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United States Sentencing Commission's Symposium on Crime and Punishment: Alternatives to Incarceration

The United States Sentencing Commission will host a Symposium on Crime and Punishment in the United States: Alternatives to Incarceration on July 14-15, 2008, at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. The symposium will focus on various sentencing options available within the federal and state systems, including the use of sentencing alternatives in combination with and/or in lieu of imprisonment. Presenters at the symposium include federal and state judges, congressional staff, professors of law and the social sciences, corrections and alternative sentencing practitioners and specialists, federal and state prosecutors and defense attorneys, prisons officials, and others involved in criminal justice. Approximately 250 individuals representing the federal and state criminal justice communities, academia, and public interest groups have been invited to attend. Topics to be examined include – * drug courts and treatment options for certain offenders; * alternative sentencing options in the federal and state systems; * restorative justice-based programs; * prison programs resulting in reduced sentences; * the Second Chance Act and re-entry issues; and * collateral consequences of convictions. Created by Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, the U.S. Sentencing Commission is an independent agency in the judicial branch of the federal government. Its principal purposes are (1) to establish sentencing policies and practices for the federal courts, including guidelines to be consulted regarding the appropriate form and severity of punishment for federal offenders; (2) to advise and assist Congress and the executive branch in the development of effective and efficient crime policy; and (3) to collect, analyze, research, and distribute information on federal crime and sentencing issues. For more information about the symposium, contact the Office of Legislative and Public Affairs at 202/502-4597.
Date: 
Mon, 07/14/2008 - 9:00am - Tue, 07/15/2008 - 5:00pm
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Congressional Black Caucus Members Try to Ban Menthol Cigarettes

Uh-oh. They're trying to take our minty-fresh menthols away. Not kool.

The Congressional Black Caucus is calling for changes to a House tobacco-regulation bill, demanding that the legislation place restrictions on menthol cigarettes, the type heavily favored by African-American smokers.

The 43-member caucus is taking aim at a provision in the bill that would ban candy-, fruit- and spice-flavored cigarettes but that specifically exempts menthol. In recent weeks the exemption has become the focus of controversy because menthol brands are heavily used by black smokers, who develop a large share of smoking-related cancers and other health risks. [New York Times]

The menthol prohibitionists' argument is simple: if black people are more likely to smoke menthol + black people are more likely to get lung cancer = menthol increases lung cancer risk. Of course, it's possible that black folks are just more susceptible to lung cancer for some horrible reason, but I guess the Congressional Black Caucus thinks the quickest way to find that out is to ban Newports™ and see if black people live longer. I disagree. I think the best way is to check whether the 25% of black smokers who don't smoke menthol have the same lung cancer rates as those who do.

Either way, banning menthol cigarettes is drug prohibition and we know what that leads to:

Some supporters of the bill’s current language on menthol have argued that, because menthol is widely used by many smokers, the effects of banning it outright are hard to predict. Among possibilities they have suggested is that menthol smokers would turn to an illicit cigarette market to obtain menthol cigarettes.

If nothing else, such a policy may rain hell on one of the Congressional Black Caucus' other legislative priorities: ending racial profiling. "Sir, do you have anything in the vehicle I should know about? Drugs? Weapons? Menthol cigarettes?"

Drug Czar Furious Over New York Times Editorial

Just watch how the New York Times editorial board picks apart the Drug Czar's propaganda:

According to the White House, this country is scoring big wins in the war on drugs, especially against the cocaine cartels. Officials celebrate that cocaine seizures are up — leading to higher prices on American streets. Cocaine use by teenagers is down, and, officials say, workplace tests suggest adult use is falling.

John Walters, the White House drug czar, declared earlier this year that “courageous and effective” counternarcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico “are disrupting the production and flow of cocaine.”

This enthusiasm rests on a very selective reading of the data. Another look suggests that despite the billions of dollars the United States has spent battling the cartels, it has hardly made a dent in the cocaine trade.

The Drug Czar's blog fired back with a predictably off-target, but uncharacteristically hostile response:

Today's New York Times has published an editorial that willfully cherry picks data in order to conform to their tired, 1970's editorial viewpoint that we're "losing the war on drugs."

