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An Easy Way to Ask Obama About Drug Policy Reform

President-elect Obama’s Change.gov website has opened a new round of questions, providing us yet another opportunity to push drug policy reform into the political mainstream. We won the last round of voting, making a marijuana legalization question the top vote-getter on the entire site.

Simply click here and create an account. Scroll through to find drug policy-related questions and vote them up. You can also submit your own. This time, the questions are broken into categories, so I assume the top question in each will get a response. Currently, there’s a drug war question in 2nd place in the "national security" section, so please start by voting for that (it’s our best chance). The "additional issues" section has several good ones as well and I'm sure there are questions in other categories that I've missed.

Keep in mind that you can vote against questions as well, so feel free to use the down-vote in a way that reflects your personal political priorities. Finally, please send your friends the link and encourage them to participate as well. Seeing consistent support for drug policy reform on his own site might give Obama exactly the cover he needs to maybe actually do something.

Am I a Hippie Who Doesn’t Understand Politics?

Check out this blog post calling me a hippie and accusing me of overreacting to Obama’s rejection of marijuana legalization. This dude is cool though, I think, so it’s all good. But the whole thing misses the point of my post.

I never thought Obama was going to legalize marijuana. I was commenting on the absurdity of creating a whole Change.gov campaign and then using it to uphold the status quo. Obviously, Obama isn’t going to go change-crazy from day one, but this is a massively controversial issue, as evidenced by its #1 ranking on his site. Using Change.gov to reject popular and much-needed changes is ironic, and while I never expected anything more, I’m certainly not going to give him a pass just because his political posturing is painfully predictable.

Latin America: Venezuela Could Renew Cooperation With DEA, Chávez Says

In a Sunday interview, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez said relations between his government and the US could improve dramatically under an Obama administration, including renewed cooperation with the DEA. Chávez, whose relations with the Bush administration have been tense and confrontational, threw the US anti-drug agency out of the country in 2005, charging it with spying and interfering with Venezuela's internal affairs.

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Chapare region, Bolivia, sign announcing construction of coca leaf industrialization plant financed by Venezuela (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith)
"There are winds in favor of relations between the Venezuelan government and the new president of the United States, Barack Obama. We must try energetically and with good faith to improve relations, and I am ready to do it," Chávez said on a Sunday political talk show, José Vicente Today, broadcast on a private television station. "But we can't be naïve," Chávez continued. "Worse than relations under Bush, impossible, but we must be cautious because Obama is the president of the empire, and all of its machinery is still intact."

The Bush White House has accused Venezuela of turning a blind eye to the trafficking of cocaine from neighboring Colombia -- a US ally and the world's largest producer -- but that is one of several areas where friendlier, more respectful relations could lead to renewed cooperation, Chávez said. "We are ready to work government to government on the energy issue, to combat drug trafficking," Chávez said. "We could even create a new agreement with the Drug Enforcement Agency."

But cooperation is a two-way street. Chávez is deeply interested in seeing fugitive terrorist Luis Posada Carriles extradited to Venezuela to face trial in the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed 73 people. Posada escaped from a Venezuelan prison and showed up in the US years later, but US officials have refused to extradite him.

On Saturday, Chávez called on Obama to extradite Posada Carriles. "President Obama, send us the terrorist that we're requesting. He should be in prison and not free on the streets of the United States," Chávez declared.

Report Review: New Federal Drug Threat Assessment Finds Prohibition Greatest Drug-Related Menace

Well, not in so many words. But anyone reading between the lines of the National Drug Intelligence Center's National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 could easily come to that conclusion. The annual report from the Justice Department fiefdom based in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, with its thoroughly inside-the-box approach to the harms associated with drug policy, does not look at the data it is reporting and see the obvious, but its conclusions that violent drug trafficking organizations and street-level drug retail gangs are the gravest "drug threats" to America beg the question of why.

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According to the 2009 report: "Mexican DTOs [drug trafficking organizations] represent the greatest organized crime threat to the United States. The influence of Mexican DTOs over domestic drug trafficking is unrivaled. In fact, intelligence estimates indicate a vast majority of the cocaine available in US drug markets is smuggled by Mexican DTOs across the US-Mexico border. Mexican DTOs control drug distribution in most US cities, and they are gaining strength in markets that they do not yet control."

Following close on the heels of the bloody cartels -- 5,000 have been killed in Mexico's prohibition-related violence this year -- are the cartel wannabes: "Violent urban gangs control most retail-level drug distribution nationally, and some have relocated from inner cities to suburban and rural areas. Moreover, gangs are increasing their involvement in wholesale-level drug distribution, aided by their connections with Mexican and Asian DTOs."

