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Feature: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly -- The Top 10 Drug Policy Stories of 2008

With 2008 now rapidly receding in the rear-view mirror, it's time to reflect on the year that was in drug policy. Drug War Chronicle published around 500 separate articles on all aspects of drug policy in 2008 -- national and international, state and local -- and while it's difficult to winnow it all down, below are the stories, processes, and themes we think make up the 10 most important drug reform stories of the year (in no particular order):

Massachusetts Voters Overwhelmingly Pass Marijuana Decriminalization

Marijuana legalization still appears a distant chimera, but three decades after the initial spurt of states decriminalizing marijuana, we may be seeing the beginnings of a new round of successful decriminalization moves. Nevada decriminalized, or defelonized, in 2001, becoming the first state to do so since the 1970s, and in November, Massachusetts approved a decrim initiative with 65% of the popular vote. It goes into effect today, making the Bay State the 12th state to make the possession of small amounts of pot an infraction, not a crime.

New Hampshire could have become the next decrim state last year after a decrim bill surprisingly passed in the House, but it was later killed in the Senate. Suburban Chicago Heights, Illinois, however, adopted decrim in December, and local initiatives making adult marijuana possession offenses the lowest law enforcement priority -- which would result in de facto decrim if law enforcement actually obeyed them -- passed in Hawaii County, Hawaii, and Fayetteville, Arkansas, adding them to a list that now includes Ann Arbor, Denver, Seattle, a half-dozen California communities, and Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

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signs of life in Congress
Michigan Voters Overwhelmingly Pass Medical Marijuana

Medical marijuana continues its long march across the states. The biggest victory this year came in Michigan, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative with 63% of the vote, making Michigan the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. That will undoubtedly help ongoing legislative efforts in states like Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, and Ohio. In Minnesota, a bill that had passed the Senate in 2007 stalled in the House in the face of veto threats, while in New York, the Assembly passed a medical marijuana bill only to have it see no action in the Senate. Kansas saw its first legislative hearing ever on a medical marijuana bill, although that bill died a few weeks later. Last month, a New Jersey medical marijuana bill won a Senate committee vote and is still alive.

NORA Goes Down to Defeat in California

If marijuana fared well in the November elections, the same thing can't be said for a massive sentencing reform initiative in California. The Non-Violent Offenders Rehabilitation Act (NORA) would have broadened and deepened the Proposition 36 sentencing reforms passed in 2001, but, faced with powerful and deep-pocketed opponents, including drug czar John Walters, the California prison guards' union, and drug court professionals, NORA went down in defeat with only 39% of the vote.

There was more bad news, too: While rejecting NORA, voters approved the Crime Victims Bill of Rights Act, which blocks local authorities from granting early release to prisoners to alleviate overcrowding and mandates that the cash-strapped state -- officials say they will begin issuing IOUs instead of cash payments as soon as March -- fully fund corrections to ensure no prisoners are released early. At least, voters rejected an even more onerous initiative, the Safe Neighborhoods Act, which, while aimed mainly at gang members, violent criminals, and criminal aliens, would also have increased sentences for meth offenses and provided for the expulsion from public housing of anyone convicted of a drug offense. It looks like "tough on crime" still trumps "smart on crime" in the Golden State.

Signs of Life in Congress

After six years of Republican domination of both the executive and legislative branches in Washington, Democrats took back control of the Congress in the November 2006 elections, and by 2008, some small stirrings on drug reform were becoming evident. Not that we expect to see congressional Democrats end the drug war, but every little bit helps.

In February, efforts to finally begin to undo the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity got a boost when a House committee held hearings on it. The next month, the Senate passed the Second Chance Act, which had already been passed by the House and which will provide assistance to prisoners reentering society. President Bush signed that bill in April. Even the Republicans seem to have come around a little bit. Several of them supported bills that would address the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and Republican votes helped get the Second Chance Act over the top.

One bill that Bush would never sign -- it is unclear whether Obama would -- is Rep. Barney Frank's (D-MA) federal marijuana decriminalization bill, the first such bill introduced in decades. Don't hold your breath on this one, but even getting a bill filed in Congress represents progress. In another sign of changing times, in August, Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY) and 25 cosponsors introduced a bill to end the federal ban on needle exchange funding. A similar bill by Serrano lifted Congress's ban on the District of Columbia government spending its own resources on needle exchange.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) also played an increasingly prominent role in pushing for sentencing and drug policy reform. Using the Joint Economic Committee as his pulpit, he held a 2007 hearing on sentencing and followed that up with a June hearing on the economic and social costs of current drug policies. We sure didn't see anything like that during the years the GOP controlled the Congress.

Not that it's all good on the Hill. Congressional Democrats continued to play the politics of tough on crime and drugs, especially around the issue of funding federal grants to support those multi-jurisdictional anti-drug law enforcement task forces. But from a drug policy perspective, 2008 was a much better year on the Hill than any in this decade. As for 2009, well, that's another article.

Salvia Divinorum and the Prohibitionist Impulse

Efforts to ban the hallucinogenic Mexican plant salvia divinorum picked up pace in 2008, a perfect expression of the reflex prohibitionist response to any new substance. Although the plant has been used by Masatec shamans for centuries, it is new on the recreational drug scene, and that's enough for cops and legislators to want to shut it town, even though the DEA, which has studied it for years, has not moved to do so. Given the scant -- at best -- evidence of any harm done by using it, the only justification for banning it is the idea that somebody somewhere is getting high and must be stopped.

In 2008, California made Salvia sales to minors a misdemeanor (effective yesterday, 1/1/09), while Florida, Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, and Virginia all banned it or its active ingredient, Salvinorin A. At this writing, a similar bill is on the desk of Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland. Other states where salvia ban efforts were underway in 2008 include Nebraska, South Carolina, Alabama, Massachusetts, and Texas.

The six states that banned it in (or whose previously passed bans went into effect in) 2008 joined Delaware, Louisiana, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Tennessee, which had all banned it since 2005. 2008 also won the dubious distinction of being the year of the first known arrests in the US for salvia charges. In North Dakota, Kenneth Rau was arrested after ordering $40 worth of salvia leaves on eBay and faced years in prison. It's not known what happened in his case. And in Nebraska, Lincoln shop owner Christian Firoz was arrested for selling salvia even though the plant is not illegal there. He was creatively charged under a law banning the sale of substances for the purpose of intoxication. His trial is pending.

