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It Was the Worst of Times: Drug Reform Defeats, Downers, and Disappointments in 2006

As Drug War Chronicle publishes its last issue of the year -- we will be on vacation next week -- it is time to look back at 2006. In a companion piece, we looked at the highlights for drug reform this year; here, we look at the lowlights, from failures at the polls to bad court rulings to negative trends. Below -- in no particular order -- is our necessarily somewhat arbitrary list of the ten most significant defeats and disappointments for the cause of drug law reform. (We also publish a "best of 2006" list in this issue, above.)

The drug war continues unabated on the streets of America. Despite two decades of drug reform efforts, the war on drugs continues to make America a country that eats its young. In May, we reported that the US prisoner count topped 2.1 million -- a new high -- and included more than 500,000 drug war prisoners. In September, the FBI released its annual Uniform Crime Report, showing nearly 800,000 marijuana arrests and 1.8 million drug arrests in 2005 -- another new high. And just two weeks ago, we reported that more than seven million people are in jail or prison or on probation or parole -- yet another new high.

Methamphetamine hysteria continues unabated and becomes an excuse for old-school, repressive drug laws and bad, newfangled ones, too. The drug war always needs a demon drug du jour to scare the public, and this year, like the past few years, meth is it. Never mind that the stuff has been around for decades and that there is less to the "meth epidemic" than meets the eye. The "dangers of meth" have been cited as a reason for everything from targeting South Asian convenience store clerks to restricting access to cold medications containing pseudoephedrine to harsh new penalties for meth offenses to more than 20 states defining meth use or production as child abuse. Michigan even went so far as to pass legislation banning meth recipes on the Internet, while Arizona voters felt impelled to roll back a decade-old sentencing reform. Under that reform, first- and second-time drug possession offenders couldn't be sentenced to jail or prison, but now Arizona has created an exception for meth offenders. The drug warriors like to say meth is the new crack, and in the way meth is used as an excuse for "tough" approaches to drug policy, that is certainly true.

The US Supreme Court upholds unannounced police searches. In a June decision, the court upheld a Michigan drug raid where police called out their presence at the door, but then immediately rushed in before the homeowner could respond. Previously, the courts had allowed such surprise entries only in the case of "no-knock" warrants, but this ruling, which goes against hundreds of years of common law and precedent, effectively eviscerates that distinction. "No-knock" raids are dangerous, as we reported that same month, and as Atlanta senior citizen Kathryn Johnston would tell you if she could. But she can't -- Johnston was killed in a "no-knock" raid last month.

Marijuana legalization initiatives lose in Colorado and Nevada. After four years of effort, the Marijuana Policy Project still couldn't get over the top with its "tax and regulate" initiative in Nevada, although it increased its share of the vote from 39% to 44%. In Colorado, SAFER Colorado took its "marijuana is safer than alcohol" message statewide after successes at state universities and in Denver last year, but failed to convince voters, winning only 41% of the vote.

South Dakota becomes the first state where voters defeat an initiative to legalize medical marijuana. In every state where it had gone to the voters as a ballot measure, medical marijuana had emerged victorious. But voters in the socially conservative, lightly populated Upper Midwest state narrowly rejected it in November. The measure lost 48% to 52%.

California's medical marijuana movement is under sustained attack by the feds and recalcitrant state and local officials and law enforcement. This year, it seems like barely a week goes by without a new raid by the DEA or unreconstructed drug warriors in one county or another. San Diego has been particularly hard-hit, but we also reported on a spate of raids in October, and there have been more since. The feds have also started their first medical marijuana prosecution since the 2003 Ed Rosenthal fiasco, with Merced County medical marijuana patient and provider Dustin Costa going on trial last month.

Hundreds die from overdoses of heroin cut with fentanyl, but the official response is almost nonexistent -- except for increased law enforcement pressure. With injection drug users falling over dead from Boston to Baltimore, Philadelphia to Detroit and Chicago, an estimated 700 people have been killed by the deadly cocktail. We reported on it in June, but the wave of deaths continues to the present. Just last week, more than 120 medical experts, public health departments, and drug user advocates sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt urging him to take aggressive action. Ho-hum, who cares about dead junkies? Not the federal government, at least so far.

