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Not So Fast -- Funny Numbers in the Same Old 2008 US National Drug Strategy Report

President Bush and Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) head John Walters rolled out the 2008 US National Drug Control Strategy over the weekend. While the administration used the strategy to defend its policies and make some claims of victories in the war on drugs, critics called the strategy misguided, dishonest, and an exercise in propaganda.

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George Bush with drug czar Walters, December 2007
"Today, my administration is releasing our 2008 National Drug Control Strategy," President Bush said in his weekly Saturday radio address. "This report lays out the methods we are using to combat drug abuse in America. And it highlights the hopeful progress we're making in the fight against addiction. Overall, an estimated 860,000 fewer young people in America are using drugs today than when we began these efforts."

The administration drug strategy has three key elements, Bush said: disrupting supplies, reducing demand, and providing treatment. "Our drug control strategy will continue all three elements of this successful approach," he said. "It will also target a growing problem -- the abuse of prescription drugs by youth."

The administration's drug strategy is working, claimed Bush and ONDCP, citing declines in youth marijuana, methamphetamine, and Ecstasy use. The strategy also pointed to short-term declines in cocaine and methamphetamine purity and availability, but acknowledged an increase in the misuse of prescription drugs.

"Teen drug abuse is down sharply, and this will provide lasting benefits to our nation, since we know that most adults who get caught in addiction begin with use as teens," said Walters. "But there are still too many of our friends, our family members, our coworkers and our neighbors who are becoming lost in the maze of addiction. We need to find whatever ways we can to create a turning point in their lives -- a turning point that leads to recovery."

"Prescription drugs provide tremendous benefits to our nation," said Walters, "but when misused or abused they can lead to addiction, and worse. We are working with leaders in Congress to modernize our laws to address the problem of 'rogue online pharmacies' which skirt around the safeguards of legitimate medical practice and prescriptions. Prescription drug abuse is an area of serious concern, and we are now focusing our nation's supply, demand, and prevention policies with the goal of seeing the same reductions that we have achieved for illegal 'street' drugs."

But despite new emphases like that on prescription drugs, the 2008 strategy is largely more of the same old drug policies. It touts programs like the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, random drug testing of students and workers, drug courts, and continued interdiction, eradication, and domestic law enforcement.

And critics call even its claims of success into question. "This isn't a strategy, it's a grab bag," said Doug McVay, research analyst for Common Sense for Drug Policy. "Anything they can spin as positive, they do. All in all, it's mainly a cute little propaganda piece. And what it obscures is the sad fact that they have gone back to that same old two-to-one spending ratio that favors law enforcement over prevention and treatment."

In an analysis by Appalachian State University criminal justice professor Matthew Robinson, coauthor of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy," Robinson dissects the strategy and finds it wanting on many grounds.

Although teen marijuana and other illicit drug is indeed down during the Bush administration, prescription drug abuse is up, as the strategy acknowledges. That makes it difficult for the administration to honestly claim that teen drug use is down, Robinson suggested.

"Since this is the same time during which youth use of various drugs fell, is it possible youth began using more non-medical pain relievers as a form of drug substitution? ONDCP provides no evidence to assess this possibility," Robinson noted. "In the 2008 Strategy, ONDCP still does not consider the possibility that young drug users have not really stopped using illicit drugs like LSD, Ecstasy or meth, but instead have merely switched to more readily available prescription drugs. If true, this would suggest drug replacement rather than successful prevention."

Similarly, ONDCP's claim that drug use is down is the result of cherry-picking statistics, Robinson argued. While claiming success in reducing overall drug use, ONDCP only provides numbers on teen drug use -- not adult drug use.

"It is dishonest of ONDCP to claim success in meeting its goals of reducing drug use by 10% and 25% over two and five years, respectively, when ONDCP is only assessing drug use trends for young people and not adults," Robinson pointed out. "How can we know if ONDCP's efforts work when we are only shown data on youth drug trends and not adult drug trends?"

"ONDCP likes to play goofy with the math," said Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML. "NORML has been looking at these things for 30 years now, and they never achieve their stated goals. These guys have a $23 billion a year budget. If they were in corporate America, they would have been fired for incompetence."

The strategy's claim that it is balancing treatment, prevention, and law enforcement is also belied by the hard numbers, Robinson wrote. Despite budgetary sleight of hand beginning in 2003 that makes the proportion of drug war spending devoted to treatment and prevention appear larger than it really is, the treatment and prevention share of the budget continues to decline, with law enforcement -- the drug war -- garnering 65.2% of the overall budget next year, up from 56% in 2003.

