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UN Drug Chief Warns of Afghanistan "Narco-State"

Afghanistan could collapse into a "full-fledged narco-state" as the looming withdrawal of US and NATO combat forces creates a gaping hole in the center of the country's economy, Yuri Fedotov, the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) warned Wednesday.

In an interview with Reuters, Fedotov noted that the Western forces generate about a third of all jobs and investment in Afghanistan. They are due to leave the country by the end of next year, and even the presence of a residual force of up to 10,000 fighters is increasingly in doubt as the US and Afghan haggle over a status of forces agreement that would allow them to stay.

The other major economic activity in the country is opium production, processing, and distribution, including the manufacture of heroin from raw opium, which accounts for roughly another third of the national economy. Since the US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, it has consistently been the world's leading source of illicit opium production, accounting for nearly 90% of all poppies produced worldwide.

Multi-hundred million dollar annual cash flows associated with the opium economy have benefited the Taliban insurgency, which taxes farmers in areas it controls as well as engaging in or protecting drug trafficking. They have also benefited corrupt Afghan government officials and associated warlords.

Fedotov, whose native Russia has been flooded with Afghan heroin, said Wednesday that an upcoming UNODC survey due later this month will show increases in both opium cultivation and production.

"The situation is worsening, that is clear and very disappointing," he said. "It is a very serious setback, but we need to take that as a warning shot," he added, calling for increased international assistance.

"That is also fertile ground for corruption and other forms of transnational organized crime. It is a multi-faceted challenge and we need to take that as a serious problem," Fedotov warned. "Otherwise we have a serious risk that without international support, without more meaningful assistance, this country may continue to evolve into a full-fledged narco-state," he said. "We have not been able to develop an alternative economy in Afghanistan," Fedotov said. "With all our efforts, it was very hard to move from illicit to licit."

Oh, and those Afghan farmers? When they're not producing opium, they're producing cannabis. Afghanistan is also one of the world's preeminent producers of it, according to UNODC, and production was up again last year, the group reported last month.

Afghanistan

Peru Retakes Spot as World's #1 Coca Producer

And the wheel turns. Twenty years ago, Peru produced about 60% of the world's coca crop, from which cocaine is derived. But crop disease and aggressive anti-trafficking efforts in Peru hurt output there even as cultivation blossomed in Colombia, which took first place honors by the turn of the century.

coca leaf statues in Peruvian village (Phillip Smith)
But now, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has regained its status as the number one producer. In a report issued last week, UNODC estimated that Peru had 151,000 acres of land devoted to coca production, compared to 125,000 acres in second place Colombia and about 63,000 acres in third place Bolivia.

Just as aggressive eradication and interdiction campaigns in Peru -- including a US-aided policy of shooting down suspected drug trafficking planes -- reduced the coca supply there in the 1990s, the massive US aid program known as Plan Colombia, with its aerial fumigation and aggressive eradication programs, has managed to shrink production in Colombia.

At its peak in 2000, Colombia accounted for 90% of the world's cocaine, with about 400,000 acres planted with coca. Since then, that figure has shrunk by about one third.

But in a clear example of "the balloon effect," Peru has taken up the slack, and has been well-situated to take advantage of growing Brazilian and European demand for cocaine. Peru's reemergence as the global coca leader comes despite renewed efforts by President Ollanta Humala to crack down on coca cultivation, as well as the trafficking and armed rebel groups -- remnants of the feared Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s -- who protect and profit from it.

Peru actually managed to decrease cultivation this year by about 4,000 acres, or 3.4%, according to UNODC. But given continuing declines in Colombia and stable, lower-level production in Bolivia, the country retakes first place even with the decline.

Unlike Colombia, both Peru and Bolivia have long histories of indigenous coca use, and both countries have large legal coca markets. But according to the UNODC, of Peru's estimated 129,000 tons of dried coca leaves, only 9,000 tons were destined for the legal market. That leaves 120,000 tons of leaves ready to be turned into cocaine hydrochloride and snorted up noses in Rio de Janeiro, Rome, and Riyadh.

