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Medical Marijuana Update

Monday's federal raid on Oaksterdam University in Oakland has ignited a firestorm of criticism of heavy-handed federal efforts to clamp down on medical marijuana distribution. Meanwhile, battles continue to be fought from Washington, DC, to local city halls.

National

On Monday, lawmakers from five states urged the Obama administration to back off from its policy of interference in state medical marijuana programs. The lawmakers are Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-CA), Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D-WA), Rep. Antonio Maestas (D-NM), Sen. Cisco McSorley (D-NM), Assemblyman Chris Norby (R-CA), Rep. Deborah Sanderson (R-ME) and Sen. Pat Steadman (D-CO). They called on President Obama to live up to his campaign promise to leave the regulation of medical marijuana to the states, adding raids would only "force patients underground" into the illegal drug market. "Please respect our state laws," the lawmakers wrote. "And don't use our employees as pawns in your zealous and misguided war on medical marijuana."

On Tuesday, former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson criticized the Oaksterdam raids, saying the Obama administration needs to "find better things to do with our tax dollars than raiding Richard Lee's home in selective enforcement of a bad law." Johnson, who governed as a Republican, is seeking the Libertarian Party presidential nomination this year.

On Wednesday, six national drug policy groups called on the Obama administration to end its assault on medical marijuana providers. They were the Drug Policy Alliance, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Marijuana Policy Project, the National Cannabis Industry Association, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, and Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "You have turned your back as career law enforcement officials have run roughshod over some of the most professional and well-regulated medical marijuana providers," the groups said in a letter to President Obama, Attorney General Eric Holder, and drug czar Gil Kerlikowske. "We simply cannot understand why you have reneged on your administration's earlier policy of respecting state medical marijuana laws… "We hope that you will immediately reconsider your drug control strategy and will work with, not against, states and organizations that are attempting to shift control of marijuana cultivation and sales, at least as it applies to medical marijuana, to a controlled and regulated market."

California

Last Monday, three San Francisco supervisors expressed concerns about the city Health Department's stance on medical marijuana. Supervisors David Campos, Scott Wiener, and Christina Olague signed on to a letter to the department questioning "some recent media statements" from the department, especially regarding its decision -- since rescinded -- to ban edible medical marijuana products.

Last Thursday, collective members in Murrieta said they were being targeted by police. The conservative Riverside County town is in an ongoing fight with the Green House Cannabis Collective, and collective members told Fox LA that police were pulling them over on pretexts to search their vehicles. One patient and volunteer showed Fox LA a GPS tracking device he found attached to his vehicle after being pulled over by police. The property owner of the collective said he was being fined $109,000, but that city officials offered to drop the fine if he would evict the collective. City officials had no comment, but one told the station off-camera that they don't want marijuana businesses in their city. Period.

Also last Thursday, an Arcata woman sued the city and the police over a raid at her home. Barbara Sage, 64, alleges that officers had an unlawful search warrant and used excessive force in investigating marijuana cultivation at the residence she shared with her husband. She argues that police didn't have sufficient probable cause for the search because they failed to present any evidence that the Sages' suspected marijuana cultivation fell outside the bounds of state and local medical marijuana laws and regulations. The Sages had grown medical marijuana in compliance with state law and local regulations, but were not growing any when police arrived. Aside from the probable cause issue, Sage argues that police violated the "knock-notice" rule, which requires them to announce their presence and that they are serving a warrant when entering someone's home, and that Hoffman failed to include a statement of expertise and qualifications to support the warrant. She also claims officers used unnecessary force when they came into her home with guns drawn, allegedly pulled her sick husband from bed -- tearing oxygen tubes from his nose -- and put him on the ground in handcuffs. "This rough treatment affected his mood drastically, and he went into a state of depression after the search that hastened his death," the suit claims.

Last Friday, an appeals court ruled that a dispensary does not owe the city of Dana Point $2.4 million. The city had shut down the Beach Cities Collective in January 2011, alleging violations of building codes and state law, and the two sides have been embroiled in lawsuits ever since. The city won the $2.4 million summary judgment from an Orange County Superior Court judge, but the 4th District Court of Appeals threw out the judgment, finding that it was improper because the facts in the case are still in dispute. The city has spent $400,000 trying similar tactics against two other dispensaries. Once there were six dispensaries in Dana Point; now, there are none.

Also last Friday, Vallejo police raided the same dispensary for the second time in a month. Police hit the Better Health Group and arrested owner Jorge Espinoza, 25, and three workers on suspicion of selling marijuana. That makes the fourth dispensary raid in the city since February 21. Better Health was raided the first time on February 29. The city has passed a measure to tax dispensaries, but its police continue to raid them anyway.

Also last Friday, medical marijuana regulation initiatives were announced in five cities in the San Diego area. The cities are Encinitas, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Lemon Grove and La Mesa. The proposed ballot measures largely mirror one planned for the city of San Diego. All are being coordinated by Citizens for Patient Rights in connection with the Patient Care Association, a trade organization of and for nonprofit dispensaries. None of the five cities currently allow medical marijuana dispensaries. A judge last year ordered the lone collective in Del Mar closed. A separate group of medical marijuana supporters has launched a citizen-initiated petition to reverse a dispensary ban in Imperial Beach.

On Saturday, San Francisco's HopeNet Cooperative stayed open in defiance of federal threats. US Attorney Melinda Haag had warned the dispensary's landlords it had to close by last Friday or the property could be seized and the owners imprisoned. Similar letters from Haag have led five other San Francisco dispensaries to shut down since October 7. The letters warn of 40-year prison terms and asset forfeitures if the "marijuana distribution" is not stopped.