"Unfortunately for ONDCP and our nation, research shows that the most effective and cost-effective drug reduction approaches are demand side approaches such as prevention and treatment," Robinson noted, adding that research has shown both treatment and prevention provide more bang for the buck than spending on law enforcement. "Most of the money in ONDCP's FY 2009 drug war budget is truly intended for 'fighting' the drug war, not for those efforts that are more cost-effective and efficacious -- preventing drug use and drug abuse and for healing drug abusers through treatment."

For NORML's St. Pierre, the strategy's section on medical marijuana was especially offensive. Titled "The Medical Marijuana Movement: Manipulation Not Medicine," the boxed section had little to do with policy but much to do with politics. It attacked medical marijuana, suggesting that each California patient was receiving 41 joints a day, and cited San Diego police complaining about nuisances around dispensaries.

"The section in there about medical marijuana is utterly gratuitous," said St. Pierre. "It doesn't have anything to do with the drug strategy; it is essentially just bullet talking points. And it is just downright silly. They try to say there are only 13,000 medical marijuana patients in California when we know the real number is probably ten times that. There are almost 19,000 patients in Oregon. It is utterly disingenuous of ONDCP to base its California numbers on a patient registry there, when there is no statewide registry."

ONDCP might have talked to other police departments in California that are not hostile to medical marijuana, unlike the San Diego police, who cooperated with federal agents to raid dispensaries there, said St. Pierre. "Did they talk to police in San Francisco or Los Angeles or even Modesto?" he asked. "Again, it looks like they are cherry-picking."

The drug strategy is 79 pages packed with figures, charts, and assertions. This article has only skimmed the surface of the claims and counterclaims around it. Readers who want to dig deeper are invited to read both the strategy and Robinson's analysis for more detail.

In the meantime, Robinson donned his professor's cap and tried to come up with a letter grade for the drug czar's effort. "I might give them a D for effort because the report is well-documented and has lots of pretty graphs in it," said Robinson, "but overall, it's just dishonest, so I would have to give them an F," he concluded.

To earn a passing grade, the drug strategy would have to be revamped, Robinson said. "It would need to clearly state the goals and budget of the drug war, and then it would report data on each of the goals, all the relevant data on drug use trends for every drug and age group, and data on availability, price, and purity for drug seizures. It would also present information on the cost of the drug war, including law enforcement and incarceration costs; deaths and illnesses associated with drugs, and data on crime and violence. It would have to be much more comprehensive, with all available data reported and long-term trend analyses," Robinson said.

Press Release: Dr. Mollie Fry to be Sentenced for Medical Marijuana - March 6th

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: March 3rd, 2008 Contact: Nathan Sands, t: (916) 709-2483, e: nathan@CompassionateCoalition.org California Dr. Mollie Fry to be Sentenced for Medical Marijuana Sentencing scheduled for March 6th at 10am in Sacramento Federal Court The federal sentencing of medical marijuana defendants Dr. Mollie Fry and her husband, Attorney Dale Schafer will take place on Thursday, March 6th at the US courthouse in Sacramento (5th and I St.). The sentencing is at 10 AM. There will be a press conference afterwards at Noon in front of the Court House. The couple was denied the right to defend their actions that were protected under the Laws of the State of California. WHO: Sentencing in Federal Court of Dr. Mollie Fry and her husband, Attorney Dale Schafer for cultivation and dispensing medical marijuana under the Laws of California. WHAT: Press Conference to follow at NOON WHEN: Sentencing is Thursday, March 6th, 2008 at 10am WHERE: Federal Court House, 501 I St., Sacramento, CA “We never would have grown marijuana had it not been sanctioned by the Laws of the State of California, the Attorney General of California and the District Attorney and Sheriffs’ of El Dorado County. Why aren’t they being charged with conspiracy to violate Federal Law?” Dr. Fry asks a group of patients who are waiting to see her at her clinic. Dr. Fry and her husband face a likely 5-year mandatory minimum sentence for conspiracy to cultivate and dispense medical marijuana for a small number of Dr. Fry’s patients. They ran (and continue to run) a popular medical marijuana clinic in El Dorado County that provides recommendations for many needy patients in the Sierra Foothills: http://www.docfry.com. Go to articles link for background. Like other federal defendants, they were denied the right to mention medical marijuana or Prop 215 in their trial. Both are in fragile health - Dale has hemophilia and suffers from chronic back pain, and Mollie is a breast cancer survivor. They are currently caring for three beautiful children and two grandchildren in their home. They were among the first medical marijuana providers raided by the Bush Administration, just a couple of weeks after 9/11 (9/28/01), but were not successfully indicted until June 22nd, 2005 after the Raich decision was overturned by the Supreme Court. Dale Schafer had also run for District Attorney in 2001. The sentence they face is particularly egregious compared to other defendants who have grown far more marijuana. They are liable to a five-year mandatory minimum because they were convicted of growing (not a lot more than) 100 plants over a period of three years, a number far smaller than is usually prosecuted by federal authorities. The jury was forced to add three different years worth of gardens to come up with the 100-plant count. They were not allowed to mention at their trial that local law enforcement had (deliberately) entrapped them by telling them it was OK to grow their relatively modest garden or that they had received advice of counsel supporting their right to grow and care for others under the Law in California. The Attorney General, Bill Lockyer, the District Attorney and the Sheriff in El Dorado County were all aware of and supportive of Dr. Fry and Schafer’s activities, but the jury was also denied these truths. Dale Schafer is still meeting with the local Task Force (2/29/08) made up of local law enforcement and medical marijuana advocates to further implement the State and County guidelines regarding medical marijuana. Fry and Schafer’s case aptly exemplifies the kind of DEA enforcement abuses bill SJR 20 condemns. Patients and medical marijuana rights supporters are welcome to attend. Bobby Eisenberg-FRY/SCHAFER Defense Committee • Bobby@docfry.com • 530-823-9963
Location: 
Sacramento, CA
United States