Peru

Latin American Leaders Talk Drug Reform at UN

Once again, the United Nations' General Assembly meeting in New York City has become a forum for calls for drug reform. Leaders from Latin America took the opportunity this week to criticize drug prohibition and challenge the world body to come up with better alternatives.

Colombian President Santos was among Latin American leaders challenging drug prohibition at the UN. (wikipedia.org)
"Right here, in this same headquarters, 52 years ago, the convention that gave birth to the war on drugs was approved. Today, we must acknowledge, that war has not been won," Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos told assembled world leaders Tuesday, referring to the Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs of 1961. "And I say this as the president of the country that has suffered more deaths, more bloodshed and more sacrifices in this war, and the country that has also achieved more results in the fight against this scourge and the mafias that underpin it."

The Colombian president's remarks echoed those he made last year at the Summit of the Americas, which commissioned the Organization of American States to study new approaches to dealing with illicit drugs. That study was issued in May, and Santos said the UN should give it serious consideration before a General Assembly Special Session on Drugs set for 2016. That session was proposed by Mexico and accepted by the General Assembly.

Also on Tuesday, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla said that her nation "joins the call from other States from our region, such as Mexico and Guatemala, to reevaluate internationally agreed-upon policies in search of more effective responses to drug trafficking, from a perspective of health, a framework of respect for human rights, and a perspective of harm reduction."

That language is from a consensus statement elaborated and agreed on by Santos, Chinchilla, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, and Mexican President Enrique Peña.

On Thursday, it was Perez Molina's turn. A former general elected to office on a promise of taking a hard-line against organized crime, Perez Molina last year became the first sitting head of state to call for legalizing the illicit drug market. This year, he was still singing the same tune.

"Since the start of my government, we have clearly affirmed that the war on drugs has not yielded the desired results," Perez Molina told the General Assembly. "We cannot keep on doing the same thing and expecting different results."

Instead, global leaders must seek new approaches to drug use centered on public health and prevention and designed to reduce violence and respect human rights, he said. Perez Molina also praised voters in Colorado and Washington for their "visionary decision" to legalize marijuana and praised President Obama for "respecting the voice of the citizens of Colorado and Washington, to allow these innovative experiences to provide results."

Perez Molina lauded Uruguayan President Jose Mujica for proposing marijuana legalization legislation there "instead of following the failed route of prohibition." That bill has passed the Uruguayan House and is expected to pass the Senate easily next month. Perez Molina and Mujica also met Thursday in a private meeting.

Mexico's Peña Nieto canceled his appearance at the UN to deal with the aftermath of the killer hurricanes that swept his country last week, but his foreign minister, Jose Antonio Meade Kuribena, echoed the language of the other Latin American leaders, adding that the consensus statement was also supported by Chile, Paraguay, and others.

The calls for reform from the Latin Americans, whose countries have suffered some of the gravest consequences of the war on drugs, are growing ever louder, and it now appears that the 2016 Special Session could see real fireworks over the issue. If the Special Session happens, that is -- while the General Assembly has approved it, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime is opposed, and the International Narcotics Control Board is resolutely oblivious.

New York City, NY
United States

UN Drug Agencies Fret over Uruguay Marijuana Vote

Wednesday night's vote in the Uruguayan chamber of deputies to approve state-run marijuana commerce would make the South American nation the first to create legal pot markets, and that's making United Nations anti-drug bureaucracies nervous. Both the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) issued statements Thursday fretting about the vote.

Uruguay hasn't legalized the marijuana market yet -- that will require a vote in the Uruguayan Senate this fall -- but the Vienna-based UN organs aren't waiting. Charged with enforcing the global drug prohibition regime, and its legal backbone, the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs and successor treaties, the INCB and UNODC are raising the alarm about the apparent looming breach of the treaty.

"The INCB has noted with concern a draft law under consideration in Uruguay which, if adopted, would permit the sale of cannabis herb for non-medical use," INCB head Dr. Raymond Yans said in a statement. "Such a law would be in complete contravention to the provisions of the international drug control treaties, in particular the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, to which Uruguay is a party."

