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Pot Politics

It's going to be a lot of pot politics in the Drug War Chronicle this week. With the November elections now little more than a month away, there are developments in both Colorado and Nevada, the two states where measures that would free the weed are on the ballot. In Colorado, SAFER Colorado campaign director Mason Tvert is debating Colorado Attorney General John Suthers today.

In Nevada, the Committee to Regulate and Control Marijuana reported late last week that its internal polling shows its initiative leading by a margin of 49% to 43%. I'm starting to think that maybe, just maybe, this will be the breakthrough year where we actually win a legalize marijuana campaign. But now, organized opposition is starting to rear its ugly head in both states. This week, I'll be reporting on both states, and I'll be trying to talk to some of these opponents and some neutral observers as well as the usual suspects.

Pot Politics: Marijuana and the Costs of Prohibition is also the title of a new book edited by SUNY-Albany psychology professor Mitch Earleywine. It includes chapters by a number of folks who should be familiar to readers of the Chronicle, including Marijuana Policy Project communications director Bruce Mirken, the Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative's Charles Thomas, and marijuana economist Jeffrey Miron. My review copy just arrived, but I intend to suck it down in the next couple of days and have a review ready for this pot-heavy issue.

My boss, Dave Borden, will grumble. We are the Drug Reform Coordination Network, not the Marijuana Reform Coordination Network, he will point out. He will want some balance, something about harm reduction or sentencing or treatment. Well, we'll get some of that this week, but it'll just be in the news briefs. This is a marijuana week.

Location: 
United States

Barnett Rubin Lectures the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Afghan Opium

On Thursday, I crossed back into the US from British Columbia and spent the day listening to all the back and forth over Chavez's "devil" comments as I drove across Washington, Idaho, and Montana. About 4am, I checked into a motel in Broadus, Montana—which is about 150 miles from nowhere in any direction—flipped on the tube, and lo and behold, there was Afghanistan scholar Barnett Rubin giving the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a tutorial on the complications of US Afghan policy. What really caught my attention was Rubin's closing remarks. Unfortunately, the C-Span video link to Rubin's remarks isn't working as I type these words (but perhaps is by the time you are reading them; give it a try), but the good professor basically lectured the committee on the foolishness of attempting to wipe out the opium crop. Addressing the senators as if they were a group of callow undergrads at a seminar, Rubin explained that the only way to deal with the opium problem was to regulate and control it. That caused Sen. Frank Lugar (R-IN) to stir himself from his lizard-like torpor long enough to mutter something to the effect that "this is a big issue for another day." Here is what Rubin had to say in his prepared remarks:
"The international drug control regime, which criminalizes narcotics, does not reduce drug use, but it does produce huge profits for criminals and the armed groups and corrupt officials who protect them. Our drug policy grants huge subsidies to our enemies. As long as we maintain our ideological commitment to a policy that funds our enemies, however, the second-best option in Afghanistan is to treat narcotics as a security and development issue. The total export value of opiates produced in Afghanistan has ranged in recent years from 30 to 50 percent of the legal economy. Such an industry cannot be abolished by law enforcement. The immediate priorities are massive rural development in both poppy-growing and non-poppy-growing areas, including roads and cold storage to make other products marketable; programs for employment creation through rural industries; and thoroughgoing reform of the ministry of the interior and other government agencies to root out the major figures involved with narcotics, regardless of political or family connections. "News of this year’s record crop is likely to increase pressure from the US Congress for eradication, including aerial spraying. Such a program would be disastrously self-defeating. If we want to succeed in Afghanistan, we have to help the rural poor (which is almost everyone) and isolate the leading traffickers and the corrupt officials who support them."
What he actually said at the end of his testimony was even stronger. Check it out if that damned C-Span link ever actually works.
Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

US Raps Venezuela, Myanmar on Illegal Drug Trade

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
Reuters
URL: 
http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/18/AR2006091801303.html

Bolivia Drug Fight Faulted: The White House Cited Concerns About Contributions to the Illegal Drug Trade By Bolivia

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States
Publication/Source: 
Associated Press
URL: 
http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/news/15552243.htm

A Look Inside Brazil's Drug "Commands"

