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Law Enforcement: Veteran Activist Dana Beal Busted for 150 Pounds of Pot in Nebraska

Long-time marijuana legalization activist Dana Beal was one of three men arrested October 1 in Ashland, Nebraska, after they were pulled over in a traffic stop and police seized 150 pounds of marijuana. He and the other two men, Christopher Ryan of Ohio and James Statzer of Michigan, are being held in the Saunders County Jail, with bail set at $500,000 for Beal and $100,000 for Ryan and Statzer. Beal, an erstwhile Yippie activist from the 1970s and permanent fixture on the counterculture scene, heads the New York City-based organization Cures Not Wars, which advocates for the use of ibogaine as a treatment for drug dependence. But he is more widely known for acting as an information clearing house for the annual legalization rallies held each May in more than 200 cities around the planet known as the Global Marijuana March or Million Marijuana March. The men were traveling from California, where they had attended the annual conference of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) the previous week. According to local media reports, police stopped the van in which they were riding for "driving erratically," and when the police officer approached the vehicle, he saw "several bags of marijuana in plain view." He then called for assistance, and police then found multiple duffel bags of marijuana, totaling 150 pounds, throughout the vehicle. Last year, Beal was arrested in Illinois on money-laundering charges after police there seized $150,000 in cash and a small amount of marijuana from his vehicle. The money-laundering charges were later dropped, and Beal pleaded guilty to misdemeanor marijuana possession. The state of Illinois kept the money. Beal's supporters have begun a fund-raising drive to raise the $50,000 cash bail needed to free him and to pay his legal expenses. See the Free Dana Beal Facebook page, web page, or blog for information on how you can help.
Location: 
Ashland, NE
United States

Press Release: New FBI numbers show failure of prohibition

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: September 14, 2009 CONTACT: Tom Angell - (202) 557-4979 or media@leap.cc ONE DRUG ARREST EVERY 18 SECONDS IN THE U.S. NEW FBI NUMBERS SHOW FAILURE OF "WAR ON DRUGS" WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A group of police and judges who want to legalize drugs pointed to new FBI numbers released today as evidence that the "war on drugs" is a failure that can never be won. The data, from the FBI's "Crime in the United States" report, shows that in 2008 there were 1,702,537 arrests for drug law violations, or one drug arrest every 18 seconds. "In our current economic climate, we simply cannot afford to keep arresting more than three people every minute in the failed 'war on drugs,'" said Jack Cole, a retired undercover narcotics detective who now heads the group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). "Plus, if we legalized and taxed drug sales, we could actually create new revenue in addition to the money we'd save from ending the cruel policy of arresting users." Last December, LEAP commissioned a report by a Harvard University economist which found that legalizing and regulating drugs would inject $77 billion a year into the struggling U.S. economy. Today's FBI report, which can be found at http://www.fbi.gov/ucr/cius2008/arrests/index.html, shows that 82.3 percent of all drug arrests in 2008 were for possession only, and 44.3 percent of drug arrests were for possession of marijuana. Pointing to the collateral consequences that often follow drug arrests, LEAP's Cole continued, "You can get get over an addiction, but you will never get over a conviction." Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) is a 13,000-member organization representing cops, judges, prosecutors, prison wardens and others who now want to legalize and regulate all drugs after witnessing horrors and injustices fighting on the front lines of the "war on drugs." More info online at http://www.CopsSayLegalizeDrugs.com. # # #

Europe: Londoners Fined For Marijuana Possession Are Tearing Up Their Tickets

Since the British Labor government's rescheduling of cannabis as a more serious drug went into effect in January, police have undertaken a three-pronged strategy to deal with pot smokers. A first offense garners a written warning, a second offense garners a $128 fine, and a third offense earns prosecution. But second-time cannabis offenders, those who face the fine, are not lining up to pay those fines.

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UK Parliament building, London
According to the London Standard, which filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get the data, only 42% of those ticketed had paid their fines within the regulation 21 days they are allowed. The courts will have to pursue each individual to collect the fine, a process the courts already have problems with in regard to collecting fines in general.

Of the 565 ticketed pot possessors who have failed to pay, only 13 are described by the Metropolitan Police as subject to prosecution with a court hearing pending. Another 470 are marked merely as "fine registered," with the pursuit of payment being delegated to magistrates. And 82 cases are simply marked "unpaid," although officials told the Standard those, too, would be pursued.

As interesting as the non-payment rate, however, is the window the data open on the level of cannabis enforcement in London. In the fourth period from January through April, police issued warnings to 12,482 people, issued fines to 977 second-offenders, and sent 530 third-offenders off to court.