The INCB said it had always "aimed at maintaining a dialogue with the government of Uruguay" and complained that Montevideo wasn't paying attention to it. "The Board regrets that the government of Uruguay refused to receive an INCB mission before the draft law was submitted to parliament," Yans said.

The statement further urged Uruguayan leaders "to ensure that the country remains fully compliant with international law which limits the use of narcotic drugs, including cannabis, exclusively to medical and scientific purposes" and warned that legalization "might have serious consequences for the health and welfare of the population and for the prevention of cannabis abuse among the youth."

The UNODC, for its part, said in its statement that it supported the INCB statement and was continuing "to follow developments in Uruguay closely."

But, perhaps signaling a belated recognition that the global drug prohibition regime is increasingly tattered, the UNODC acknowledged that the results of enforcing drug prohibition, including "horrorific violence" related to black market drug trafficking have "led to a debate over best to address such problems."

UNODC said it "welcomes this discussion," but that "this dialogue should be conducted on the basis of the agreed conventions, in line with international law. It invited nations to talk about it all at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs meeting next year.

In the meantime, Uruguay isn't waiting, and there is little the UN anti-drug agencies can do about except shout from their bully pulpits.

Vienna
Austria

OAS Releases Historic Report on Drug Policy Alternatives [FEATURE]

The Organization of American States (OAS) Friday released a ground-breaking report on hemispheric drug control that includes not only an assessment of the current state of affairs, but also looks at a number of alternate scenarios for future directions in drug policy, including explicit analysis of possible regulation and legalization regimes.

Colombian President Santos (l) receives the report from OAS head Insulza in Bogota Friday (oas.org)
The report comes even as the US military is expanding its drug war in Latin America.The military is deploying assets to Central and South America, and US military assistance in Latin America has quadrupled in the last decade -- even as the region faces no external and diminishing internal threats.

The report, The Drug Problem in the Americas, was commissioned at last year's Cartagena Summit of the Americas, where a number of Latin American leaders led by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos criticized existing drug policies and called for a discussion of alternatives. On Friday, OAS head Jose Miguel Insulza hand-delivered the report to Santos in Bogota.

Prepared by researcher and analysts at the Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) under the supervision of the OAS, the report is divided into two discrete sections, an analytical report and a scenarios report. It is the scenarios report that addresses possible directions in drug policy, including the formal consideration of legalization and regulation regimes.

The scenarios report envisions four possible (and not necessarily mutually exclusive) policy directions and how each scenario "understands" the drug problem, what the attempted response would be under that scenario, and the opportunities and challenges involved in acting on those scenarios.

Two scenarios, "Together" and "Resilience," represent largely traditional responses to drug use and the drug trade, with calls for the strengthening of weak states and their judicial institutions or addressing underlying social problems and strengthening communities to fight violence and addiction, respectively.

It is the other two scenarios, "Pathways" and "Disruption," that represent innovations in thinking at the policy-making level. In the "Disruption" scenario, the violence and instability created by the drug trade under prohibition is so severe that authorities "cut a deal" with traffickers in a bid to achieve social peace. This might, more or less fairly, be called "the Mexican scenario," given that previous Mexican PRI governments are almost universally assumed to have made such bargains with trafficking organizations, and given widespread speculation these days that the current PRI government may be considering something similar.

drug seizure, Mexico (sedena.gob.mx)
In the "Pathways" scenario, CICAD "understands" the problem as "the current regime for controlling drugs through criminal sanctions (especially arrests and incarceration of users and low-level dealers) is causing too much harm." The response is "trying out and learning from alternative legal and regulatory regimes, starting with cannabis."

The opportunities presented under the "Pathways" scenario include "development of better drug policies through experimentation, reallocation of resources from controlling drugs and drug users to preventing and treating problematic use, and shrinkage of some criminal markets and profits through regulation," while potential problems include "managing the risks of experimentation, especially with transitioning from criminal to regulated markets (including possible increases in problematic use), dealing with contraband, and new inter-governmental tensions that result from differences in regimes between jurisdictions."