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Salvia Divinorum Google ads continued to run on South Dakota news sites after Rau was busted.
Great Britain Embraces Reefer Madness, Moves Backward on Marijuana

Britain had taken a bold step forward when, heeding the recommendations of numerous advisory panels, it downgraded marijuana from a Class B to a Class C drug in 2004. But in May, desperate to burnish its tough on drugs and crime credentials, a flailing Labor government announced it was returning marijuana to Class B. Labor was aided and abetted in turning public opinion against marijuana by a Reefer Madness-style tabloid campaign that would have made William Randolph Hearst blush. For weeks on end, credulous tabloid readers were treated to headlines along the lines of "Son twisted by skunk knifed father 23 times," "How cannabis made me a monster," "Escaped prisoner killed man while high on skunk cannabis," "Boys on skunk butchered a grandmother," and "Teen who butchered two friends was addicted to skunk cannabis" -- and that's just from one newspaper, the Daily Mail.

Since then, the Reefer Madness campaign has subsided somewhat, only to be replaced by a steady diet of "cannabis factory" bust stories, with grow ops being busted on a daily basis and their operators too often hustled off to gaol. The steady drumbeat of sensational press stories may help explain declining support for drug reform in recent polls. In any case, marijuana goes back to being a more serious offense at the end of this month, and Britain marches resolutely backward into the last century.

America Wages Ineffective War Against Poppies and Islamists in Afghanistan

2008 was the bloodiest year yet for American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, where 155 American troops and 138 NATO troops were killed, along with uncounted thousands of Afghan rebels and civilians. While the country saw a slight reduction in opium cultivation and production, Afghanistan still produces more than 90% of the global opium supply, and that fact leaves the West with a terrible paradox: Try to eliminate the drug trade and face driving Afghan peasants into the waiting arms of the Taliban, or ignore the drug trade and let the Taliban profit to the tune of $100 million a year or more. That buys a lot of shiny new weapons to shoot at foreign troops and their Afghan government allies.

NATO and the US military want nothing to do with pissing off poppy-planting peasants, much to the dismay of the State Department and the drug warriors, but in October reluctantly agreed to enlist in the war on poppies by targeting drug traffickers associated with the Taliban -- but not those associated with the government in Kabul. Afghanistan is possibly the most serious foreign policy crisis facing the United States, the situation is deteriorating, and the drug war and drug prohibition were right in the middle of it.

America Gets High, Mexico Bleeds

Mexican President Felipe Calderón took office in December 2006 and immediately sent in the army to battle that country's so-called cartels. It hasn't gone well: Since then, more than 7,000 people have been killed in prohibition-related violence, with 2008's toll alone climbing above 5,000 as the multi-sided violence escalated. The Chronicle was there -- in person -- reporting on the military takeover of Reynosa in February, covering a conference on alternatives to the drug war in Sinaloa Cartel hometown Culiacán in May, and reporting on efforts to address military impunity for drug war human rights violations on that same trip.

Since then, matters have only deteriorated, with little sign of any improvement on the horizon. And the US is determined to make matters worse, with the Bush administration and the Congress approving a three-year, $1.4 billion "Plan Mérida" aid package to provide anti-drug assistance to the Mexican police and military. But with drug corruption scandals in law enforcement there occurring on an almost weekly basis, it is difficult to see how even a massive aid package is going to make much difference.

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marijuana legalization march, Mexico City
The continuing violence -- and its roots in American appetites for drugs and desires to prohibit them -- is having a perhaps not unexpected result: As the casualties mount and the costs increase, the Mexican public and Mexican politicians of all stripes have begun debating whether there might be a better path. In August, the opposition Democratic Revolutionary Party (PRD) said it was time to put legalization on the table, a move that won some favor with Mexicans in a poll the following month. A week later, President Calderón announced his party would consider decriminalizing possession of small amounts of all drugs, and the following month, majority members of the Mexico City city council introduced a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession and allow for cannabis coffee shops in the Mexican capital.

Mexico is living with the bloody results of drug prohibition that makes the violence of American cities pale by comparison. And that is provoking, finally, some outside the box thinking.

The Endless War Against Coca and Cocaine

There was little for American policymakers to applaud when it came to the Andean drug war last year. Nine years and $5 billion after Plan Colombia commenced, Andean coca production is essentially unchanged, and the GAO reported that it had not succeeded on its own terms. Still, Washington remains committed to Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, one of its few friends remaining in the region, despite the ineffectiveness of eradication and interdiction and despite continuing human rights violations as denounced by Amnesty International in a November report.

Meanwhile, Bolivian President Evo Morales joined Washington bête noire Hugo Chávez of Venezuela in throwing out the DEA (Chavez did it in 2005, Morales in October), as relations between the Bolivarian allies and the US grew extremely chilly, especially after President Bush listed them as the only countries in the hemisphere to be decertified as not cooperating in US drug policy goals. Only part of the problems were directly related to drug issues, but Morales and Chávez proved adept at parlaying regional angst over America's drug war into a broader offensive against the colossus of the north. Now, Bolivia will go it alone on drug policy, leaving US desires behind.

In Peru, meanwhile, President Alan García's mid-year deployment of the military to coca growing zones in a twin bid to eradicate crops and weaken a resurgent Shining Path produced little more than unhappy results. Pressure on coca growers in the southern valleys produced coca grower incursions on indigenous lands, while the fight against the Shining Path produced only the highest military and police death toll since the bloody insurgency was defeated in the early 1990s. Now, largely stripped of its Maoist ideology, but equipped with shiny new weapons bought with the profits of prohibition, the Shining Path is reemerging.

The Prohibitionist Consensus Erodes in Latin America

2008 saw significant movement toward alternatives to prohibition and the drug war in Latin America, some of the most important ones coming from the courts. In April, an Argentine court threw out drug possession charges against two young men on the grounds they were unconstitutional, and five weeks later, a Brazilian appeals court ruled the same way. One week after that, another group of Argentine jurists threw out marijuana possession charges against a young man, saying criminalizing drug possession without demonstrating harm to others was unconstitutional. By July, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was calling for decriminalization of drug possession.