On Monday, DEA and other federal agents raided Oaksterdam University, associated businesses, and the home of Oaksterdam founder Richard Lee. Lee was briefly detained, but later released without charges. DEA and IRS agents accompanied by US marshals seized seedlings, computers, and records, effectively shutting down the school, although it has vowed to reopen. Oakland police had to provide crowd control for the feds as angry emergency response protestors spilled onto Broadway.

On Tuesday, hundreds of medical marijuana supporters rallied in San Francisco. Although the rally had been planned in advance of Monday's Oaksterdam raids, the federal assault on the movement icon energized and outraged attendees, who marched from city hall to the federal building to tell US Attorney Melinda Haag to knock it off. The rally drew support from city supervisors, state legislators, and state officials.

Also on Tuesday, a Los Angeles judge denied a business license for a medical marijuana testing lab. Golden State Collective Cannabis Laboratories had sought the license, but was denied by city officials. A Los Angeles Superior Court judge upheld the city's decision.

On Wednesday, Los Angeles NORML director Bruce Margolin announced he is running for Congress. He is challenging veteran Democratic Congressman Henry Waxman in the newly created 33rd District. He emphasized ending the failed war on drugs in his announcement.

Also on Wednesday, a Butte County judge denied a motion to suppress the evidence in a medical marijuana case that is fueling outrage over the seizure of children from their parents. Daisy Jean Bram and Jayme Jeff Walsh are charged with marijuana cultivation and sales as well as child abuse charges -- apparently for nothing more than having children in a home where marijuana was being grown. Earlier, a judge had thrown out the child abuse charges, saying there wasn't sufficient evidence for them, but Butte County prosecutors refilled them. The children have since been returned to Bram's care.

Arizona

On Tuesday, Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed a bill barring medical marijuana on college campuses. The law prohibits the possession or use of medical marijuana at public universities, community colleges, and child-care facilities. The bill was the brainchild of Rep. Amanda Reeve (R-Phoenix) and was supported by prosecutors. Medical marijuana advocates foresee a legal challenge on state constitutional grounds.

Colorado

On Tuesday, the state announced it is cutting its medical marijuana regulatory staff because the state isn't collecting enough revenues from licensing fees to pay for them. The Department of Revenue said it would lay off 20 of 37 staffers at the Medical Marijuana Enforcement Division. The department blamed the shortfall on a state moratorium on medical marijuana licenses, which is set to end this summer.

Maine

Last Wednesday, Portland saw its first dispensary open for business. The dispensary will eventually serve about 100 patients. It is the second Wellness Connection of Maine dispensary to open in the state.

Michigan

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved four medical marijuana bills that compromise patients' rights. The Marijuana Policy Project says it will absolutely oppose one and will oppose two more if not amended. Click the link above for details on the bills.

Montana

On Tuesday, four medical marijuana providers suing the federal government were arrested on federal drug charges. The attorney representing the four in their civil lawsuit over last year's raids on medical marijuana businesses across the state said they were indicted on Tuesday and last Thursday. The lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the searches of more than 26 homes, businesses and warehouses is before the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Their claim was rejected by a district judge in January.

Ohio

Last Wednesday, the Ohio Medical Cannabis Amendment campaign held a press conference to kick start its signature-gathering effort. They have until July 4 to turn in 385,000 valid voter signatures in order to make the November ballot.

Washington, DC

Last Friday, DC officials selected six growers for the city's medical marijuana program. Later this summer, the city will select up to eight dispensary operators. By then, the chosen growers should have a crop to provide to the dispensaries, and the law approved by voters in 1998, but blocked by Congress until 2009 will finally be in effect.

Also on Friday, the weGrow medical marijuana superstore opened on Rhode Island Avenue NE. The supplier of lights, hydroponic equipment and other growers' goods advertises itself as "the one-stop-shop for the products and services one would need to grow plants indoors -- from tomatoes to medical marijuana."

UN Anti-Drug Body Supports Overdose Prevention Measures

Delegates to the 55th session of the UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs (CND) in Vienna unanimously approved a resolution to promote measures to prevent drug overdose deaths last Friday. The resolution calls on the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Health Organization (WHO), and other international organizations to work with individual countries to address and reduce drug overdoses. Crucially, the resolution included mention of naloxone, an opioid antagonist that can effectively reverse opiate overdoses and which does not carry any danger of abuse.

Naloxone can save lives, the CND recognized Friday (wikimedia.org)
The resolution was introduced by the Czech Republic and cosponsored by Israel and Denmark (the latter on behalf of the European Union). Earlier in the week, Gil Kerlikowske, head of the US Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) affirmed US support for overdose prevention. In his opening statement at the week-long session, Kerlikowske endorsed training public health and medical personnel in overdose recognition and response, as well as the use of naloxone and other overdose reversal medications.

"Every life is worth saving," said Dasha Ocheret, policy and advocacy program manager for the Eurasian Harm Reduction Network. "Everyone knows someone who has died from an overdose. It's thrilling that the United Nations recognizes this is a problem to be taken seriously and something can be done."

"This represents a critical step towards improving global public health," said Donald McPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition and former drug policy coordinator for the city of Vancouver. "The global overdose epidemic can be addressed with meaningful, evidence-based interventions to reduce the immediate potential harms associated with opioid use, and prevent unnecessary death. It is heartening to witness CND member countries take this step together to save lives."