The report is being welcomed as marking a true advance in the drug policy dialog at the hemispheric and international levels.

"The review explores what can be done in a post-drug war world," said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program. "This report envisions a number of possibilities that will broaden the current debate on drug policy reform."

"As part of the scenarios team, we worked to make it clear that another reality is indeed possible, that our countries can move orderly toward regulated drugs markets, and that there are possibilities to achieve better results," said Lisa Sanchez, coordinator of drug policies at the Transform Drug Policy Foundation and Mexico Unido Contra la Delinquencia, who worked on the report. "It is clear that the state should no longer ignore its responsibility to guarantee the health and security of all its citizens, and to do this, it needs to regain control over the drug markets which are currently illegal."

"While leaders have talked about moving from 'criminalization' to 'public health' in drug policy, punitive, abstinence-only approaches have still predominated, even in the health sphere," said Daniel Wolfe, director of the Open Society International Harm Reduction Program. "These scenarios offer a chance for leaders to replace indiscriminate detention and rights abuses with approaches that distinguish between users and traffickers and offer the community-based health services that work best for those in need."

methamphetamine user under arrest, US (wikimedia.org)
"This is the beginning of an international conversation on a new approach to drugs," said David Holiday, senior regional advocacy officer for the Open Society Latin America Program. "We can hope this will move policies from those currently based in repression to strategies rooted in public health and human rights."

That international conversation on drug policy will get going next week, when the OAS report will be presented and discussed at the bi-annual CICAD meeting in Washington, DC. Two weeks after that, the report and discussions over drug policy in the Americas will be the main agenda item -- "Toward a comprehensive anti-drug policy in the Americas" -- at  the annual session of the OAS General Assembly, which is attended by foreign ministers in the region. Advocates are hoping that these regional discussions will also be taken up at the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs.

"Never before has a multilateral organization engaged in such an inclusive and intellectually legitimate analysis of drug policy options," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Indeed, it would have been inconceivable just two years ago that the OAS -- or any multilateral organization -- would publish a document that considers legalization, decriminalization and other alternatives to prohibitionist policies on an equal footing with status quo policies. Political pressures by the US and other governments would have made that impossible."

But much has changed in just the past few years, Nadelmann noted. In 2009, former presidents Fernando Henrique Cardoso (Brazil), César Gaviria (Colombia) and Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico) joined with other members of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy in saying the time had come to "break the taboo" on exploring alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

In 2011, those presidents joined with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul Volcker, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss and other members of the  Global Commission on Drug Policy in calling for fundamental reforms to national and global drug policies.  Former presidents Jimmy Carter, Ricardo Lagos (Chile), Vicente Fox (Mexico) and Aleksander Kwasniewski (Poland) were among those who seconded their recommendations.

Late that year, sitting presidents began to join the calls of their predecessors.  These included President Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, José Mujica in Uruguay and then-President Felipe Calderonof Mexico. Simultaneously, the victorious marijuana legalization ballot initiatives in Washington State and Colorado transformed a previously hypothetical debate into real political reform.  Other states will almost certainly follow their lead in coming years.

"The OAS scenarios report thus represents the important next step in elevating and legitimizing a discussion that until a few years ago was effectively banned from official government circles," Nadelmann said. "It is sure to have legs in a way that few reports by multilateral institutions ever do."

Bogota
Colombia

UN Development Program Head and Former NZ Prime Minister Slams Drug War

It is increasingly clear that the "war on drugs" has failed and there needs to be room for new approaches, the head of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) said Thursday. UNDP head Helen Clark's remarks ahead of the presentation of the organization's 2013 Human Development Report came in a pre-ceremony interview with Reuters.

UNDP head Helen Clark (undp.org)
Clark is no small-time functionary. From 1999 to 2008 she served as the prime minister of New Zealand -- three terms, according to Wikipedia -- and before that headed the nation's health ministry, among others. As UNDP chief she is the UN's third highest-ranking official.