Meanwhile, in London in May, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos called for debating cocaine legalization, and at the end of July, Ecuadorian President Rafeal Correa pardoned hundreds of low-level drug mules, saying it was absurd to imprison them. In October, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya joined the growing chorus, saying that drug possession should be decriminalized and hinting at larger legalization.

And, as noted above, there are the legalization noises now coming from Mexico, as well as the disdain for US prohibitionist policies from Bolivia and Venezuela. While Washington has been distracted, it looks like a sea change is getting under way down south.

Feature: Gazing Into the Crystal Ball -- What Can We Expect in 2009?

In the other feature article in this issue, we looked back at last year, examining the drug policy high and lows. Here, we look forward, and not surprisingly, see some of the same issues. With a prohibitionist drug policy firmly entrenched, many issues are perennial -- and will remain issues until they are resolved.

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gazing into the future of drug policy reform '09 (picture from wikimedia.org)
Of course, America's drug war does not end at our borders, so while there is much attention paid to domestic drug policy issues, our drug policies also have an important impact on our foreign policy. In fact, Afghanistan, which is arguably our most serious foreign policy crisis, is inextricably intertwined with our drug wars, while our drug policies in this hemisphere are also engendering crisis on our southern border and alienation and loss of influence in South America.

Medical Marijuana in the States

In November, Michigan voters made it the 13th medical marijuana state and the first in the Midwest. Now, nearly a quarter of the US population resides in medical marijuana states, and it is likely that number will increase this year. Legislative efforts are underway in Kansas, Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, and New York, among others, and chances are one or more of them will join the club this year. Interest in medical marijuana is also emerging in some unlikely places, such as Idaho, where one legislator has vowed to introduce a bill this year, and South Dakota, where activists who were defeated at the polls in 2006 are trying to get a bill in the legislature this month.

California's Grand Experiment with Medical Marijuana

As with so many other things, when it comes to medical marijuana, California is a different world. With its broadly written law allowing virtually anyone with $150 for a doctor's visit to seek certification as a a registered medical marijuana patient, and with its thriving system of co-ops, collectives, and dispensaries, the Golden State has created a situation of very low risk for consumers and significant protections even for growers and sellers.

With tax revenue streams from the dispensaries now pouring into the state's cash-starved coffers, medical marijuana is also creating political facts on the ground. The state of California is not going to move against a valuable revenue generator.

And if President-Elect Obama keeps his word, the DEA will soon butt out, too. But even if he doesn't, and the raids against dispensaries continue, it seems extremely unlikely that the feds can put the genie back in the bottle. The Bush administration tried for eight years and managed to shut down only a small fraction of operators, most of whom were replaced by competitors anyway.

The state's dispensary system, while currently a patch-work with some areas well-served with stores and other whole counties without any, is also a real world model of what regulated marijuana sales can look like. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth by pot foes, the dispensaries have, for the most part, operated non-problematically and as good commercial and community neighbors.

California's medical marijuana regime continues to evolve as the state comes to grips with the reality the voters created more than a decade ago. We will continue to watch and report as -- perhaps -- California leads the way to taxed and regulated marijuana sales, and not just for patients.

What Will Obama Do?

It will be a new era in Washington, DC, when President-Elect Obama becomes President Obama in less than three weeks. While the president cannot pass laws, he can provide leadership to the Congress and use his executive powers to make some changes, such as calling off the DEA in California, which he has promised to do.

The one thing we know he will not do is try to legalize marijuana. In response to publicly generated questions about marijuana legalization, his team has replied succinctly: No.

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What will President Obama do?
One early indicator of Obama's proclivities will be his selection of a replacement for John Walters, the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. While there has been speculation about some possible candidates, none of them very exciting for drug policy reformers, no candidate has yet been named.

President Obama will also submit budgets to Congress. Those documents will provide very clear indications of his priorities on matters of interest to the reform community, from the controversial program of grants to fund anti-drug law enforcement task forces to spending levels for drug prevention and treatment, as well as funding for America's foreign drug war adventures.

The conventional wisdom is that Obama is not going to expend political capital trying to undo decades of drug war policies, but perhaps the budget axe will do the talking. Goodness knows, we don't have any money to waste in the federal budget these days.

What Will the Congress Do?

Democrats now control not only the White House, but both houses of Congress. One area we will be watching closely is the progress, if any, of federal sentencing reform. There are now more than 100,000 federal drug war prisoners, too many of them low-level crack offenders serving draconian sentences thanks to the efforts of people like Vice President elect Joe Biden, a long-time congressional drug warrior. Several different crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity bills have been introduced. The best was authored by Biden himself, a sign of changing times, if only slowly changing. It is past time for one of these bills, hopefully a good one, to pass into law.

Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced a federal marijuana decriminalization bill last year. The best prediction is that it will go nowhere, but we could always stand to be pleasantly surprised.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), head of the House Judiciary Committee, has emerged as a strong critic of federal interference in state medical marijuana programs. Conyers could use his position to highlight that issue, and possibly, to introduce legislation designed to address the problem of federal interference.

One area where the Congress, including the Democratic leadership, has proven vulnerable to the politics of tough on crime is the federal funding of those anti-drug task forces. In a rare fit of fiscal sanity, the Bush administration has been trying for years to zero out those grants, but the Congress keeps trying to get them back in the budget -- and then some. We will be watching those funding battles this year to see if anything has changed.

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Coca Museum, La Paz, Bolivia
Mexico

With the death toll from prohibition-related violence topping 5,000 last year, Mexico is in the midst of a multi-sided war that is not going to end in the foreseeable future, especially given America's insatiable appetite for the forbidden substances that are making Mexican drug trafficking organizations obscenely wealthy. With the $1.4 billion anti-drug military and police assistance known as Plan Merida approved last year by the Bush administration and the Congress, the US is now investing heavily in escalating the violence.

