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Feature: US Sentencing Commission to Examine Alternatives to Incarceration

The US Sentencing Commission, the panel that sets sentencing guidelines for federal courts, has signaled that it intends to focus next year on developing alternatives to imprisonment, a move that is welcomed by reform advocates, but opposed by conservatives and, likely, the Justice Department. The commission's intentions were mentioned in a recent filing in the Federal Register and come as a September 8 deadline for public comment has just passed.

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Created in 1984, the Sentencing Commission consists of seven presidential appointees who are then confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The panel is charged with making sentencing recommendations which automatically take effect unless Congress proactively votes to reject them.

While Congress has repeatedly enacted tough new sentences in bouts of anti-crime or anti-drug hysteria, the Sentencing Commission is less prone to political passions and more likely to act as a restraining influence on congressional incarceration mania. The commission, for example, has for more than a decade urged reforms of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparities that have seen thousands of African-Americans imprisoned for years for crack while mostly whites holding similar amounts of powder cocaine do far less time. Last year, the commission enacted changes in the federal sentencing guidelines to reduce sentences for crack offenders.

Despite objections from the Justice Department, the commission then went a step further, making the reductions retroactive so that some of the thousands of long-serving crack offenders could get out of prison a few months early.

But with some 2.3 million people behind bars in the US, including more than 200,000 in the federal system -- more than half of them drug offenders -- the commission signaled earlier this year that it wants to see more efforts to reduce those numbers. This summer, it hosted a two-day symposium on alternatives to incarceration, and now, with the Federal Register announcement, it appears the commission will continue down that path.

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"The summer symposium was a really good coming together of criminal justice experts," said Kara Gotsch, director of advocacy for the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "There were judges, probation and parole people, law enforcement, academics, and advocates there to talk about what the states are doing in relation to alternatives to incarceration. They discussed successful programs that are diverting people from prison. The commission has demonstrated its interest in this issue and has said it would distribute materials from the symposium, so we are hoping the commission will look to apply some of this to alternatives to incarceration at the federal level, including expanding the sentencing grid to include alternatives."

Not everyone was so excited. In a weekend story in the Wall Street Journal, the Justice Department seemed decidedly unimpressed. Spokeswoman Laura Sweeney said that while the department is interested about the use of expanded monitoring technologies, "we do not believe the use of alternatives should be expanded without further rigorous research showing their effectiveness in promoting public safety."

Similarly, Michael Rushford of the conservative, victims' rights-oriented Criminal Justice Legal Foundation warned that resorting to less mass incarceration could result in rising crime and violence. "I'm old enough to remember the 1960s and the sky-high crime and murder rates we had then," he said. "While there may be a role for diversion for young offenders, serious felony offenders need to be behind bars."

While it is unclear exactly what the commission might recommend, the summer symposium heard lots of talk about drug courts, residential and community corrections, and other alternatives to incarceration. It does seem clear that the commission wants to reduce the flow of new inmates before they get to the prison gates.

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"We're going to be looking at what might fit at the starting point, before somebody is sent to prison," District Court Judge Ricardo Hinojosa, chairman of the commission, told the Wall Street Journal. But the commission will move cautiously, he said.

"The commission's priorities for next year are not yet finalized," said Gotsch, who is hoping it will also consider further reforms of crack sentencing and the mandatory minimum sentencing structure. "But we are encouraged by the symposium and this announcement. Advocates like us and Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) will continue to push for modifications of the sentencing grid to make including alternatives to incarceration a priority. The issue is clearly on their radar, and that's a good thing," she said.

The Sentencing Commission can -- and should -- have an impact on Congress, Gotsch said. "If we can get them on board for alternatives to incarceration, that will be huge. When the commission speaks on a sentencing issue, Congress should listen."

Feature: Scholarship Fund Honoring 9/11 Hero John W. Perry Assists More Students Losing Financial Aid Because of Drug Convictions

A decade ago, Congress approved an amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) authored by arch-drug warrior Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN). That amendment, variously known as the HEA drug provision or the Aid Elimination Penalty, denied loans, grants, even work study jobs to would-be students with drug convictions. Since its inception, more than 200,000 would-be students have been denied aid, and an unknown number have simply not applied, believing rightly or wrongly that they would not be eligible.

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In response to the amendment, StoptheDrugWar.org (DRCNet), in association with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a group founded as a result of the drug provision, and other friends of civil liberties and believers in the value of higher education, founded the John W. Perry Fund to provide financial assistance to students losing financial aid because of drug convictions.