"To deal with drugs as a one-dimensional, law-and-order issue is to miss the point," Clark said. "Once you criminalize, you put very big stakes around. Of course, our world has proceeded on the basis that criminalization is the approach. We have waves of violent crime sustained by drug trade, so we have to take the money out of drugs," she said.

Clark didn't go as far as calling for drug legalization, but she said she was encouraged by recent efforts by Latin American leaders to put the issue on the global agenda.

"The countries in the region that have been ravaged by the armed violence associated with drug cartels are starting to think laterally about a broad range of approaches and they should be encouraged to do that," she said. "They should act on evidence."

Latin American leaders have said "that the approach being followed has failed so we need a fresh set of eyes on this as well," the former New Zealand prime minister added. "And I think the debate going on at the regional level is a very, very useful one."

"I've been a health minister in my past and there's no doubt that the health position would be to treat the issue of drugs as primarily a health and social issue rather than a criminalized issue," Clark explained.

Is the International Narcotics Control Board Ignoring Human Rights?

A recent report by the UN special rapporteur on torture charged that compulsory drug treatment centers in some countries, particularly Vietnam and Thailand, constitute "forced labor" camps that engage in "torture." Long-time addiction writer Maia Szalavitz wrote about this in Time last week, and Phil did in our newsletter last Monday. The report is online here.

photo from the 2011 HRW report on Vietnam's so-called drug rehabilitation centers
The issue is not a new one, having been raised by Human Rights Watch in September 2011. HRW detailed forced labor, worker pay getting taken by the centers or staffs, inmates getting beaten, even bones broken, if they didn't comply with instructions.

Nevertheless, in its 2011 annual report, published five months after HRW's, the International Narcotics Control Board had only this to say in relation to Vietnam's treatment centers:

In September 2010, the Government of Viet Nam issued a decree on the strengthening of family-based and community-based drug treatment and rehabilitation services. In March 2011, the Ministry of Public Security of Viet Nam adopted measures to improve the collection and analysis of drug-related data. In June 2011, the Government of Viet Nam adopted the national strategy on drug control and prevention for the period ending in 2020. Based on that strategic document, the national target programme for the period 2011-2015 was developed to address drug-related issues in the country.
 

and

The Board welcomes the steps taken in Viet Nam to improve the treatment and rehabilitation of drug abusers and the efforts made in participating in different projects sponsored by [the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, UNODC] in that area. The Board encourages the Government to reinforce and support existing facilities as well as to undertake capacity-building in the field of treatment for drug abusers.
 

The 2012 INCB report, released last week -- more than a month after the special rapporteur's report was released -- offers just this:

The Government of Viet Nam launched its new national drug control and crime prevention strategies in July 2012. The strategies highlight the need for a comprehensive national response that combines effective law enforcement, drug abuse treatment and rehabilitation measures that allow for better integration of former drug dependent persons into society and the active participation of communities in crime prevention.
 

I understand that any system involving confinement has the potential for abuse, in the best of times and places, and that any one report on a subject can miss the mark. But we have allegations from a respected organization, and now from the UN itself, of systemic abuses, of a degree of seriousness that would seem to invalidate the entire project. Presumably international funding is in the mix at well. So why not even a word about it, from the self-described "quasi-judicial body" overseeing the international drug control regime?

Open Society Foundation's Joanne Csete noted comments by the late Hamid Ghodse, then INCB chairman, at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs last year, disclaiming any role for human rights concerns in the drug treaties or his agency. But that is not the stated position of the other main UN drug agency, UNODC.

So do we have a scandal in the making -- or better yet, an opportunity to reform the international drug control regime?

[By the way, Csete's afore-linked essay is part of the LSE IDEAS report included in our current membership offers.]