While the violence of the cartels and the gangs is deplorable, the NDIC assessment makes no effort to address its root cause: the regime of drug prohibition. Instead it conflates the harms associated with prohibition (fighting the drug trade) with those associated with drug use or abuse.

That conceptual confusion is evident from the very beginning of the annual report. In the first paragraph of its summary, the report observes that: "The trafficking and abuse of illicit drugs inflict tremendous harm upon individuals, families, and communities
throughout the country. The violence, intimidation, theft, and financial crimes carried out by drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), criminal groups, gangs, and drug users in the United States pose a significant threat to our nation. The cost to society from drug production, trafficking, and abuse is difficult to fully measure or convey."

Without pulling apart the harms associated with "trafficking and abuse of illegal drugs," the NDIC is conducting an exercise in futility and propaganda. The harms associated with the growth of powerful criminal organizations thriving under a prohibition regime are an entirely different matter from the harms related to drug use, misuse, or abuse, and failing to disentangle them is a service to no one. Similarly, the failure to disaggregate "DTOs, criminal groups, gangs, and drug users" only strengthens the same skewed view of the results of our drug policies.

In the summary's eight bullet points designed to demonstrate the harm of "drugs," four of them -- cartel money laundering, federal anti-drug spending, the huge number of drug arrests, and the high number of federal drug prisoners -- are a direct consequence of drug prohibition. Two others -- a large number of people seeking drug treatment, and children removed from meth labs -- are at least indirectly influenced by drug prohibition. Many people seeking treatment are doing so because of rote court orders, and many home meth cooks would likely simply purchase their drug instead of cooking it if allowed to do so. One bullet point -- that diversion of pharmaceutical drugs is costing insurance companies millions -- is yet another artifact of a prohibition regime, or at least one where access to desired drugs is so restricted that diversion occurs.

The final bullet point -- some 35 million Americans used an illicit drug (or a licit drug illicitly) -- is essentially meaningless without indicating in some way just how those people were actually harmed by using those drugs. But that is typical of a mindset that measures success in drug policy solely by reducing drug use instead of looking at the bigger picture.

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NDIC could have attempted to quantify the harms of drug abuse, for instance by looking at lost work days, or the early onset of disease, or other measures, but it didn't.

Such an attitude is also apparent in the report's blunt ranking of the leading threats by drug: "Cocaine is the leading drug threat to society. Methamphetamine is the second leading drug threat, followed by marijuana, heroin, pharmaceutical drugs, and MDMA (also known as ecstasy) respectively."

Given that marijuana is almost universally understood to be one of the least harmful psychoactive substances known to man (see Professor David Nutt's "rational scale" here), marijuana's role as a leading drug threat -- ahead of heroin and pharmaceuticals! -- can only be attributed to its widespread popularity. Again, instead of demonstrating specific harms associated with marijuana consumption, the report simply assumes that marijuana use generates harm.

By NDIC standards, some progress is being made in combating the drug scourge. The report cites declining cocaine availability and purity in some US markets, and a decrease in domestic meth production (although it warns of a looming increase). But even where NDIC can point to successes, it either misses the costs of waging the drug war or conflates them with the harms of drug use.

And with marijuana in particular, it cannot even claim success. Despite record plant seizures and marijuana arrests last year: "Marijuana availability is high throughout the United States. Outdoor cultivation is going through the roof, thanks in part, the report says, to Mexican DTOs expanding into US public lands, and indoor cultivation has increased "because of high profit margins and seemingly reduced risk of law enforcement detection."

What the National Drug Threat Assessment 2009 shows us is that we are continuing to wage a futile struggle to suppress drug use at a great cost to our society. In failing to disentangle and disaggregate the social ills resulting from our prohibitionist drug policies from the social ills resulting from drug use, it is business as usual. But what do we expect from a drug war bureaucracy motivated mainly by inertia and the imperative of preserving next year's budget?