The fund reflects the goals and views of its namesake, New York City Police Officer John William Perry, a Libertarian Party and ACLU activist who often spoke out against the war on drugs. In addition to wearing the NYPD uniform, Perry was also a lawyer, athlete, actor, linguist, and humanitarian. He was filing his retirement papers at One Police Plaza when the planes struck the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He rushed at once to the scene, where he died attempting to help others.

The Perry Fund has its goal not only providing educational opportunities to those denied them by the provision, but also to raise the issue of the provision's unfair and counterproductive consequences, and ultimately, to repeal the Souder amendment entirely. Although some progress has been made it scaling back the drug provision, it is still on the books. Two years ago, in response to a rising clamor for repeal from the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Rep. Souder himself offered an amendment that would restrict the loss of aid eligibility to people who were already in school and receiving aid when arrested.

Efforts to win outright repeal as part of HEA reauthorization faltered this year when House Democrats failed to act when push came to shove. However, future applicants will have the opportunity to regain eligibility by passing two unannounced drug tests administered by a treatment program. Depending on how this is implemented, it could create a shorter and less expensive way for students to regain their financial aid.

"We regret that the Perry Fund remains necessary because Congress has not fully repealed its ill-conceived anti-financial aid law," said David Borden, executive director of DRCNet and founder of the Fund. "Along with helping a few deserving students each year, the fund also makes a statement -- we don't just think this is a bad law, we're actually handing out scholarships to individuals targeted by the government's drug war. We don't believe people should lose their financial aid because of drug convictions," he said.

With only partial reforms, there is still a sizable pool of potential HEA drug provision victims. This semester, the Perry Fund is helping two of them.

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Brandi McClamrock
Brandi McClamrock attends Forsyth Technical Community College for Healthcare Management in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. After being arrested in a pot bust, she found herself ineligible for financial aid.

"I was in school, and my roommate was dealing pot, and I helped her and one of her customers out by giving him a couple of bags," said McClamrock. "My roommate was setting me up; she had been busted and the cops offered her a deal: If she could get them somebody bigger, they would drop the charges. The cops raided my house and arrested me and charged me with three felonies, even though it was all less than an ounce."

After two years of court dates and legal expenses, McClamrock pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of possession with the intent to distribute. She escaped without jail time, but had to serve two years of unsupervised probation. But the consequences of her marijuana conviction were just beginning to be felt.

"I started getting turned down for jobs because of my criminal record," she said. "I've been waiting tables because I couldn't get a job in my field, so I decided to go back to school in health care management at my local community college. I can't afford to pay for college -- I can barely pay my own bills -- but when I filled out the FAFSA, they denied me."

That was a huge disappointment, said McClamrock. "I had no idea they weren't going to let me have financial aid because of that. I'm 25 years old, my criminal record is holding me back, and now I can't even go back to school? Even when I'm trying to better myself and my prospects?"

Fortunately for McClamrock, an advisor suggested she look online for scholarships she could apply for, and she found the Perry Fund. While the amount she received from the Fund was only in the hundreds of dollars, it was critical. "It was absolutely the difference between me being in school and not being in school," she said. "This is a really good thing."

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Matt Daigle
Matt Daigle is in his second year at Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, Florida, where is taking pre-chiropractic courses. He was also in school when he got busted selling marijuana to an undercover agent. He is this year's second Perry Fund recipient.

"I was ineligible for assistance for two years," he said. "I took a full semester off to work, then paid for one class last semester, but now I can afford to go back. One of the counselors at the college went online and found the Perry Fund, and it was really a big help. I only have one more semester of ineligibility for financial aid, and this is keeping me in school until then," said a pleased Daigle.

"The Fund is really a big help for a lot of people," he said. "The way that law is, they want to punish you. They want you to be a better person, but then they make it more difficult to do that. The Perry Fund lets you know there are people backing you up, and I'm grateful for that."

"These students have been sent to jail or prison, they've paid fines, they've paid lawyers, they've spent countless hours resolving their legal situations," said Borden. "Why, after all of that punishment already handed down, should they continue to get treated differently?"

"It's not just that we oppose having drug prohibition, which I do, and John Perry also did very strongly," Borden continued. "But this is also a second punishment of people who have already been punished by the criminal justice system. Staying in school to finish your education is almost by definition a positive step. It's foolish to make that more difficult."

Outright repeal -- not more limited reform -- is necessary for another reason, too, said Borden. "As long as this law is on the books, large numbers of people will continue to mistakenly assume they are permanently ineligible for financial aid. Many people just assume the worst, and having this law on the books just winds up pushing people to the margins. We get emails almost every day from people who think they aren't eligible when they are."