UN Report Slams Cruel Drug Treatment as "Torture"

Compulsory "treatment" for drug addiction in some parts of the world is "tantamount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment," according to report last month from the UN's special rapporteur on torture and other degrading treatments and punishments. The report was delivered to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Vienna.

drug "rehabilitation center," Vietnam (ohchr.org)
Authored by Special Rapporteur Juan Mendez, the report takes special aim at forced "rehabilitation centers" for drug users. Such centers are typically found in Southeast Asian states, such as Vietnam and Thailand, as well as in some countries in the former Soviet Union. But the report also decries the lack of opiate substitution therapies in confinement setting and bemoans the lack of access to effective opioid pain treatment in large swathes of the world.

"Compulsory detention for drug users is common in so-called rehabilitation centers," Mendez wrote. "Sometimes referred to as drug treatment centers or 'reeducation through labor' centers or camps, these are institutions commonly run by military or paramilitary, police or security forces, or private companies. Persons who use, or are suspected of using, drugs and who do not voluntarily opt for drug treatment and rehabilitation are confined in such centers and compelled to undergo diverse interventions."

The victims of such interventions face not only drug withdrawal without medical assistance, but also "state-sanctioned beatings, caning or whipping, forced labor, sexual abuse, and intentional humiliation," as well as "flogging therapy," "bread and water therapy," and forced electroshock treatments, all in the name of rehabilitation.

As Mendez notes, both the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Office on Drug Control (UNODC) have determined that "neither detention nor forced labor have been recognized by science as treatment for drug use disorders." Such forced detentions, often with no legal or medical evaluation or recourse, thus "violate international human rights law and are illegitimate substitutes for evidence-based measures, such as substitution therapy, psychological interventions and other forms of treatment given with full, informed consent."

Such centers continue to operate despite calls to close them from organizations including the WHO, the UNODC, and the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs. And they are often operating with "direct or indirect support and assistance from international donors without adequate human rights oversight."

Drug users are "a highly stigmatized and criminalized population" who suffer numerous abuses, including denial of treatment for HIV, deprivation of child custody, and inclusion in drug registries where their civil rights are curtailed. One form of ill-treatment and "possibly torture of drug users" is the denial of opiate substitute therapy, "including as a way of eliciting criminal confessions through inducing painful withdrawal symptoms."

The denial of such treatments in jails and prisons is "a violation of the right to be free from torture and ill-treatment," Mendez noted, and should be considered a violation in non-custodial settings as well. "By denying effective drug treatment, state drug policies intentionally subject a large group of people to severe physical pain, suffering and humiliation, effectively punishing them for using drugs and trying to coerce them into abstinence, in complete disregard of the chronic nature of dependency and of the scientific evidence pointing to the ineffectiveness of punitive measures."

The rapporteur also noted with chagrin that 5.5 billion people, or 83% of the planet's population, live in areas "with low or no access to controlled medicines and have no access to treatment for moderate to severe pain." While most of Mendez' concern is directed at the developing world, he also notes that "in the United States, over a third of patients are not adequately treated for pain."

Mendez identified obstacles to the availability of opioid pain medications as "overly restrictive drug control regulations," as well as misinterpretation of those regulations, deficiencies in supply management, lack of concern about palliative care, and "ingrained prejudices" about using such medications.

New York City, NY
United States

US, International Drug Warriors Attack State Marijuana Legalization [FEATURE]

As the nation awaits the Obama administration's response to marijuana legalization votes in Colorado and Washington, Tuesday saw a two-pronged attack on the whole notion. On the one hand, former drug czars and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) heads lined up to urge the administration to act now to strangle legalization in its crib, while on the other, the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) warned that allowing states to legalize would violate international drug control treaties.

"S.O.S." web site celebrates defeat of Hawaii marijuana legalization bill
Legalization supporters rejected the attacks, comparing the ex-DEA chiefs to Prohibition agents seeking to justify their efforts and dismissing the global anti-drug bureaucrats as largely irrelevant.

In a joint letter under the auspices of the anti-drug reform group Save Our Society From Drugs, eight former heads of the DEA and four former heads of the Office of National Drug Control Policy urged the federal government to act now to nullify the votes in Colorado and Washington. The same group similarly called on Attorney General Holder to speak out against those state initiatives last September, but he failed to do so.