Money Laundering: US Supreme Court Skeptical of Government's Broad Interpretation

In oral arguments Monday, the US Supreme Court displayed considerable skepticism about the Justice Department's broad interpretation of federal money laundering laws. The arguments came in Cuellar v. US, in which Mexican national Humberto Cuellar was convicted of money laundering for concealing some $83,000 under the floorboards of his car as he headed for Mexico.

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Cuellar was stopped on a Texas highway about a hundred miles north of the border for driving too slowly and veering onto the shoulder. Officers smelled marijuana on a roll of bills in his pocket, then sought and received Cuellar's permission to search his vehicle. During the search, they found the cash hidden away.

Cuellar was subsequently convicted of money laundering, but appealed, arguing that the simple act of concealing money did not constitute money laundering under the 1986 federal money laundering law. Under that law, it is a crime to take the profits from "some form of unlawful activity" out of the country while hiding or disguising its nature, location, source, ownership, or control. The question the court must decide is whether merely hiding the money is sufficient to support a money laundering conviction.

While the Justice Department argued that concealing money as part of a plan to illegally take it out of the country indeed constitutes money laundering under the 1986 law, several justices suggested that it was simply going too far.

"I don't know why they call this statute 'Laundering of Monetary Instruments,'" Justice Stephen Breyer commented, wondering aloud if it would make it a crime to walk across the border with a few dollars hidden in a shoe. "Why didn't they call it 'shoe hiding'?"

"On the government's theory, anyone who transports hidden money to get it out of the country, who drives the car, just the driver, is a money launderer," noted Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

"No matter how you see it, this was precisely the conduct that Congress was getting at," assistant solicitor general Lisha Schertler told the court.

But Cuellar's attorney, Jerry Beard, told the court it should interpret the law to mean something more than merely hiding cash. "The statute does not criminalize concealing money's existence," Beard said. Instead, he argued, it requires that someone must seek to minimize the criminal nature of the funds. While Cuellar "may have in fact concealed money itself, he did not conceal the 'nature, source, location, ownership or control' of the unlawful proceeds," Beard argued.

Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. challenged Beard on whether Cuellar was attempting to conceal the money, but later seemed to be equally skeptical of the government's position. When Schertler suggested that putting money in a suitcase in the trunk of car could be evidence of a "design to conceal," Roberts retorted: "When I use a suitcase, I'm using it to carry my clothes, not to conceal them."

Justice John Paul Stevens added that the government's broad position seemed to make the whole concept of money laundering irrelevant. "Is this just a total wild goose chase?" he asked.

The federal money laundering statute, most often used against presumed drug traffickers, carries a maximum 20 year sentence and fines of up to $500,000. Nearly a thousand people were convicted under the statute in 2006. But if Monday's oral arguments are any guide, the Justice Department may soon have to actually prove money laundering to gain a money laundering conviction, not just that someone was hiding cash.

Search and Seizure: US Supreme Court to Hear Case on Warrantless Vehicle Searches

The US Supreme Court agreed Monday to rule on whether police may search a parked vehicle whenever they arrest a driver or passenger. Since a 1981 Supreme Court decision that held that police may search a vehicle for weapons when they arrest an occupant, most courts have held that police have ample authority to search vehicles after an arrest.

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police searching accused drug traffickers' car
But in a case from Tucson, the Arizona Supreme Court disagreed in the case of Rodney Gant. Police surveilling a suspected drug house arrested him on an outstanding warrant for driving without a license after he pulled up in his car. Gant was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. Officers then searched his vehicle and found a gun and a bag of cocaine.