Despite our numerous efforts to provide the Times with the facts, their editorial staff has chosen to ignore irrefutable data regarding the progress that has been made in making our nation's drug problem smaller.

 And yet, as anyone can see, the NYT piece clearly acknowledges this so-called "irrefutable data." They list the Drug Czar's favorite talking points right in the first paragraph. But then they do something he wasn't prepared for: they say it doesn't matter. The salient point of the whole editorial is that "the drug cartels are not running for cover." In short, for all the Drug Czar's proud proclamations of progress, the drug trade surges on unabated.


It's really just embarrassing that the Drug Czar's only response is to repeat the very points already acknowledged and overcome by NYT. His whole argument is that rates of drug abuse are lower than they were at their highest point in history. That's true, but it's not surprising, not impressive, and not even remotely a result of the Drug Czar's poisonous public policies. With the rage of a shamed tyrant, Walters claims a monopoly on "the facts," as though only the Drug Czar is qualified to interpret the success of his programs. It's like calling CarMax to ask them if they have the best deals on used cars.

Beyond all that, ponder the absurdity of the very notion that we must consult the Drug Czar and his overcooked statistics in order to know whether or not our drug policy is working really well. We can observe these things for ourselves. When we lead the world in incarceration, when we lead the world in drug use, when we drug test our own sewage, and deny organs to medical marijuana patients, and murder innocent people in their homes, and subsidize brutal civil wars in foreign nations, we have nothing to celebrate. All of these grand travesties fester before our eyes and are not mitigated, even to a microscopic extent, by the indignant self-congratulatory fulminations of the very people who visited this spectacular nightmare upon us.

In other words, when the pool is green, no one gives a crap if the lifeguard says the pH balance is normal.