Brazil, Latin America's largest and most populous nation gets surprisingly little press in the US. The mass media paid some attention back in May, when the country's "commands"--the criminal gangs formed in Brazil's prisons that control the drug trade and act as a de facto government in some of the favelas (ghettos) surrounding Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro--rose up in open rebellion against the Brazilian state. But since then, the silence in the US press has been deafening. Fortunately, not everyone in the English-speaking press is asleep at the wheel, and I want to use this opportunity to recommend an article from Britain's Observer magazine. Called Blood Simple, the piece by Tom Phillips is an interesting capsule history of the commands and a frightening look at the war between the state and the gangs. Here are the opening paragraphs, just to whet your appetite: "Blood simple Four months ago, the hostility between Sao Paulo's police and gangs erupted into violence - the result was open warfare. Tom Phillips reports from a city caught in a spiral of terror Sunday September 17, 2006 The Observer The taxi driver squints uncomfortably. 'It's like fire there,' he warns ominously, as I pass him the address on the eastern limits of Sao Paulo. We cut through block after block of grimy, graffiti-clad housing. Ahead, ragged shantytowns cling to the hilltops; behind us a trail of abandonment stretches back towards the city centre, in the form of empty warehouses and cracked windows. As we begin the descent towards our final destination, the driver looks nervously into his rear-view mirror. A police car's flashing siren ushers us to a standstill. Under the gaze of their Taurus revolvers we are hauled out of the vehicle, told to place our hands on the car roof and given an invasive frisk down. When we are finally sent on our way, after a 10-minute interrogation, the driver is apologetic. 'I had to pull over,' he mumbles. 'If you don't, they open fire.' Welcome to the periferia of Sao Paulo; the impoverished outskirts of one of the world's largest cities, where hundreds of thousands of immigrants who came to the megalopolis in search of gold-paved streets have been abandoned to their own dismal fate." There is much, much more about what is going on in one of the worl'd largest cities. Check it out.
Location: 
Sao Paulo, SP
Brazil

Afghan Fighting Blamed for Opium Bonanza

Location: 
Afghanistan
Publication/Source: 
The Daily Telegraph
URL: 
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2006/09/15/wafg15.xml

Latin America: Colombia's FARC Guerrillas Say End Drug Prohibition

In a communiqué sent this week to the New Colombia News Agency (ANNCOL), Colombia's leftist rebels the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) called for the worldwide legalization of the drug trade to put an end to black market drug trafficking and its associated profits. The unusual communiqué also carried a FARC denial that it owned coca fields in the southern Colombia's Macarena Mountains.

"FARC neither sows, nor owns, nor processes, nor transports nor commercializes any kind of narcotic substance or psychotropic product," said the communiqué from the guerrillas' highest decision-making body, the Secretariat.

The Colombian and US governments have accused the FARC of profiting from the coca and cocaine trade, but it is unclear what this means in practice. Some reports have said that the FARC's involvement is limited to taxing the crops and the trade.

Colombian media had recently alleged that the FARC owned some 7,000 acres of coca fields in the Macarena National Park, thus apparently sparking the FARC's denial. According to the long-lived guerrilla group, the coca fields are owned and worked by thousands of peasants who have no other way of making a living.

While the FARC has called for sustainable coca eradication programs in the past, it seemed to be singing a different tune this week. "We are convinced that the battle against the cancer of narco-trafficking con only be won definitively by elaborating a global strategy that includes the legalization of these products, because this will put an end to fabulous profits that they generate," the statement said.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

There is something rotten in the state of Tennessee, with the stench of police corruption stretching from the banks of the Mississippi to the hazy ridges of the Great Smoky Mountains, and this stuff is pretty rotten. Meanwhile, there's an apparent case of, er, overly aggressive policing in Florida and the mandatory prison or jail guard in trouble. Let's get to it:

In Cocke County, Tennessee, former Cocke County Sheriff's Department Chief Deputy Patrick Allen Taylor's guilty plea to conspiring to sell thousands of dollars of stolen NASCAR goods is only the tip of the iceberg of corrupt, criminal activities in the Cocke County Sheriff's Department, federal prosecutors alleged in a motion seeking a prison sentence far higher than federal sentencing guidelines call for, the Knoxville News-Sentinel reported Monday. According to prosecutors, Taylor was involved in robbery schemes, extortion, protection rackets, cockfighting, ripping off drug dealers, and tolerating drug use among department insiders. Taylor is the nephew of former Sheriff DC Ramsey, who resigned under pressure in the same federal corruption probe that has now brought down his nephew. Known as "Rose Thorn," the federal operation has led to the arrests of eight Cocke County lawmen and 170 other people, and has led to the closure of brothels, cockfighting pits, and a video amusement company. For more on the whole sordid affair, check out the News-Sentinel's special report, "Cocke County Confidential."