Press Release: Presidential Commutations Urged for Prisoners Serving Long Crack Cocaine Sentences

For Immediate Release: December 16, 2008 Contact: Jasmine L. Tyler at 202-294-8292 PRESIDENTIAL COMMUTATIONS URGED FOR PRISONERS SERVING LONG CRACK COCAINE SENTENCES WASHINGTON, DC- As the holiday season approaches, and President George Bush's term comes to a close, a broad coalition of 29 civil rights, religious, academic and justice organizations have asked the president today to commute excessive sentences for low-level crack cocaine offenses. "Scripture reminds us that justice in the courts is a means of healing to society and families," said Bishop Jane Allen Middleton from the Central Pennsylvania Conference of the United Methodist Church. "Yet the disparity on sentences currently being handed down between crack and powder cocaine has unfairly targeted African-Americans and the poor," she said. "While legislation is needed to equalize these sentences, granting clemency to some of those serving unusually long sentences will send a much needed signal that our criminal justice system can and should be a means of healing to society and reunifying families separated by excessive incarceration." Prior to taking office in 2001, President Bush signaled support for reforming the controversial sentencing disparity for cocaine offenses. In a CNN interview, he said the crack-powder disparity "ought to be addressed by making sure the powder-cocaine and the crack-cocaine penalties are the same." Under current law, defendants convicted with as little as five grams, the weight of two sugar packets, are subject to a federal mandatory minimum sentence of five years. Offenses involving the pharmacologically identical powder cocaine do not trigger a five year mandatory minimum until a defendant sells 500 grams of the substance, 100 times the quantity of crack cocaine. In 2007, the U.S. Sentencing Commission lowered the sentencing guideline range for crack cocaine offenses because the penalties were considered excessive. They also voted to apply the guideline reductions to people currently incarcerated for crack cocaine offenses but the sentence reductions were limited by the mandatory minimum sentences that only Congress can amend. According to today's letter to Bush, the president's "clemency power is the only opportunity to advance immediate reform. By granting commutations to people who have already served long sentences for low-level crack offenses, [the president can] bring deserving citizens home for the holidays." Former U.S. Pardon Attorney Margaret Love has noted that "the president's personal intervention in a case through the pardon power not only benefits a particular individual, it reassures the public that the legal system is capable of just and moral application." And, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy has urged that the pardon process be "reinvigorated" to respond to "unwise and unjust" federal sentencing laws, stating that "A people confident in its laws and institutions should not be ashamed of mercy." Today's letter to the president was also joined by a petition urging clemency for crack cocaine offenses signed by over 700 people.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

The Real Reason Obama Won’t Support Marijuana Legalization

Much has been made of the fact that a marijuana legalization question was ranked #1 when President-elect Obama opened his Change.gov website up to questions from the public. In an open vote, the public spoke loudly and clearly that marijuana reform was the very first issue that the new President should address. For our trouble, we’ve been rewarded with the sorriest excuse for an answer that Obama’s transition team could possibly have provided:

Q: "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?" S. Man, Denton

A: President-elect Obama is not in favor of the legalization of marijuana.

Care to elaborate? You see, we all knew what the answer was. The point was that we all wanted to know why.

As frustrating and insulting as it is to witness an important matter brushed casually to the side without explanation, Obama’s answer actually says a lot. It says that he couldn’t think of even one sentence to explain his position. Within the vast framework of totally paranoid anti-pot propaganda, Obama couldn’t find a single argument he wanted to associate himself with. That’s why he simply said "No. Next question."

All of this highlights the well-known fact that Obama agrees that our marijuana laws are deeply flawed. He‘s said so, and has back-pedaled recently for purely political reasons. If Obama’s transition team tried to give an accurate description of his position on marijuana reform it would look like this:


Q: "Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?" S. Man, Denton

A: President-elect Obama will not use his political capital to advance the legalization of marijuana. While he agrees that arresting adults for marijuana possession is a poor use of law enforcement resources, he believes that the issue remains too controversial to do anything about it.


It’s really that simple, which makes our job quite difficult. Any ideas?

Update: Paul Armentano says to keep doing what we've been doing and I agree. The fact that we've provoked dialogue about marijuana reform on the President-elect's website is quite remarkable. The "Open for Questions" feature will reopen for new questions soon and we'll be back to push drug policy reform to the top yet again.

On that note, please be advised that the site we're talking about is Change.gov, not Change.org. Change.org has been linked repeatedly in the comment section below, but that is not Obama's site. It fills a similar role and is worth visiting, but that's not where we should focus our energy if we want to directly confront Obama himself. I'm a little concerned that mixing these sites up could dillute our message, so please stay focused on Change.gov. I will post something when the next round of questions is open.

You Can Help Encourage Obama to Answer Questions About Our Marijuana Policy

President-elect Obama has created a web page to accept policy questions from the public. Users can vote for their favorites and his transition team has pledged to answer the most popular questions. At this moment, I’m seeing these two in the top ten:

"Will you consider legalizing marijuana so that the government can regulate it, tax it, put age limits on it, and create millions of new jobs and create a billion dollar industry right here in the U.S.?"