Chapare Coca Growers Cut Ties with USAID

Chapare coca growers cut ties with USAID after years of poorly-framed, ineffectual initiatives. Prepared by the Andean Information Network, June 27, 2008 On June 24, 2008 Chapare coca grower unions announced that they will no longer sign new aid agreements with USAID.[i] This announcement comes after two decades of poorly-focused policies, which did little to improve the lives of the majority of Chapare residents, especially during forced eradication. These development programs also provoked division and friction within the region by dividing communities and linking aid to controversial coca reduction. As a result, it is not surprising that Chapare coca growers made this decision; it is only surprising that they waited so long. Furthermore, the announcement is largely a symbolic gesture; USAID plans to shift the bulk of its already restricted Chapare activities to the La Paz Yungas in the coming year, and Chapare municipalities have found other funding partners. According to the 2008 INSCR, “Relatively more resources will be devoted to the Yungas, an under-developed coca growing region ….Assistance to the Chapare will continue to decline….” As a result, the number and scope of projects affected is minimal. It is interesting to note that there has been no rejection of cooperation with the U.S. Narcotics Affairs Section or the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in the Chapare. Coca grower representatives affirm the need for their presence, “because their policy is to fight drug trafficking, like ours, but now it’s on our terms.”[ii] Coordination on cooperative coca reduction and interdiction remain unaltered. It is crucial to look beyond the initial perception of an anti-American political stance to address the genuine popular discontent generated by these programs in order to properly re-evaluate the structure and impact of USAID initiatives. In an environment where the weight of US funding has diminished greatly, it makes sense to accept the Chapare farmers’ “no thank you,” and allow the region’s residents to determine who they would like to work with to improve the lives of their families. The long term frustration with USAID in the Chapare is real, but the threat of violence is highly unlikely. There is no apparent backlash against USAID workers. According to MAS congressman Asterio Romero, “We cordially request that they (USAID) leave; we won’t use force or take over their facilities, but we want them to go quickly.”[iii] While some cocaleros may have said some provocative things such as calling the Chapare a “USAID-free territory,”[iv] USAID has not been entirely expelled from the Chapare – the few ongoing projects will most likely continue until their designated end dates. Coca growers are simply moving toward other sources of aid and away from the conditions and failures of USAID projects. The cocaleros made their decision to reject USAID at the same time that several large projects have ended and new projects through the European Union funded Social Control and Integrated Development initiatives – which focus on working with local communities and do not impose coca eradication – were launched. A history of failure and friction During the past ten years, AIN, WOLA and other investigators have repeatedly highlighted the inherent flaws of USAID alternative development initiatives in the Chapare, especially during forced eradication. Key areas of concern included: - Externally-designed and imposed initiatives developed without significant consultation with Chapare farmers. - The great majority of funds dedicated to overhead, salaries of foreign consultants and other costs. “Eighty percent of these resources went to pay the salaries of the Alternative Development personnel; twenty percent went to production, and only six percent for the producers. We only got crumbs, and we are still poor.”[v] - From 1998-2003, farmers could only have access to USAID assistance after the complete eradication of their coca crop. As a result, families with no alternative income went hungry before agricultural initiatives kicked in, forcing them to replant coca. - USAID projects refused to work directly with coca growers unions, although these strong organizations could have helped facilitate the implementation of projects. Instead, they formed parallel ‘associations” and demanded that farmers leave unions to receive assistance. This practice generated divisions and conflict within Chapare communities. - Community promoters were asked to inform USAID contractors about their neighbors who continued to plant coca or spoke out against alternative development, further heightening tensions in the region. - Poorly-designed agricultural initiatives lack affordable transportation mechanisms and markets. Many farmers found that it was cheaper to let their products rot in the field than it was to take them to market. - The majority of these projects failed due to impracticality of transporting heavy produce without proper roads, the low-market price offered locally for fruit, and the inability for small-scale Bolivian producers to compete on international markets. - A USAID contracted lawyer filed narcoterrorism charges against over one hundred coca growers, the bulk of the Six Federations leadership, for attacks on alternative development installations. - USAID took over the bulk of the funding of FAO projects, like the Jatun Sacha forestry initiative, forcing the project to incorporate US conditioning on coca eradication. - Unlike the more cost effective European Union initiative, Praedac, the US refused until 2003 to work with coca grower municipalities in the Chapare. - USAID placed increasing emphasis on work with private enterprise in the Chapare, which failed to pass profits on to or fairly compensate their employees. A short-lived policy shift In late 2003, after the resignation of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, USAID decided to begin to work collaboratively with coca grower municipalities in the Chapare, in an effort to alleviate the high tensions around US programs in the region. Coca growers welcomed the change and actively participated – a significant shift in acceptance of USAID initiatives in the region. - Unfortunately, with the election of Evo Morales, USAID froze these joint initiatives for a year, wreaking havoc with municipal planning. In the interim, Chapare mayors sought out and obtained significant alternative funding from the EU, European governments and Venezuela, without any of the political strings and conditioning attached to US efforts. - Even though they had frozen funding, the US claimed that the lack of violence in the region was due to “a new, integrated alternative development approach in the Chapare [which] provides for participation by municipalities in GOB decisions on development, implementation and monitoring of programs. This has helped reduce coca-related conflict and strengthen local commitment to licit development.”[vi] Coca growers were understandably angered by this misleading statement. - When USAID initiatives resumed in the region, they were increasingly irrelevant. New requirements, such as renewed conditioning on coca reduction, although now on a global and not family level, and the obligation to sign an agreement certifying that recipient communities were “terrorist-free zones” exacerbated this situation. In addition, after the election of Morales, USAID began to block meetings of NGOs, such as AIN and WOLA, with its Chapare contractors. When asked, one high-ranking USAID official in Bolivia explained that, “It would be problematic to allow contractors to speak in the name of the US government,” and said that AIN could tour alternative development facilities escorted by USAID personnel. This lack of transparency is quite surprising, considering that in prior years, both organizations had always had free access to all USAID projects, even during the peak of violent conflicts. AIN attempted to find contact information for over twenty USAID contractors within Bolivian, could only identify nine, and when contacted, only one organization accepted a meeting. This lack of transparency around USAID initiatives is problematic and inexplicable, when nongovernmental investigation in the past had led to significant improvement in programs. With the history of failed alternative development, lack of transparency, and conditionality of coca eradication, it is hardly surprising that Chapare growers have rejected further ties to USAID funding. In a region where local unions and grassroots organizations were already highly politically mobilized, these programs served to undermine the history of community organizing. After living through the tensions and failures associated with USAID, Morales’ and his administration’s mistrust of USAID initiatives is hardly inexplicable. In light of repeated Morales administration accusations of USAID funding of the opposition’s political agendas, the proposed doubling of US assistance in the FY2009 Budget Request from economic development to “rule of law, good governance, electoral processes, consensus building, civil society and education,” has intensified these underlying tensions. Chapare growers are moving toward different funding sources such as the European Union and Venezuela, which come with far less strings attached and do not condition assistance on reducing the coca crop. The MAS administration, while critical of many US policies and frustrated with conditional aid, continues to work with and receive funding from the US, especially anti-narcotics programs. Voices from the Chapare tell the real story. The mayor of Villa Tunari said, “We don’t want USAID anymore, if they are going to cooperate, it would have to be without conditions like the European Union.”[vii] Time to re-evaluate US development initiatives Although it may be tempting to characterize Chapare coca growers as ungrateful “beneficiaries,” blindly tied to their leader’s anti-US political agenda, their rejection of USAID projects is an important example of negative impact of development policy tied to political agendas. It is important to note that more pragmatic, grounded U.S.-funded development efforts in Bolivia, such as the Interamerican Foundation projects, continue to be well-received in all departments, and by MAS and prefectural officials. Especially on the eve of a national election, the predictable rejection of USAID assistance by coca growers should serve as a wake-up call to US planners and policymakers. It is crucial to reassess the design, orientation and objectives of US-funded development effects to meaningfully involve the participants and eliminate political conditioning. Background reading on USAID Alternative Development in Bolivia Failures of alternative development: Linda Farthing’s “Rethinking Alternative Development” Political conditioning of USAID: Linda Farthing and Benjamin Kohl’s: “Conflicting Agenda’s: The Politics of Development Aid in Drug-Producing Areas” Linda Farthing and Kathryn Ledebur’s: “The Beat goes On: The US War on Coca” 2006 USAID funding freeze and its impact: Coletta Youngers and Kathryn Ledebur: “Update on Drug Policy Issues in Bolivia” Failures of USAID and potential benefits of EU projects: Kathryn Ledebur and Coletta A. Younger’s “Balancing Act: Bolivia’s Drug Control Advances and Challenges” -------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [i] “Usaid deja el trópico y EEUU teme por la seguridad de su personal.” Los Tiempos, 26 June, 2008. [ii] Cocaleros piden la salida de otras agencias cooperantes.” La Razón 27 June 2008. [iii] Ibid. [iv] “Funcionarios de Usaid salen del Chapare,” La Rázon, 26 June 2008. [v] “Cocaleros piden la salida de otras agencias cooperantes.” La Razón 27 June 2008. [vi] The 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report is available at http://www.sta te.gov/p/inl/rls/nrcrpt/2007/vol1/html/80855.htm [vii] “Funcionarios de Usaid salen del Chapare.”

