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Pot, Aliens, and ONDCP

Seth Stevenson at Slate is in love with the new ONDCP ad in which a pot-smoker's girlfriend dumps him for a non-smoking alien:
Grade: A. This is very possibly the most effective, and least offensive, anti-marijuana campaign ever created. I know that ONDCP, and the Partnership for a Drug Free America, are cautiously thrilled with it. I expect it will be the model for years to come.

I'm not going to beat Stevenson up over this. He shares my belief that these ads shouldn't be offensive, and I agree that this is obviously tame by ONDCP standards. But what on earth does it mean to say that ONDCP is "cautiously thrilled" with this?

When has ONDCP ever been less than thrilled with their advertisements? They've vigorously defended their media campaign throughout its numerous incarnations, never once finding fault, even as a growing mountain of evidence depicts their public outreach efforts as an undeniable failure. Could it be that they were more candid with Seth Stevenson than the U.S. Congress?

Stevenson's analysis is fair enough, at least insofar as this ad is concerned. But, dude, before you go gushing anymore about truth in advertising at ONDCP, you might wanna check out "Stoners in the Mist."

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New ONDCP Video Demonstrates Exactly Why Their Ads Don't Work

"Stoners in the Mist" is a fake documentary from AboveTheInfluence.com in which "Dr. Barnard Puck," clad in safari clothes, observes stoners and performs various experiments on them.

This is worth discussing only because it perfectly illustrates the lack of seriousness that still dominates the marijuana debate. I don’t know how anyone could watch this and conclude that the people who made it are a credible source of information about the effects of marijuana.

Among the highlights:


* A practically comatose stoner fails to notice when a tracking collar is placed around his neck

* Unable to move, two stoners sit on the same couch for 72 hours

* A stoned girl forgets her friend's name and has brownies in her hair

* Despite repeated attempts, a stoner is unable to grasp objects tossed to him at close range

* Categorical statements such as "we have learned through our intensive research that both male and female stoners tend to lack the motivation to maintain proper hygiene" are made.
 

At the risk of increasing their traffic, you have to watch it to appreciate how far-fetched and derogatory this video really is. It reminded me immediately of D.W. Griffith's racist classic The Birth of a Nation, which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and depicts African Americans as incoherent slobbering rapists.

So yesterday, when an ONDCP staffer called SSDP and basically threatened to increase the childishness of his office's activities, we just laughed because there's really no lower level of discourse available to them. Two weeks ago, I witnessed ONDCP's David Murray indignantly challenge the seriousness of his critics, yet it is Murray himself who lobbies for more funding to produce utterly banal and sophomoric nonsense like "Stoners in the Mist."

So if the Responsible and Serious Youth Advocates at ONDCP can't figure out why they've alienated everyone, let me spell it out: it's because you're having your own made-up conversation about marijuana that no one else can participate in because it is completely fictitious and insane.

No, this is not a video about the effects of marijuana. It is a parting shot from an entrenched clan of spiteful, sniveling spin-doctors who continue to sling mud in desperation even as their puddle dries up.
 

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ONDCP Staffer Makes Threatening Phone Call to SSDP Office

Mere hours after SSDP's Tom Angell posted this amusing letter from ONDCP noting that the agency will respond to his FOIA request in 200 years, ONDCP's Assistant General Counsel Daniel R. Peterson called SSDP's office to voice his objections.

Peterson, the author of this ironic typo, accused Tom of being childish and threatened to respond with similar tactics. Incredulous, Tom replied "so does that mean you guys are going to start mentioning us in your blog?" Peterson declined.

Now I've got to admit to some sympathy for the other side here. This was a simple mistake, the severity of which pales in comparison to numerous things ONDCP does deliberately. Tom has previously humiliated the federal government with FOIA requests, so the idea of scrupulously drafting responses to perceived harassment from him must surely frustrate and distract these busy bureaucrats from their book-cooking.

Unfortunately for ONDCP, the unintentional irony of the error makes for good fun in the blogosphere. Stalling, you see, has become a trademark of the federal drug war; a necessary tactic whenever facts come in conflict with the status quo. We've seen this with regards to ASA's Data Quality Act lawsuit, MAPS's marijuana research lawsuit, sentencing reform, needle exchange and marijuana rescheduling. Heck the entire federal drug war is really just a few agencies constantly stalling in the hopes that we'll eventually stop asking so many questions and learn to live with false promises and fake progress.