In Memphis, former Reserve Memphis Police Officer Andrew Hunt pleaded guilty last Friday to robbing drug dealers of cash, cocaine, and personal belongings. He could face up to life in prison, but that's unlikely since he has agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, the Memphis Commercial Appeal reported. Three other Memphis police officers have already been indicted in the case, and more indictments could be coming, prosecutors warned. Hunt was part of "a gang of corrupt uniformed officers" who ripped off at least 20 drug dealers, prosecutors said. And these guys were really sleazy: In one case, Hunt stole drugs, cash, and a $15,000 watch from one dealer, then told him he could buy his drugs back. When the dealer came up with $9500 in cash, Hunt took the money and kept the drugs.

In Surfside, Florida, police are investigating charges two Surfside police officers conspired to plant drugs in the vehicle of a local civic activist, Miami TV station Local 10 News reported September 7. Two officers, Sgt. John Davis and Officer Woody Brooks, have been suspended after allegedly plotting to plant cocaine in the car of Jay Senter, who had previously tangled with Sgt. Davis over the case of a French couple cited for numerous code violations and fined hundreds of thousands of dollars for renting homes in Surfside to vacationers. According to the allegations, Davis and Brooks were overheard plotting to plant the drugs in retaliation for Senter's reporting another officer to the FBI in the code violations case. Interestingly, Surfside Vice Mayor Howard Weinberg told Local 10 the same officers had conspired to arrest him for drunk driving near a local bar and release the dashboard camera video in a bid to embarrass him, but the plot was foiled because he only drinks iced tea when he goes out. Another, anonymous local official told Local 10 Davis was behaving "like a Nazi" toward political opponents.

In Westchester, New York, a Westchester County prison guard was sentenced to probation last week for interfering in a drug investigation, the North Country Gazette reported. Timothy Connolly, 39, pleaded guilty to one count of second degree hindering prosecution and one count of drug possession. He will be under supervision for the next five years. Connolly was arrested during a combined investigation by the Westchester District Attorney Narcotics Initiative (W-DANI), Yonkers Police, New York State Police and Westchester County Department of Correction Special Investigations Unit, and was told to keep his mouth shut about the bust. But he later warned one of the main targets of the investigation he was being watched, told him to "shut down" his cocaine sales operation, and advised him not to use his phone because it was being monitored. Connolly was fired from the Westchester County Department of Correction on September 7, the same day he pleaded guilty.

Money Laundering

This "Prohibition in the Media" post is not tied to a particular article. If you do a Google News search on "drug money laundering," you'll get a list of over 1,400 articles. These are only the ones that the news outlets still have online -- the global financial system is virtually "awash" in illicitly-generated revenues, much of it from the drug trade. Of course, it has to be that way under prohibition -- because we've made drugs illegal, all the money that people spend on them goes into the criminal underground. That's hundreds of billions of dollars per year -- I've seen estimates ranging from $150 billion (the RAND Corporation) to $400 billion (the UN) -- and it has an enormous increasing effect on violence rates. The local dealer protecting his turf, to the vicious source or transit country cartel trying to intimidate press or the authorities, to the terrorist organization using the relatively easy-to-get proceeds of drug sales to augment its budget and be able to kill more innocent people, these are just a few of the ways that prohibition has made our world a more dangeous place in which to live. I've written about that here before. The main point I'd like to make today is the effect of the flow of the money itself. If a drug lord is able to buy or build a city, for example -- it is said that the skyscrapers making up the Bangkok, Thailand skyline were built with drug money -- that gives him an enormous amount of influence going beyond his original illegal business. When our investigators of possible terrorist activity try to track the flow of that kind of money, that must be made more difficult to pinpoint given the ocean of drug money in which it is immersed. And of course anyone happening to stand in the way of some of the money is a potential weak link for corruption. Does drug money have an effect on how some international aid dollars get spent? Probably. I don't say that because of any particular examples to which I have access. It's just that there's so much drug money, in so many places, that it seems like it must have some such impact here and there. We need to drain the flooded basement before we'll have a chance of being able to clean it up. That first means blocking off the pipes that are spilling into it. Which in the case of drug money means... legalization. We are going to say "legalization" over and over until the point sinks in with people. In the meanwhile, we would be most grateful if readers could bring our attention to any particularly interesting money laundering stories you spot, especially stories that involve some additional harm resulting from it. (We'd also appreciate if you have or know of some relevant images that are in the public domain that we could use on our web site.)
Location: 
United States