Pain Relief Network Sues State of WA

As always, we ask that you help PRN fight to protect the rights of patients and the doctors who treat them. Please click the link below.

Link

Pain Treatment Advocacy Group Sues State of WA

Jun 25, 2008

By: Donna Gordon Blankinship

The Associated Press SEATTLE - A pain treatment advocacy group filed suit Wednesday in federal court to challenge the restrictions Washington state officials have put on prescription pain medication.

The nonprofit Pain Relief Network says the guidelines for prescribing narcotics, written by the Washington state Department of Health and published in March 2007, have influenced pain treatment across the country and have made doctors afraid to give opiate prescriptions[...]

Complaint for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief, Damages a class action lawsuit by Laura Cooper (lead attorney) et al., Filed: 2008-06-24

Exhibit 1: The WA state Opioid Dosing "Guidelines" by Agency Medical Directors Group (AMDG); Mar. 2007; Filed 2008-06-24

Exhibit 2: Findings of Fact Laura Cooper, Esq.; Filed 2008-06-24 www.painreliefnetwork.org

Location: 
WA
United States

Southwest Asia: West Threatens to Block Iran Drug Aid Over Nuclear Issue

With Afghan opium and the heroin made from it flooding into Europe, Iran is one of the first bulwarks in the effort to stem the tide. But now, the West is threatening to condition further anti-drug assistance on Tehran's compliance with its demands that the Islamic Republic halt uranium enrichment.