So when Daniel Peterson tells SSDP that he'll respond to their FOIA appeal in 200 years, it's a perfect Freudian slip. Once again, ONDCP's most truthful and candid remarks occur entirely by accident.
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Just a typo, presumably...

... or could ONDCP really intend to take two centuries to respond to SSDP's Freedom of Information Act request? You decide.
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Latin America: Colombia Coca Production Up Again Despite Massive Eradication Efforts

The US government reported Monday that the amount of land under coca cultivation in Colombia had increased for the third straight year. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), cultivation increased 9% last year to some 388,500 acres despite a massive aerial herbicide spraying campaign.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/coca-seedlings.jpg
coca seedlings
While ONDCP did not report on the 2006 figures until Monday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced the findings at the end of a long speech last Friday, in an apparent bid to inoculate both governments from criticism that US drug policy in the region is ineffective and counterproductive. Uribe arrived in Washington Wednesday, primarily to urge the passage of a bilateral trade agreement, but also to press for continued US assistance.

"Yesterday [last Thursday] they told me they were worried about revealing this number because of my upcoming trip to the United States, that the Americans should reveal it," he said. "But that's why I'm revealing it. We're not trying to put makeup on what is a serious matter. We've unleashed a battle with all our will and all our determination," Uribe said. "Could it be we've worked in vain? That all our work hasn't produced the desired results?"

The US has spent more than $5 billion and sprayed more than 2.1 million acres of Colombian farmland since 2000 in a failed effort to eradicate Colombian cocaine production. More precisely, Plan Colombia called for coca production to be halved within five years, but according to the latest estimates, Colombia is producing 27% more coca than in 1999, the year before the plan went into effect. The long-term trends toward decreasing cocaine price and increasing purity also suggest that all the billions have little impact on cocaine availability.

In its Monday press release, ONDCP did its best to spin the disappointing results. "Statistically, there was no change" in coca production, ONDCP claimed two sentences before noting a 33,000-acre increase in the area under cultivation. Coca growers' creative responses to eradication efforts -- moving to smaller plots, moving to areas off limits to the spraying program, rapidly reconstituting sprayed crops -- created "major challenges" for arriving at a reliable estimate, ONDCP explained.

"Rather than weaken farmers' reliance on coca, fumigation serves to reinforce it," said Washington Office on Latin America Senior Associate John Walsh. "To insist at this point that more spraying will somehow deter farmers from replanting is not just unrealistic, it's delusional."

That's a sentiment that is also being heard in the halls of Congress these days. On Tuesday, the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid proposed major changes in US anti-drug policy in Colombia. Under that proposal, funding to the Colombian military would be cut by $150 million and an additional $100 million would be redirected to boost economic development and boost the judicial system.

If the proposal championed by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) succeeds, the military's share of US assistance would drop from 80% to 55%. But Colombia would still remain the third largest recipient of US foreign aid behind the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"I have long felt that our policies in Colombia were ineffective and misguided," Lowey told the Associated Press Wednesday. "My proposal would realign the funding to more of an even split."

Feature: Fireworks at Book Forum in Washington as "Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics" Authors Confront ONDCP Official

(DRCNet continues to offer this book as a membership premium -- read more here.)

The libertarian Cato Institute was the scene of drug policy confrontation last Thursday, as a leading Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) official and two of ONDCP's harshest academic critics traded barbs and flung statistics over ONDCP's goals, whether it achieves them, and how it handles -- or mishandles -- the data.

Dr. David Murray, chief scientist for ONDCP, was on the hot seat as Appalachian State University professors Matthew Robinson (criminal justice) and Renee Scherlen (political science), the authors of "Lies, Damned, Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy," subjected his agency to a sustained attack over what they called the misuse and manipulation of data used to evaluate whether ONDCP is doing its job.

Explaining that he and Scherlen had analyzed consecutive annual National Drug Control Strategies, the document where ONDCP sets its goals and measures its success at attaining them, Robinson went immediately on the offensive. "Our analysis suggests that the drug strategy is not an honest document, but really little more than a political document that does little more than reinforce the dominant ideology of the drug war and maintain the status quo," he said.