"13 states have compassionate use programs for medial Marijuana, yet the federal gov't continues to prosecute sick and dying people. Isn't it time for the federal gov't to step out of the way and let doctors and families decide what is appropriate?"


Showing that we care about these issues is vitally important, so please head over to change.gov and vote for these questions. Registration is easy and the questions should be right there on the front page (where they’ll stay if we make sure to vote for them).

This is a very cool opportunity to show the strength of our movement by making marijuana reform the #1 issue on Obama’s website.  Please help, and forward the link to your friends and family. Votes close at noon tomorrow, so please don’t delay. Thanks!

Update: As noted in comments, I failed utterly to comprehend the fact that 12:00 am is midnight (duh!), so this post actually went up 9 minutes before the deadline (our time stamp is an hour ahead for some reason). So I'm an idiot, but the good news is that marijuana legalization ended up being the #1 question. I doubt I'm going to like the answer we get, but at least we've sent a message that marijuana reform is far from a fringe issue in 2008.

Law Enforcement: Woman Charged With Killing FBI Agent in Drug Raid Will Argue She Thought She Was Defending Her Home from Intruders

An Ohio woman who shot and killed an FBI agent during a pre-dawn no-knock drug raid at her family home in Indiana Township, Pennsylvania, on November 19 now faces federal homicide and weapons charges. When police serving an arrest warrant for her husband broke into Christine Korbe's home at 6:00am, she fired one shot from a .38 caliber pistol from the top of a second-floor stair case, striking and killing Special Agent Sam Hicks. She was arrested moments later as she called 911 to report a home invasion.

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Will they never learn?
The resort to home invasion-style drug raids by law enforcement has resulted in dozens of deaths of suspects or others present in recent years. Police officers involved in killings in those drug raids typically walk free. But when homeowners targeted -- rightly or wrongly -- in no-knock drug raids kill police claiming they thought they were criminal intruders, they don't typically walk free.

In one notorious case, that of Corey Maye, a Louisiana man whose home was mistakenly hit in a drug raid is now serving a life sentence for murder for shooting and killing an intruding officer. In another, as yet unresolved case, Virginia resident Ryan Frederick faces murder charges in the death of an intruding officer in a raid that now appears to have been without any legitimate basis.

Robert Korbe was to be arrested as part of a round-up of drug suspects in the Pittsburgh area. He was one of 35 people charged in a 27-count indictment charging them with conspiring to traffic in powder and crack cocaine from October 2007 through September 2008. He was arrested in the basement of the family home, which he shared with his wife and two young daughters, as he allegedly sought to destroy evidence.

Christina Korbe made her first federal court appearance Monday before Magistrate Judge Robert Mitchell, where she was arraigned on second-degree murder and several firearms charges. A bail hearing is set for next Monday.

"She's totally distraught," defense attorney John Elash told the Associated Press. "All she cares about and all she mentions is she wants to be home with her children. Can't imagine that she won't be home for Christmas."

Elash said that while his client is "extremely remorseful," she will argue that she acted in what she thought was self-defense. "I don't believe my client's guilty of any crime. I think the evidence will show that," Elash said. "It's obviously a self-defense or a defense of others, and the others that she's defending are a 5- and 10-year old that were with her when she was on 911, making the call to the police that somebody had broken into her house."

Law enforcement affidavits filed with the court claim that FBI agents shouted "police" and warned they were serving a warrant before breaking down the door to the Korbe's home as the family slept. According to those affidavits, Robert Korbe said he heard the agents and knew a raid was happening.

"Was this, something, everybody's yelling at one time, so that nobody could understand what's being said?" Elash said. "Could it have been heard by somebody that was asleep or just woken in an upstairs bedroom in a large home? If, in fact, she did hear it was a police officer or an FBI agent, why would she fire one shot at one of them and not continue to fire?" he asked.

"She thought she was being attacked, thought that she had to defend her children," Elash said. "That is what was going through her mind. Only pulled that trigger for one reason, because she thought she was going to get killed or that her children were going to get killed or seriously injured."

Elash isn't alone in sticking up for his client. Neighborhood residents have begun circulating a petition asserting her innocence and holding a collection for the family's children.

"I honestly believe that she couldn't possibly have known that it was a cop," friend Angie McCarrison said. "I think she heard glass break, and she thought, 'Oh my God, my kids,' and that was the end of that."

However Christina Korbe's case ends up, FBI Agent Hicks is dead, a victim as much of overly aggressive law enforcement practices as the bullet that ended his life.