The biggest risk of fatal overdose is around opiates and opioid pain medications. According to the UNODC, "the ingestion of opioids accounts for nearly half of the global drug-related deaths, and the majority of deaths could have been prevented." The UNODC puts the number of user of opium derivatives, both medical and non-medical, at around 21 million worldwide.

Opioid overdose deaths are generally preventable for three reasons: The deaths occur gradually after drug use, there are typically other people present, and the effects of overdose can be reversed with naloxone, also known under its brand name, Narcan.

In some countries, including some states in the US, there are ongoing programs to offer naloxone to drug users, their friends, and family members. Last fall, Massachusetts announced its 1,000th overdose reversal using naloxone. New Mexico has also been a pioneer in expanding the use of naloxone.

"Naloxone is a safe and effective medication that has been available for more than forty years," said Sharon Stancliff of the New York City-based Harm Reduction Coalition. "It's exciting that the UN has officially recognized the importance of making this life-saving medication more widely available. It is vital that it is made accessible to people who need it, both inside the hospital setting and outside, through emergency services and to family members of opioid users."

Vienna
Austria

Meet Obama's Proposed 2013 Federal Drug Budget [FEATURE]

The Obama administration this week released its Fiscal Year 2013 National Drug Control Budget, and it wants to spend nearly $26 billion on federal anti-drug programs. Despite all the talk about the staggering federal debt problem and current budget deficits, the administration found nothing to cut here. Instead, the proposed budget increases federal anti-drug funding by 1.6% over fiscal year 2012.

Drug War Autopilot and Co-Autopilot: ONDCP Director Gil Kerlikowske with President Obama
The proposed budget is remarkable for how closely it hews to previous years, especially in regard to the allocation of resources for demand reduction (treatment and prevention) versus those for supply reduction (domestic and international law enforcement and interdiction). The roughly 40:60 ratio that has been in place for years has shifted, but only incrementally. The 2013 budget allocates 41.2% for treatment and prevention and 58.2% for law enforcement.

"This is very much the same drug budget we've been seeing for years," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "The Obama drug budget is the Bush drug budget, which was the Clinton drug budget. Little has changed."

"It's really just more of the same," said Sean Dunagan, a former DEA intelligence analyst whose last assignment in northeastern Mexico between 2008 and 2010, a when prohibition-related violence there was soaring, helped change his perspective. Dunagan quit the DEA and is now a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

"There are very minor adjustments in how the drug spending is allocated and bit more money for treatment, but there's a significant increase in interdiction, as well as a $61 million increase for domestic law enforcement," Dunagan noted. "They're trying to argue that they're abandoning the drug war and shifting the focus, but the numbers don't really back that up."

The proposed budget also demonstrates the breadth of the federal drug spending largesse among the bureaucratic fiefdoms in Washington. Departments that catch a ride on the drug war gravy train include Agriculture, Defense, Education, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Justice, Labor, State, Transportation, and Veterans' Affairs, as well as the federal judiciary, District of Columbia courts, the Small Business Administration, and, of course, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

"It's just the same old programs being funded through the same old stove-pipes," said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "In a way, it's ironic. When Congress passed the legislation creating the drug czar's office in 1988, the idea was for the drug czar to look at all the federal anti-drug spending and come in and say he was going to take the funds from one program and shift them to a more effective program. I think many in Congress hoped he would shift resources from law enforcement to treatment and prevention because there was evidence that those sorts of programs were more effective and a better use of resources. That didn't happen," he said.

"The people who run the bureaucratic fiefdoms at Justice, Homeland Security, Defense, State and Treasury have outmuscled the drug czar, and now the drug czar's budget announcements are reduced to public relations and spin," Sterling continued. "They take some $15 or $20 million program and bullet-point it as significant, but that's almost nothing when it comes to federal drug dollars."

The Justice Department alone would get $7.85 billion, up almost $400 million from FY 2012, with the Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and the DEA among those Justice components seeing funding increases. BOP spending would increase by about 8%, while the DEA budget would increase from $2.35 billion to $2.38 billion. On the other hand, the National Drug Intelligence Center in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, which lost its congressional patron with the death of Rep. John Murtha (D-PA), has been zeroed out.
 

"The hundreds of millions of dollar increases in funding requested for the Federal Bureau of Prisons is particularly outrageous," said Sterling. "There are too many people doing too much time they don't need to be doing. Obama has the power to save hundreds of millions of dollars by commuting excessively long sentences. He could reduce the deficit and increase the amount of justice in America.

"He could tell the BOP he was ordering a cap on the federal prison population that now has a sentenced population of 198,000, Sterling continued, on a roll. "He could order them that whenever a new prisoner arrives, they have to send him the names of prisoners who may have served enough time for their crimes for him to consider for immediate release from prison. He could ask all the federal judges to send him the names of people they have sentenced to longer terms than they think are just. If he had the heart to reach out to those prisoners who are serving decades for minor roles and their suffering families, if he had the brains to put in place the means to achieve those cost-serving measures, and if he had the guts to actually use the constitutional power he has to do it, that would be great."

"That increase in incarceration spending really jumps out at me, too" said Dunagan. "To make their claim that they're not going to be locking up small-time dealers and users is pretty disingenuous."

Pentagon spending on interdiction and other anti-drug activities would decline somewhat, with the budget proposing $1.725 billion for 2013, a decline of $200 million from the 2012 budget. But interdiction spending goes up elsewhere, as Dunagan noted.

And State Department drug spending would take a hit. Spending would decline by just more than $100 million to $687 million, but most of that decrease would come from reduced funding for alternative development assistance, while State's other drug-related program, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs"), would see only a $6 million decrease.

