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This is Not Your Parents' Cocaine

From The Baltimore Sun:
The United States and its Latin American allies are losing a major battle in the war on drugs, according to indicators showing that cocaine prices dipped for most of 2006 and American users were getting more bang for their buck.
We've already covered this story, but it's beginning to generate broader coverage. Of course, no amount of negative publicity will silence our brave drug warriors even momentarily. Here's Karen Tandy just yesterday:
"Plan Colombia is working. The amount of land used for the cultivation of coca is at an historic low in Colombia," the head of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Karen Tandy, told a drug law enforcement conference in Madrid. [AFP]

So why does Washington cover up increased cocaine potency, while aggressively trumpeting increased marijuana potency? The answer is simple, although if you asked the drug czar, he'd turn purple and pretend not to understand what you mean.

In the case of cocaine, the federal government has long identified reducing purity and increasing price as the primary goals of our ridiculously expensive and ongoing South American drug war investments. Increased cocaine potency in 2007 raises serious doubts about the efficacy of the brutal jungle wars we've been bankrolling for 10 years.

In the case of marijuana, however, the government's primary interest is in convincing an experienced public that this isn’t the same drug that has so consistently failed to hurt anyone. Jacob Sullum puts it best:

These warnings have to be understood mainly as a rationalization for the hypocrisy of parents (and politicians) who smoked pot in their youth and thought it was no big deal then but feel a need to explain why it is a big deal now.
Of course, while drug war demagogues are fond of comparing today's more potent marijuana to cocaine, there's really nothing to which they can compare today's stronger cocaine. I dunno, anthrax maybe? When I start hearing reports about weaponized nose-candy, I'm totally moving to Jupiter.

Location: 
United States

Afghan fighters processing opium to boost drug profits: US official

Location: 
Brussels
Belgium
Publication/Source: 
EUbusiness (UK)
URL: 
http://www.eubusiness.com/news_live/1178636419.5

U.S. will limit use of fentanyl ingredient

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
Detroit Free Press
URL: 
http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20070508/NEWS05/705080338/1007

U.S., allies seen as losing drug war

Location: 
Mexico City, CA
United States
Publication/Source: 
Los Angeles Times
URL: 
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-cocaine5may05,0,4123403.story?coll=la-home-headlines

Book Offer: Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugwarstatisticsbook.jpg
Normally when we publish a book review in our Drug War Chronicle newsletter, it gets readers but is not among the top stories visited on the site. Recently we saw a big exception to that rule when nearly 3,000 of you read our review of the new book Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Much of this reading took place during a week that had other very popular articles as well, so clearly the topic of this book, which was authored by respected academics Matthew Robinson and Renee Scherlen, has struck a chord. As well it should.

Please help DRCNet continue our own work of debunking drug war lies with a generous donation. If your donation is $32 or more, we'll send you a complimentary copy of Robinson and Scherlen's book to help you be able to debunk drug war lies too.

Over the coming weeks I will be blogging on our web site about things I've learned reading Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics. Stay tuned!

Your donation will help DRCNet as we advance what we think is an incredible two-year plan to substantially advance drug policy reform and the cause of ending prohibition globally and in the US. Please make a generous donation today to help the cause! I know you will feel the money was well spent after you see what DRCNet has in store. Our online donation form lets you donate by credit card, by PayPal, or to print out a form to send with your check or money order by mail. Please note that contributions to the Drug Reform Coordination Network, our lobbying entity, are not tax-deductible. Tax-deductible donations can be made to DRCNet Foundation, our educational wing. (Choosing a gift like Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics will reduce the portion of your donation that you can deduct by the retail cost of the item.) Both groups receive member mail at: DRCNet, P.O. Box 18402, Washington, DC 20036.

Thank you for your support, and hope to hear from you soon.

Sincerely,


David Borden
Executive Director

P.S. You can read Chronicle editor Phil Smith's review of the book here.

Americans losing the war on Afghan opium

Location: 
HEL
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
The Hamilton Spectator (Canada)
URL: 
http://www.hamiltonspectator.com/NASApp/cs/ContentServer?pagename=hamilton/Layout/Article_Type1&c=Article&cid=1178081118833&call_pageid=1020420665036&col=1112188062581

Colombian Seeks to Persuade Congress to Continue Aid

Location: 
Caracas
Venezuela
Publication/Source: 
The New York Times
URL: 
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/04/30/world/americas/30uribe.html?hp

Reuters Admits Flawed Marijuana Reporting

Given ONDCP's ongoing claims of 20-30 fold increases in marijuana potency, yesterday's announcement that potency has merely doubled feels more like a concession than the latest drug war scare tactic. Yet thanks to lazy reporting, this lukewarm story became the next great threat to public safety.