Medical Marijuana: California Activist Grower Eddy Lepp Guilty in Federal Cultivation Case, Faces 10 Years to Life

Eddy Lepp, a medical and religious use of marijuana advocate named High Times "2004 Freedom Fighter of the Year," faces a mandatory minimum 10-year prison sentence and up to life after a federal jury in San Francisco found him guilty of conspiracy and cultivation of marijuana with the intent to distribute. Sentencing is set for December 1.

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Eddy Lepp (from indybay.org)
Lepp was arrested in 2004 after DEA agents said they found some 32,000 plants in gardens on his property near Upper Lake. Although US District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel ruled the seizure was based on an invalid search warrant, she allowed prosecutors to enter into evidence 24,000 plants that were growing in plain view of a state highway.

Under federal court rules, Lepp could not mount a medical marijuana defense, and Judge Patel also refused to let him mount a religious use defense. As she pondered the religious defense issue, Patel said that while it may have been possible in a personal use case, it could not apply in a case where someone was growing thousands of plants and distributing them to anonymous parishioners.

"I truly feel I was very, very railroaded by the system, and specifically by (US District) Judge Marilyn Patel," he told the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat after the verdict. Lepp said he is both a Rastafarian and a member of the Universal Life Church and that the marijuana was being grown for spiritual as well as medicinal purposes.

Lepp told the court that the plants, grown at a site known as "Eddy's Medicinal Gardens," were not his, but were being grown cooperatively by members of his church, the The Multi-Denominational Ministry of Cannabis & Rastafari. "All I did was make the land available to the ministry," he said.

Lepp is a well-known promoter of marijuana legalization and in recent years has been a fixture at West Coast marijuana reform conferences and festivals. Until she took ill, dying last November, his wife, Linda Senti, was his constant companion. The couple worked to gather petitions for Proposition 215 in 1996 and lobbied Lake County supervisors to set medical marijuana standards. Lepp was also known for publicly smoking marijuana in front of the federal building in Santa Rosa in 2002 in support of medical marijuana.

His attorneys said they planned to appeal on the religious defense and possibly other grounds. If those appeals fail, Lepp will spend much -- if not all -- of the rest of his life in the federal gulag.

A great day for the Martin family and the medical cannabis movement

[Courtesy of Rebecca Saltzman]

Michael Martin speaking at the press conference before his sentencing hearing.

I woke up this morning feeling nervous and unsettled. My friend and colleague Michael Martin was to be sentenced this afternoon, and I prepared myself for the worst. But after an emotional rally and lengthy sentencing hearing, I felt at ease because Mickey is not going to prison.

After pleading guilty in federal court to manufacturing marijuana edibles, with the government finding more than 400 plants, Mickey faced a guidelines range of 30 to 37 months imprisonment.  However, due to the tension between state and federal law and the lack of any evidence that any edible produced by Mickey was diverted to recreational use, United States District Court Judge Claudia Wilkin exercised her discretion to sentence Mickey to 5 years probation, with one year to be served in a halfway house and one year to be served in home confinement.

The hearing was intense. Judge Wilkin asked several astute questions about state law and the interplay between state law and federal law. Clearly, she saw that the conflicting laws made medical marijuana cases unique. After Mickey's attorneys spoke about state law and the need for a change in federal law, Mickey spoke for himself. He talked about the cancer patients that had been able to eat after using his edibles. He spoke about his loving family and his service to the community. He explained that he had only done what he did to help people, and never to profit. Half way into his speech, most of the dozens of supporters packing the court room were in tears.

His speech and the stack of support letter the judge had received made a difference. And after the judge announced his sentence, the entire court room of supporters stood up and clapped.

Of course, Mickey never should have been prosecuted in the first place and deserves no punishment for providing medical cannabis edibles to ailing California patients. But this punishment was the best he could have hoped for. It means that he will not miss any years of his children's lives and that he can continue to work and provide for his family.

This sends another message by a federal judge that the federal government should not waste its time bring these cases.