In a 3-2 decision, the Arizona Supreme Court threw out the evidence, saying that the post-arrest search of his car violated the Fourth Amendment's ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. With Gant handcuffed in the back of a squad car, police faced no danger from any weapons hidden in the vehicle, the majority said. Because police did not initiate contact with Gant before he got out of his vehicle, the search of his vehicle was not incidental arrest and thus unconstitutional. Police could have obtained a search warrant if they could convince a magistrate they had probable cause, the court noted.

Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard appealed to the US Supreme Court last fall, arguing that the Arizona Supreme Court decision sets "an unworkable and dangerous test" that would confuse police, prosecutors, and judges. He was backed by other law enforcement agencies and associations, including the Los Angeles district attorney's office and the National Association of Police Organizations.

The case, Arizona v. Gant, will be argued this fall.

Bush Drug Treatment, Prevention, and Recovery Budget Cuts Raise Chorus of Criticism

The Bush administration's proposed Fiscal Year 2009 spending for drug treatment, prevention, and recovery includes significant funding cuts for some programs, and that has critics ranging from former federal drug warriors to the treatment and recovery community crying foul. While economic pressures may necessitate a lean budget, say the critics, cutting drug treatment, prevention, and recovery is not the way to do it.

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Bush administration drug strategy report and budget
Overall, substance abuse treatment and prevention funding within the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the main conduit for such funds, will decrease from $2.35 billion this year to $2.27 billion next year. (See details of the SAMHSA budget here.) Other highlights and lowlights of the treatment, prevention, and recovery budgets include:

  • Funding for the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant program would see a small increase to $1.779 billion, but that increase would be earmarked for the most effective existing grant recipients.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) would receive $336.7 million, a decrease of $63 million from FY 2008, and a number of programs would be zeroed out, including the Recovery Community Support Program. Other losers include the Treatment Systems for the Homeless program (cut from $42.5 million to $32.6 million) and the Opioid Treatment Program/Regulatory Activities (cut from $8.9 million to $6 million). But funding for the Access to Recovery grant program would remain unchanged at $99.7 million, and drug court funding would increase from $15 million to $37 million.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) would receive $158 million, a decrease of $36 million from FY 2008.
  • Funding for the Center for Mental Health Services would be cut by $126 million.
  • The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) State Grants program, which supports community-based prevention programming through the Department of Education, would receive $100 million, a decrease of $194.8 million.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) would receive $1.002 billion, a nearly $1 million increase over FY 2008.
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) would receive $436.68 million, a $0.4 million increase over last year's funding.

"We're very concerned about these cuts and looking forward to working with Congress to restore the funding," said Pat Taylor, executive director of Faces and Voices of Recovery, a national organization advocating for those affected by substance abuse problems. "We're especially concerned about the elimination of the Recovery Community Services Program -- it's the only program that funds community recovery services," she said.

Even though the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) report that accompanied the Bush budget claimed such programs are ineffective, thus justifying their being cut, Taylor said that report was wrong. "We know from the government's own data that these programs are highly effective at a relatively low cost," she said. "Funding has gone to organizations that have leveraged tens of thousands of volunteer hours in communities around the country."

"There's not a lot of money for treatment and prevention as it is," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Bush is also cutting law enforcement," Piper said, referring to proposed cuts in the Byrne Justice Action Grants program, "but we know which one Congress is more likely to restore."

"I've argued for years that it's a gross distortion of resources to deny as much funding as necessary for drug treatment, prevention, and education. That is how we stop the link between drugs and crime," said Robert Weiner, who as public affairs director under drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey frequently earned reformers' ire (on other issues). Weiner added that two-thirds of arrestees test positive for illegal drugs. "If we prevent it on the front side before forcing them into prison, we save literally billions of dollars and make productive citizens out of these people. The federal drug budget needs to be refigured to change its priorities," he said.

Weiner also had harsh words for the current drug czar, John Walters, for failing to protect his bureaucratic fiefdom. Under Walters, the drug budget under the control of ONDCP has declined from $19 billion to $13 billion.

"That's outrageous," Weiner complained. "Walters has his head in the sand and has been ceding authority. The point of his office was to create an overseer to ride herd on drug policy, but instead, Walters has just been a lackey to this politics of fear and terror and homeland security and has given away the store. It's not just individual programs, but an overall ceding of authority, and that's a shame."

Weiner isn't the only former federal drug warrior taking pot-shots at the Bush administration's drug policy spending priorities. John Carnevale, who served under four different drug czars and helped set federal drug budgets and strategies, ripped into the Bush administration earlier this month with a policy brief charging that it had consistently emphasized the least effective aspects of drug control policy.

According to Carnevale, supply reduction (law enforcement, interdiction, eradication) spending has grown 57% during the Bush years, while demand reduction (treatment, prevention, recovery) spending has increased by only 3%. The ratio between supply reduction and demand reduction spending is about 2:1, near where it has been historically despite repeated claims by federal drug fighters that they are shifting to a more balanced approach.