At that rate, London police will warn, fine, or arrest about 42,000 people a year for minor cannabis infractions. Those kinds of numbers put London in the same league as New York City at the height of the Giuliani crackdown when New York City accounted for roughly 10% of all pot arrests in the United States.

Feature: America's War in Afghanistan Becomes America's Drug War in Afghanistan

As summer arrives in Afghanistan, it's not just the temperature that is heating up. Nearly 20,000 additional US troops are joining American and NATO forces on the ground, bringing foreign troop totals to nearly 90,000, and an insurgency grown wealthy off the opium and heroin trade is engaging them with dozens of attacks a day across the country. But this year, something different is going on: For the first time, the West is taking direct aim at the drug trafficking networks that deliver hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the insurgents.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Last week, hundreds of British and Afghan troops backed by US and Canadian helicopters and US jets engaged in a series of raids in southern Helmand province, the country's largest opium producing and heroin refining region, seizing 5,500 kilograms of opium paste, 220 kilos of morphine, more than 100 kilos of heroin, and 148 kilos of hashish. They also uncovered and destroyed heroin labs and weapons caches, fending off Taliban machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks as they did so.

"This has been an important operation against the illegal narcotics industry and represents a significant setback for the insurgency in Helmand Province," said Lt. Col. Stephen Cartwright, commanding officer of some of the British troops. "The link between the insurgents and the narcotics industry is proven as militants use the money derived from the drug trade as a principle source of funding to arm themselves with weapons and conduct their campaign of intimidation and violence. By destroying this opium and the drug making facilities we are directly target their fighting capability. The operation has been well received by the Afghan people."

It wasn't the first Western attack on the Afghan drug trade this year, and it certainly won't be the last. Operating since last fall on new marching orders, Western troops and their Afghan allies are for the first time engaging in serious drug war as part of their seemingly endless counterinsurgency. And they are drawing a sharp response from the Taliban, which must be seen not so much as a monolithic Islamic fundamentalist movement, but as an ever-shifting amalgam of jihadis, home-grown and foreign, competing warlords, including the titular head of the movement, Mullah Omar, disenchanted tribesmen, and purely criminal drug trafficking organizations collectively called "the Taliban."

So far this year, 142 NATO and US troops have been killed in the fighting, putting 2009 on a pace to be the bloodiest year yet for the West in the now nearly eight-year-old invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency aimed at uprooting the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies. Also dead are hundreds, if not more, Taliban fighters, and an unknown number of Afghan civilians, victims of Western air strikes, twitchy trigger fingers, and unending Taliban attacks on security forces and public places.

There will be "tough fighting" this summer and beyond in Afghanistan, top US commander Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday in remarks to reporters in Tampa. As US and NATO troops go on the offensive "to take back from the Taliban areas that they have been able to control, there will be tough fighting," he said. "Certainly that tough fighting will not be concluded just this year. Certainly there will be tough periods beyond this year," he added, noting that the Taliban insurgency is at its bloodiest levels since 2001.

That rising insurgency, financed in large part by drug trade profits, has sparked a rethinking of Western anti-drug strategy, as well as the deployment of nearly 20,000 additional troops, with some 7,000 of them headed for Helmand, which, if it were a country, would be the world's largest opium producer.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out the new thinking in testimony to the Senate last month. The West is losing the battle against opium production, he said, so instead of merely going after Taliban militants it is time to "go after" the powerful drug lords who control the trafficking and smuggling networks in Afghanistan.

"With respect to the narcotics -- the threat that is there -- it is very clearly funding the insurgency. We know that, and strategically, my view is that it has to be eliminated," Mullen said. "We have had almost no success in the last seven or eight years doing that, including this year's efforts, because we are unable to put viable livelihood in behind any kind of eradication."

While the new approach -- de-emphasized eradication of farmers' fields and targeting the drug trade, especially when linked to the insurgency -- is better than the approach of the Bush years, it is still rife with problems, obstacles, and uncertainties, said a trio of experts consulted by the Chronicle.

"We are seeing a clear shift away from eradication being the dominant focus and a clear emphasis on rural development as a way to proceed, and that is a major positive development," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar of drugs and insurgency at the Brookings Institution. "Interdiction was always nominally part of the package, but there is now a new mandate. Since October, NATO countries can participate in the interdiction of Taliban-linked traffickers. Certainly, the US and the UK are planning to vastly engage in this mission."

"The whole policy has changed," agreed Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "There was lots of criticism about the troops not going after the drug leaders and the trafficking. They were concentrating on the terrorists, but now they realize the opium traffic has actually been used to finance their activities, so now they are trying to eliminate the traffickers and promoters of the trade," he explained.