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International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
Since the overthrow of the Taliban, Iran and the West had quietly cooperated in efforts to block the trade from Afghanistan. United by a common loathing for the Sunni insurgents, Iran and the West were able to work together on this issue. But that is now in doubt.

The threat came in a package of incentives presented June 14 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, France, Britain, China, Russia) and Germany in a bid to get Tehran to change its nuclear policy. Iran has repeatedly said it will not stop enriching uranium, and now the European Union is considering wider sanctions, including ending cooperation with Iranian anti-drug efforts.

The package promised Iran "intensified cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking" from Afghanistan, but only if it first stops uranium enrichment. Tehran insists it has the right to use such technology and says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.

Burdened with a 560-mile-long border with Afghanistan, Iran has deployed some 30,000 soldiers and police to fight opium and heroin smuggling from its neighbor. Some 3,500 of them have been killed in the past two decades. Last year, Iranian officials reported seizing 660 tons of opium, nearly three-quarters of the total seized worldwide. Despite such efforts and a draconian Iranian response to drug trafficking offenses -- the death penalty -- Iran suffers arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate.

But not all the opium and heroin smuggled across the Iranian border stays in Iran, and that had UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa warning that Europe could be hit by a "heroin tsunami" if anti-drug aid is blocked. "We should definitely assist in this respect," he told the Associated Press this week. "Iran is a front-line country."

The UNODC's man in Tehran, Roberto Arbitrio, told the AP fighting the drug war should be seen as "a non-political area of mutual interest."

"Cooperating with Iran in Afghanistan on this and other issues is not a favor we do for Iran -- but something we need to do in our own interest," Barnett Rubin, perhaps the leading US academic expert on Afghanistan, told the AP.

"Fighting drug trafficking should not be politicized," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the top anti-drug official in Iran. "When narcotics reach Europe, it is the people, not governments, that suffer."

Such objections notwithstanding, however, drug interdiction has manifestly failed to reduce the supply, making the specter of increased drug abuse should aid be withheld an uncertain outcome.

Neither the White House and State Department nor the office of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana would comment on the linkage between continued anti-drug assistance and Tehran's compliance with Western demands.

Southwest Asia: Taliban Makes $100 Million a Year Off Drug Prohibition

The Taliban made about $100 million last year by taxing Afghan farmers involved in growing opium poppies, Antonio Maria Costa, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) told BBC Radio. The money came from a 10% tax on farmers in Taliban-controlled areas, Costa said, adding that the Islamic insurgents profited from the illicit drug business in other ways as well.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"One is protection to laboratories and the other is that the insurgents offer protection to cargo, moving opium across the border," Costa told the BBC's File on 4 program.

Taliban opium revenues could decline slightly this year, Costa said, suggesting that yields and revenues are likely to decrease due to drought, infestation and a poppy ban enforced in the north and east of Afghanistan. That would lower Taliban revenues, "but not enormously," he said.

But a smaller harvest this year is unlikely to cause any shortages or put a serious dent in Taliban opium trade revenues. For the past three or four years, Afghanistan has produced more than the estimated world annual consumption, Costa noted. "Last year Afghanistan produced about 8,800 tons of opium," he said. "The world in the past few years has consumed about 4,400 tons in opium, this leaves a surplus. It is stored somewhere and not with the farmers," he added.

The Taliban have put the funds to effective use, as evidenced by the insurgency's growing strength, especially in southeast Afghanistan -- precisely the area of most intense opium cultivation. More than 230 US and NATO troops were killed in fighting in Afghanistan last year, and 109 more have been killed so far this year. US Army Major General Jeffrey Schloesser told reporters Tuesday Taliban attacks in the region were up 40% over the same period last year.

British officials interviewed by the BBC said it was incontrovertible that the Taliban was profiting off of the illegal trade created by prohibition. "The closer we look at it, the closer we see the insurgents [are] to the drugs trade," said David Belgrove, head of counter narcotics at the British embassy in Kabul. "We can say that a lot of their arms and ammunition are being funded directly by the drugs trade."