As Carnevale notes, "Research suggests that treatment and prevention programs are very effective in reducing drug demand, saving lives, and lessening health and crime consequences. It has demonstrated that attacking drugs at their source by focusing on eradication is expensive and not very effective. It has demonstrated that interdiction has little effect on drug traffickers' ability to bring drugs into the United States and on to our street corners where they are sold."

Perversely, however, interdiction funding increased the most during the Bush years, doubling from $1.9 billion in 2002 to $3.8 billion in 2009, while source country funding increased by 50%, law enforcement by 31%, and treatment by only 22%. Spending for drug prevention, on the other hand, actually declined by 25%.

"If research were our guide," wrote Carnevale, "then one would expect the opposite ordering of increases in budgetary resources for drug control. The failure to incorporate research into the budgetary process is a lost opportunity to produce results. The only positive news in this decade is the reduction in youth drug use, a trend which started in the previous decade. Today's discussion of drug policy performance overlooks the fact that adult drug use and rates of addiction remain unchanged in this decade."

The chorus of critics is not just complaining. Led by the treatment and recovery community, moves are afoot in Congress to seek a better mix when it comes to drug policy funding. Look for battles to come in committee hearing rooms and floor votes as advocates seek to restore funding to useful and effective programs.

"These cuts are very shortsighted and I don't think they will stand," said Taylor. "We are working with many allied organizations to support a different budget proposal that we will be distributing on Capitol Hill next week. There is a lot of interest there in moving forward instead of back."

Crack Sentencing Gets a Hearing on Capitol Hill While Advocates Mobilize

With the early release of some crack cocaine prisoners set to get underway next week and pressure mounting to do something about the disparity between sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses, the House of Representatives this week turned its attention to the issue. A Tuesday hearing in the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security saw spirited discussion of both retroactive sentence reductions for current crack prisoners and a number of bills that seek to address the disparities between crack and powder sentences.

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Alva Mae Groves died in prison at age 86 while serving a 24-year crack cocaine sentence after refusing to testify against her children. (photo courtesy november.org)
Also Tuesday, as House members debated the merits of the various proposals, drug reform, civil rights, and civil liberties groups led a day of lobbying on the Hill. Key for the activists was maintaining retroactivity so that sentence reductions for crack offenders will apply to those currently imprisoned and persuading Congress members to come together behind a sentencing reform bill that will reduce disparities.

The day of lobbying was kicked off with a morning press conference featuring Reps. Bobby Scott (D-VA), Bobby Rush (D-IL), Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX), and Chris Shays (R-CT), as well as former crack prisoners Dorothy Gaines and Michael Short, who was granted clemency in December by President Bush after serving more than 15 years. After that, it was on to the Hill.

"We were in meetings all day," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which joined forces with state delegations and national organizations including the ACLU, the Sentencing Project, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums in the day of action on the Hill. "There were a lot of good interactions, and there is a lot of optimism about the prospects for change on the Hill. There is a strong sense that legislation could move in the next week or two," he said.

The question is which legislation? At least four bills -- H.R. 79, H.R. 360, H.R. 4545, and H.R. 5035 -- that would address the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity have been introduced in the House, and there are more in the Senate. They mandate changes ranging from completely equalizing crack and powder sentencing to reducing the discrepancy to a ratio of 20:1.

Under current sentencing laws, written during the crack hysteria of the mid-1980s, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to earn a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but only 5 grams of crack. That 100:1 disparity has resulted in the imprisonment of thousands of people, mostly black (even though most crack users are white), for lengthy periods of time.

"It appears that most members of Congress, as well as the public, agree that the current disparity in crack and powder cocaine penalties is not justified and that it should be fixed," said subcommittee chair Rep. Scott as he kicked off Tuesday's hearing. "However, there is not yet a clear consensus on what that fix should be."

The basis for the sentencing disparity between crack and powder was based not on science or evidence, "but political bidding based on who could be the toughest on the crack epidemic that was believed to be sweeping America several years ago," Scott said. "There is certainly no sound basis for a five-year mandatory minimum sentence for the mere possession of five grams of crack, when you could get probation for possessing a ton of powder, because mandatory minimum sentences for powder only apply to distribution, not possession cases."

Scott then offered his bill, H.R. 5035, as the best fix. "It is a simple bill that goes the furthest in addressing the problems in the current cocaine sentencing laws," Scott said. "First, it eliminates the legal distinction between crack and powder cocaine, treating them as the same drug, which they are. The bill also eliminates all mandatory minimum sentences for cocaine offenses. And lastly, it authorizes funding for state and federal drug courts, which have both proven to be effective in preventing recidivism and saving money, when compared to longer periods of incarceration."