Holder, who said last week his decision will be "coming soon," was scheduled to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday. The retired drug fighters urged senators to press him on the issue.

Holder's actual appearance, though, was anticlimactic. He told the committee only that he hoped, again, to be able to announce a policy "relatively soon."

That prompted committee chair Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to hand out some advice of his own. "If you're going to be -- because of budget cuts -- prioritizing matters, I would suggest there are more serious things than minor possession of marijuana, but it's a personal view," Leahy told Holder, adding that more states were sure to follow in Colorado's and Montana's footsteps.

That's not what the drug warriors were telling Holder.

"We, the undersigned, strongly support the continued enforcement of federal law prohibiting the cultivation, distribution, sale, possession, and use of marijuana -- a dangerous and addictive drug which already has severe harmful effects on American society," they wrote. "We also respectfully request your committee at its March 6 hearing to encourage Attorney General Eric Holder to adhere to long-standing federal law and policy in this regard, and to vigorously enforce the Controlled Substances Act (CSA)."

The signatories suggested that senators ask Holder is he still believed in the Supremacy Clause when it comes to conflicts between state and federal law and why he isn't enforcing the Controlled Substances Act in Colorado and Washington. They also suggested asking him "what is being done about our international drug treaty obligations," noting that they require the federal government to enforce marijuana prohibition.

And speaking of international drug treaty obligations, the INCB, which is charged with ensuring that countries live up to them, also criticized marijuana legalization as it issued its 2012 Annual Report.

Noting the popular votes in favor of legalization in Colorado and Washington, INCB reiterated that "the legalization of cannabis for non-medical and non-scientific purposes would be in contravention to the provisions of the 1961 Convention as amended by the 1972 Protocol."

The INCB also took a shot at medical marijuana, noting that "the control requirements that have been adopted in the 17 states in question and in the District of Columbia under the 'medical' cannabis schemes fall short of the requirements set forth in articles 23 and 28 of the 1961 Convention as amended by the 1972 Protocol."

And, also expressing concerns about decriminalization moves, INCB "requests that the government of the United States take effective measures to ensure the implementation of all control measures for cannabis plants and cannabis, as required under the 1961 Convention, in all states and territories falling within its legislative authority."

The two-pronged attack excited a quick response from drug reform groups and at least one Democratic congressman.

"As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once observed, states are the laboratories of democracy. The federal government should concentrate on shutting down meth labs -- not the laboratories of democracy. The people of Colorado and Washington voted to implement these laws, and the federal government should respect their will. States have a right to determine their own possession laws," said Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) in a Tuesday statement.

"If the people of Colorado and Washington want to legalize small amounts of marijuana, that is their decision. It is arrogant of these former DEA chiefs to encourage the President to nullify these laws," Cohen continued. "The fact that these former DEA chiefs are so focused on marijuana possession is why we have lost the war on drugs. The war should be on heroin, meth, crack, cocaine and unauthorized use of prescription drugs -- not marijuana possession."

[Ed: We don't think war on those other drugs is a good thing either -- to the extent at least that "war" means arresting and incarcerating people. Not that we want underground meth labs all over the place. But meth is going to be supplied by someone in some way, despite enforcement efforts, so long as there are people who want to use it. We're losing the "war on drugs" because it is prohibition based, and prohibition doesn't work. The government's focus on marijuana enforcement only highlights the sheer senseless of it all. -DB]

"The former DEA chiefs' statement can best be seen as a self-interested plea to validate the costly and failed policies they championed but that Americans are now rejecting at the ballot box," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "They obviously find it hard to admit that -- at least with respect to marijuana -- their legacy will be much the same as a previous generation of agents who once worked for the federal Bureau of Prohibition enforcing the nation’s alcohol prohibition laws."

"The war on drugs has been a failure by every measure," said Neill Franklin, the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "After more than a trillion dollars spent over the last forty years, we have nothing to show for it except more violence on our streets, the fracturing of community trust in the police and overflowing prison populations. Still, use has not significantly declined. It's unfortunate the DEA heads can't admit this failure. As someone who gave three decades of his life fighting this 'war' on the ground, I can tell you that from that perspective, this policy was dead on arrival."