While funding for prevention and treatment would increase by 4.6% under the proposed budget, some treatment and grant programs are seeing cuts, while criminal justice system-based approaches are getting more money.

"I'm concerned that the budget seems to be emphasizing drug courts and criminal justice-based drug treatment," said Piper. "They're cutting SAMHSA, which funds a lot of treatment, but increasing spending for prison-based treatment."

The $364 million earmarked for SAMHSA's treatment programs is a $61 million reduction from FY 2012, while drug courts saw a $17 million increase to $52 million and BOP drug treatment programs saw a $16 million increase to $109 million.

The new drug budget also resurrects the drug czar's widely criticized National Youth Media Campaign, dropped last year when Congress failed to fund it.

"I'm also disappointed that they put back in funding for the drug czar's failed youth media campaign, which Congress eliminated last year," said Piper. "It's only $20 million, and you can hardly do a national media campaign with that, but still."

This is only the administration's budget proposal, of course, and Congress will have plenty of opportunities to try to cut (or increase) portions of it. Still, the proposed budget is a window on the thinking of administration that has talked the talk about how we are no longer in a war on drugs, but has taken only stumblingly tiny steps toward walking the walk. And drug reformers aren't liking what they're seeing.

"LEAP thinks this is misguided," said Dunagan. "The only thing that's different is the rhetoric used to spin it, and even that is a sort of tacit acknowledgment by the administration that people don't really like the drug war, but substantively, there's very little different from the past."

"Between the drug budgets and his war on medical marijuana, we're very disappointed in Obama," said DPA's Piper.

"We should be disappointed in the Obama administration," said Sterling. "There was supposed to be change. This was the University of Chicago law professor, the Harvard-trained lawyer, who was going to bring in his own people and make real change. I'm very disappointed in his drug policies and criminal justice policies. My disappointment with his policy failures don't have anything to do with the economic crisis or the geostrategic situation he inherited.

Washington, DC
United States

Teens Rejecting Alcohol, Tobacco; Selecting Marijuana [FEATURE]

The annual Monitoring the Future survey of substance use by eighth, 10th, and 12th graders was released Wednesday, and it shows students are drinking and smoking tobacco at historically low levels, but marijuana use is on the rise. Teen use of other drugs also generally declined, except for a slight increase in use of prescription drugs reported by seniors.

About one-third of seniors reported smoking pot during the past year, up slightly from the previous year. That's well above the 20% who did so in 1991, the nadir for teen marijuana use, but well below the more than 50% who did so in 1979, the apex of teen marijuana use. The number of seniors reporting annual pot use has been creeping up slightly since about 2007.

Federal drug war bureaucrats bemoaned the uptick in teen pot smoking at a Washington, DC, press conference rolling out the research results, but marijuana law reform activists had a different take on the numbers and what they mean.

Daily tobacco smoking by teens was down by 50% compared to the mid-1990s, while adolescent binge drinking had declined by 25% since 1997. About 10% of high school seniors reported daily cigarette smoking and about 20% reported smoking within the last month, down 40% from 1997. At all three grade levels, more students smoked pot in the last month than smoked cigarettes.

"The decrease is very dramatic," said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. "But despite the dramatic results, the prevalence of teen smoking and drinking is still high, so we can't become complacent. The troublesome news is that marijuana use has been trending upwards in the last few years. We've seen a significant decline in the perception that marijuana is risky. Fewer kids see smoking marijuana as having bad health effects."

While careful to point out that responsible marijuana reform activists do not encourage teen substance use, Mason Tvert, head of the activist group SAFER (Safe Alternatives for Enjoyable Recreation) and coauthor of Marijuana is Safer: So Why Are We Driving People to Drink? dared to suggest that young people who do use drugs are making smarter choices about which drugs they choose to use.

"We're always concerned about young people using drugs, but it's clear that more young people are understanding that marijuana is a less harmful substance and making that choice," said Tvert. "While we certainly don't want to promote marijuana use among minors, this report suggests they are making the safer choice to use marijuana rather than alcohol."

Tvert attributed both the rise in teen use and the decline in their perceptions of marijuana's risks to their increasing exposure to knowledge about marijuana.

"Ultimately, people are hearing more and more about the facts surrounding marijuana, and as they continue to hear that marijuana is far less harmful than alcohol, that it doesn't contribute to violence, that there is no danger of a deadly overdose, they are increasingly more comfortable making that choice."

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske used the Wednesday press conference to blame medical marijuana for the rise in teen pot smoking. 

"These last couple years, the amount of attention that's been given to medical marijuana has been huge," he said. "And when I've done focus groups with high school students in states where medical marijuana is legal, they say, 'Well, if it's called medicine and it's given to patients by caregivers, then that's really the wrong message for us as high school students.'"

While Volkow and Kerlikowske lauded the use of prevention campaigns in reducing teen smoking and drinking, they did not say why such a strategy was not appropriate for marijuana, nor did they break with the prevailing prohibitionist approach to marijuana.  That led to criticism from the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

"This report, once again, clearly demonstrates that our nation's policymakers have their heads buried in the sand when it comes to addressing teen marijuana use," said Rob Kampia, MPP executive director. "Political leaders have for decades refused to regulate marijuana in order to keep it out of the hands of drug dealers who aren't required to check customer ID and have no qualms about selling marijuana to young people."