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), one of the architects of tough crack sentencing laws in the 1980s, was singing a different tune Tuesday -- as he has for some years now. "There's no question in my mind that those people who thought that people involved with possession of crack should be sentenced at higher thought that it would in some way serve the community better," he said. "Clearly, that is not the case, and we find that to take the discretion in determining who goes to jail and who doesn't go to jail is showing lack of confidence in our judges."

Rep. Jackson-Lee, whose own bill, H.R. 4545, also addresses the crack-powder sentencing disparity, said it was time to "finally eliminate the unjust and unequal" disparities and "right the wrongs" created by the harsh anti-drug laws of the 1980s. "For the last 21 years," said Jackson-Lee, "we have allowed people who have committed similar crimes to serve drastically different sentences for what we now know are discredited and unsubstantiated differences."

It wasn't entirely an anti-disparity, pro-reform love fest in the committee, though. Ranking minority member Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) said that while he supported efforts to redress the crack-powder sentencing disparity, he was worried that the Sentencing Commission's decision to make changes in the sentencing guidelines retroactive would lead to the release of violent criminals. "As a former judge and chief justice, I am vigilantly reluctant to legislatively overturn the past judgment of judges or juries, who were in the best position to consider the offense and the offender," he said.

He was echoed by a Justice Department representative. "Any reforms should come from the Congress, not the US Sentencing Commission; and second, any reforms, except in very limited circumstances, should apply only prospectively, not retroactively," testified Gretchen Schappert, US Attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, laying out the Justice Department position. "We continue to believe that a variety of factors fully justify higher penalties for crack offenses. It has been said, and certainly it has been my experience, that whereas powder cocaine destroys an individual, crack cocaine destroys a community." DOJ chief Michael Mukasey has been trying to stymie retroactive releases as well, and the DOJ home page currently devotes its top link to a speech he gave to the Fraternal Order of Police on the topic.

But the committee also heard from Michael Short, a Baltimore man who served nearly 16 years in prison for selling two ounces of crack before President Bush granted him clemency last year. "I know what I did was wrong," Short told the committee. "I sold illegal drugs, and I deserved to be punished. But what I did and who I was did not justify the sentence I received. And while today I am telling my story, it is also the story of many men that I know in prison, nonviolent offenders serving 10, 20 or 30 years for crack cocaine offenses. I did not need 20 years to convince me of the error in my ways, to punish me or to set me on a right path. My sentence was altogether too long. It was too long because of the way the law treats crack cocaine. Twenty years is the kind of sentence that drug kingpins should get -- big-time drug dealers. But I was not a drug kingpin. I was sentenced like one, because the drug I was convicted for was crack cocaine."

Short also took issue with the characterization by the Justice Department and some committee members of crack offenders as dangerous criminals. "I have heard some of the comments some people in positions of power have made about crack cocaine prisoners -- that we are violent gang members and that this is why our sentences have to be so much longer. I am not that person, and most of the people that I leave behind in prison aren't either," he said. "Although I made a terrible mistake, there was no violence in my crime. I was not a gang member. I was sentenced for such a long time because of a stereotype."

Now, with hearings having been held in both chambers of the Congress -- the Senate held one two weeks ago -- it is time to get those bills moving. And that is what is happening behind the scenes on the Hill, said Piper.

"Senators Sessions, Biden, and Hatch are sitting down and trying to work out a compromise," he said. "They're trying to come up with something they can all agree on that will also pass on the floor. My sense is that it will not be the complete elimination of the sentencing disparity, but somewhere in between Hatch's 20:1 ratio and Biden's 1:1. It will likely end up being 5:1 or 10:1," Piper predicted.

Reducing the crack-powder sentencing disparity would be a "wonderful development," said Robert Weiner, former public affairs director for drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey. "These sentences are just crazy, they're part of the gross distortion of the criminal justice system. If you're going to do the crime, you should do the time, but it should be the same time for the same crime," he said.

But the Justice Department's strident effort to roll back retroactivity could throw a wrench in the works, Piper warned. "That is a complicating factor," he conceded. "We hope to keep that out of any compromise bill. Thousands of families are waiting for their loved ones to come home soon, and we don't want to disappoint them."

Now, after years of inaction, Congress may finally act. But it's not a done deal yet, and there is many an obstacle between here and the passage of a bill that would restore a measure of justice to crack cocaine sentences.

Drug Czar Pledges to Finally Do Something About All These Pot Smugglers

Gangstas better watch out. Hippies better stock up. The Drug Czar has had enough of the multi-billion dollar marijuana market, so he's decided to try even harder to stop it:
MEXICO CITY (AP) — Marijuana is now the biggest source of income for Mexico's drug cartels and the U.S. is committed to cracking down harder on traffickers, U.S. drug czar John Walters said Thursday.