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Bob Barr Praises Federal Court Ruling Upholding Right of States to Allow Medical Use of Marijuana

Atlanta, GA - “The principle of federalism seemed dead three years ago when the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the federal government to run roughshod over state laws permitting the medical use of marijuana,” says Bob Barr, the Libertarian Party presidential nominee. Barr says the tide may be turning with the recent decision by U.S. District Court Judge Jeremy Fogel, who refused to dismiss a case by city and state officials against the federal government for raiding a medical marijuana group in San Cruz, California. “Keeping the case alive was significant enough,” notes Barr. “But Judge Fogel suggested that the Bush administration might have violated the Tenth Amendment of the Constitution in adopting a policy intended to effectively void California’s medical marijuana law." As Judge Fogel explained, a trial must proceed on whether the federal government attempted to make ‘California’s medical marijuana laws impossible to implement and thereby forcing California and its political subdivisions to recriminalize medical marijuana.’ In short, says Barr, the courts may end up deciding that while the federal government may implement a policy that runs contrary to state rules in an area of traditional state authority, namely the criminal law, Washington may not work to overturn state law. “After spending billions of dollars and arresting millions of people, we seem no closer to eliminating illicit drug use than we were at the start,” Barr says. “But we certainly have lost a lot of our freedom. While we might disagree about the best approach to problem drug use, we should be willing to accept the compassionate use of marijuana by those who are sick and dying. Certainly states have authority under the Constitution to allow doctors to prescribe marijuana as medicine. The federal government has no constitutional authority to interfere,” insists Barr. Barr says that neither Sen. Barack Obama nor Sen. John McCain is willing to consider real change to current policy. “Sen. Obama says the federal government shouldn’t interfere with state policy, but he says he doesn’t want to waste his political capital on the issue," Barr explains. "Sen. McCain was for respecting state authority before he was against it. Neither the Democratic nor the Republican presidential candidate is willing to put constitutional principle—or the lives of those who are suffering from AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and more—before federal power." Barr says as president, he would "direct the DEA to initiate, for the first time, a truly open and objective scientific evaluation of the medical potential of marijuana." Moreover, Barr says he would ensure that all federal officials, including those in the Department of Justice and Drug Enforcement Agency, respect the decisions of states that choose to allow the medical use of marijuana. Finally, Barr would undertake a comprehensive review of federal crimes, which have expanded far beyond the few narrow cases foreseen by the nation’s Founders. "What the federal government does, it should do well, but it attempts to do far too much today," Barr says. "We must never forget that we are supposed to be living in a free society." "Such a decision, especially if upheld on appeal, would have significant and positive repercussions in other matters of public policy in which the federal government has used the power of federal law to thwart decisions by citizens of individual states," Barr notes. Libertarian Party presidential candidate Bob Barr represented the 7th District of Georgia in the U. S. House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003. (This press release was reprinted by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)
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Feature: Venezuela, US Governments Spar Over Drug Fighting

The tense relations between the Bush administration and Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez grew even more strained this week as Washington and Caracas traded charges and counter-charges over Venezuela's fight against cocaine trafficking. While it seems indisputable that cocaine trafficking through Venezuela has increased in recent years, the two governments are trading barbs over the extent of official Venezuelan complicity in the trade, whether Venezuela is doing enough to combat trafficking, and whether it needs to comply with US demands in order to effectively fight the drug trade.

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Venezuela (from the CIA World Factbook)
Venezuela does not grow coca or process cocaine, but like other countries in Latin America, it has been used as a conduit, especially by traffickers from neighboring Colombia, the region's largest coca and cocaine producer. The rise of the European cocaine market in recent years has undoubtedly made the country an attractive way station for cocaine headed east.

"The flow of cocaine through Venezuela -- both north particularly through the Dominican Republic and Haiti but also into Europe through Africa and other places -- has increased dramatically," US drug czar John Walters told the Associated Press in a recent interview. He said smuggling through Venezuela had quadrupled since 2004, to about 250 metric tons last year, or about one-quarter of total regional (and thus global) cocaine production.

The remarks come as the US is pressing Venezuela to renew cooperation with it on drug trafficking, and are probably laying the groundwork for a looming decertification of Venezuela's compliance with US drug war goals. Relations between the US DEA and the Venezuelan government have been almost nonexistent since Chávez expelled the DEA in 2005, charging that it was spying on his country. Only two DEA agents are currently stationed in Venezuela, and their activities are very circumscribed.

But Venezuela last weekend brusquely rejected renewed calls from Washington to accept a visit from Walters and resume cooperation on the drug front, saying it had made progress by itself and working with other countries. "The anti-drug fight in Venezuela has shown significant progress during recent years, especially since the government ended official cooperation programs with the DEA," Venezuela's foreign ministry said in a statement. Renewing talks on drugs would be "useless and inopportune," the statement said.