The National Drug Information Center has identified Mexican drug trafficking organizations as the nation's number one criminal threat, and chances are the violence south of the border will begin to ooze across the line. That will only add to the pressure among law enforcement and political figures to "do something." But given the current mindset among policymakers, just about anything they may be inclined to do to "help" is unlikely to be helpful.

The cartel wars in Mexico are also having an impact on Mexican domestic politics, with President Felipe Calderón's popularity suffering a significant decline. The angst over the escalating violence has already provided an opening for talk about drug policy reform in Mexico, with the opposition PRD saying that legalization has to be on the table, and Calderón himself announcing he wants to decriminalize drug possession (although how that would have any noticeable impact on the traffic or the violence remains unclear).

Look for the violence to continue, and watch to see if the resulting political pressure results in any actual policy changes. Drug War Chronicle will likely be heading down to Tijuana before too long for some on-scene reporting.

The Andean Drug War

... is not going well. Despite pouring billions of dollars into Plan Colombia, coca production there is at roughly the same level as a decade ago. Cocaine exports continue seemingly immune to all efforts to suppress them, although more appears to be heading for Europe these days. During the Bush administration, the US war on drugs in Colombia has morphed into openly supporting the Colombian government's counterinsurgency war against the leftist FARC rebels, who have been weakened, but, flush with dollars from the trade, are not going away. Neither are the rightist paramilitary organizations, who also benefit from the trade. Will an Obama administration try something new?

Meanwhile, Bolivia and Venezuela, the only countries singled out by the Bush administration as failing to comply with US drug policy objectives, have become allies in an emerging leftist bloc that seeks to challenge US hegemony in the region. Both countries have thrown out the DEA -- Venezuela in 2005, Bolivia last fall -- and are cooperating to expand markets for Bolivia's nascent coca industry. Bolivian President Evo Morales acknowledged this week that some coca production is being diverted to cocaine traffickers, but said that he does not need US help in dealing with it.

And in Peru, where President Alan García has sent out the army to eradicate coca crops in line with US policy, unrest is mounting in coca growing regions, coca farmers are pushing into indigenous territories, causing more problems, and the Shining Path insurgency, once thought decisively defeated, has reemerged, although apparently minus its Maoist ideology, as a criminal trafficking organization and protector of coca farmers. The Peruvian government blames the Shining Path for killing 25 soldiers, police, and anti-drug workers in ambushes last year. Look for that toll to increase this year.

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Afghan opium
Afghanistan

More than seven years after the US invaded to overthrow the Taliban and destroy Al Qaeda, Afghanistan is the world's largest opium producer, and has been each year since the Taliban were driven from power. While US drug war imperatives remain strong, they are in conflict with the broader objectives of the counterinsurgency there, and any efforts to suppress poppy planting or the opium trade will not only have a huge impact on the national economy, but are likely to drive Afghan farmers into the waiting arms of the resurgent Taliban, which is estimated to make hundreds of millions of dollars a year off taxing and protecting the trade. That buys a lot of guns to point at Afghan, American and NATO troops.

President elect Obama has vowed to reinvigorate the US war in Afghanistan by sending 20,000 additional troops, and NATO has reluctantly agreed to attack the drug trade by going after traffickers linked to the Taliban or various warlords -- but not those linked to the government in Kabul. Last year was the bloodiest year yet for coalition forces in Afghanistan; look for this year to top it.

Southwest Asia: US, UN Squabble Over Afghanistan Opium Production Drop, But Taliban Stash Suggests No Shortages Any Time Soon

In August, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual survey of Afghan opium production, reporting for the first time in several years a slight -- 6% -- decrease in overall production. Last Friday, the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), released its own US government estimate, claiming that production was down a whopping 31%.

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opium security map, ONDCP, July 2008, from whitehousedrugpolicy.gov
Both the UNODC and ONDCP concurred that acreage devoted to poppy production was down, but the UNODC said increased productivity in remaining poppy fields meant the decrease in production was not as great as the decrease in acreage. The ONDCP report said yields were decreasing, not increasing. Both UNODC and ONDCP agreed that 18 provinces were now poppy-free, up from 12 two years ago.

"Afghanistan needs peace, a flourishing economy and the rule of law to succeed as a democracy," said drug czar John Walters as he announced the figures. "Each of these conditions is undone by narcotics production. That is why today's news is so encouraging to the people of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been victimized for too long by the violence, misery, and addiction caused by the illegal drug trade. We look forward to continuing cooperation with the Government of Afghanistan and our allies as we work to defeat the narcotics industry and the terrorist groups that rely on the drug business to kill innocent people and attack democracy and freedom across the globe."

Despite the US report, UNODC officials in Afghanistan were sticking to their numbers. At a Kabul press conference Monday, UNODC Afghanistan head Christina Orguz said she had "high confidence" in the UNODC numbers because they were based on ground inspections, analysis of the actual opium yield of the latest crop and satellite imagery.

"Whichever figure it would turn out to be right would be a tragedy because it's still far too much produced, in any case," she said.

Both the US and the UN reported some successes in luring farmers away from the poppy crop with public information campaigns and alternative development programs. Eradication and interdiction have been less successful, but now NATO and the US have committed their forces to deeper involvement in the anti-drug effort. Still, Afghanistan remains the world's leading opium producer by far, accounting for 93% of global production.

And, if UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa is correct, Afghanistan has for the past several years produced more opium than the global illicit market can absorb. According to the UNODC, global demand for illicit opium is steady at about 4,500 tons a year, while Afghanistan has been producing considerably more for the past few years. Some 6,000 to 8,000 tons are surplus, and Costa thinks he knows where they are.

"Where is it? We have been asking," he told Time. Because of the surplus, "the prices should have collapsed," said Costa. "But there has been no price collapse."

Costa said he believed the missing opium was being stockpiled by the Taliban for lean times and as a price control mechanism. "This is classic market manipulation," he said.

So, while the US and the UN can congratulate themselves on production reductions and squabble over how big they really are, the Taliban is sitting on a gold mine of opium. At an estimated $465,000 a ton for opium, that adds up to a $3.2 billion war chest, and even a dramatic drop in production or successful eradication will not impede the Taliban's ability to wage war against the West and the government in Kabul.