Feature: Afghan Opium Crop Hits Record as Violence Increases

Things are not going well in Afghanistan. In a stunning admission that the hundreds of millions of dollars spent trying to eradicate the country's opium crop had accomplished little, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced Saturday that this year's Afghan opium crop is up a "staggering" 60% over last year and will yield a record 6,100 tons this year, leading to a global surplus in black market heroin.

Opium is the backbone of the Afghan economy, accounting for somewhere between 35% and 50% of gross national product, and Afghan opium is the backbone of the global traffic in narcotics, now accounting for 92% of total illicit global production, according to UNODC.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/eradicationteam.jpg
opium eradication team (photo from the Senlis Council report, photo library section)
Meanwhile, US soldiers and NATO forces, who took over operations in the restive south of the country earlier this year, are being killed at a record pace as Taliban and Al Qaeda rebels reinvigorated by profits from the opium trade are taking the battle to the foreigners and the government they prop up. And in a reflection of the increased NATO role, for the first time, NATO casualties are keeping pace with American casualties. In what is turning into the bloodiest year so far for Afghanistan's occupiers, 73 NATO troops and 74 American soldiers have been killed so far. Last year, the second bloodiest since the US invasion nearly five years ago, 99 US and 31 NATO troops were killed in fighting.

"The news is very bad. On the opium front today in some of the provinces of Afghanistan, we face a state of emergency," UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa told a Kabul news conference after presenting results of its crop survey to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. "In the southern provinces, the situation is out of control."

In southern Helmand province, now a hotbed of Taliban activity, cultivation rose by a whopping 162% and accounts for 42% of total Afghan opium cultivation, the UNODC said. Costa told the Kabul news conference that NATO must step up its role in fighting the opium trade, especially in the south, where it is helping to fuel the Taliban insurgency.

"We need much stronger, forceful measures to improve security or otherwise I'm afraid we are going to face a dramatic situation of failed regions, districts and even perhaps even provinces in the near future," Costa said.

But while NATO commanders late this week called urgently for more troops on the ground in the south, they have little interest in fighting the drug war. NATO's official position is that its mandate is for stability and peace-keeping, not counternarcotics.

Still, there is pressure from the Americans and the British to try to wage both the war on terror and the war on drugs simultaneously. The top American anti-drug official in Afghanistan, Doug Wankel, told the press conference the need was urgent. "This country could be taken down by this whole drugs problem," he told reporters. "We have seen what can come from Afghanistan, if you go back to 9/11. Obviously the US does not want to see that again."

But analysts consulted by Drug War Chronicle warned that attempting to quash the opium economy and fight the Taliban at the same time is a recipe for disaster. "Paradoxically, the more they go after opium production, the more they strengthen the bond between the Taliban and the population and the traffickers," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government Affairs. "It is a difficult conundrum. There can be no fundamental progress on either the narcotics problem or stabilization in general unless we deal with the insurgency," she told the Chronicle.

"The Taliban have now once again become integrated into production in the south," Felbab-Brown explained. "After 2001, they were pretty much forced out of the drug trade because they were fleeing and because the US and coalition forces were not going after drug trafficking. But now, the traffickers need someone to protect them, to scare off the eradication teams and the state presence, and the Taliban is providing this protection. It is also exploiting the eradication effort," the expert on illicit drugs and military conflict said. "They are handing out leaflets saying things like 'We are the Taliban. Isn't it awful that Karzai under the pressure of the foreign infidels is trying to destroy our crops. Here's our cell phone number. Give us a call.' So now, the Taliban is not only profiting financially, it is also gaining the allegiance of the population by providing protection."