Walters had tried to "impose his visit as an obligation," the foreign ministry complained. "The government considers this kind of visit useless and ill-timed and feels that this official would better use his time to control the flourishing drug trafficking and abuse in his own country," the statement said. "Venezuela has become today a country free of drug farms, neither producing nor processing illicit drugs, and which has smashed records one year after another for seizing substances from neighboring countries," it added.
That statement came one day after US Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy ruffled feathers in Caracas by saying that Venezuela's failure to cooperate with the US was leaving an opening for traffickers. "The drug traffickers are taking advantage of the gap that exists between the two governments," Duddy told reporters, citing the estimated fourfold rise in trafficking.

President Chávez responded to those remarks Sunday by calling them "stupid" and warning that Duddy would soon be "packing his bags" if he is not careful. Chávez also suggested that the US concentrate on its own drug use and marijuana production.

On Monday, Venezuelan Vice-President Ramón Carrizales echoed his chief, telling reporters in Caracas that Venezuela was cooperating internationally, just not on US terms. "The DEA asks for freedom to fly over our territory indiscriminately," Carrizales said. "Well, they aren't going to have that freedom. We are a sovereign country."

Venezuela has seized tons of cocaine in recent years and has some 4,000 people behind bars on trafficking charges, he added. Most US-bound cocaine moves north by sea, he said, largely along Colombia's Pacific Coast.

But the Bush administration wasn't backing down. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormick said: "Our officials, including Ambassador Duddy, are going to continue to speak out on the state of US-Venezuelan relations... (and) what we see happening inside Venezuela. That does not foreclose the possibility of a better relationship... and certainly we're prepared to have a better relationship," he added, saying Washington first needed to see some unspecified actions by the Venezuelan government.

Good luck with that, said a trio of analysts consulted by the Chronicle. "There is little chance of increased cooperation," said Ian Vasquez, director of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, who cited corruption within the Venezuelan government.

Prospects for a rapprochement on drug policy are low, said Adam Isaacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "There is so much distrust between the two governments," he said. "Chávez's threat scenario is a US invasion, and a US military, security, or even police presence would be seen as probing for weaknesses. On the other hand, the US thinks Venezuela is on a campaign to bring Iran and Russia into the region, and Walters is an ideologue who thinks Venezuela is doing this to destabilize the region, you know, the idea of a leftist leader making common cause with drug traffickers. There is no trust, and there's not going to be any trust. The drug war stuff is really only one aspect of that larger context," he said.

"The Venezuelans have repeatedly stated they want to cooperate with the US on drugs, but Chávez deeply distrusts the US government," said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "He has had a terrible time with activist US ambassadors and he feels they have intervened repeatedly in Venezuela's sovereign affairs, but this could be a propitious moment. The Bush administration will get nowhere with any new anti-Chávez initiatives, so they just might be interested in taking some steps toward normalizing relations with Venezuela simply to show that the US is capable of using diplomacy."

Still, said Birns, don't look for any dramatic breakthroughs. "There won't be any effective agreement on drug trafficking unless it's part of a larger mix of confidence-building measures," he said. "Hugo Chávez has a confrontational, combative personality, but he's relatively clean when it comes to human rights violations or other derelictions, and that's very frustrating for Washington. There will not be any comprehensive agreement on this issue, just some de facto improvements on a graduated basis because the necessary confidence between the two governments just doesn't exist."

All three agreed that cocaine trafficking through Venezuela is increasing, but none thought it was a matter of official policy. "It's true there is now a lot of cocaine going through Venezuela," said Isaacson. "While I don't think that Chávez is actively trying to turn the country into a narco playground, I haven't seen any major effort to root out drug-related corruption. Chávez also has problems controlling his national territory; there are security and public security problems, common crime is a serious problem, and organized crime is growing."

"Venezuela has an income of $100 billion a year from oil revenues, why would they be interested in drug revenues?" Birns asked. "I'm sure there are some rogue elements in the government, but this is not a matter of state policy," he said. "You can't deny there is drug trafficking in Venezuela, but I can't imagine that Chávez has anything to do with or gain from it. After all, he's giving away hundreds of millions of dollars a year around the world, including the US, in oil and heating oil, so this just doesn't seem like an income opportunity he would be interested in."

The war on drugs is just a waste of time and resources, said Vasquez. "Asking countries to enforce US drug prohibition is asking them to do the impossible," said Vasquez. "It hasn't succeeded in Colombia, Mexico, or anywhere in the Andes. You see some ephemeral victories -- you might kill a drug lord or shut down a cartel, but this is a multi-billion dollar multinational industry that can easily adapt to whatever is thrown at it."