Feature: NATO, US Deepen Anti-Drug Operations in Afghanistan in Bid to Throttle Taliban

The NATO and US forces battling Taliban and Al Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan are on the verge of expanding their counterinsurgency efforts by getting more deeply involved in trying to suppress the country's booming opium trade. In so doing, they are stepping into tricky territory because they risk alienating large swathes of the population that are dependent on the trade to feed themselves and their families and driving them right into the tender embrace of the Taliban.

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The new, more aggressive anti-drug stance will come in two forms. On one hand, NATO has committed for the first time to actively target and track down drug traffickers and heroin-processing laboratories. On the other hand, US military forces training the Afghan military will now begin accompanying Afghan soldiers as they provide force protection for Afghan government poppy eradication teams.

The more aggressive posture comes as the political and military situation in Afghanistan continues to worsen. Some 242 NATO and US troops have been killed in fighting there this year, 10 more than last year with two and a half months to go, and last year was the worst so far for the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Some 33,000 US troops, including 13,000 under the command of the ISAF and 20,000 under direct US command, and nearly 40,000 NATO soldiers, are now in Afghanistan, and the Bush administration is calling for an additional 20,000 US troops to be deployed there next year.

The Taliban and related insurgents have shown increased military capabilities, in part because they are able to supply themselves with funds generated by the opium trade. The United Nations estimates that the Taliban and Al Qaeda are making perhaps $100 million a year from taxing poppy farmers and providing protection to drug traffickers.

A leaked draft of an as yet unreleased US National Intelligence Estimate last week revealed that US intelligence agencies believe the war in Afghanistan is "on a downward spiral," with part of the problem resting with a corrupt government under President Hamid Karzai and part of the problem linked to the "destabilizing impact" of the opium trade.

That deteriorating situation impelled US Defense Secretary Robert Gates to head to Europe to try to bring reluctant NATO members on board for a more aggressive anti-drug strategy last week. European countries have been reluctant to step into the morass of anti-drug efforts there, citing the risk of alienating the population and arguing that law enforcement is the responsibility of the Afghan government.

"Part of the problem that we face is that the Taliban make somewhere between $60 million and $80 million or more a year from the drug trafficking," Gates said at the NATO meeting in Budapest. "If we have the opportunity to go after drug lords and drug laboratories and try to interrupt this flow of cash to the Taliban, that seems to me like a legitimate security endeavour."

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Chronicle editor Phil Smith in formerly opium growing village near Jalalabad
By last Friday, NATO had signed on. According to a Saturday NATO press release, "Based on the request of the Afghan government, consistent with the appropriate United Nations Security Council resolutions, under the existing operational plan, ISAF can act in concert with the Afghans against facilities and facilitators supporting the insurgency, in the context of counter-narcotics, subject to authorization of respective nations."

"At the request of the Afghan government, I am grateful that the North Atlantic Council has given me the authority to expand ISAF's role in counter-narcotics operations," added NATO Supreme Allied Commander US Gen. John Craddock in a statement the same day. "We now have the ability to move forward in an area that affects the security and stability of Afghanistan. It will allow us to reduce the funding and income to the insurgents, which will enhance the force protection of all ISAF and Afghan National Security Force personnel."

That's what Gates and the Bush administration wanted to hear. "It is just going to be part of regular military operations. This is not going to be a special mission," Gates said Saturday," adding that the counter-drug effort was likely to focus on the southern part of the country. "It starts with the commander of ISAF, and then it would be a question of what forces are available. Obviously the United States and the UK are interested in doing this. I think several others would but didn't speak out," he said. "I am fairly optimistic about the future," Gates said. "There is also an understanding that NATO can't fail in Afghanistan."

To that end, the US is taking another step deeper into the Afghan drug war: Using US ground troops to help eradicate poppy fields. The London Daily Mail, among other media, reported that a small number of US soldiers who are training the country's Poppy Eradication Force will accompany their charges as they head into the poppy fields around the beginning of the new year.

The idea is to target land owned by corrupt Afghan power brokers, especially in southern Helmand province, which accounts for the majority of Afghanistan's 93% share of global opium production. That is also an area where the Taliban presence is heavily felt. Some 75 Afghan eradicators were killed last year.

"There shouldn't be any no-go areas for eradication teams in Helmand, and in order to do that they are going to need more force protection," an unnamed British embassy counter-narcotics official told the Daily Mail. "Land that's controlled by major land owners, corrupt officials or major narco-figures is land that should be targeted. Having force protection is more likely to make that possible.'"

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incised papaver specimens (opium poppies)
A US military spokesman told the Daily Mail there are 11 US soldiers training the Afghan Counter Narcotics Battalion in Kandahar. They will deploy along with Afghan soldiers on eradication missions, he said.

The US has long argued for stronger eradication efforts, but was rebuffed by the Karzai government when it floated the idea of aerial spraying earlier this year. But with manual eradication wiping out only 3.5% of the crop this year, pressure to do more is strong. The question is whether doing more to fight the drug trade will help or hinder the effort to build a strong, stable government in Kabul.

"This whole issue has been discussed in different forums in Afghanistan for some time now, said Sher Jah Ahmadzai, an associate at the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "The government rejected aerial eradication for various reasons, even though it was desired by the US. But this NATO move is being welcomed by the government and the international agencies because now they are targeting the drug lords, not the farmers themselves. If you go after the farmers, it could backfire on NATO and the Afghan government, so going after the big drug lords is the viable option now. Everyone knows who they are," he said.

But not all drug lords are equal, said Ahmadzai. "There are many drug lords who are involved in the government, there are high ministers who are believed to have been drug lords before they were appointed, there are a number of people in the provincial governments who are involved, but the government is not going to go after them because that could create a backlash," he said. "But the other drug lords, the ones who are openly supporting the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they will go after them."

Only with a stronger Afghan state sometime in the future would it be feasible to actually go after all drug traffickers, said Ahmadzai. "The next phase would be strengthening the Afghan government so it can purge itself," he said.