"There is more emphasis on reconstruction," said Yaseer. "There will be some compensation for people who are giving up the poppy, and shifting from poppy to saffron, things like that. Still, security is key, and there are some problems with security," he added in a masterful use of understatement.

"The administration appears at least to understand that eradication should target cartels rather than poor local farmers," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst with the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. "I hope they continue down that path; it's the best of many horrible options. The best policy would be legalization," she said, adding wistfully that she would prefer a more sensible drug policy.

"I have a feeling this is going to be a very bloody summer," said Malou. "There will be more violence because of the Afghan elections this August, as well as the Taliban's annual spring and summer offensive, which this year is going to be a sort of counteroffensive to the Western surge."

What the new emphasis on going after traffickers will accomplish remains to be seen, said Felbab-Brown. "Interdiction could provide a good reason for the Taliban to insert itself more deeply into the drug trade, or it could encourage traffickers to join the Karzai government," she said.

The effect of the new campaign on security in the countryside also remains to be seen, Felbab-Brown said. "Our reconstruction capacity is so weak after decades of neglect and a systematic effort to destroy those projects," she noted. "At bottom, though, the effectiveness of rural development programs depends on security. Without security, there is no effective program."

Western military forces also have some image-building to do, said Yaseer. "Because of wrong policies of the past and high civilian casualties, the original favorable perception of the foreign troops has changed from favorable to antagonistic. It will take some time to get back the good image."

Yaseer also had doubts about the utility of the massive foreign, mainly US, troop increase now underway. "Unless the sources of the problem, which lie in Pakistan, are attacked, adding more troops will not be very useful," he said. "They will just make the region more volatile and create more resentment, and they will provide the insurgents with a larger target than before," he said.

"The new administration's desire to change the policy makes one a bit optimistic, but again, time will tell whether the West is serious about them," Yaseer continued. Progress will depend on the nature of the operations and whether the new policies are actually implemented, whether this is real."

For Malou, the clock is ticking, and Western soldiers have no good reason to be remaining in Afghanistan for much longer. "We haven't found bin Laden in eight years, and most of the high-level Al Qaeda we've captured have been the result of police detective work, not military force. The foreign military presence in Afghanistan is perceived as a foreign occupation by many people in the region on both sides of the border, and that's poisoning the well even further," she said.

The US needs to be planning an exit strategy, said Malou. "When you look strategically and economically, the US just doesn't have a vital interest impelling us to stay in the region indefinitely," she said. "We need a timeframe for withdrawal within the next several years. We need to narrow our objectives to training security forces. I don't see any reason why we need to stay in this region any longer."

Feature: On the 75th Anniversary of the Repeal of Prohibition, Reformers Ponder the Past and Look to the Future

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the repeal of alcohol Prohibition, when Utah -- Utah!--became the 38th state to ratify the 21st Amendment to the Constitution, repealing the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act and drawing the curtain on America's failed experiment with social engineering. Repeal of Prohibition seemed unthinkable in 1930, but three years later it was history. Perhaps there are lessons to be learned as we commemorate that day.

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prohibition-era beer raid, Washington, DC (Library of Congress)
Prohibition engendered many of the same ills identified as plaguing drug prohibition today -- huge economic costs of enforcement, the criminalization of otherwise law-abiding citizens, the growth of criminal trafficking groups, corruption, deleterious public health consequences (bathtub gin, anyone?) -- and its repeal may be instructive for people working to end the drug war now. It is certainly an occasion worthy of note by anti-prohibitionists, and at least two groups, LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, used the anniversary to call this week for an end to drug prohibition.

At a Tuesday press conference in Washington, DC, LEAP unveiled a new project, We Can Do It Again!, where people are invited to send the anti-prohibitionist message to their federal representatives, and a report with the same title detailing and comparing the ills of Prohibition and current day drug prohibition. In its recommendations to policymakers, the report called for a national commission to study the true costs of drug prohibition, called on state and local legislatures and executive branches to reevaluate drug war spending, and urged "incremental reforms" and harm reduction measures in the short-term.

"In 1932, a majority of Congress realized that prohibition was ineffective," recalled Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, at the press conference, "In 1933, more than two thirds of Congress sent prohibition repeal to the States for ratification. We ended prohibition's ineffective approach to alcohol control then, and we can do it again for drug prohibition now."

The parallels between Prohibition and today's drug prohibition are many, said Sterling. "Congress embraced the term 'war on drugs' in the early 1980s as the Colombians drove the Cubans out of control of the cocaine traffic with machine gun battles on South Florida streets and shopping malls. The violence mimicked the street battles to dominate the beer and liquor trade in American cities in the 1920s, exemplified by the 1929 Valentine's Day massacre in Chicago," he noted. "In 1929 the ruthless violence of Al Capone was fueled by alcohol prohibition profits. Maintaining our current approach, in 2009, the violence of al Qaeda will be financed by drug prohibition profits. We have to stop this violence, as we did 75 years ago. In Colombia, for more than two decades, I have observed drug prohibition finance terror -- by both the enemies and the allies of the government -- that undermines the institutions of their society. Seventy-five years ago, we ended the violence of alcohol prohibition, and we must do it again. We can do it again."