Asking for more enforcement is only asking for trouble, said Vasquez. "The more prohibition, the more law enforcement, the more violent it becomes," he said. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel. To the extent that the drug war is more aggressively pursued, we can expect more violence and corruption."

Still, there are things Venezuela could do to ease tensions, said Isaacson. "Venezuela could be more cooperative in monitoring its airspace, sharing radar information, even allowing occasional US verification flights like the other Latin American countries do," he said. "And as Fidel Castro has done, they need to take a hard line against drug corruption in the state -- it can eat a state from the inside out."

But if Chávez can be accused of playing politics with the drug issue, so can the US, said Isaacson. "US anti-drug goals look even more politicized. I'm sure Venezuela will be decertified, and people will fairly say they're singling out Venezuela because they're leftists and say bad things about the US. Meanwhile, Colombia, with the world's largest coca crop, and Mexico, which has a huge drug trafficking industry, will get a pass because they're pro-US."

"The US certification process on drugs is very tarnished," agreed Birns. "All of these annual mandates from Congress on drugs and terrorism and the like have been carried out in an archly political manner. The US minimizes the sins of its friends and maximizes those of its enemies."

Washington's problems with Venezuela are just part of an overall decline in US influence in the region, said Birns. "With countries like Peru having high growth rates because of the increased valuation of natural resources across the board and new resource discoveries, with Brazil on the verge of becoming a superpower, with various new organizations of which the US is not a part, like the Rio Group and the South American security zone, our leverage over Latin America is waning. The only way to achieve real results on any of these issues is earnest negotiation where real concessions are made."

Drug Use: Prescription Pills Up, Cocaine and Meth Down, Marijuana Holds Steady

Nearly 20 million Americans used illicit drugs in the month before responding to an annual national survey last year, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). That figure includes not only illegal drugs, but also prescription drugs used for non-medical purposes. The numbers come from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, which interviewed 67,500 people for its annual report.

The numbers for overall drug use are similar to those for recent years, although the survey reported marginal declines in cocaine and methamphetamine use among young people. Among 18-to-25-year-olds, cocaine use dropped to 1.7%, down 23% from 2006, while meth use dropped to 0.4%, down about a third from 2006.

Drug control officials attributed the decline to increased interdiction and enforcement leading to higher prices. But the decline could reflect the generational learning curve typically observed in drug use patterns over time.

The declines in illegal stimulant use were countered by an increase in the non-medical use of prescription pain pills. According to the survey, 4.6% of young adults reported using pain pills for non-medical reasons last year, a 12% increase over 2006.

Marijuana remains by far the most commonly used illicit drug, with an estimated 14.4 million people reporting use in the previous month. That is about 5.8% of the population, down slightly from 6% in 2006.

Baby boomers moving into their fifties are taking their drug habits with them, according to the survey. Illicit drug use among those 55 to 59 more than doubled to 4.1% last year.

Despite millions of drug arrests and hundreds of billions of dollars spent enforcing drug prohibition in the past three decades, drug use levels remain roughly where they have been for the entire period.

How Much More Public Support Does Medical Marijuana Really Need?

CNN hosted an interview with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday which featured democratically elected questions courtesy of the popular website Digg.com. Unsurprisingly, one of the top questions was about marijuana policy reform. Here is her response (it’s the 3rd question):



Obviously, Pelosi is very supportive of medical marijuana and despite her pessimism about achieving full-scale legalization, she didn’t actually say she opposed it. Ideologically, I’d have to say this was pretty good coming from the Speaker of the House. But, as Paul Armentano points out, Pelosi’s advice to supporters of medical marijuana just doesn’t add up. She laments Congress’ intransigence on the issue and encourages constituents to contact their representatives, as though this is all just a matter of showing politicians where the people stand.

Alas, we kinda tried that already. Public support for medical marijuana has been overwhelming for a long time. Reformers are 9-1 when it comes to passing state-level medical marijuana laws at the ballot box. State legislatures in Hawaii, New Mexico and Rhode Island have passed laws to protect patients, drawing praise from constituents. The only memorable instance of a politician being damaged for his position on medical marijuana involved Bob Barr, who lost his House seat following attacks for opposing medical marijuana. He’s come around since then.

What, other than legalizing medical marijuana in a dozen states, could the people possibly do to show the politicians in Washington, D.C. that we’re serious about this? You want us to go legalize medical marijuana everywhere else in America? We’ll do it. You want more research proving that it works? Let us know when you’re done reading what we’ve already given you, and we’ll gladly send the rest. Worried about the message to young people? Teenage use is down in states with medical marijuana laws.