But Ahmadzai's view is much rosier than some. Critics of the move said it would only worsen the insurgency. "The NATO governments did say they will try to target drug trafficking operations that seem to be in league with the Taliban and Al Qaeda, which makes this policy shift merely unwise instead of egregiously unwise," said Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "But pressuring NATO and the Karzai government on this simply guarantees that we will drive many people back into the arms of the Taliban, and that's a short-sighted strategy," he argued.

"The Americans have been training Afghan counter-narcotics forces, but they were creating problems for the government because they were aiming straight at the farmers, and the farmers would go straight to the Taliban," agreed Ahmadzai. "If you go after the farmers, you risk alienating them. If you don't, the Taliban and Al Qaeda profit. It's really a double-edged sword."

"The underlying problem is that the drug trade is such a huge part of the Afghan economy," said Carpenter. "The UN says there are some 509,000 families involved in growing or other aspects of the drug trade. If you just consider a standard nuclear family, that's about 15% of the population involved in the drug trade, but when you consider that Afghanistan is very much an extended family- and clan-based society, the real number is more like a third to 40% of the population earning a livelihood off the drug trade. There is no realistic way to shut that down."

There is an alternative, said Carpenter. "US policy-makers could just look the other way, ignore the drug commerce, and focus on trying to weaken the Taliban and Al Qaeda, our mortal adversaries," he said.

While that would leave the Taliban and Al Qaeda free to fund themselves from opium profits, that's a price we would have to pay, Carpenter said. "No doubt those groups derive revenue from the drug trade, but unfortunately for our strategy, so do Karzai's allies. Most major power brokers are involved in some way with the illegal drug trade. It's such a lucrative enterprise because of the black market premium that anyone who exercises power and influence in that society is tempted to get involved."

Noting that the NATO plan to go after only traffickers linked to the insurgency would in effect remove the competition for government-linked drug traffickers, Carpenter said the decision was no surprise. "I don't think that is a deliberate motive, but to the extent that the Karzai government is interested in cooperating, it will be precisely because it will eliminate the competition for those traffickers with backing in Kabul. Expecting the Kabul government to truly suppress the trade would be like asking Japan to eliminate its auto and high-tech industries. It isn't going to happen," he said.

And deeper into the morass we go.

Feature: US Lists "Major" Drug Producing and Trafficking Countries, Names Only Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela as Not Complying

In their annual exercise in congressionally-mandated diplomatic hubris, the Bush administration and the US State Department Tuesday released its FY 2009 List of Major Illicit Drug Producing Countries, but only placed three countries -- Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela -- on their list of countries that had "failed demonstrably" to adhere to the US interpretation of the international anti-drug conventions and to the mandates of the Foreign Relations Authorization Act.

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Bolivian coca (source: US State Dept.)
President Bush named 20 countries as major drug producers or transit countries: Afghanistan, The Bahamas, Bolivia, Brazil, Burma, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, and Venezuela. But while Afghanistan dominates global opium production, Colombia is the world's leading cocaine exporter, and Mexico is the primary conduit for drugs entering the US, Bush and his spokespersons aimed most of their criticism at Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela.

Bolivia is the third largest coca producer, behind Colombia and Peru, and the US has been critical of President Evo Morales' "zero cocaine, not zero coca" policies that have allowed a gradual expansion of the coca crop while at the same time working to interdict cocaine produced from coca diverted to the black market. Burma is a distant second to Afghanistan in opium production, but also a leading source of methamphetamine for Asian black markets. Venezuela does not produce drug crops, but is accused by US officials of not adequately fighting the flow of Colombian cocaine through its territory on the way to European markets.

More importantly, all three countries are current political foes of the Bush administration. The Burmese military junta has been criticized for years by Washington on numerous grounds, while Bolivia's Morales and Venezuela's Chávez are at the core of a Latin American leftist bloc that is challenging US domination in the region and is now in the midst of a diplomatic showdown with Washington. Both Venezuela and Bolivia threw out US ambassadors last week in the midst of a still-unresolved dispute between Morales and conservative opposition governors in Bolivia's resource-rich eastern provinces.

"The Venezuelan government's continued inaction against a growing drug trafficking problem within and through its borders is a matter of increasing concern to the United States," said Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs David Johnson at a Tuesday afternoon briefing on the determination. "Despite Venezuelan assurances that seizures have increased, the amount of drugs bound for the United States and Europe continues to grow," he said. Perhaps as importantly: "Venezuela has refused to renew its counternarcotics cooperation agreements with the United States, including refusing to sign letters of agreement to make funds available for cooperative programs to fight the trafficking of drugs from and through Venezuela to the United States," Johnson said.

And although Johnson conceded that Bolivia "does have a number of effective, US-supported coca eradication and cocaine interdiction programs," he warned that "its official policies and actions have caused a significant deterioration in its cooperation with the United States. President Morales continues to support the expansion of licit coca leaf production, despite the fact that current legal cultivation far exceeds the demand for legal traditional consumption and exceeds the area permitted under Bolivian law."

The expansion of cultivation had resulted in an increase of 14% in coca cultivation and an increase of potential cocaine production from 115 to 120 metric tons, Johnson claimed. He also cited the recent departure of US AID workers and DEA agents from Bolivia's Chapare coca-producing region at the firm request of the coca growers' unions backed by the Bolivian government.

"The US government's determination that Bolivia 'failed demonstrably' to adhere to counternarcotics obligations seems to demonstrate the political nature of this process," said Kathryn Ledebur of the Cochabamba-based Andean Information Network. "It is worth noting that in his press statement, Assistant Secretary Johnson felt the need to highlight that the determination was not 'a hasty decision,' because it was just that -- a hasty response to the expulsion of Ambassador Goldberg," she said.

"Word from several Capitol Hill sources just days before Goldberg's expulsion was that while there were concerns, there was no way to justify saying Bolivia had 'failed demonstrably' in its obligations," Ledebur continued. "This is the third determination since Morales was elected and the fourth since the adoption of the cato system [allowing selected farmers to grow small coca crops], yet this is the first time they chose to decertify Bolivia."