Which leaves NATO and the US stuck with that enduring Afghan dilemma: Leave the poppy trade alone and strengthen the Taliban by allowing it to raise hundreds of millions of dollars; or go after the poppies and the poppy trade and strengthen the Taliban by pushing hundreds of thousands of Afghan farmers into their beckoning arms.

Latin America: Bolivia's Chapare Coca Growers Tell USAID to Get Lost, Say They Will Seek Funding from Venezuela

Coca grower union leaders in Bolivia's Chapare region said Wednesday they will suspend development projects funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and instead look to Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez for help. They accused USAID of using its assistance to undermine Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader who is an ally of Chávez, Washington's bête noire in Latin America.

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Bolivian congressman Asterio Romero spoke with Drug War Chronicle in person in March 2007
"We want USAID to go. If USAID leaves, we will have aid from Venezuela, which is unconditioned and in solidarity," Chapare coca leader Julio Salazar told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Venezuela already provides financial assistance to Bolivia. Chávez has also invested in the Andean nation's effort to create an industry around coca products, providing support in the building of coca-processing facilities.

Asterio Romero, vice president of Chapare's main coca-growing group, told the AP growers on Tuesday agreed to cancel the USAID's operations in the region and gave it until Thursday to leave.

The coca grower action has apparently taken both governments by surprise. The US Embassy in La Paz refused comment, saying it had not been officially informed of the coca growers' decision. Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca said Tuesday he was not familiar with the decision, but that his government wants to make US aid "more transparent."

President Morales has accused USAID of financing his political opponents. Among them are wealthy landowners from the country's eastern provinces who are seeking greater autonomy or secession.

Latin America: Coca Production Up Last Year, UN Reports

In an annual report released Wednesday, Coca Cultivation in the Andean Region, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) found itself "surprised and shocked" to announce that the amount of land devoted to coca growing in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru had risen to more than 181,000 hectares, or more than 700 square miles. That is a 16% increase over 2006 figures and the highest level of cultivation since 2001.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/leaves-drying-in-warehouse.jpg
Bolivian coca leaves drying in warehouse -- the sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08''
Colombia, which remains the region's largest coca and cocaine producer despite a seven-year, $5 billion dollar US effort to wipe out the crop, had the most dramatic increase, jumping up 27%. Cultivation increased 5% in Bolivia, where a coca-friendly government is de facto allowing small increases, and 4% in Peru, where a non-coca-friendly government is in constant low-level conflict with coca growers.

"The increase in coca cultivation in Colombia is a surprise and shock: a surprise because it comes at a time when the Colombian government is trying so hard to eradicate coca; a shock because of the magnitude of cultivation," said UNODC executive director Antonio Maria Costa. "But this bad news must be put in perspective," he added in desperate search of a silver lining. "Just like in Afghanistan, where most opium is grown in provinces with a heavy Taliban presence, in Colombia most coca is grown in areas controlled by insurgents", Costa said, noting that half of all cocaine production and a third of all cultivation occurs in just 10 of the country's 195 municipalities.

But despite the increase in coca cultivation, cocaine production remained stable. Last year, global potential production of cocaine was 994 metric tons, according to the UNODC, while in 2006, it was 984 metric tons. The UNODC pointed to lower yields as a result of pressure from massive aerial eradication, which caused farmers to seek out peripheral lands and resort to smaller, more dispersed coca patches.

"In the past few years, the Colombian government destroyed large-scale coca farming by means of massive aerial eradication, which unsettled armed groups and drug traffickers alike. In the future, with the FARC in disarray, it may become easier to control coca cultivation," Costa predicted rosily.

Last year, Colombia's drug police, working with US funds and US contractors, sprayed herbicide on 160,000 hectares of coca and manually eradicated another 50,000 hectares. But as in the past, Colombia's coca growing peasants, faced with few alternatives, have adapted rapidly, negating the gains of the eradicators.

While Congress has gone along with the $5 billion experiment to eradicate coca in Colombia in the last year of the Clinton administration and throughout the Bush presidency, the clamor is rising on Capitol Hill for a shift in emphasis in US aid. Currently, the aid goes 80% to security forces and 20% for development assistance. Solons can rightly ask just what they've been getting for all that money.