Sentencing: US Jail and Prison Population Hits All-Time (Again) -- 2.3 Million Behind Bars, Including More Than Half a Million Drug Offenders

The number of people in jail or prison in the United States hit another record at the end of last year, according to a report from the US Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics released Thursday. According to the report, Prisoners in 2007, 2,293,157 people were behind bars at the end of last year, roughly two-thirds of them serving prison sentences and one-third doing jail time.

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overcrowding at Mule Creek State Prison (from cdcr.ca.gov)
Drug offenders made up 19.5% of all people doing time in the states, or roughly 400,000 people. In the federal system, drug offenders account for well over half of the 200,000 prisoners (those numbers are not included in this report), bringing the total number of people sacrificed at the altar of the drug war to more than half a million.

Parole and probation violators accounted for about one-third of all new prison admissions last year. It is unclear how many violations were for drug-related reasons, but that number is undoubtedly substantial.

The imprisoned population continued to grow last year, albeit at a marginally slower rate than the decade as a whole. The number of those imprisoned grew by 1.8% last year, down from 2.8% in 2006, and slightly lower than 2.0% a year average since 2000.

The population behind bars continued to grow at a faster rate than the population as a whole last year. The number of people imprisoned per 100,000 population -- the imprisonment rate -- rose from 501 in 2006 to 506 last year. It was 475 per 100,000 in 2000. Since 2000, the number of people behind bars increased by 15%, while the US population increased by only 6.4%.

The prison populations in 36 states and the District of Columbia increased during 2007. The federal prison population experienced the largest absolute increase of 6,572 prisoners, followed by Florida (up 5,250 prisoners), Kentucky (up 2,457 prisoners) and Arizona (up 1,945 prisoners), resulting in 58.7% of the change in the overall prison population. Kentucky (12.3%), Mississippi (6.5%), Florida (5.6%), West Virginia (5.6%), and Arizona (5.4%) reported the largest percentage increases in their prison populations.

The prison populations in the remaining 14 states decreased. Michigan's (1,344) and California's (1,230) prison populations experienced the greatest absolute decrease, while Vermont (down 3.2%), Montana (down 2.8%), Michigan (down 2.6%), and New Mexico (down 2.6%) prison populations had the largest percent decreases.

America's position as the world's leading jailer, in both absolute and per capita terms, remains unchallenged, and the war on drugs is playing a significant role. Interestingly, the BJS report comes one day after a study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reported that 43 states face budget shortfalls next year. As for the federal budget deficit, well, who can even keep up with that?

Methamphetamine: Graphic Montana Scare Campaign May Not Work After All, Study Finds

The Montana Meth Project, an anti-methamphetamine campaign based around scary images of the perils of meth use, has been widely touted as a successful public health intervention. Its images showing the extreme consequences of using the popular stimulant "just once" have been touted by supporters as highly effective at deterring teen meth use, and it has even garnered state and federal funding and been adopted by other states based on those claims.

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methamphetamine crystals
Not so fast, said the authors of a new study released this week. In Drugs, Money, and Graphic Ads: A Critical Review of the Montana Meth Project, published this month in the journal Prevention Science, researchers found that the ad campaign produced a number of negative consequences and challenged its impact on meth use rates in the state.

According to the study, teens who had been exposed to six months of the project's graphic ads were three times as likely to say they did not believe meth use was a risky behavior and four times more likely to strongly approve of regular meth use. Half of the teens said the ads exaggerated the dangers of meth use.

The Montana Meth Campaign and its proponents overlooked such unflattering results when presenting findings to the media and policymakers, the researchers said. Instead, the campaign portrayed its results in the most positive light possible.

The researchers also scoffed at claims the program had reduced meth use. "Meth use had been declining for at least six years before the ad campaign commenced, which suggests that factors other than the graphic ads cause reductions in meth use. Another issue is that the launch of the ad campaign coincided with restrictions on the sale of cold and flu medicines commonly used in the production of meth. This means that drug use could be declining due to decreased production of meth, rather than being the result of the ad campaign," said review author David Erceg-Hurn in a Society for Prevention Research news release Thursday.

Ereceg-Hurn also attacked the theoretical underpinnings of the campaign. "The idea behind the ad campaign is that teenagers take meth because they believe it is socially acceptable, and not risky, and the ads are meant to alter these perceptions," he said. "However, this theory is flawed because the Meth Project's own data shows that 98% of teenagers strongly disapproved of meth use and 97% thought using meth was risky before the campaign started," Erceg-Hurn said.

Spending government funds on Meth Project-style campaigns is a waste of money, Erceg-Hurn concluded. Or, in more diplomatic terms: "Based on current evidence, continued public funding and rollout of Montana-style anti-methamphetamine graphic ad campaign programs is inadvisable."

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