"It is not surprising that these ex-heads of the marijuana prohibition industry are taking action to maintain the policies that kept them and their colleagues in business for so long," said Mason Tvert, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project and an official proponent of the Colorado initiative. "Their desire to keep marijuana sales in an underground market favors the drug cartels, whereas the laws approved in Colorado and Washington favor legitimate, tax-paying businesses. Marijuana prohibition has failed, and voters are ready to move on and adopt a more sensible approach. It's time for these former marijuana prohibitionists to move on too."

As for INCB, it essentially plays the role of toothless nag, said Eric Sterling, the executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. It is mandated by the United Nations to report on adherence to global anti-drug treaties, but has only the power to hector, not to enforce.

"The INCB has no power other than to issue reports," he said. "It can't issue indictments, it can't call for a resolution in some other body to condemn a nation. It's strictly hortatory, and for many years, it's bordered on the preposterous in the condemnations it's made. The INCB thinks that nations ought to suppress music or motion pictures or books that 'send the wrong message' about drugs. In that sense, it is completely out of step with Western Civilization. They would reject art and music and probably science if it were contrary to their abstinence focus on drug use."

Not only is the INCB relatively powerless, it is largely irrelevant, Sterling said.

"In our American drug policy, they have only negligible influence," he said. "I don't think that in any state capital, the INCB's comments carry any political weight. I don't think in most journals of opinion, their observations are important. Whether their comments have significance in other countries would be harder for me to assess. I tend to believe they are not that important," he said.

"Most people don't even know what it is or what its power is or what it said, including most members of Congress and their staffs," Sterling continued. "The INCB is obscure. Maybe some former DEA administrators might want to refer to them in a press release, but nobody else is going to pay any attention."

The forces of opposition to marijuana legalization are lining up to put pressure on the Obama administration. It shouldn't listen to them, said DPA's Nadelmann.

"President Obama and Attorney General Holder really need to allow Washington and Colorado officials to implement the new laws in ways that protect public safety and health while respecting the will of those states’ voters," he said. "At this point, insisting on blind obeisance to strict interpretation of federal drug laws will only serve the interests of criminals who want to keep this industry underground and law enforcement officials who want to justify their legacy."

And the wait for clarity from Washington continues...

More Overreaching Arguments Against Marijuana Legalization by DEA Chiefs and the UN

Colorado billboard, 2012
The International Narcotics Control Board, a UN agency, and eight former DEA administrators came out swinging this week against marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington. The INCB says the state laws violate UN treaties. The DEA chiefs want the Obama administration to sue to block the laws.

Both of those positions may be overreaches. It's true that federal marijuana legalization would require revision of the drug treaties, if the US is not to be in violation of them (or for the US to do what Bolivia did by withdrawing and then rejoining "with reservations"). Legalization by Congress even just within states that have enacted it is also a likely treaty issue. But Colorado and Washington aren't parties to the treaties, and federal law remains in force within those states. The states have simply ceased to contribute their own resources to a part of the prohibition program. Under our federal system they very probably have the legal right to do so.

And that is why the DEA chiefs have overreached as well. When one says that federal law is supreme in this area, it means that federal agents can use the powers they have to bring criminal or civil actions against marijuana users or sellers, despite the passage of state laws -- the Raich case decided that for medical marijuana, for reasons that would seem to apply to fully legalized marijuana too. But that doesn't mean the states have to help them. We have a federal system. As I've pointed out previously, no federal prosecutor in 16 years of state medical marijuana laws has ever argued in court that the states can't have those laws on their books. Clearly they've had incentive to do so, if they thought they could win that way.

I don't argue that we know for sure how these points will come out if they are adjudicated -- it is new legal territory. But most legal scholars seem to think a preemption ruling would be a long shot outcome. So that is how it looks to me.

[If you haven't already, please order the two recent reports, from the Cato Institute and the London School of Economics, addressing these two very issues -- available in harcopy on our web site for a small donation.]

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