Feature: US Drug Policies Flawed and Failed, Experts Tell Congressional Committee

The US Congress Joint Economic Committee yesterday held a historic hearing on the economic costs of US drug policy. The hearing, titled Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses, was called at the request of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who in his opening remarks described the all-too-familiar failure of US drug policy to accomplish the goals it has set for itself. It was the second hearing related to incarceration that Webb has convened under the auspices of this committee.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
"Our insatiable demand for drugs" drives the drug trade, Webb pointed out. "We're spending enormous amounts of money to interdict drug shipments, but supplies remain consistent. Some 86% of high schoolers report easy access to marijuana. Cocaine prices have fallen by about 80% since the 1980s," the freshman senator continued. "Efforts to curb illegal drug use have relied heavily on enforcement. The number of people in custody on drug charges has increased 13-fold in the past 25 years, yet the flow of drugs remains undiminished. Drug convictions and collateral punishments are devastating our minority communities," Webb said.

"Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to," Webb declared. "The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the economic impacts, the effect on crime. We need to rethink our approach to the supply and demand of drugs."

Such sentiments coming from a sitting senator in the US in 2008 are bold if not remarkable, and it's not the first time that Webb has uttered such words:

In March of last year, he told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program This Week: "One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy."

In his recently-released book, A Time to Fight, Webb wrote: "The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," "It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related activities" and "Either we are home to the most evil population on earth, or we are locking up a lot of people who really don't need to be in jail, for actions that other countries seem to handle in more constructive ways."

Still, drug reformers may be impatient with the level of rethinking presented at the hearing. While witnesses including University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, author of "Drug War Heresies," and John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) offered strong and familiar critiques of various aspects of US drug policy, neither of the words "prohibition" or "legalization" were ever uttered, nor were the words "tax and regulate," and radical alternatives to current policy were barely touched upon. Instead, the emphasis seemed to be on adjusting the "mix" of spending on law enforcement versus treatment and prevention.

The other two witnesses at the hearing, Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern and community coordinator Norma Fernandes of the same office, were there to talk up the success of drug court-style programs in their community.

[The written testimony of all four witnesses is available at the hearing web site linked above.]

"US drug policy is comprehensive, but unbalanced," said Reuter. "As much as 75% of spending goes to enforcement, mainly to lock up low-level drug dealers. Treatment is not very available. The US has a larger drug problem than other Western countries, and the policy measures to confront it have met with little success," he told the committee.

Reuter said there were some indications policymakers and the electorate are tiring of the drug war approach, citing California's treatment-not-jail Proposition 36, but there was little indication Congress was interested in serious analysis of programs and policies.

"Congress has been content to accept rhetoric instead of research," Reuter said, citing its lack of reaction to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's refusal to release a now three-year-old report on drug use levels during the Bush administration. "It's hardly a secret that ONDCP has failed to publish that report, but Congress has not bothered to do anything," he complained. "We need more emphasis on the analytic base for policy."

But even with the paltry evidence available to work with, Reuter was able to summarize a bottom line: "The US imprisons too many people and provides too little treatment," he said. "We need more than marginal changes."

"US drug policies have been in place for some time without much change except for intensification," said WOLA's Walsh, noting that coca production levels are as high as they were 20 years ago. "Since 1981, we have spent about $800 billion on drug control, and $600 billion of that on supply reduction. We need a stiff dose of historical reality as we contemplate what to do now," he told the committee.

With the basic policies in place for so long, some conclusions can now be drawn, Walsh said. "First, the balloon effect is real and fully relevant today. We've seen it time and time again, not just with crops, but also with drug smuggling routes. If we want to talk about actually reducing illicit crops and we know eradication only leads to renewed planting, we need to be looking for alternatives," he said.

"Second, there is continuing strong availability of illicit drugs and a long-term trend toward falling prices," Walsh said, strongly suggesting that interdiction was a failed policy. "The perennial goal is to drive up prices, but prices have fallen sharply. There is evidence of disruptions in the US cocaine market last year, but whether that endures is an open question and quite doubtful given the historical record," he said.

"Third, finding drugs coming across the border is like finding a needle in a haystack, or more like finding lots of needles in lots of different moving haystacks," he said. "Our legal commerce with Mexico is so huge that to think we can seal the borders is delusional."