"The continued decline in teen tobacco and alcohol use is proof that sensible regulations, coupled with honest, and science-based public education can be effective in keeping substances away from young people," Kampia continued. "It's time we acknowledge that our current marijuana laws have utterly failed to accomplish one of their primary objectives -- to keep marijuana away from young people -- and do the right thing by regulating marijuana, bringing its sale under the rule of law, and working to reduce the easy access to marijuana that our irrational system gives teenagers."

"The decline in cigarette smoking is great news -- not just because it's the most deadly drug but also because it reveals that legal regulation and honest education are more effective than prohibition and criminalization," said DPA publications manager Jag Davies. "It's absurd, though, that the survey doesn't also include the fiscal, health and human costs of arresting more than 1.6 million Americans each year on drug charges, including more than 750,000 for marijuana possession alone."

"Rather than measuring success based on slight fluctuations in drug use, the primary measure of the effectiveness of our nation's drug policies should be the reduction of drug-related harm," Davies continued. "A rational drug policy would prioritize reducing the problems associated with drug misuse itself -- such as overdose, addiction and disease transmission -- and the problems associated with drug prohibition, such as mass incarceration, erosion of civil liberties, and egregious racial disparities in enforcement, prosecution and sentencing. Looking at use rates in a vacuum is missing the forest for the trees."

"Arresting people for marijuana simply does not stop young people from using it, and it never will," said Kampia. "It is time for a more sensible approach."

Washington, DC
United States

Drug Crop-Killing Fungi Too Risky, Scientists Say

Using pathogenic fungi to eradicate coca, opium, or other illicit drug crops is too risky because there is not enough data about how to control them and what effect they could have on people and the environment, according to a panel of scientists commissioned to study the subject by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office).

fusarium oxysprorum (wikimedia.org)
The finding came in a report, Feasibility of Using Mycoherbicides for Controlling Illicit Drug Crops, which was released November 30 by a panel of scientists convened by the National Research Council (NRC). ONDCP requested the report after it was required do to so by Congress in its 2006 budget authorization bill.

Mycoherbicides are killer fungi that can be targeted at specific plants and reproduce themselves, staying in the soil for years. Hard-line drug control advocates have urged their use against coca in Colombia and opium in Afghanistan, seeing them as a potential "magic bullet" that could eliminate drug problems at the source. But Colombia rejected the use of mycoherbicides in 2002 and the Afghan government has strongly signaled that it is not interested in using them there.

The NRC scientists found that the evidence base to support using mycoherbicides was scanty. "Questions about the degree of control that could be achieved with such mycoherbicides, as well as uncertainties about their potential effects on non-target plants, microorganisms, animals, humans, and the environment must be addressed before considering deployment," they said.

The panel did not reject outright the use of mycoherbicides; instead, it recommended "research to study several candidate strains of each fungus in order to identify the most efficacious under a broad array of environmental conditions." But it warned that "conducting the research does not guarantee that a feasible mycoherbicide product will result, countermeasures can be developed against mycoherbicides, and there are unavoidable risks from releasing substantial numbers of living organisms into an ecosystem."

The use of mycoherbicides would require meeting multiple domestic regulatory requirements, as well as possible additional regulations and agreements before being used on drug crops in foreign countries, the report noted. That might also prove problematic because "approval to conduct tests in countries where mycoherbicides might be used has been difficult or impossible to obtain in the past."

Congressional and bureaucratic drug warriors are going to have to look elsewhere for their "magic bullet" to win the war on drugs -- unless they're in the mood to appropriate more funds for more research that may or may not come up with a workable mycoherbicide. Then all they would have to do is sell the idea to the government of the country they want to spray it on.

Washington, DC
United States

A Drug Arrest Every 19 Seconds, Says Latest US Data [FEATURE]

More than 1.6 million people were arrested for drug offenses in the US last year, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report 2010, and more than half of them were for marijuana. That's a drug arrest every 19 seconds, 24 hours a day, every day last year. The numbers suggest that despite "no more war on drugs" rhetoric emanating from Washington, the drug war juggernaut is rolling along on cruise control.

Overall, 1,638,846 were arrested on drug charges in 2010, up very slightly from the 1,633,582 arrested in 2009. But while the number of drug arrests appears to be stabilizing, they are stabilizing at historically high levels. Overall drug arrests are up 8.3% from a decade ago.

Marijuana arrests last year stood at 853,838, down very slightly from 2009's 858,408. But for the second year in a row, pot busts accounted for more arrests than  all other drugs combined, constituting 52% of all drug arrests in 2010. Nearly eight million people have been arrested on pot charges since 2000.

The vast majority (88%) off marijuana arrests were for simple possession, with more than three-quarters of a million (750,591) busted in small-time arrests. Another 103,247 people were charged with sale or manufacture, a category that includes everything from massive marijuana smuggling operations to persons growing a single plant in their bedroom closets.

The stabilization of drug arrests at record high levels comes as the FBI reports all other categories of crime are dropping. Violent crime was down overall, with murder decreasing by 4.2% and robberies by 10.0%, while property crime was also down overall, with burglary and larceny declining by more than 2% and motor vehicle theft and arson down by more than 7%.

Drug arrests were the single largest category of arrests, accounting for more than 10% of all arrests in the country. They were followed by drunk driving arrests (1.41 million) and larceny arrests (1.27 million). More than three times as many people were arrested for drugs than for all violent crimes combined (552,000) and nearly as many as for all property crimes combined (1.643 million).

African-Americans continue to be arrested for drug offenses in disproportionate numbers. Blacks accounted for 31.8% of all drug arrests last year, while according to the US Census Bureau, they constitute only 12.6% of the national population.