"We believe there are significant similarities between alcohol Prohibition and the drug war prohibition we have going on right now," Richard Van Winkler, LEAP member and superintendent of a New Hampshire correctional facility, told the Chronicle Thursday. "Prohibition doesn't stop Americans from using any substance they choose to. We tried that in the 1920s, and it failed, and now we are trying it again. We advocate for drug legalization not because we advocate for drug use, but because as those drugs are prohibited, we will continue to fund a significant criminal element that is getting larger and more powerful every day."

Sterling and LEAP weren't the only people musing about the end of Prohibition this week. "There are significant parallels, but also dissimilarities," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "Both Prohibition and drug prohibition are products of the same Progressive Era, an era of intense temperance agitation on all levels, with a lot of religious fervor behind it. One lasted 13 years, the other is with us still."

Long-time marijuana activist Dana Beal of Cures Not Wars saw little reason for optimism in the end of Prohibition. "I think you're dreaming if you think you can apply to marijuana the experience of repeal of prohibition of the psychoactive sacrament of the Catholic Church," he said. "Think outside the box. The end of alcohol prohibition has almost zero lessons for how we get out of pot prohibition."

But his was a decidedly minority view. "One lesson we can draw from Prohibition is that it did not work very well," said Aaron Houston director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project, "and we're seeing parallels to that today. In Mexico, the drug trade violence is spectacularly awful and increasingly vicious. Heads are rolling onto playgrounds there, and the cartels are coming to the US and kidnapping American citizens. By maintaining prohibition, we are giving our money to some very, very bad people, and there is a lesson there for our current prohibition policy; I call it the Al Capone lesson," he said.

"I think what many people don't realize is that what gave the Prohibition repeal movement muscle in 1930 was the Great Depression," said Houston. "Federal income tax revenues were declining significantly. Now, we are seeing similar economic problems. I think reformers should focus on the cost of marijuana prohibition. We have 13 states that are spending more than a billion dollars a year each on prisons, and what's the payoff?"

One big difference between Prohibition and drug prohibition is the level of debate, Gieringer said. "There was a huge public debate about Prohibition, it was a dominant issue for years, but there was very little debate about drug prohibition. Even now, drug prohibition is not that much of an issue. There is a lot of very ugly stuff going on in foreign countries, but that's not here. The last time drugs were a big issue here was 20 years ago, with the crack violence in the streets of America, and that got people riled up and not in an anti-prohibitionist way."

Some of the sunnier views of both the status quo and the prospects for change come from California, where the state's loosely-written medical marijuana law has created a sort of de facto personal legalization for anyone with a little initiative and $150 for a visit to the doctor's office for a recommendation. The state's network of dispensaries, now in the hundreds, has flourished despite the DEA's best efforts, creating a real world vision of what retail marijuana sales could look like. And now, the incoming president has promised to call off the dogs.

"After being involved in this issue since 1994, I think we're seeing a need for a lot of things to shift around to end prohibition, and the perfect storm may have arrived this year," said Jeff Jones, founder of the Oakland Cannabis Buyers Club. "We have the alignment of a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president who has said he has used drugs, both soft and hard, and an economic recession. This could trigger a turn similar to that which we saw with the Great Depression and Prohibition."

Facts on the ground are creating a new reality, Jones said. "An end to prohibition is knocking at the door. There are new tax revenue streams being identified here, and public officials are starting to rethink this whole issue. And the Supreme Court's refusal to overturn the Kha case [where a California appeals court ruled that state and local police need not enforce federal drug laws; see story here] means it's over. We won with no fanfare. We don't get a badge or a checkered flag, but by default, we have won this week. It doesn't matter what the feds do. We're going to create infrastructure, jobs, and tax dollars, and we're going to change minds. The medicalization of cannabis has changed things forever, and there's no going back now," Jones prophesied.

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Speakeasy photo, with flappers (courtesy arbizu.org)
"I think with marijuana prohibition, developments on the ground can drive the lawmakers faster than anything else," said Gieringer. "We had medical marijuana in California before we ever passed Proposition 215, thanks to people like Dennis Peron. And now you have Oaksterdam and the efforts to promote that. Although that is still in embryonic form, the more we have it out there on the ground, the more people will come to accept it."