Ledebur also pointed out that while the US criticized Bolivia for growing coca in excess of legal traditional consumption and above the 12,000 hectare ceiling established by Law 1008, that ceiling had never been honored. "At the peak of US-funded forced eradication and other repressive eradication policies, coca production was never reduced to the ceiling," she noted.

"I'm not at all surprised because the drug certification process has been so tainted and archly politicized," said Larry Birns, executive director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington, DC-based think tank. "So you can predict that if the US has taken a certain line toward Bolivia and Venezuela, there will be a negative drug certification. The US always has a hidden test, and that's the nature of Washington's relationship with the country in question."

Birns pointed to the Clinton administration's refusal to decertify Mexico in the wake of the 1993 NAFTA agreements, although Washington had ample evidence of significant drug corruption in the Mexican government. At the same time, it refused to certify Colombia as cooperating in the drug war despite its real efforts because it accused then President Ernesto Samper of having received funding from drug traffickers during his presidential campaign. There are also non-drug examples of the politicization of certification exercises, according to Birns, who cited Reagan administration claims that El Salvador was improving its human rights situation during their civil war in the 1980s, and the Bush administration's use of the terrorism designation in order to pressure North Korea on its nuclear ambitions.

The Bolivian government was quick to challenge US figures and the whole certification process. In a Wednesday speech in La Paz, Morales countered with a UN report from earlier this summer that saw only a 5% increase in cultivation, then went on the offensive. "There should be a certification process for those who are fighting drug trafficking by eliminating the consumer market,'' Morales said. "Drug trafficking responds to the market." Morales also attacked the entire notion of US certification: "These are political decisions,'' Morales said. "We're not afraid of these campaigns against the government using black lists."

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was similarly -- if predictably -- scathing Wednesday in remarks reported by Agence France-Presse "The United States can say whatever it likes," Chávez said. "That is pure garbage. It is not true. They can release whatever list they like. What do we care about this list? They can shove it in their pocket, they are no moral authority to make any lists."

At the Tuesday State Department press briefing, an anonymous reporter used the last question to ask about the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Referring to the criteria for a country's inclusion on the "majors list," he asked: "If the Majors was applied to the United States, it would be on the list, too, correct? 5,000 hectares of cannabis and a major -- and a place through which drugs flow?"

"I don't know," Assistant Secretary Johnson evaded. "I don't want to tell you something I don't know. And I'll look into that for you. I'm not trying to dodge your question. I just don't -- I don't know."

Feature: Afghan Opium Production Declines Slightly From Record Levels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editorial: It's Everybody Else Who's Crazy

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
There's an article appearing in the upcoming New York Times Magazine this weekend, pre-released online, that would be funny -- if it weren't appearing in one of the world's most influential publications, that is, and if it hadn't been written by someone who until recently had great influence in an area of policy that he so woefully misinterprets. In "Is Afghanistan A Narco-State?," former Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Thomas Schweich blasts Afghans, Europeans, Democrats, the media -- even the Pentagon -- for "preventing the implementation of an effective counterdrug program."

As Jacob Sullum points out in Reason, the answer to the question of whether Afghanistan is a narco-state is "yes." But what Schweich doesn't ask is, why does opium have this power to corrupt governments, empower extremists, warp the economy of an entire nation? After all, there is plenty of legal opium growing around the world, for medical uses, that doesn't have this effect. The answer is: Afghanistan's opium crop is illegal. But because lots of people still want opium and its derivative products like heroin, for their illegal uses, and are willing to pay lots of money for them, there are others who are willing to take the risk that engaging in illegal activity entails, in order to earn the heightened profit that the illegality and risk makes available. In other words, it is drug prohibition that has turned Afghanistan into a narco-state.

Schweich points out that there are places where the opium crop got pushed out before -- Guatemala, nearby Southeast Asia, Pakistan -- and that's what he wants to see in Afghanistan. But another obvious question that he fails to ask is, did this actually reduce the supply of opium and opiates? Or did it simply move the growing to other countries? (Hint: It moved to Afghanistan -- the country we're talking about -- right next to Pakistan.)

The other obvious question is, why did all those different people -- all those different kinds of people -- fail to support Schweich's agenda? After all, there couldn't be any good reason not to support releasing large quantities of poisonous chemicals into the air (for eradication); or not to try to wipe out an enormous fraction of Afghanistan's economy and the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of people, at the very time when the Taliban wants to win their loyalty, could there?

Maybe it's because these Afghans and Europeans and US military officials aren't crazy. Maybe it's because they've actually listened to what scholars have to say about this: eradication doesn't work, it drives farmers into the hands of the Taliban, security has to come first, you can't just tell a hundred thousand people in the world's fifth poorest nation to give up their primary income source with no viable replacement. Could they have taken the positions they've taken, made the decisions they've made, because they are intelligent and informed and logical and practical?

To the Schweichs of the world, it's everybody else who's crazy -- or wrong, or corrupted -- anyone but him. And no matter how many times his policies fail to produce the desired result when measured meaningfully, it's okay. Because that's a detail that doesn't merit asking a question about -- certainly not in an article written for the New York Times -- and he's busy fighting drugs. Which obviously we have to continue to do, in the way we have done before -- because -- because we just do. Evidently no matter what, as far as the Schweichs of the world are concerned.

Southwest Asia: Former US Anti-Drug Official Accuses Afghan Government of Complicity in Drug Trade -- US and NATO Not Doing Much Either, He Complains

Former State Department official Thomas Schweich, who was the US government's point man in the effort to wipe out the opium and heroin trade in Afghanistan until last month, has accused Afghan President Hamid Karzai of protecting drug traffickers and obstructing anti-drug efforts in an article to be published in the New York Times magazine on Sunday, but which appeared on the newspaper's web site Wednesday night.

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opium poppies
"While it is true that Karzai's Taliban enemies finance themselves from the drug trade, so do many of his supporters," Schweich wrote. "Narco-corruption went to the top of the Afghan government," he wrote, adding that drug traffickers were buying off hundreds of police chiefs, judges and other officials. Schweich accused Karzai of resisting heightened anti-drug efforts and opposing the eradication of opium poppy fields, long a dream of US drug warriors.