[Visit the Drug War Facts Crime section for updated tables presenting arrest data from 1980 through the present.]

The high drug arrest numbers were grist for the mill for drug war critics.

"This shows that, contrary to what Obama and Kerlikowske say, the war on drugs is not over," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. While conceding that the vast majority of drug arrests are conducted by state and local law enforcement, "the Obama administration sets the tone," he argued. "Kerlikowske said he ended the war on drugs—not the federal war on drugs—but federal money absolutely subsidizes state and local drug arrests by funding programs like the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant program and the COPS program. They are supposed to be setting national policy, but they're not doing a very good job of leading by example."

"Since the declaration of the 'war on drugs' 40 years ago we've arrested tens of millions of people in an effort to reduce drug use," noted Neill Franklin, a retired Baltimore narcotics cop who now heads the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "The fact that cops had to spend time arresting another 1.6 million of our fellow citizens last year shows that it simply hasn't worked. In the current economy we simply cannot afford to keep arresting three people every minute in the failed 'war on drugs. If we legalized and taxed drugs, we could not only create new revenue in addition to the money we'd save from ending the cruel policy of arresting users, but we'd make society safer by bankrupting the cartels and gangs who control the currently illegal marketplace."

While national drug reform groups had harsh words for the policies leading to the overall drug arrest figures, marijuana reformers were equally critical when it came to the herb and the arrests it generates.

"Today, as in past years, the so-called 'drug war' remains fueled by the arrests of minor marijuana possession offenders, a disproportionate percentage of whom are ethnic minorities," said NORML deputy director Paul Armentano. "It makes no sense to continue to waste law enforcements' time and taxpayers' dollars to arrest and prosecute Americans for their use of a substance that poses far fewer health risks than alcohol or tobacco."

"It's pretty obvious that we continue to spend billions a year arresting nearly a million people for marijuana related crime, yet use had not fallen dramatically," said Morgan Fox, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "That shows that this is just a waste of time and money. It's really disingenuous for the Obama administration and the drug czar to say they are concentrating on public health measures and harm reduction and moving away from law enforcement, and then release numbers that show that was not the case, that the arrest rates are staying the same."

Fox noted that pot arrests accounted for 5.7% of all arrests nationwide. "If the drug czar says we can't arrest our way out of the drug problem, then why are we spending one-twentieth of our law enforcement resources arresting people for nonviolent, victimless crimes?" he asked. "We could be using those resources for solving rapes and murders."

More than a decade of drug reform efforts have managed to slow what once seemed to be endless annual increases in drug arrests in the US, but stabilizing at around 1.6 million drug busts a year is not victory, only the first step in putting the brakes on the drug war juggernaut. Now, it's time to start concentrating on bringing it to a screeching halt.

Washington, DC
United States

The 2011 National Drug Control Strategy: Drug Policy on Autopilot [FEATURE]

The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) Monday released this year's version of the annual guiding federal document on drug policy, the 2011 National Drug Control Strategy, and there's not much new or surprising there. There is a lot of talk about public health, but federal spending priorities remain weighted toward law enforcement despite all the pretty words.

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Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske -- captured by the drug war establishment
The strategy identifies three "policy priorities": reducing prescription drug abuse, addressing drugged driving, and increased prevention efforts. It also identifies populations of special interest, including veterans, college students, and women with children.

The strategy promises continued strong law enforcement and interdiction efforts, including going after the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan and cooperating with Mexican and Central American authorities in the $1.4 billion Plan Merida attack on Mexican drug gangs.

"Drug use affects every sector of society, straining our economy, our healthcare and criminal justice systems, and endangering the futures of our young people," said ONDCP head Gil Kerlikowske in introducing the strategy. "The United States cannot afford to continue paying the devastating toll of illicit drug use and its consequences."

This is all standard stuff. One thing that is new is ONDCP's felt need to fight back against rising momentum to end the drug war, or at least legalize marijuana, and rising acceptance of medical marijuana. The strategy devoted nearly five full pages to argumentation against legalization and medical marijuana.

"Marijuana and other illicit drugs are addictive and unsafe," ONDCP argued in a section titled Facts About Marijuana. "Making matters worse, confusing messages being conveyed by the entertainment industry, media, proponents of 'medical' marijuana, and political campaigns to legalize all marijuana use perpetuate the false notion that marijuana use is harmless and aim to establish commercial access to the drug. This significantly diminishes efforts to keep our young people drug free and hampers the struggle of those recovering from addiction."

Just to be clear, ONDCP went on to say flatly "marijuana use is harmful," although it didn't bother to say how harmful or compared to what, nor did it explain why the best public policy approach to a substance that causes limited harm is to criminalize it and its users.

ONDCP also argued that despite medical marijuana being legal in 16 states and the District of Columbia, "the cannabis (marijuana) plant is not a medicine." Somewhat surprisingly, given that the DEA just days ago held that marijuana has no accepted medical use, the national drug strategy conceded that "there may be medical value for some of the individual components of the cannabis plant," but then fell back on the old "smoking marijuana is an inefficient and harmful method" of taking one's medicine.

"This administration steadfastly opposes drug legalization," the strategy emphasized.  "Legalization runs counter to a public health approach to drug control because it would increase the availability of drugs, reduce their price, undermine prevention activities, hinder recovery support efforts, and pose a significant health and safety risk to all Americans, especially our youth."

It was this section of the strategy that excited the most attention from drug policy reformers. They lined up to lambast its logic.