From Associated Press:
The government estimates that 4.1 million Americans use marijuana. Use by teenagers has declined recently, but federal officials worry that marijuana is being cited more often in emergency room visits.
From Reuters:
The marijuana being sold across the United States is stronger than ever, which could explain a growing number of medical emergencies that involve the drug, say government drug experts.

Neither story explained the concept of "emergency room mentions" from which these claims were derived. And these two reports were republished in major papers everywhere from Dallas to Sydney.

Importantly, people who mentioned marijuana to doctors weren't in most -- if any -- cases directly injured by it. Upon admission to the emergency room, you're instructed to report any drugs in your system in case they could interfere with your treatment (and it's really not marijuana they're worried about). Patients who mention marijuana include everyone from heroin users to gunshot victims to various people who fell and couldn't get up.

Marijuana is growing in popularity as a medicine, which could also help explain why sick people report having used it.

Fortunately, thanks to incredulous readers, Reuters was forced to clarify:

Lots and lots of readers asked for examples of these emergencies. We updated the story with an explanation which should have been made clear from the start, that medical emergency "means that the patient mentioned using marijuana and does not mean the drug directly caused the accident or condition being treated."

Is it any wonder that readers were confused? Statements such as "marijuana is being cited more often in emergency room visits" or "a growing number of medical emergencies that involve the drug" clearly imply that marijuana caused or contributed to the patient's hospitalization. That was ONDCP's intention, passed along uncritically by Reuters and AP with the inevitable effect of confusing the public.*

Like many things you read in an ONDCP press release, the statement on emergency room visits was so misleading that it becomes false if you change any of the words. "Mentioned" is simply not the same as "involved." Thus the media reports became more misleading than the press release they were based on, which was pretty bad to begin with.

Even when properly explained, "emergency room mentions" remain a vague and ultimately unhelpful measure upon which to base alarmist claims. ONDCP's reliance on such tenuous, circumstantial evidence speaks to the credibility of their position on marijuana policy in general.

*Reuters made a partial correction, but AP has not. Contact them here.

Location: 
United States

U.S. estimates find no Bolivian coca increase under Morales

Location: 
La Paz
Bolivia
Publication/Source: 
San Diego Union-Tribune
URL: 
http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/world/20070426-0845-bolivia-us-coca.html

Feature: Drug Czar Reluctantly Admits Cocaine Prices Have Dropped in Quietly Released Report

On Monday, the US Coast Guard unloaded nearly 20 tons of cocaine it had seized last month off the coast of Central America, the largest maritime drug bust in US history. Will it make any difference? Not if the history of US cocaine interdiction efforts is any indication.

Two years ago, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), John Walters, proudly announced that interdiction and eradication efforts were working based on a rise in cocaine prices. But in a just-released study, "Connecting the Dots: ONDCP's (Reluctant) Update on Cocaine Price and Purity," the Washington Office on Latin America's (WOLA) John Walsh reports that Walters' loudly announced price increase was only a blip that has since been reversed. Unlike his earlier announcement, Walters has not trumpeted these findings.

Among the key points in the report:

  • Preliminary US government data, quietly disclosed by ONDCP, indicate that cocaine's price per pure gram on US streets fell in 2006, while its purity increased. (Increasing purity effectively constitutes an additional price decrease.)
  • These latest estimates, continuing a 25-year trend, suggest that cocaine supplies are stable or even increasing.
  • This is so despite $31 billion spent on drug interdiction and crop control efforts since 1997, including $5.4 billion spent in Colombia -- the source of 90 percent of cocaine in the United States -- since "Plan Colombia" began in 2000.
  • The updated cocaine data fully reverse a short-lived price increase that the White House drug czar's office heralded in late 2005. That rise in prices and decline in purity, which received much media attention at the time, proved to be a less than impressive fluctuation, as skeptics at the time suggested would be the case.
  • The available evidence indicates that cocaine's continued low and falling prices are driven largely by ongoing robust cocaine supply, rather than by a slackening or collapse in demand.
  • The new cocaine price and purity estimates offer further evidence that the continued US emphasis on forced crop eradication, with "Plan Colombia" as its most visible and costly centerpiece, has failed to affect drug supplies at home.