You see, our feet are tired. Our throats are hoarse. Our keyboards are cracking, our sharpies are dry and we’re almost out of posterboard. With all of that in mind, Nancy Pelosi, since you do agree with us and you’re the Speaker of House now, we were hoping there might be something else you could do.

Feature: Afghan Opium Production Declines Slightly From Record Levels

With the West's occupation of Afghanistan now nearing the seven-year mark and plagued by an increasingly powerful and deadly insurgency revitalized by massive profits from the opium trade, Western officials gained some small solace this week when the United Nations announced that opium production there had declined slightly from last year's record level. But the small decline comes as the Taliban and related insurgents are strengthening their grip on precisely those areas where opium cultivation is highest, and the light at the end of the tunnel is, at best, only a distant glimmer.

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2008 Afghan opium cultivation chart from the UN report
According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) Afghanistan Opium Survey 2008, released Tuesday, total Afghan opium production this year will be 7,500 metric tons, down 6% from last year's all-time record of 8,200 tons. Also, according to the survey, the amount of land devoted to opium production declined 19%. The UN said the total crop had decreased by a smaller number than the amount of land because farmers in key opium-producing provinces were producing bumper crops.

The UN attributed the decline in production to drought conditions and the efforts of a small number of Afghan governors and tribal and religious leaders to persuade farmers to give up the illicit crop. It also crowed that the number of opium-free provinces in the country had risen from 13 to 18, although it failed to mention that farmers in those provinces had, in many cases, merely switched from growing poppies to growing cannabis.

This year, almost all opium cultivation -- about 98% -- is now concentrated in seven provinces in south-west Afghanistan that house permanent Taliban settlements and are home to related trafficking groups that pay taxes to various Taliban factions on their opium transactions. The Taliban is making between $200 and $400 million a year off taxing poppy farmers and traders, Costa said earlier this year. In the report, Costa referred to Helmand province, one of the most Taliban-dominated in the country. "The most glaring example is Helmand province, where 103,000 hectares of opium were cultivated this year -- two thirds of all opium in Afghanistan," Costa wrote. "If Helmand were a country, it would once again be the world's biggest producer of illicit drugs."

The UN said that manual eradication played almost no role in the decline, affecting only about 3% of the crop. What manual eradication did accomplish was the deaths of some 77 anti-drug workers and police at the hands of insurgents and angry farmers. On Wednesday, Costa told Afghan President Hamid Karzai that he should abandon manual eradication as useless and even counter-productive.

While Afghan poppy production is down slightly, it still surpasses global demand for its illicit end products. And after several years of crops greater than global demand, it is likely that Afghan traders are sitting on huge stockpiles of opium, so even if production were to be slashed substantially, it would cause no significant disruption in the global markets for opium and heroin.

Still, with the war news from Afghanistan seemingly growing worse by the day, UN and Western officials were eager to jump on any good news they could find. "The opium flood waters in Afghanistan have started to recede," Antonio Maria Costa, the executive director of the Vienna-based UNODC, wrote in the report. "This year, the historic high-water mark of 193,000 hectares of opium cultivated in 2007 has dropped by 19 percent to 157,000 hectares."

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith interviewed former opium-growing Afghan farmers outside Jalalabad in fall 2005
The Bush administration welcomed the report, saying it provided vindication for its much-criticized anti-drug policies in the country. But a State Department spokesman told the Washington Post, "the drug threat in Afghanistan remains unacceptably high. We are particularly concerned by the deterioration in security conditions in the south, where the insurgency dominates."

The US Agency for International Development (USAID), in charge of efforts to provide alternative development for farmers as part of the broader US counter-drug and counter-insurgency strategy, also looked for the silver lining in the storm clouds over Afghanistan. Its efforts are "paying off for Afghanistan in the war against poppy production," it said in a press release Tuesday.

The British foreign office also joined the chorus, with FCO Minister Lord Malloch-Brown releasing a statement welcoming the report's findings. "This shows that the Afghan government's Drug Control Strategy is starting to pay dividends," he said.

Still, Malloch-Brown warned there is a long way to go. "However, there is no room for complacency," he said. "Afghanistan is still the world's biggest supplier of heroin. High cultivation levels are concentrated in the unstable south, where we are working with the government of Afghanistan, local governors, and international partners to build security and governance."

