people and getting them sent to prison. Informant Jerrell Bray staged drug deals with friends while investigators watched, but gave investigators the names of people not involved in the deals, then testified or gave sworn statements saying that the innocent people were the drug dealers. Bray managed to set up four people, including a woman who had refused to date him, while working under DEA agent Lee Lucas. It is unclear whether Lucas or other law enforcement personnel knew what Bray was up to, but a federal grand jury will meet next month to investigate obstruction of justice, perjury, and weapons charges against Bray "and others." Bray was sentenced to 15 years in prison on perjury and deprivation of civil rights charges, a sentence that will run concurrently with state time for shooting a man in a drug-related robbery.

Ironically, Bray can gain a sentence cut on the federal time if he "cooperates fully." When will they learn?

Federal Budget: Drug Czar's Ad Campaign Takes a Hit, DC Can Do Needle Exchange, But More Funding for Law Enforcement

The Office of National Drug Control Policy's (ONDCP) National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign took a major hit as Congress finalized the fiscal year 2008 budget this week, and the District of Columbia won the right to spend its own money on needle exchange programs, but when it comes to drug war law enforcement, Congress still doesn't know how to say no. Instead, it funded increases in some programs and restored Bush administration budget cuts in others.
less of this next year
The media campaign, with its TV ads featuring teens smoking pot and then shooting their friends or driving over little girls on bicycles, among others, saw its budget slashed from $99 million this year to $60 million next year -- less than half the $130 million requested by the Bush administration.

"It's a mixed bag for sure," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "They cut the anti-marijuana commercials, but at the same time they gave a lot of money to law enforcement. There was some trimming around the edges, but Congress didn't do anything about fundamentally altering the course of the drug war."

The Justice Department budget was the source of much, but not all, of the federal anti-drug law enforcement funding, including:

  • $2.1 billion for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a $138 million increase over 2007, and $53 million more than the Bush administration asked for.
  • $2.7 billion in state and local law enforcement crime prevention grants, including the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, which fund the legion of local multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces. That's $179 million less than in 2007, but the Bush administration had asked for only about half that.
  • $587 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, $45.4 million more than last year. The Bush administration had proposed cutting the program to nearly zero.
US Capitol, Senate side
But the appropriations bill that covers ONDCP also had some money for law enforcement, namely $230 million for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, $5.3 million more than this year and $10 million more than the Bush administration requested. That program, which coordinates federal, state, and local anti-drug law enforcement efforts continues to be funded despite criticism from taxpayer groups.

"It seemed all year that the Democrats would try to restore some of the cuts from previous years, and they did," said DPA's Piper. "On the one hand, the Democrats say they want to quit locking up so many people, but at the same time, they're passing out money like candy to law enforcement, and that only perpetuates the problem," he added, citing the Justice Policy Institute's recent report showing that the more money that goes to law enforcement, the more people get arrested for drug offenses, and the greater the proportion of black and brown people locked up for drug offenses.

The funding cut for ONDCP's widely ridiculed media campaign was a bright spot for DPA, which, along with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has been lobbying for the past three years to kill the program. The two groups were joined on the Hill this year by Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and all of them hailed the at least partial victory on media campaign funding.

In repeated federal studies, the media campaign has been found to be ineffective -- and sometimes even perverse, in that some studies have found exposure to the campaign make teen drug use more, not less, likely. Among those are a series of reports by Westat commissioned by the National Institutes on Drug Abuse and a Government Accountability Office review of the Westat studies.

"It's $60 million more than the program should be getting, but it is a significant reduction, and we're really happy with it," said Tom Angell, SSDP government relations director. "The federally funded evaluation shows it actually causes teens to use more drugs, not less. In the most objective analysis, the program is simply not working. We shouldn't be spending a dime of taxpayer money on that," he said.

"That's a step in the right direction," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for MPP. "The drug czar's ad campaigns have been largely based on misinformation and exaggeration, and anything that reduces that is a good thing. Since the drug czar has shown he has no interest in doing appropriate and factual drug education, the ideal funding level would be zero, but we're getting closer," he said.

"At its height, the ad campaign was getting $200 million a year, and now we've got it down to $60 million," said DPA's Piper. "Thankfully, Rep. Serrano and the other Democrats had the courage to cut this stupid and ineffective campaign. We've been lobbying to kill it outright, but it's really hard just to cut a program, let alone kill it in one fell swoop. We have to do it in baby steps," he said.

Congressional concern over ONDCP media operations also manifested itself in another section of the appropriations bill that restricts it and other federal agencies from producing video news releases (designed as "prepackaged news stories" for local TV news programs) unless they are clearly labeled as being funded by that agency. In a GAO report examining ONDCP video news releases, the government watchdog agency qualified them as "covert propaganda."

Also as part of the omnibus appropriations bill, the District of Columbia has won the right to spend its own money on needle exchange programs, which it had been barred from doing by congressional conservatives. But Congress did not go so far as to undo the 1998 rider authored by then drug warrior Rep. Bob Barr that blocked the District from enacting a medical marijuana law approved by the voters.

All in all, as Piper said, "a mixed bag." Drug reformers win a handful of battles, but the drug war juggernaut continues full ahead and federal money rains down on drug war law enforcement like a never-ending shower. And those federal funds seed the state and local drug war machine where most of the action takes place.

"Congress needs to stop paying the states to do bad things," said Piper. "The drug war perpetuates itself because the states don't have to pay the full costs; the feds subsidize it, so the states have little incentive to reform. But the vast majority of drug arrests are by the states, and they should have to pay the full cost for police and prisons and all those expenses associated with the drug war. Until that happens, it's going to be hard to get reform at the state level; that's why it's so sad the Democrats are undoing some of those cuts that Bush made."

Drug War Issues

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