Coming out of the closet is both desirable and necessary, said Gieringer. "Most people are happy as long as drugs stay out of sight and mind, but as we've seen with the LA cannabis clubs, people have learned to be comfortable having them around. We need more of this. Drugs in general need more public visibility to gain more public acceptance," Gieringer argued. "People need to know the world isn't going to collapse, because they've forgotten what it was like a hundred years ago, when our 19th Century legal drug market worked very well."

"With alcohol Prohibition, people had living memories of life before Prohibition," agreed LEAP's Van Wickler. "The generation taking power now doesn't know life without drug prohibition. That makes the paradigm shift all the more difficult."

But even with what's going on in California, there is a long way to go, said Gieringer. Federal legalization of marijuana is unlikely, he said, and thus, so is outright legalization in the states. "I don't see any state passing legalization, in part because of the harsh federal response to medical marijuana. What we need to do is first create de facto, on the ground legalization," as is arguably or partially the case in Gieringer's home state.

The United States has pinned itself to perpetual prohibition through the UN Single Convention, Gieringer noted. Federal legalization would require modifying the convention, and that would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate. "That's a major project, given that we don't have even one senator who even supports medical marijuana, much less decriminalization," he noted dryly.

If the federal government appears unmovable in the near term, then it is going to be up to the states to push the envelope, despite the obstacles. "I think the end of marijuana prohibition is going to come with the states taking action first," said Dr. Mitch Earleywine, a leading academic marijuana expert and editor of Pot Politics. "As a number of states not only have good experiences, but also start bringing in the tax revenues, the cogs will begin to turn at the federal level. We're already seeing this in California, where the rough economic times are being buffered by medical marijuana cash."

But despite all the cautious prognostications, there is one final lesson of Prohibition that may warm reformers hearts. "One of the most cheering things about Prohibition was that even though it looked impossible to end for so long, it collapsed so quickly," Gieringer said. "In 1930, the prohibitionists said there was as much chance of ending it as a bird flying to the moon with the Washington monument tied to its tail, but within three years it was gone. The conventional wisdom of 1930 about Prohibition is the same as the conventional wisdom about repealing the drug laws now, but as we saw, things can happen very quickly."

So, tonight, toss down a cold one as you commemorate Repeal Day and hope we don't have to wait another 75 years to celebrate the end of drug prohibition. How about 7.5 years instead?

Editorial: The Coca Wars are Futile, Whereas Drug Legalization is a Win-Win

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
An August 5 article in Time Magazine, "Bolivia's Surprising Anti-Drug Success," observed that legal coca cultivation and the illicit cocaine trade are not the same thing. Despite increased tolerance for coca growing by the Bolivian government under President Evo Morales -- who came up through the ranks of the coca grower community himself to become Bolivia's first indigenous chief executive -- reporter Jean Friedman-Rudovsky notes that interceptions of illicitly grown coca destined for cocaine labs are up by 30% from 2007, and 11 tons of coca paste have been intercepted this first part of the year alone, more than in all of 2005 (the year before Morales took office), according to the country's Anti-Narcotics Special Forces (FELCN).

The point is an important one. Coca is a crop grown for generations in Bolivia and other Andean nations, and it is one that is economically needed. Cocalero leaders from Bolivia and Peru spoke eloquently to their situation, their needs -- and their rights -- at our Latin America conference convened in Mexico in 2003. Coca-based tea and candies and even soap given out by conference attendees made the point directly -- coca is not cocaine, cocaine's origin in the coca leaf notwithstanding.

Unfortunately, the article stopped there, and didn't ask the logical next question: Will Bolivia's increased drug control achievements actually reduce the global supply of cocaine?

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
If history and economics are guides, the answer is "no." From 1995 to 2000, for example, Bolivian coca cultivation declined from 51,000 hectares to only 8,000, according to State Dept. estimates. Growing went from 117,000 to 41,000 in neighboring Peru at the same time. But Colombian coca growing rose from 54,000 to 139,000 hectares -- not completely erasing the Bolivian and Peruvian reductions, but mostly erasing them. Meanwhile, US retail cocaine prices, adjusted for purity and inflation, are just a fifth of what they were in 1981, the year the DEA's price-tracking program started.

For the shift in coca growing from country to country to be so much greater than the overall change can only mean that demand is the dominant factor at work, not enforcement. For cocaine prices to drop so incredibly too, shows that eradication, interdiction and domestic policing all combined aren't even making a dent -- suppliers simply anticipate the losses by sending more, and they can afford it.