"It is encouraging that ONDCP felt a need to address both medical marijuana and general legalization of the plant in its 2011 strategy booklet, which was released today," noted Jacob Sullum at the Reason blog. "It is also encouraging that the ONDCP's arguments are so lame… The ONDCP never entertains the possibility that a product could be legal even though it is not harmless. Do the legality of alcohol and tobacco send the message that they are harmless? If you oppose a return to alcohol prohibition, should you be blamed for encouraging kids to drink and making life harder for recovering alcoholics? ONDCP director Gil Kerlikowske may have renounced the use of martial rhetoric to describe the government's anti-drug crusade, but he still manages to imply that reformers are traitors whose 'confusing messages' are undermining morale in the nation's struggle against the existential threat of pot smoking."

"It's sad that the drug czar decided to insert a multi-page rant against legalizing and regulating drugs into the National Drug Control Strategy instead of actually doing his job and shifting limited resources to combat the public health problem of drug abuse," said Neill Franklin, director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "Obama administration officials continually talk about the fact that addiction is a medical problem, but when our budgets are so strained I cannot understand why they're dumping more money into arrests, punishment and prisons than the Bush administration ever did. The fact is, once we legalize and regulate drugs, we will not only allow police to focus on stopping violent crime instead of being distracted by arresting drug users, but we will also be able to put the resources that are saved into funding treatment and prevention programs that actually work. Who ever heard of curing a health problem with handcuffs?"

Some reformers offered a broader critique of the strategy.

"Other than an escalating war of words on marijuana, it's all pretty much the same thing as last year," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "There's nothing really new here, except they are a bit more punitive this year," he added, citing the pushback on marijuana, the call for a drugged driving offensive, and a call to encourage workplace drug testing. "Last year, it was more about reform, but this year ONDCP is up to its old tricks again. Whatever window they had to turn over a new leaf is closed; Kerlikowske has been fully captured by the drug war establishment."

The Obama administration could pay a price for its intransigence on drug policy, said Piper.

"They badly underestimate the American people and the drug reform movement, especially on medical marijuana," he said. "It's not just the strategy, but the DEA refusal to reschedule and the Department of Justice memo, too. They are talking about coming out big against medical marijuana, but I think they know there is little they can do. In a sense, this is an act of desperation, a sign that we are winning. First they ignore you…"

The veteran drug reform lobbyist also professed concern about the drugged driving campaign. The strategy sets as a goal a 10% reduction in drugged driving (although it doesn’t even know how prevalent it is) and encourages states to pass zero tolerance per se DUID laws that are bound to ensnare drivers who are not impaired but may have used marijuana in preceding days or weeks.

"We are concerned about getting states to pass those laws," he said. "They are problematic because people can go to jail for what they did a week ago. We're also concerned about the push for employee drug testing."

Piper's overall assessment?

"There's not a lot of new policies there, and that's disappointing," he said. "This is a drug policy on autopilot; it's just a little more aggressive on the marijuana issue."

Washington, DC
United States

Big Name Panel Calls Global Drug War a "Failure" [FEATURE]

The global war on drugs is a failure and governments worldwide should shift from repressive, law-enforcement centered policies to new ways of legalizing and regulating drugs, especially marijuana, as a means of reducing harm to individuals and society, a high-profile group of world leaders said in a report issued last Thursday.

Richard Branson blogs about being invited onto the global commission, on virgin.com.
The Global Commission on Drug Policy, whose members include former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and former presidents of Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico, said the global prohibitionist approach to drug policy, in place since the UN adopted the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs a half-century ago, has failed to reduce either the drug supply or consumption.

Citing UN figures, the report said global marijuana consumption rose more than 8% and cocaine use 27% in the decade between 1998 and 2008. Again citing UN figures, the group estimated that there are some 250 million illegal drug consumers worldwide. "We simply cannot treat them all as criminals," the report concluded.

The report also argued that arresting "tens of millions" of low-level dealers, drug couriers, and drug-producing farmers not only failed to reduce production and consumption, but also failed to address the economic needs that pushed people into the trade in the first place.

Prohibitionist approaches also foster violence, most notably in the case of Mexico, the group argued, and impede efforts to stop the spread of diseases like HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis. Governments should instead turn to science- and evidence-based public health and harm reduction approaches, the group said. It cited studies of nations like Portugal and Australia, where the decriminalization of at least some drugs has not led to significantly greater use.

"Overwhelming evidence from Europe, Canada and Australia now demonstrates the human and social benefits both of treating drug addiction as a health rather than criminal justice problem and of reducing reliance on prohibitionist policies," said former Swiss president Ruth Dreifuss. "These policies need to be adopted worldwide, with requisite changes to the international drug control conventions."

The report offered a number of recommendations for global drug policy reform, including:

  • End the criminalization, marginalization and stigmatization of people who use drugs but who do no harm to others.
  • Encourage experimentation by governments with models of legal regulation of drugs (especially cannabis) to undermine the power of organized crime and safeguard the health and security of their citizens.
  • Ensure that a variety of treatment modalities are available -- including not just methadone and buprenorphine treatment but also the heroin-assisted treatment programs that have proven successful in many European countries and Canada.
  • Apply human rights and harm reduction principles and policies both to people who use drugs as well as those involved in the lower ends of illegal drug markets such as farmers, couriers and petty sellers.

"Fifty years after the initiation of the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, and 40 years after President Nixon launched the US government's global war on drugs, fundamental reforms in national and global drug control policies are urgently needed," said former president of Brazil Fernando Henrique Cardoso. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue, reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives, and legally regulating rather than criminalizing cannabis."