With respect to the anti-drug assistance package for Mexico currently being debated in Congress, Walsh had a warning: "Even with US assistance, any reduction in the flow of drugs from Mexico is unlikely." Instead, Walsh said, lawmakers should adjust their supply-control objectives and expectations to bring them in line with that reality.

Changes in drug producing countries will require sustained efforts to increase alternative livelihoods. That in turn will require patience and a turn away from "the quick fix mentality that hasn't fixed anything," Walsh said.

"We can't expect sudden improvements; there is no silver bullet," Walsh concluded. "We need to switch to harm reduction approaches and recognize drugs and drug use as perennial problems that can't be eliminated, but can be managed better. We need to minimize not only the harms associated with drug use, but also those related to policies meant to control drugs."

"It is important to be able to discuss the realities of the situation, it's not always a comfortable thing to talk about," Webb said after the oral testimony. "This is very much a demand problem. I've been skeptical bout drug eradication programs; they just don't work when you're supplying such an enormous thirst on this end. We have to find ways to address demand other than locking up more people. We have created an incredible underground economic apparatus and we have to think hard about how to address it."

"The way in which we focused attention on the supply side has been very much mistaken," agreed Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who along with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) were the only other solons attending the hearing. "All this focus on supply hasn't really done anything of any value. The real issue is demand, and prevention and dealing with people getting out of prison is the way to deal with this."

Reuter suggested part of the solution was in increase in what he called "coerced abstinence," or forced drug treatment. Citing the work of UCLA drug policy researcher Mark Kleiman, Reuter said that regimes of frequent testing with modest sanctions imposed immediately and with certainty can result "in a real decline in drug taking and criminal activity."

That got a nod of agreement from prosecutor Swern. "How long you stay in treatment is the best predictor of staying out of trouble or off drugs," she said. Swern is running a program with deferring sentencing, with some flexibility she said. "The beauty of our program is it allows us to give people many chances. If they fail in treatment and want to try again, we do that," she said.

As the hearing drew to an end, Webb had one last question: "Justice Department statistics show that of all drug arrests in 2005, 42.6% were for marijuana offenses. What about the energy expended arresting people for marijuana?" he asked, implicitly begging for someone to respond, "It's a waste of resources."

But no one connected directly with the floating softball. "The vast majority of those arrests are for simple possession," said Reuter. "In Maryland, essentially no one is sentenced to jail for marijuana possession, although about a third spend time in jail pre-trial. It's not as bad as it looks," he said sanguinely.

"There's violence around marijuana trafficking in Brooklyn," responded prosecutor Swern.

WOLA's Walsh came closest to a strong answer. "Your question goes to setting priorities," he said. "We need to discriminate among types of illicit drugs. Which do the most harm and deserve the most emphasis? Also, given the sheer number of marijuana users, what kind of dent can you make even with many more arrests?"

And so ended the first joint congressional hearing to challenge the dogmas of the drug war. For reformers that attended, there were generally thumbs up for Webb and the committee, mixed with a bit of disappointment that the hearings only went so far.

"It was extraordinary," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. "They didn't cover some of the things I hoped they would, but I have to give them props for addressing the issue at all."

"Webb was looking for someone to say what he wanted to say with the marijuana question, that perhaps we should deemphasize law enforcement on that," said Doug McVay, policy analyst at Common Sense for Drug Policy, who also attended the hearing. "I don't think our witnesses quite caught what he was aiming for, an answer that arresting all those people for marijuana takes away resources that could be used to fight real crime."

Sen. Webb came in for special praise from Tree. "Perhaps because he's a possible vice presidential candidate, he had to tone things down a bit, but he is clearly not afraid to talk about over-incarceration, and using the Joint Economic Committee instead of Judiciary or Foreign Affairs is a brilliant use of that committee, because this is, after all, a policy with enormous economic consequences," Tree said. "Webb is clearly motivated by doing something about the high levels of incarceration. He held a hearing on it last year, and got the obvious answer that much of it is related to drug policy. Having heard that kind of answer, most politicians would walk away fast, but not Webb, so I have to give him credit."

Reversing the drug war juggernaut will not be easy. The Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing Thursday was perhaps a small step toward that end, but it is a step in the right direction.

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