He and Scherlen then spent the next 30 or 40 minutes showing just how ONDCP manipulated data, changed goals, conflated statistics, and otherwise jimmied the numbers on drug use, on the cost of the drug war, and on the success of US drug policy in Latin America. "ONDCP shifts targets in its budgets and national strategies, making it impossible to evaluate how well it is meeting its drug war goals," said Robinson. "It focuses on good news such as short term declines and ignores the bad news, it selectively presents statistics favorable to its case, and sometimes makes claims that are just plain false."

"When it comes to statistics, they cook the books," Scherlen summarized.

"This is not Cato's finest hour," retorted Murray, after sitting through the sustained attack. "We've seen an attack on the integrity of me, my boss, and ONDCP. Wow," he exclaimed. "This is a devastating indictment... if it were true, but it's not. Instead, it's a series of confusions, misunderstandings, and ignorance on the part of the researchers, which they project onto us as our perfidy and willful deception."

Murray attacked Robinson and Scherlen for including drug use data from the 1990s and suggested that ONDCP and its current chief, John Walters, should not be blamed for what he described as the failures of the Clinton administration. "It wasn't this administration setting goals and being accountable then. We have seen progress since Walters took over in 2001," he said, citing recent downward trends in youth drug use.

Murray also made the unusual claim that rising emergency room mentions and drug-related deaths are "not current measures of drug use going up or down," but instead reflect decisions years earlier to commence drug use.

He also attacked the notion that ending drug prohibition would reduce harm, saying the idea that drug laws, not drugs, were the problem was "a delusion that grows out of late night dorm room discussions in college." But again, he used some unusual arguments. "Look at Mexico, the death and destruction of the drug trade," he argued, "is it the laws that made this happen or that these substances are profoundly dangerous?" A few breaths later, Murray sneered, "Do you think people wouldn't beat up their wives when they're stoned?" if drugs were legal.

Rhetorical excess aside, Murray also made the strongest prohibitionist argument: "We're saving lives and reducing social pathologies; when we diminish substance abuse, we make a difference. We have to try to reduce supply and demand."

It was a good event, said Timothy Lynch, director of Cato's Criminal Justice Project, who hosted the discussion. "Normally, you get turned down by ONDCP, so we were pleased they decided to send a representative," said Lynch. "This was the first time I've seen this guy. He came in and his presentation started out strong, but as it went on he started turning people off and became condescending and patronizing. I don't think he was winning anyone over to his position."

Listening to the discussion should prove useful for others, too. "This will be a good resource for people preparing for drug czar Walters or Murray coming to their areas," said Lynch. "They can hear the arguments and prepare their rebuttals."

"The authors did a pretty good job outlining a number of problems with how data is presented by ONDCP," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Murray's response was not really very direct, and he engaged in ad hominem attacks. Still, he's a very effective PR person, he has a great voice and good presence, and he sounds very authoritative."

One thing that struck Sterling, he said, was Murray's change of title. "He used to be a senior policy analyst, but now he has the title of chief scientist. That's sounds very credible and authoritative, but for someone who is essentially a spokesperson and propagandist to take that title is a PR move," Sterling said.

"I respect Dr. Murray a lot for coming to these events and putting himself in situation where he is totally outnumbered," said Tom Angell, government relations director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "Of course, I disagree with 99% of what he says, but it's good that he is coming out to talk."

As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." From Murray's presence and response to the critique, it appears we are now somewhere between stages two and three.

Watch or listen to the forum in the Cato web site archive, here.

(DRCNet continues to offer this book as a membership premium -- read more here.)

ONDCP: We Don't Care What You Dorks on YouTube Think

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer story about political messages on YouTube.com contains this delightful quote from ONDCP:
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said it expects its YouTube messages to be ridiculed, laughed at, remade and spoofed. And they are.

The irony here is that, predictable as it may have been, ONDCP had no clue that this was going to happen. They deliberately generated media coverage of their YouTube page, only to find their videos marred by harsh comments and dismal viewer ratings. ONDCP quickly disabled these options, but the damage was done.

If they had genuinely anticipated this level of hostility from viewers, they would have optimized their page before sending out press releases about it. Because they did not, most ONDCP videos are now permanently stamped with the lowest-possible rating of one star.