Bolivian farmers deserve better than harassment over a traditional crop they economically need, making the Morales administration's tolerance of coca growing just. But supply-side anti-drug efforts are futile in term of the ultimate goal, and people around the world affected by cocaine and the illegal trade deserve better too. Only global legalization can stop the violence and corruption that characterize the illegal drug trade. Addicted users will also feel freer to seek help when they are not considered criminals, and will be less likely to do harm to themselves or others in the meanwhile. Ending drug prohibition is a win-win proposition.

Feature: US Drug Policies Flawed and Failed, Experts Tell Congressional Committee

The US Congress Joint Economic Committee yesterday held a historic hearing on the economic costs of US drug policy. The hearing, titled Illegal Drugs: Economic Impact, Societal Costs, Policy Responses, was called at the request of Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), who in his opening remarks described the all-too-familiar failure of US drug policy to accomplish the goals it has set for itself. It was the second hearing related to incarceration that Webb has convened under the auspices of this committee.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
"Our insatiable demand for drugs" drives the drug trade, Webb pointed out. "We're spending enormous amounts of money to interdict drug shipments, but supplies remain consistent. Some 86% of high schoolers report easy access to marijuana. Cocaine prices have fallen by about 80% since the 1980s," the freshman senator continued. "Efforts to curb illegal drug use have relied heavily on enforcement. The number of people in custody on drug charges has increased 13-fold in the past 25 years, yet the flow of drugs remains undiminished. Drug convictions and collateral punishments are devastating our minority communities," Webb said.

"Our current policy mix is not working the way we want it to," Webb declared. "The ease with which drugs can be obtained, the price, the number of people using drugs, the violence on the border all show that. We need to rethink our responses to the health effects, the economic impacts, the effect on crime. We need to rethink our approach to the supply and demand of drugs."

Such sentiments coming from a sitting senator in the US in 2008 are bold if not remarkable, and it's not the first time that Webb has uttered such words:

In March of last year, he told George Stephanopoulos on the ABC News program This Week: "One of the issues which never comes up in campaigns but it's an issue that's tearing this country apart is this whole notion of our criminal justice system, how many people are in our criminal justice system more -- I think we have two million people incarcerated in this country right now and that's an issue that's going to take two or three years to try to get to the bottom of and that's where I want to put my energy."

In his recently-released book, A Time to Fight, Webb wrote: "The time has come to stop locking up people for mere possession and use of marijuana," "It makes far more sense to take the money that would be saved by such a policy and use it for enforcement of gang-related activities" and "Either we are home to the most evil population on earth, or we are locking up a lot of people who really don't need to be in jail, for actions that other countries seem to handle in more constructive ways."

Still, drug reformers may be impatient with the level of rethinking presented at the hearing. While witnesses including University of Maryland criminologist Peter Reuter, author of "Drug War Heresies," and John Walsh, director of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) offered strong and familiar critiques of various aspects of US drug policy, neither of the words "prohibition" or "legalization" were ever uttered, nor were the words "tax and regulate," and radical alternatives to current policy were barely touched upon. Instead, the emphasis seemed to be on adjusting the "mix" of spending on law enforcement versus treatment and prevention.

The other two witnesses at the hearing, Kings County (Brooklyn), New York, Assistant District Attorney Anne Swern and community coordinator Norma Fernandes of the same office, were there to talk up the success of drug court-style programs in their community.

[The written testimony of all four witnesses is available at the hearing web site linked above.]

"US drug policy is comprehensive, but unbalanced," said Reuter. "As much as 75% of spending goes to enforcement, mainly to lock up low-level drug dealers. Treatment is not very available. The US has a larger drug problem than other Western countries, and the policy measures to confront it have met with little success," he told the committee.

Reuter said there were some indications policymakers and the electorate are tiring of the drug war approach, citing California's treatment-not-jail Proposition 36, but there was little indication Congress was interested in serious analysis of programs and policies.

"Congress has been content to accept rhetoric instead of research," Reuter said, citing its lack of reaction to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's refusal to release a now three-year-old report on drug use levels during the Bush administration. "It's hardly a secret that ONDCP has failed to publish that report, but Congress has not bothered to do anything," he complained. "We need more emphasis on the analytic base for policy."

But even with the paltry evidence available to work with, Reuter was able to summarize a bottom line: "The US imprisons too many people and provides too little treatment," he said. "We need more than marginal changes."

"US drug policies have been in place for some time without much change except for intensification," said WOLA's Walsh, noting that coca production levels are as high as they were 20 years ago. "Since 1981, we have spent about $800 billion on drug control, and $600 billion of that on supply reduction. We need a stiff dose of historical reality as we contemplate what to do now," he told the committee.

With the basic policies in place for so long, some conclusions can now be drawn, Walsh said. "First, the balloon effect is real and fully relevant today. We've seen it time and time again, not just with crops, but also with drug smuggling routes. If we want to talk about actually reducing illicit crops and we know eradication only leads to renewed planting, we need to be looking for alternatives," he said.