"Karzai was playing us like a fiddle," Schweich wrote. "The US and its allies would fight the Taliban; Karzai's friends could get rich off the drug trade; he could blame the West for his problems; and in 2009 he would be elected to a new term."

The Karzai government wasn't the only problem, Schweich wrote. He criticized both the US military and NATO forces for indifference, if not outright hostility, toward the anti-drug battle and argued that failing to cut Taliban profits from the drug trade means fighting could continue indefinitely.

"The trouble is that the fighting is unlikely to end as long as the Taliban can finance themselves through drugs -- and as long as the Kabul government is dependent on opium to sustain its own hold on power," he said.

Almost everyone is to blame for the Afghan drug mess, the now-retired drug warrior fumed. "An odd cabal of timorous Europeans, myopic media outlets, corrupt Afghans, blinkered Pentagon officers, politically motivated Democrats and the Taliban were preventing the implementation of an effective counter-drug program," he said.

In a Thursday press conference in Kabul, Karzai rejected Schweich's charges."As I had said two years ago, Afghanistan never takes the blame (for the drugs threat). The Afghan nation due to desperation, war... has been forced to resort to this issue," Karzai replied when asked to respond to Schweich's comments. "Without doubt, some Afghans are drugs smugglers, but majority of them are the international mafia who do not live in Afghanistan," he said.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium. Production has expanded dramatically since the US invaded and overthrew the Taliban in late 2001.

Middle East: Iraq Becomes Key Conduit in Global Drug Trade

America's two-front "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq is resulting in a one-two punch to US efforts to strangle the global drug trade. Afghan opium production has famously shot through the roof in the years since US forces invaded and overthrew the Taliban, and now, Iraq is emerging as a key player in the global drug trade, according to Iraqi and UN officials consulted by Agence France-Presse.

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Afghan opium
Many of the drugs being smuggled into and through Iraq to European and Middle Eastern markets are coming from Afghanistan via Iran, where the Islamic Republic is hard-pressed to patrol remote trafficking routes along its border with Afghanistan, officials said.

While hard numbers are hard to come by, Iraqi officials said the trade in illegal opiates, cannabis, and pills has risen steadily since the US invasion in 2003. They point to numerous drug trafficking arrests at border crossings with Iran, as well as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"A large number of smugglers are being arrested," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf told AFP, adding that many were being detained in the southern Iraqi provinces of Basra and Maysan, both of which border Iran.

"The smugglers transfer hashish and opium across at Al-Shalamja at the Iranian border and Safwan near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border," an anti-narcotics agent in Basra said on condition of anonymity. "Some of them are arrested from time to time, including Iranians and even Syrians," he said, adding that the smugglers used mainly trucks to haul their cargo into the Gulf region.

"The drugs come from Iran, then they are sold at the Saudi border," said a local police officer in Samawa in Muthanna province who did not want to be named. "Smugglers are young and they use motorcycles or animals to cross the desert late at night."

Iranian authorities say they seized about 900 tons of an estimated 2,500 tons of drugs that entered the country from Afghanistan last year. While Iran has arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate, Iranian officials estimated that more than 1,000 tons of drugs, mostly opium, heroin, and cannabis, transited the country on its way elsewhere last year.

The International Narcotics Control Board is also raising alarm bells. "Illicit drug trafficking and the risk of illicit cultivation of opium poppy have been increasing in some areas with grave security problems," it said, referring to Iraq in a report published last year.

"Drugs follow the paths of least resistance, and parts of Iraq certainly fit that description," an official of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime told AFP.

Not all the drugs are just passing through embattled Iraq. "Though official data are lacking, it appears that drug abuse in Iraq has increased dramatically, including among children from relatively affluent families," the INCB said in its report.

Southwest Asia: West Threatens to Block Iran Drug Aid Over Nuclear Issue

With Afghan opium and the heroin made from it flooding into Europe, Iran is one of the first bulwarks in the effort to stem the tide. But now, the West is threatening to condition further anti-drug assistance on Tehran's compliance with its demands that the Islamic Republic halt uranium enrichment.

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International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
Since the overthrow of the Taliban, Iran and the West had quietly cooperated in efforts to block the trade from Afghanistan. United by a common loathing for the Sunni insurgents, Iran and the West were able to work together on this issue. But that is now in doubt.

The threat came in a package of incentives presented June 14 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, France, Britain, China, Russia) and Germany in a bid to get Tehran to change its nuclear policy. Iran has repeatedly said it will not stop enriching uranium, and now the European Union is considering wider sanctions, including ending cooperation with Iranian anti-drug efforts.

The package promised Iran "intensified cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking" from Afghanistan, but only if it first stops uranium enrichment. Tehran insists it has the right to use such technology and says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.

Burdened with a 560-mile-long border with Afghanistan, Iran has deployed some 30,000 soldiers and police to fight opium and heroin smuggling from its neighbor. Some 3,500 of them have been killed in the past two decades. Last year, Iranian officials reported seizing 660 tons of opium, nearly three-quarters of the total seized worldwide. Despite such efforts and a draconian Iranian response to drug trafficking offenses -- the death penalty -- Iran suffers arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate.

But not all the opium and heroin smuggled across the Iranian border stays in Iran, and that had UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa warning that Europe could be hit by a "heroin tsunami" if anti-drug aid is blocked. "We should definitely assist in this respect," he told the Associated Press this week. "Iran is a front-line country."

The UNODC's man in Tehran, Roberto Arbitrio, told the AP fighting the drug war should be seen as "a non-political area of mutual interest."

"Cooperating with Iran in Afghanistan on this and other issues is not a favor we do for Iran -- but something we need to do in our own interest," Barnett Rubin, perhaps the leading US academic expert on Afghanistan, told the AP.

"Fighting drug trafficking should not be politicized," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the top anti-drug official in Iran. "When narcotics reach Europe, it is the people, not governments, that suffer."

Such objections notwithstanding, however, drug interdiction has manifestly failed to reduce the supply, making the specter of increased drug abuse should aid be withheld an uncertain outcome.

Neither the White House and State Department nor the office of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana would comment on the linkage between continued anti-drug assistance and Tehran's compliance with Western demands.

Drug War Issues

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