Plan Colombia continues to roll along, adding fuel to the flames of Colombia's civil war while achieving little in the realm of actually reducing the supply of cocaine. The US Congress continues to fund Plan Colombia to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, even though despite six years of military assistance and widespread aerial eradication using herbicides, it now appears that production is higher than anyone ever thought. Perhaps a Democratic Congress will put an end to this fiasco next year, but Democrats certainly can count influential Plan Colombia supporters among their ranks -- incoming Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman and presidential hopeful Joe Biden (DE), to name just one.

Afghanistan is well on its way to becoming a true narco-state. The US war on terror and the US war on drugs are on a collision course in Afghanistan, which now, five years after the US invaded, produces more than 90% of the world's illicit opium. This year, Afghanistan's opium crop hit a new record high of 6,100 metric tons, and now, US drug czar John Walters is pressuring the Afghans to embrace eradication with herbicides. But each move the US and the Afghans make to suppress the opium trade just drives more Afghans into the waiting arms of the Taliban, which is also making enough money off the trade to finance its reborn insurgency. Meanwhile, the Afghan government is also full of people getting rich off opium. Everyone is ignoring the sensible proposals that have put on the table for dealing with the problem, which range from an economic development and anti-corruption approach put forward by the UN and World Bank as an alternative to eradication, and the Senlis Council proposal to license production and divert it to the legitimate medicinal market.

Australia is in the grips of Reefer Madness. While some Australian states enacted reforms to soften their marijuana laws in years past, the government of Prime Minister John Howard would like to roll back those reforms. The Australians seem particularly susceptible to hysterical pronouncements about the links between marijuana and mental illness, and they also hold the unfathomable notion that marijuana grown hydroponically is somehow more dangerous than marijuana grown in soil. Over the weekend, the national health secretary announced he wants to ban bongs. That's not so surprising coming from a man who in May announced that marijuana is more dangerous than heroin. Hopefully, saner heads will prevail Down Under, but it isn't happening just yet.

Government to Open Opium Processing to Private Firms

Location: 
New Delhi
India
Publication/Source: 
Times of India
URL: 
http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/NEWS/India/Govt_to_open_opium_processing_to_private_firms/articleshow/843197.cms

Afghanistan: Government Warns of Possible Poppy Crop Spraying

Location: 
Kabul
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
United Nations Integretated Regional Information Networks (IRIN News)
URL: 
http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/IRIN/52be6f726b83c13d72b098c292febb74.htm

Southwest Asia: US Drug Czar Announces Afghanistan Will Spray Opium Poppies

Office of National Drug Control Policy head John Walters announced Saturday at a Kabul press conference that Afghanistan's poppy crops will be sprayed with herbicides in an effort to put a crimp in the country's booming opium and heroin trade. But the Afghan government, which is not enthusiastic about spraying, has yet to confirm Walters' pronouncement.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/poppy2-small.jpg
opium poppies
This year, Afghan opium production increased 49% over last year, and the country produced 6,100 metric tons of opium, or 670 tons of heroin. That's 90% of the illicit opium supply, and more than the world's junkies can shoot, smoke, or snort in a year. This as the US spent $600 million on anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan this year.

Afghanistan will become a narco-state unless "giant steps" are taken to rein in production, Walters said. "We cannot fail in this mission. Proceeds from opium production feed the insurgency and burden Afghanistan's nascent political institutions with the scourge of corruption."

The problem for Walters and the US is that embarking on widespread eradication is also likely to feed the insurgency as farmers and traders turn to the Taliban for protection from the central government and the "infidels." The Taliban is already doing just that, and it is using opium profits to fund its resurgence. So far this year, 189 NATO and US troops and some 4,000 insurgents have been killed in fighting, by far the largest toll since the US overthrew the Taliban in late 2001.

On top of that, after decades of war, Afghans are very leery of chemicals being dropped from planes. President Karzai himself earlier rejected spraying, saying herbicides proved too great a risk and could contaminate water and kill crops growing beside the poppies.

But Walters said Karzai has agreed to spraying, which will use glyphosate, the herbicide in Roundup. "I think the president has said yes, and I think some of the ministers have repeated yes," Walters said without specifying when spraying would start. "The particulars of the application have not been decided yet, but yes, the goal is to carry out ground spraying."

The Associated Press reported that Gen. Khodaidad, Afghanistan's deputy minister for counter-narcotics, said the government hadn't yet made any decisions. But the AP also quoted an unnamed Afghan official who said the government was studying the issue.