"Things are a bit out of control because so many things happening in Iraq and the Middle East keep the superpowers' eyes off of Afghanistan, so the intruders have more opportunities to accelerate their destruction and illegal activities," said Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "At the same time, the coalition and the Karzai government are too busy fighting the Taliban and Al Qaeda to concentrate on eradication," he told the Chronicle.

"The Taliban is moving into the areas where there is drug cultivation, and they receive support from farmers who have had their crops destroyed or threatened," Yaseer continued. "Thus, the traffickers and growers have a bit more freedom than usual. That's why business is booming for the drug dealers. There are too many fronts to deal with, and eradication is just one front."

Solutions are hard to come by. "Nobody knows what the answer is," Yaseer conceded. "Out of those billions of dollars they are spending, they need to use some to compensate farmers and create other jobs and projects. People in the provinces are unemployed and hungry, and the terrorists offer them money to join them. People turn to the Taliban and the terrorists and the drug dealers because that's where the money is. The government and the coalition cannot compete with the money drug dealers offer. It doesn't help that there is such nepotism and involvement of high level officials in the trade. That only makes it all the more difficult to enforce the drug laws. Many government officials are supporting the trade, not fighting it."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/opium-smaller.jpg
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"There is no doubt lots of government officials are complicit in the trade, but focusing on individuals is a mistake," noted Felbab-Brown. "This isn't about individuals, but about deep structural factors like the lack of stability, security, and economic development. Whoever is in power, whether honest or corrupt, will have to contend with these issues. The honest ones will confront the fact that there is nothing but poppy-growing for much of the population. The only way they can do eradication now is at gunpoint, and that is not the way to carry out a legitimate, widely-embraced policy. Forced eradication generates instability and opposition from the people, and ambitious politicians in the south will link up with the Taliban."

For Felbab-Brown, it comes down to doing counterinsurgency right. "It is critical to increase the number of forces, to increase the troop presence and the delivery of aid," she said. "It's difficult to deliver aid during an active insurgency, but it is vital. But we also need patience, especially on the narcotics issue. The big pressure for premature eradication coming from Washington and international organizations needs to be resisted. We need more money, more troops, more development. Is this international community willing to provide these resources?"

Being patient with the opium economy is getting closer to the correct approach, said Ted Galen Carpenter, a foreign affairs and drug policy analyst with the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. "The only solution is one that no one in any position of influence in Washington or the NATO capitals will consider -- drug legalization," he told Drug War Chronicle. "That would take the black market profits out of the drug trade. It is the ultimate solution. If they won't consider legalization, the very least they can do is look the other way with regard to the drug trade. That worked in Peru in the 1980s, when the Peruvian generals figured out that leaving the coca crop alone dried up support for the Shining Path. Something similar needs to occur in Afghanistan, whether they admit it or not. If they are serious about preventing a further rebound of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, they need to lay off the drug war."

Trying to wage both the war on terror and the war on drugs undermines US policy in the country, Carpenter argued. "There is a fundamental inconsistency in the US nation-building strategy in Afghanistan. The primary goal remains to undermine the Taliban and Al Qaeda, but the problem is if they go after the drug trade, they alienate a major portion of the population and strengthen support for the Taliban. Even trying to prosecute the war on drugs there undermines the primary US goal in Afghanistan."

One European defense and development group, the Senlis Council, has proposed for nearly a year now that the Afghan opium crop be licensed, legalized, and diverted to the legitimate medicinal market. Senlis was harshly critical of Western policy this week.

"Huge amounts of money have been spent on large and costly military operations, but after five years southern Afghanistan is once more a battlefield for the control of the country," said Senlis executive director Emmanuel Reinert as he announced the publication of a new report on the rebirth of the Taliban. "At the same time Afghans are starving. The US has lost control in Afghanistan and has in many ways undercut the new democracy in Afghanistan. I think we can call that a failure, and one with dire consequences which should concern us all. The US policies in Afghanistan have re-created the safe-haven for terrorism that the 2001 invasion aimed to destroy."

But the Senlis licensing proposal is getting little respect or traction and is unlikely to prevail, said Yaseer. "I don't think the Senlis Council proposal will get very far," said Yaseer. "There is all kinds of opposition to any legalization. The religious groups will not support it, the legislators will not support it. There are also serious questions about whether it would just open up more venues for growing and trafficking."

Questions, questions. There are lots of questions in Afghanistan, but few good answers.

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