America's supply-side efforts to reduce cocaine use by stopping it from getting to the US have failed. Or, as Walsh put it: "A perennial goal of US anti-drug policy has been to disrupt supplies enough to constrain availability... this effort, however, has consistently failed to achieve lasting increases in drug prices or reductions in drug purity levels. Rather, cocaine prices have been in general decline since 1982. And according to new estimates, which the White House drug czar's office quietly provided to a US senator in January, this decline continued apace in 2006."

And while Walters and his fellow drug warriors are always promising that progress is just around the next corner, the annual Drug Threat Assessments from the National Drug Intelligence Center show that little changes:

  • April 2004: "Both powder and crack cocaine are readily available throughout the country and overall availability appears to be stable."
  • January 2005: "Key indicators of domestic cocaine availability show stable or slightly increased availability in drug markets throughout the country..."
  • January 2006: "Cocaine is widely available throughout most of the nation, and cocaine supplies are relatively stable at levels sufficient to meet current user demand."
  • October 2006: Despite record levels of cocaine lost or seized in transit toward the United States, "there have been no sustained cocaine shortages or indications of stretched supplies in domestic drug markets."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/ondcp-chart.jpg
Purity-adjusted cocaine price chart, prepared for ONDCP by the RAND Corporation. (See the WOLA report for full-size version.)
"It's way past time to bring our expectations for this kind of drug control policy in line with reality," Walsh told Drug War Chronicle. "That reality is that the record makes clear it is extremely difficult to drive up prices for any length of time. We need to put the supply control effort in proper perspective: Even if in its best case scenario, it is preventing cocaine from being much more readily available, it is marginal to the real issue, which is the question of demand and the consequences of drug use."

As Walsh shows in great detail in the report, ONDCP suppresses the cocaine price and purity numbers that hurt it politically and trumpets those that support its claims. That's no surprise to Matt Robinson, professor of criminal justice at Appalachian State University and co-author of Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

"This is more of the same from ONDCP; it's not surprising at all, although it's very disappointing," said Robinson. "What we showed in our book is that they selectively choose and present statistics that support their case and they ignore or downplay statistics that don't support their case, and that's what this report shows them doing as well," he told the Chronicle.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/eradication-small.jpg
coca eradication operation
Robinson also noted that when Walters trumpeted a blip upward in cocaine prices in 2005, ONDCP was up to its old trick of cherry-picking short-term data that supported its case while ignoring the overall trend over time. "Once again, we see a very short-term focus on a specific time period while ignoring long-term trends. That's exactly what we found historically."

"Unfortunately, this is not a surprise, more like par for the course. As we found several times looking at ONDCP over several years, this is a real typical pattern," said Renee Scherlen, professor of political science at Appalachian State and Robinson's coauthor. "In the present case, ONDCP chose to look at a snippet that doesn't really reflect a trend."

Academics and analysts aren't the only critics of ONDCP's "truthiness," to cite a term coined by Steven Colbert. Also skeptical is Sen. Charles Grassley (R-IA), who wrote Walters a year ago asking for clarification of his claims. ONDCP may be making selective use of statistics to "provide a rosier but not necessarily more accurate picture of the current situation." Grassley is still un-persuaded despite further correspondence with ONDCP. "When it comes to statistics, I think it's fair to say they cook the books," Sen. Grassley told National Public Radio in a recent interview. "They use whatever statistics fit their public relations program."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/coca-seedlings.jpg
coca seedlings
The cure for ONDCP's mendacity lies with Congress, said Robinson. "The simplest thing is for Congress to hold them accountable," he said. "Congress could mandate annual performance evaluations, but it doesn't. Congress has a chance to reauthorize ONDCP every five years or so, and that could be another occasion, but Congress doesn't have to wait for that," he said.

"The idea of holding congressional hearings and asking for them to be held accountable through oversight is one path to follow," Scherlen concurred. "To analyze policy, we have to have accurate information. We want to know what works and what doesn't. You don't have to oppose the war on drugs to request that we have good information and that ONDCP present data that is truthful."

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