"Second, there is continuing strong availability of illicit drugs and a long-term trend toward falling prices," Walsh said, strongly suggesting that interdiction was a failed policy. "The perennial goal is to drive up prices, but prices have fallen sharply. There is evidence of disruptions in the US cocaine market last year, but whether that endures is an open question and quite doubtful given the historical record," he said.

"Third, finding drugs coming across the border is like finding a needle in a haystack, or more like finding lots of needles in lots of different moving haystacks," he said. "Our legal commerce with Mexico is so huge that to think we can seal the borders is delusional."

With respect to the anti-drug assistance package for Mexico currently being debated in Congress, Walsh had a warning: "Even with US assistance, any reduction in the flow of drugs from Mexico is unlikely." Instead, Walsh said, lawmakers should adjust their supply-control objectives and expectations to bring them in line with that reality.

Changes in drug producing countries will require sustained efforts to increase alternative livelihoods. That in turn will require patience and a turn away from "the quick fix mentality that hasn't fixed anything," Walsh said.

"We can't expect sudden improvements; there is no silver bullet," Walsh concluded. "We need to switch to harm reduction approaches and recognize drugs and drug use as perennial problems that can't be eliminated, but can be managed better. We need to minimize not only the harms associated with drug use, but also those related to policies meant to control drugs."

"It is important to be able to discuss the realities of the situation, it's not always a comfortable thing to talk about," Webb said after the oral testimony. "This is very much a demand problem. I've been skeptical bout drug eradication programs; they just don't work when you're supplying such an enormous thirst on this end. We have to find ways to address demand other than locking up more people. We have created an incredible underground economic apparatus and we have to think hard about how to address it."

"The way in which we focused attention on the supply side has been very much mistaken," agreed Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), who along with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) were the only other solons attending the hearing. "All this focus on supply hasn't really done anything of any value. The real issue is demand, and prevention and dealing with people getting out of prison is the way to deal with this."

Reuter suggested part of the solution was in increase in what he called "coerced abstinence," or forced drug treatment. Citing the work of UCLA drug policy researcher Mark Kleiman, Reuter said that regimes of frequent testing with modest sanctions imposed immediately and with certainty can result "in a real decline in drug taking and criminal activity."

That got a nod of agreement from prosecutor Swern. "How long you stay in treatment is the best predictor of staying out of trouble or off drugs," she said. Swern is running a program with deferring sentencing, with some flexibility she said. "The beauty of our program is it allows us to give people many chances. If they fail in treatment and want to try again, we do that," she said.

As the hearing drew to an end, Webb had one last question: "Justice Department statistics show that of all drug arrests in 2005, 42.6% were for marijuana offenses. What about the energy expended arresting people for marijuana?" he asked, implicitly begging for someone to respond, "It's a waste of resources."

But no one connected directly with the floating softball. "The vast majority of those arrests are for simple possession," said Reuter. "In Maryland, essentially no one is sentenced to jail for marijuana possession, although about a third spend time in jail pre-trial. It's not as bad as it looks," he said sanguinely.

"There's violence around marijuana trafficking in Brooklyn," responded prosecutor Swern.

WOLA's Walsh came closest to a strong answer. "Your question goes to setting priorities," he said. "We need to discriminate among types of illicit drugs. Which do the most harm and deserve the most emphasis? Also, given the sheer number of marijuana users, what kind of dent can you make even with many more arrests?"

And so ended the first joint congressional hearing to challenge the dogmas of the drug war. For reformers that attended, there were generally thumbs up for Webb and the committee, mixed with a bit of disappointment that the hearings only went so far.

"It was extraordinary," said Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the DC-based Institute for Policy Studies. "They didn't cover some of the things I hoped they would, but I have to give them props for addressing the issue at all."

"Webb was looking for someone to say what he wanted to say with the marijuana question, that perhaps we should deemphasize law enforcement on that," said Doug McVay, policy analyst at Common Sense for Drug Policy, who also attended the hearing. "I don't think our witnesses quite caught what he was aiming for, an answer that arresting all those people for marijuana takes away resources that could be used to fight real crime."

Sen. Webb came in for special praise from Tree. "Perhaps because he's a possible vice presidential candidate, he had to tone things down a bit, but he is clearly not afraid to talk about over-incarceration, and using the Joint Economic Committee instead of Judiciary or Foreign Affairs is a brilliant use of that committee, because this is, after all, a policy with enormous economic consequences," Tree said. "Webb is clearly motivated by doing something about the high levels of incarceration. He held a hearing on it last year, and got the obvious answer that much of it is related to drug policy. Having heard that kind of answer, most politicians would walk away fast, but not Webb, so I have to give him credit."