"We're trying to increase the force with which we're attacking this problem," Walters said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "This is a focus because of the overlooked importance marijuana has in the violence."
Previously, you see, the Drug Czar was just trying really hard. But now he's gonna try really extra super 110% hard. It sounds like his strategy so far consists of issuing some sort of edict to prosecutors, probably by email, asking that they please put more people in prison for pot:
He added that the U.S. is "looking at additional ways in which we can have a stronger prosecutorial response," including requests for more funding and personnel.
So the Drug Czar, confronted with the failure of everything we've been doing for decades, will now request more funding to continue the same wasteful, destructive, redundant charade. Marijuana-related violence is one of the most unlikely and counterintuitive phenomena in human history, and yet it has become commonplace thanks to drug prohibition and its infinitely corrupting influence. The only remaining question is how many more declarations of redoubled drug war our nation's Drug Czars can pronounce before being pushed off their proverbial podium.
Location: 
United States

Latin America: Colombian Soldiers Convicted of Killing Colombian Narcotics Police

In one of the most depraved cases of corruption in the Colombian armed forces in recent years, a Colombian court Monday convicted an army colonel and 14 soldiers of massacring 10 members of an elite, US-trained anti-drug police unit and an informant at the behest of drug traffickers. A judge in Cali found Col. Bayron Carvajal and his soldiers guilty of aggravated homicide for the May 2006 ambush outside a rural nursing home near Cali. The men will be sentenced in two weeks.

The soldiers bushwhacked the police unit as it was about to seize 220 pounds of cocaine that the informant had told them was stashed inside a psychiatric facility in the town of Jamundí. The soldiers fired hundreds of rounds at the police and attacked them with hand grenades. Six of the police officers were found to have been shot at close range. No drugs were recovered.

During the trial, more than a hundred witnesses testified. Some of them linked Carvajal to both leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Carvajal claimed his troops were attacking leftist rebels working with drug traffickers, but that didn't fly. Neither did the military's original explanation that the deaths were accidental. The military later conceded that its inquiries suggested links between the soldiers and drug gangs operating in the region.

Under Plan Colombia, the US has sent an average of $650 million a year in recent years to fight the drug trade and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC. Most of that money has gone to expand, equip, and train the Colombian military and police. Part of the rationale for that aid was that it would reduce corruption and human rights abuses in the Colombian armed forces.

The Carvajal case is not the only one to tarnish the image of the Colombian military lately. In the last two years, high-ranking military officers have been accused of selling secrets to drug traffickers to help them escape capture and planting fake bombs to advance their careers. Killings of noncombatants by the military are also reportedly on the increase after decreasing during the early years of Plan Colombia.

Meanwhile, for all the billions spent, that Colombian cocaine just keeps on coming.

Top Doctors Association Says "YES" to Medical Marijuana in Historic Endorsement

In a position paper, a leading American medical association has endorsed the medicinal use of marijuana, called for more studies of its medical uses, and urged the US government to get out of the way. The position paper from the American College of Physicians was released last Friday after being approved by the group's governing body.

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protest in CA against medical marijuana raids (photo courtesy ASA)
The American College of Physicians (ACP) is the nation's second largest doctors' organization, behind only the American Medical Association. It is made up of some 124,000 internal medicine specialists dealing primarily with adults.

The college pointed to strong evidence that marijuana has proven useful in treating AIDS wasting syndrome, glaucoma, and the nausea and vomiting associated with cancer chemotherapy treatments. The college also noted that there is anecdotal evidence for many other medical uses of marijuana, but that research had been stymied by "a complicated federal approval process, limited availability of research grade marijuana, and the debate over legalization." The science of medical marijuana should not be "hindered or obscured" by the controversy over legalizing the plant for personal, non-medical use, the group said.

"This is a historic statement by one of the world's most respected physician groups, and shows the growing scientific consensus that marijuana is a safe, effective medicine for some patients, including many battling life-threatening illnesses like cancer and AIDS," said former US Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders in a press release from the Marijuana Policy Project. "Large medical associations move cautiously, and for the American College of Physicians to note 'a clear discord' between scientific opinion and government policy on medical marijuana is a stinging rebuke to our government. It's time for politicians and bureaucrats to get out of the way of good medicine and solid research."

"This statement by the American College of Physicians recognizes what clinicians and researchers have been seeing for years, that for some patients medical marijuana works when conventional drugs fail," said Dr. Michael Saag, director of the Center for AIDS Research at the University of Alabama-Birmingham. "One of the challenges in HIV/AIDS treatment is helping patients to adhere to drug regimens that may cause nausea and other noxious side effects. The relief of these side effects that marijuana provides can help patients stay on life-extending therapies."