This is to say nothing of the countless parodies that are now drowning out ONDCP’s unpopular propaganda. Since YouTube automatically recommends similar videos anytime you watch something, viewers of ONDCP’s materials are unavoidably connected to these abundant counter-messages. It is almost certainly for this reason that ONDCP has not uploaded a single new video since the page was first launched back in September 2006.

In a case like this, the mature decision would be to ignore them. But I find it amusing that even something as perfectly logical as expecting ridicule on YouTube turns out to be a lie when it comes from ONDCP.

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David in the Liar's Den

Ever wonder what it's like to watch a drug warrior squirm? I've had the pleasure a few times now, but the discussion I witnessed this afternoon at the Cato Institute was particularly intense.

Today, Matthew B. Robinson and Renee G. Sherlen presented the findings of their new book Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Impressively, ONDCP's brave "Chief Scientist" David Murray was on hand to address this particularly comprehensive attack on the credibility of his office.

The authors delivered a tight synopsis of their findings, bashing ONDCP propaganda with charts, graphs, and effects. Dr. Murray made a show of feigned surprise and eye-rolling, but the breadth and substance of the criticism leveled against his work was too substantial to shrug off. It almost felt like a set-up; the dignified Cato equivalent of strapping a mob snitch to a chair and beating him with a blackjack.

In turn, Dr. Murray spat blood on his tormentors, dismissing their analysis as biased and incompetent. Unlike his disciplined performance at last year's medical marijuana debate, Murray was irreverent and visibly angry. From my second row seat I could see his face turn crimson, but his voice never shook. Murray's composure and efficiency is the reason he makes these appearances instead of his boss.

The question of the day among my colleagues was why ONDCP would even respond to such a categorical refutation of its right to exist. As a young reformer, I learned from Eric Sterling that drug warriors typically avoid debate because doing so inherently legitimizes opposing viewpoints. Moreover, the discussion of statistics paints ONDCP into a particularly dark corner by rendering irrelevant the emotional appeals and factually-vacant soundbites that generally dominate their rhetoric.

This level of engagement between ONDCP and its critics is rare if not unprecedented. Hostile as it may have been, today's conversation demonstrates that the federal government no longer perceives itself as impervious to criticism. Murray praised the Cato Institute's work in other areas and was clearly exasperated to find himself in its crosshairs. ONDCP's crumbling monopoly on serious drug policy discussion becomes increasingly vivid when calls for accountability emerge from prestigious think-tanks, Congress, and the GAO.

As the old cliche goes, "First they laugh at you. Then they ignore you. Then they fight you. Then you win." They're fighting back now.

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Ponder This Graph for a Moment, Please

graph from WOLA and AIN (graph from WOLA/AIN memo, link below) This graph shows what about $10 billion in US taxpayer dollars has accomplished. Note that while coca production has shifted within the region, the 1992 levels and the 2005 levels are essentially identical. Why is our coca eradication policy not subjected to cost-benefit analysis? Is there anyone who will argue that it is working? If so, I'd like to hear it. To be fair, that $10 billion has accomplished some things. It has engendered massive social conflict in all three countries, it has led to tens of thousands of peasant farmers being arrested as drug traffickers, it has led to thousands of deaths (especially in Colombia, where the eradication policy is part of the US's broader military intervention in that country's festering civil war). Your tax dollars at work. $10 billion is a lot of money. Heck, we could finance the Iraq war for a few weeks with it! Or we could give $100,000 college scholarships to 10,000 students. Or build $100,000 homes for 10,000 families. Or numerous other programs that, unlike the coca eradication program, might actually accomplish something. By the way, I came across the graph above in a memo from the Andean Information Network and the Washington Office on Latin America. That memo was occasioned by the US government's release of coca cultivation estimates for Bolivia. The US government has for months been complaining that Bolivian President Evo Morales' pro-coca policies were going to lead to a boom in production there. Surprise! It didn't. Read the memo for some juicy analysis.
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Rising number of home drug-test kits sold, despite experts' opposition

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Publication/Source: 
The Dallas Morning News
URL: 
http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/fea/healthyliving2/stories/DN-nh_drugtest_0522liv.ART.State.Edition1.4386266.html

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