Reversing the drug war juggernaut will not be easy. The Congressional Joint Economic Committee hearing Thursday was perhaps a small step toward that end, but it is a step in the right direction.

World Record Marijuana Crop Gets Blown Up By Fighter Jets

What do you do if you find the world's largest marijuana stash? Call in the airforce!


The crack teams discovered 236.8 tons of cannabis buried in vast trenches in the desert. The drugs had a minimum street value of £225 million, and weighed more than 30 double-decker buses, officials said.

Lieutenant General Abdul Hadi Khalid, Afghanistan's deputy interior minister, said: "This is a new world record in the global war on drugs."


British fighter jets were called in from nearby Kandahar Airfield to smash open the underground stores. A Nato spokesman said the planes dropped three 1,000lb bombs on the trenches, before troops from the commando unit known as 333 doused the wreckage with petrol and set them alight. [scotsman.com]

There's something tragically ironic about using fighter jets to launch air strikes on a plant that's never killed anyone in the history of the world. Are you having fun yet, brave desert drug soldiers? Someone get these guys some volleyball nets before they nuke a poppy field.

News Release: Will SDSU Drug Bust Coverage Raise the Critical Questions?

Will SDSU's Drug Bust Reduce Drug Availability on Campus in the Future? Advocates Urge Media to Look Beyond the Surface, Ask Critical Questions About Raid's Long-Term Implications for Drug Trade (or Lack Thereof) In the wake of a major drug bust at San Diego State University, in which 96 people including 75 students were arrested on drug charges as part of "Operation Sudden Fall," advocates are asking media outlets to go beyond the surface to probe whether drug laws and enforcement actually reduce the availability of drugs. "Cocaine was banned in 1914, and marijuana in 1937," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, "and yet these drugs are so widely available almost a century later that college students can be hauled away 75 at a time for them. That is the very definition of policy failure." Borden, who is also executive editor of Drug War Chronicle, a major weekly online publication, continued: "Since 1980, when the drug war really started escalating under the Reagan administration, the average street price of cocaine has dropped by a factor of five, when adjusted for purity and inflation. (1) Given that the strategy was to increase drug prices, in order to then reduce the demand, that failure has to be called spectacular." Drug arrests in the US number close to 1.5 million per year, but to little evident effect as such data suggests. Ironically, San Diego County District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis painted a compelling picture of the drug war's failure in her own quote given to the Los Angeles Times: "This operation shows how accessible and pervasive illegal drugs continue to be on our college campuses and how common it is for students to be selling to other students." "While SDSU's future drug sellers will probably avoid sending such explicit text messages as the accused in this case did, it's doubtful that they will avoid the campus for very long," Borden said. "In fact the replacements are undoubtedly already preparing to take up the slack. By September if not sooner, the only remaining evidence that 'Operation Sudden Fall' ever happened will be the court cases and the absence of certain people from the campus." "Instead of throwing away money and law enforcement time on a policy that doesn't work, ruining lives in the process, Congress should repeal drug prohibition and allow states to create sensible regulations to govern drugs' lawful distribution and use. At a minimum, the focus should be taken off enforcement," said Borden. — END — 1. Data from DEA STRIDE drug price collection program, adjusted for inflation using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Consumer Price Index figures. Further information is available upon request.

Africa: Marijuana "Tries to Destroy Our Society," Nigerian Head Narc Says

Ahmadu Giade, head of Nigeria's National Drug Law Enforcement Agency (NDLEA), used a ceremony where seized marijuana was burned last weekend to declare war on pot as part of his agency's effort to "provide a drug-free society for all." His comments came as 100,000 pounds of what Nigerians commonly refer to as Indian hemp went up in smoke. The ceremonial burning would "spite drug barons" and demonstrate the superiority of law enforcement over drug dealers, he said.

While the Lagos newspaper The Day, which reported on the event, described the drugs as "narcotics" and "hard drugs," it appears that it was really describing Nigerian-grown marijuana.

Head narc Giade suffered from the same terminological confusion. "The threat of narcotic drugs is palpable," he said. "It is difficult to ignore this peril staring at us in the face. Cannabis control constitutes the biggest drug challenge in Nigeria and Africa. This is because it grows effortlessly in the country. This drug has the propensity to destroy our society but we equally have the capacity to subdue it."

Well, not so far, anyway. According to the US State Department's 2007 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, "Sale and local consumption of marijuana is on the increase. The rise in marijuana use domestically in Nigeria is evinced by the increased quantities seized, the number and size of illicit plots discovered and destroyed, and numbers of arrests made."

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