"We are thinking about it, we are looking into it. We're just trying to see how the procedure will go," said the official.

The Drug Czar Has Another Brilliant Idea

Afghanistan is in flames. The Taliban are resurgent. The opium economy provides livelihoods for millions of Afghans. And now, US drug czar John Walters announces over the weekend, that Afghanistan will begin spraying the poppy fields with glyphosate, the same stuff we've been using with such great success in Colombia against the coca crops. (After six years of Plan Colombia spraying, the coca crop in Colombia is about the same size it was when we started.) The government of President Hamid Karzai has resisted the resort to poisoning the crops, citing the risk of water contamination and the possible destruction of adjacent legal crops. What it doesn’t say out loud, but which must factor into its calculations, is the impact an aggressive poppy eradication campaign will have on the political loyalties of the millions who depend on the opium trade to feed their families. The Taliban are already scoring points and winning new recruits by offering to protect farmers from the government and the "infidels." I find it illuminating that it was Walters, the American drug proconsul—not Karzai, the nominal head of the Afghan government—who made the announcement. It demonstrates not only the Afghan government's hesitation to embrace the widely-feared herbicides, but also the extent to which Afghanistan remains an American fiefdom. In fact, the Afghan government has yet to announce that it has agreed to the use of herbicides. But that didn't stop Walters.
"I think the president has said yes, and I think some of the ministers have repeated yes," Walters said without specifying when spraying would start. "The particulars of the application have not been decided yet, but yes, the goal is to carry out ground spraying. We cannot fail in this mission," he said. "Proceeds from opium production feed the insurgency and burden Afghanistan's nascent political institutions with the scourge of corruption."
Funny, that. They grow opium in Australia and France and India and Turkey, but they don't have problems with black market proceeds fueling political violence or corrupting the authorities in those countries. Oh—that's because it's a legal, regulated market. Walters' planned herbicide war against the Afghan poppy will not do anything to address that dynamic. And to the degree that it is "successful," it will only increase the profits of the traffickers and increase the flow of money to the Taliban (and, apparently, half of the Afghan government). Mr. Walters, you can have your war on terror or you can have your war on drugs. You can't have both and hope to win either.
Location: 
Kabul
Afghanistan

US Anti-Drug Chief: Afghan Poppies To Be Sprayed With Herbicide

Location: 
Kabul
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
Associated Press
URL: 
http://www.iht.com/articles/ap/2006/12/09/asia/AS_GEN_Afghan_Drugs.php

Poppy Business Booms in Western Burma

Location: 
CH
Myanmar
Publication/Source: 
Mizzima News
URL: 
http://www.mizzima.com/MizzimaNews/News/2006/Dec/08-Dec-2006-16.html

Pentagon Resists Pleas for Help in Afghan Opium Fight

Location: 
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
Los Angles Times
URL: 
http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-afghandrugs5dec05,0,6275736.story?coll=la-home-headlines

Feature: World Bank-UN Report Offers Grim Assessment of Afghanistan Opium Battle, Says Winning Will Take Decades, Not Years

The effort to wipe out opium production has achieved limited success at best, hurt the poorest Afghans, and riddled the government with corruption from top to bottom, according to a comprehensive report released Tuesday by the United Nations and the World Bank.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/worldbankreport.jpg
World Bank report
"Afghanistan's Opium Economy" says the counter-narcotics effort in Afghanistan is failing and the presence of opium in the national economy is so great that it infiltrates not only the economy, but the Afghan state, politics, and society. Providing a real alternative will take decades, not years, the study warns.

Afghanistan produced 6,100 tons of opium this year -- enough to make 610 tons of heroin -- and is line to produce even more next year. Opium accounts for at least one-third of the Afghan GDP, and profits from the trade end up in the pockets of government ministers, warlords, traffickers, and Islamic radicals alike. But with opium employing 13% of the workforce, it is also farmers, rural laborers, transporters, and gunmen -- and their families -- who earn a living off the trade.

Efforts to eradicate opium crops have the greatest adverse impact on the poor, the study found. If alternative development is going to take hold in the country, planners must keep that in mind, said Alastair McKechnie, World Bank Country Director for Afghanistan.

"Efforts to discourage farmers from planting opium poppy should be concentrated in localities where land, water, and access to markets are such that alternative livelihoods are already available," he argued. "Rural development programs are needed throughout the country and should not be focused primarily on opium areas, to help prevent cultivation from further spreading."