"The war on drugs has failed to cut drug usage, but has filled our jails, cost millions in tax payer dollars, fuelled organized crime and caused thousands of deaths. We need a new approach, one that takes the power out of the hands of organized crime and treats people with addiction problems like patients, not criminals," said Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group and cofounder of The Elders, United Kingdom. "The good news is new approaches focused on regulation and decriminalization have worked. We need our leaders, including business people, looking at alternative, fact based approaches. We need more humane and effective ways to reduce the harm caused by drugs. The one thing we cannot afford to do is to go on pretending the war on drugs is working."

The Obama administration is having none of it. "Making drugs more available -- as this report suggests -- will make it harder to keep our communities healthy and safe," Rafael Lemaitre, spokesman for the Office of National Drug Control Policy told the Wall Street Journal the same day the report was released.

That sentiment is in line with earlier pronouncements from the administration that while it will emphasize a public health approach to drug policy, it stands firm against legalization. "Legalizing dangerous drugs would be a profound mistake, leading to more use, and more harmful consequences," drug czar Gil Kerlikowske said earlier this year.

But if the White House isn't listening, US drug reformers are -- and they're liking what they're hearing.

"It's no longer a question of whether legalizing drugs is a serious topic of debate for serious people," said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and a 34-year veteran police officer from Baltimore, Maryland. "These former presidents and other international leaders have placed drug legalization squarely on the table as an important solution that policymakers need to consider. As a narcotics cop on the streets, I saw how the prohibition approach not only doesn't reduce drug abuse but how it causes violence and crime that affect all citizens and taxpayers, whether they use drugs or not."

"These prominent world leaders recognize an undeniable reality. The use of marijuana, which is objectively less harmful than alcohol, is widespread and will never be eliminated," said Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project. "They acknowledge that there are only two choices moving forward. We can maintain marijuana's status as a wholly illegal substance and steer billions of dollars toward drug cartels and other criminal actors. Or, we can encourage nations to make the adult use of marijuana legal and have it sold in regulated stores by legitimate, taxpaying business people. At long last, we have world leaders embracing the more rational choice and advocating for legal, regulated markets for marijuana. We praise these world leaders for their willingness to advocate for this sensible approach to marijuana policy."

"The long-term impact of the Global Commission's efforts will be defining," predicted David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "Most people don't realize that there are leaders of this stature who believe prohibition causes much of the harm commonly seen as due to drugs. As more and more people hear these arguments, coming from some of the most credible people on the planet, legalization will come to be viewed as a credible and realistic option."

Other commission members include Louise Arbour, former UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Canada; Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former President of Brazil (chair); Marion Caspers-Merk, former State Secretary at the German Federal Ministry of Health; Maria Cattaui former Secretary-General of the International Chamber of Commerce, Switzerland; Carlos Fuentes, writer and public intellectual, Mexico; Asma Jahangir, human rights activist, former UN Special Rapporteur on Arbitrary, Extrajudicial and Summary Executions, Pakistan; Michel Kazatchkine, executive director of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria , France; Mario Vargas Llosa, writer and public intellectual, Peru; George Papandreou, Prime Minister of Greece; George P. Shultz, former Secretary of State, United States (honorary chair); Javier Solana, former European Union High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy , Spain; Thorvald Stoltenberg, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Norway; Paul Volcker, former Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve and of the Economic Recovery Board; John Whitehead, banker and civil servant, chair of the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, United States; and Ernesto Zedillo, former President of Mexico.

While the Obama administration may be loathe to listen, the weight of world opinion, as reflected in the composition of the global commission that issued this report, is starting to create stress fractures in the wall of prohibition. A half-century of global drug prohibition has showed us what it can deliver, and the world is increasingly finding it wanting.

Drug Czar Might be the Worst Job in American Politics

Following up on the news that the Drug Czar is looking for a new job, I have a piece in the Huffington Post looking at how the current political climate is rendering the Drug Czar's office irrelevant. Issues like marijuana legalization are taking off and threatening to destroy the legacy of anyone who stands in the way. More here.

Drug Czar Doesn't Want to be Drug Czar Anymore

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It's hard to imagine a worse job than defending the drug war every single day, and it looks as though Gil Kerlikowske has had about all he can take:

President Barack Obama‘s drug czar is among the contenders to become the first Chicago police superintendent in Mayor-elect Rahm Emanuel‘s administration, the Chicago News Cooperative has learned.

Gil Kerlikowske, whose formal title is director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, met last week with Emanuel in Chicago and was in town again over the weekend for an interview with the police board, sources told the CNC. (Chicago News Cooperative)

This could make for an early end to Kerlikowske's term as head cheerleader for the U.S. War on Drugs, but it isn't hugely surprising. He struck me as a rather reluctant drug czar, willing to read the script, but uninspired when it came to the dirty game of D.C. drug war politics. I'm tempted to speculate that he never fully appreciated the extent to which the job simply involved performing public relations duties as Americans grow increasingly disgusted with everything that office stands for.

His recent clash with the Seattle Times over a marijuana legalization editorial made for some pretty embarrassing press and really cemented the already well-understood nature of the drug czar position as basically a cranky government stooge who wags his finger at proponents of policy reform. It's not glamorous work, but worse, it isn't even important in any of the ways that someone like Kerlikowske would want it to be. You don't get to fix or change anything, so unless you love the drug war exactly the way it is, the job is utterly unrewarding.

If Kerlikowske does move on, it will be the second high-ranking departure from ONDCP under Obama, and it should raise new questions about what the hell actually goes on over there.

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