Other, non-governmental observers were much less sanguine about what the slight decline in opium production signified. "I don't think there has been any real progress made at all," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. "But there has been so much money and pressure invested that they feel they have to justify their efforts. It's true that cultivation has ended in some provinces, but other areas are compensating for that."

A large part of the problem is that too many important players are involved and profiting from the trade, said Yaseer. "There are lots of strong, powerful people involved -- influential people in the Afghan government, governors, parliamentarians, provincial police commanders -- and unless they are suppressed, nothing will change. There is lots of concern expressed, but the business is hot and everyone is making money," he said.

Yaseer also pointed to the increasing ability of insurgents to wreak havoc. "Security is horrible, it's getting worse and worse precisely in those growing areas, and where the security gets worse, there are more opportunities for the drug business," he said. "Everyone takes advantage of the lack of security and the chaos."

The UNODC reports provides only "false hope," said the Senlis Council, the Paris-based drugs and security nonprofit that has long proposed buying up illicit poppy crops and diverting them into the licit medicinal market as a means of getting a handle on illicit production and the support for political violence it provides.

"Opium is the cancer destroying the south of Afghanistan," said Emmanuel Reinert, the group's executive director in a Wednesday statement. "Current counter-narcotics policies are failing to address the loss of the southern provinces to the dual scourges of poppy production and terrorism."

The decrease in poppy cultivation will have a minimal effect on the drugs trade, given the exponential growth in opium production since 2002. "This decrease is no more than a ripple in the ocean," Reinert added. "Without an urgent change of direction in the country's counter-narcotics policies, the international community will be unable to prevent the consolidation of opium production in the south of the country, and the consolidation of the Taliban which is financed by the illegal drugs trade."

Instead of pushing farmers into the waiting arms of the Taliban and related insurgent groups by pursuing crop eradication, the West and the Afghan government should revisit the Senlis proposal, which was rejected out of hand when introduced in 2005, said Senlis policy analyst Gabrielle Archer. "It is clear that a long-term, sustainable solution is required to solve Afghanistan's opium crisis -- and prevent the insurgency's funding by illegal cultivation," she said. "Poppy for Medicine would allow farmers to diversify their crops, and give Afghanistan an opportunity to be part of a legal pharmaceutical industry. We need the Afghan people on our side if we are to be successful there, and this initiative could go a long way to winning back much-needed hearts and minds, which would be highly beneficial for our troops fighting there."

The hearts and minds of the Afghan population are turning increasingly against the West and the country's occupation by foreign troops, warned Yaseer, ticking off a seemingly endless series of incidents where Afghan civilians have been killed by coalition forces, the most recent being the reported deaths of 90 civilians -- 60 of them children -- in a NATO bombing raid last week. That raid prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to call this week for a reevaluation of the foreign military presence in his country.

"Everyday there are new uproars in parliament and local councils," said Yaseer. "They say there is no difference between the Soviets and the coalition forces. They bombard whole villages in the middle of the night because they hear four or five Taliban are there. These killings keep happening all the time, and people are fed up with it. This is all developing very rapidly now. 'Why did you bring this war to Afghanistan?' the people ask. The gap between the people and the government is growing larger every day," Yaseer said.

With coalition military casualties on the rise, the Taliban grown fat off opium profits and ever more aggressive, and growing hostility to the West in the Afghan population, a minor down-turn in opium production doesn't look so impressive.

Harm Reduction: Funds Begin to Flow to DC Needle Exchange Programs

Eight months after Congress voted to end a decade-long ban on the use of federal funds for needle exchange programs (NEPs) in the District of Columbia, money is starting to flow to the programs in the city with the nation's highest rate of HIV. District officials had announced almost immediately after the congressional vote that they would fund NEPs in an effort to control the spread of the disease among injection drug users.

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PreventionWorks! at work (screen shot from nytimes.com '''slide show,'' June '07)
Now, according to the Washington Times, funding is finally reaching the city's NEPs. The city will spend $700,000 a year on NEPs, with the city's largest program, PreventionWorks!, getting $300,000 a year.

According to a DC HIV/AIDS Administration 2007 report, injection drug use is the second most common mode of acquiring the HIV virus after unprotected sex, and the District has some 10,000 injection drug users.

DC NEP advocates have long argued that the federal funding ban left them starved for funds and unable to adequately address the injection drug using population. PreventionWorks!, for example, has had to scrape by on private contributions, limiting the work it has been able to do.

The need is obvious and so is the response, Ken Vail, the group's executive director, told the Times. "If you want to reduce the spread of HIV... you put more syringes out there," he said.

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