"This statement by America's second largest doctors' group demolishes the myth that the medical community doesn't support medical marijuana," said Marijuana Policy Project executive director Rob Kampia. "The ACP's statement smashes a number of other myths, including the claims that adequate substitutes are available or that marijuana is unsafe for medical use. 124,000 doctors have just said what our government refuses to hear, that it makes no medical or moral sense to arrest the sick and suffering for using medical marijuana."

While the ACP position paper consists of 13 closely reasoned pages, the group summarizes its medical marijuana positions thusly:

Position 1: ACP supports programs and funding for rigorous scientific evaluation of the potential therapeutic benefits of medical marijuana and the publication of such findings.

Position 1a: ACP supports increased research for conditions where the efficacy of marijuana has been established to determine optimal dosage and route of delivery.

Position 1b: Medical marijuana research should not only focus on determining drug efficacy and safety but also on determining efficacy in comparison with other available treatments.

Position 2: ACP encourages the use of non-smoked forms of THC that have proven therapeutic value.

Position 3: ACP supports the current process for obtaining federal research-grade cannabis.

Position 4: ACP urges review of marijuana's status as a schedule I controlled substance and its reclassification into a more appropriate schedule, given the scientific evidence regarding marijuana's safety and efficacy in some clinical conditions.

Position 5: ACP strongly supports exemption from federal criminal prosecution; civil liability; or professional sanctioning, such as loss of licensure or credentialing, for physicians who prescribe or dispense medical marijuana in accordance with state law.

Similarly, ACP strongly urges protection from criminal or civil penalties for patients who use medical marijuana as permitted under state laws.

"The richness of modern medicine is to carefully evaluate new treatments. Marijuana has been in a special category because of, I suppose, its abuses and other concerns," Dr. David Dale, the group's president and a University of Washington professor of medicine, told Reuters in a phone interview.

An uncharacteristically terse David Murray, chief scientist for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, could only appeal to science in an interview with Reuters. "The science should be kept open. There should be more research. We should continue to investigate," he said.

Dale Gieringer, executive director of California NORML had a few nits to pick with the ACP's statement, but approved overall. "This is an important step," he said. "But when they say they support the existing federal supply system, it suggests they are unaware of all the systematic blockage of independent research caused by the NIDA monopoly and DEA interference."

Similarly, said Gieringer, while government licensing and regulation of medical marijuana makes sense, that doesn't mean we have to maintain the existing NIDA monopoly. "It just doesn't make sense to do that," he said.

Where Gieringer was pleasantly surprised was with the ACP's call to end the criminal persecution of medical marijuana patients, providers, and doctors. "They came out really forcefully against criminalization," he noted. "That's very impressive. No one else has been willing to address that. All of these apologists for the government run around saying you can't have unregulated medical marijuana, but that doesn't mean you need to throw patients and doctors in jail."

The medical community's embrace of medical marijuana has been timid and hesitant, with a number of important organizations, including the American Medical Association, lagging behind. This policy statement by the nation's second largest medical association should give that process an important boost.

Former Staffer Accuses Drug Czar of Ignoring Research

Recent years have brought a long overdue and richly deserved implosion in the Drug Czar's credibility. It seems the truth is slowly catching up with the entrenched drug warriors at the Office of National Drug Control Policy, as the U.S. Senate, the anti-drug community, and even former staffers have joined the chorus to demand accountability from one of Washington D.C.'s most insulated institutions.

Today John Carnevale, a long-time ONDCP insider who served under four Drug Czars, has publicly slammed ineffective supply reduction efforts and called for a redistribution of federal anti-drug funding. A press release from Carnevale Associates, LLC. entitled "FY02-09 Budget Emphasizes Least Effective Ingredients of Drug Policy" directly questions the Drug Czar's strategy and accuses the nation's top drug office of wasting resources:
A review of the federal drug control budget shows that the current administration continues to favor supply reduction programs over demand reduction programs to reduce the demand for drugs by youth and adults. Since federal fiscal year (FY) 02, the budget has emphasized what research has shown to be the least effective ingredients of a federal drug control policy. This translates into almost a decade of lost opportunity in achieving performance results.
These charges are just remarkable considering their source. While Carnevale remains committed to many of the most destructive aspects of the U.S. war on drugs, these criticisms of his former office reflect a growing consensus that ONDCP has become utterly divorced from reality. The office has simply lost its prestige within the anti-drug community and, with the flood gates fully opened, must now absorb biting criticism from every conceivable constituency. Once disgraced, the schoolyard bully can now expect to be kicked in the shin routinely and can't anticipate where the next challenge will come from.

Of course, our nation's costly and fantastically unsuccessful supply reduction efforts are just the tip of the drug war iceberg. But it is notable to witness drug war insiders beginning to come to terms with our failed international drug war diplomacy. By exposing ONDCP's propensity for ignoring research, Carnevale inadvertently reveals a great deal about how that office approaches basically everything.
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