"The critical adverse development impact of actions against drugs is on poor farmers and rural wage laborers," said William Byrd, World Bank economist and co-editor of the report. "Any counter-narcotics strategy needs to keep short-run expectations modest, avoid worsening the situation of the poor, and adequately focus on longer term rural development."

"History teaches us that it will take a generation to render Afghanistan opium-free," said Antonio Maria Costa, executive director of UNODC, who used the release of the report to argue for a dual approach of aid and repression. "But we need concrete results now," he said, proposing to double the number of opium-free provinces from six to 12 next year. "I therefore propose that development support to farmers, the arrest of corrupt officials and eradication measures be concentrated in half a dozen provinces with low cultivation in 2006 so as to free them from the scourge of opium. Those driving the drug industry must be brought to justice and officials who support it sacked."

Despite his tough talk, what Costa did not say was that his proposal amounted to a recognition that effective eradication is impossible in the primary opium-producing provinces of the country this year. Although the World Bank-UN report barely mentions them, a resurgent Taliban, grown rich -- like everyone else -- on the profits of protecting the trade, has been a big reason why.

"Now that the control is more in the hands of the Taliban and their supporters, there is less hope for eradication and more people are involved and looking to make money, so the chances for success are not good," said Raheem Yaseer of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. "I am less optimistic than I was even a few weeks ago," he told Drug War Chronicle. "The British were talking a lot about concentrating on eradication in Helmand province, but they didn't do much because they were too busy fighting the Taliban. If nothing is done, it will be worse next year."

Those trying to get rid of opium will be up against not only the Taliban but also elements of the government itself. "This report emphasizes the way counter-narcotics efforts have been manipulated and perverted to result in a concentration of power," said Brookings Institution expert on illicit substances and military conflict Vanda Felbab-Brown. "Governors, provincial chiefs, district police chiefs -- people like these were tasked with eradication or interdiction, but they used their power to target their opposition or competition," she told the Chronicle. "Essentially, local actors were able to capture counter-narcotics efforts and use them to not only consolidate control and power over the drug industry, but also increase their political power. Counter-narcotics policy is being perverted to help create a new distribution of power in Afghanistan."

The report also confirms some emerging trends that signal even more trouble in the future, Felbab-Brown noted. "One of the things confirmed in the report is the increasing concentration and hierarchical organization of the drug economy in Afghanistan," she said. "This has been a trend that the report confirms is taking place. The warlords and commanders are vanishing from the visible drug economy. They no longer trade directly; these guys with positions of power inside the government are instead now taking protection money. They are not directly participating in the trade, but they are still participating."

The UN's Costa can call for six more opium-free provinces and the Americans and the Karzai government can daydream about success through chemical eradication, but this sobering document from the sober people at the World Bank and the UN is just the latest to send a strong signal that the global drug prohibition regime has tied itself in knots in Afghanistan.

Southeast Asia: Myanmar Military Turns Blind Eye to Allied Ethnic Militias' Opium Trade

With Afghanistan dominating opium production worldwide for the past few years, countries like Myanmar (Burma) have seen their share of global production decline and have been quick to holler to the heavens about how they are fighting the good fight against drugs. But a report from the Shan Herald Agency for News (SHAN) suggests that the Myanmar military is only suppressing opium production among groups with which it is in conflict (like the Shan) while simultaneously protecting growing and trafficking by militias linked to ethnic groups it favors, like the Wa, Lahu and Kachin.

Citing eyewitness accounts and its own forays into the area, SHAN found that such groups have reached a quid pro quo with the military: They help the ruling junta by providing control over their respective territories, and in return, the military leaves their opium business alone. The ethnic militias also provide economic benefits to military leaders, including expensive gifts to officers and their wives.

Opium production in Myanmar has been declining for a decade, and has shrunk from 1,700 tons in 1997 to 680 tons last year. The military junta has used that decline to woo the United Nations and Western countries, who have isolated the Yangon regime because of its repressive policies. But SHAN complains that the figure is misleading. Tough eradication campaigns have been aimed at ethnic enemies of the junta, like the Shan, while ethnic groups allied with the regime have received a free pass.

Now, while Shan peasants have been forcibly relocated or had their crops destroyed, poppy cultivation is spreading among government-favored ethnic groups in the northeast, SHAN reported.

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