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Law Enforcement: Utah "Meth Cops" Lose Out on Health Claims

More than 50 Utah law enforcement officers have filed workers compensation claims over ailments they believe were caused by exposure to methamphetamine labs, but none have been approved, and most have been dismissed for lack of evidence or because officers sought dismissal in a bid to come up with evidence. Only five cases are still pending.

meth lab
"They have to have enough evidence to justify the claims," said Carla Rush, adjudication manager for the Utah Labor Commission, which handles the claims. "Preferably a doctor saying they have been injured in a work-related exposure to meth. That would be the best evidence."

Scores of Utah police officers participated in breaking down clandestine meth labs in the 1980s and 1990s, wearing only standard police-issue uniforms. That was before they understood the caustic nature of some of the chemicals involved in cooking meth. Now, officers on meth lab duty wear air tanks and hazmat suits.

Those officers from the old days began filing claims asserting that a variety of physical ailments they were suffering were the result of meth lab exposure. By 2006, the Utah legislature commissioned a half-million dollar study to explore the issue. But that study, which was meant to establish a causal link between meth exposure and everything from cancer to nerve damage, was inconclusive.

The state has also paid out tens of thousands of dollars to the Utah Meth Cops Project for a scientifically unsupported detox regime backed by the Church of Scientology. But toxicologists say that toxins would have left the officers' bodies long ago, and the detox program is little more than quackery.

How about a study of legalization, to eliminate the meth lab problem once and for all -- followed by a detox from the consequences of prohibition?

Latin America: Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann, Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year trafficking illegal drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed over 12,000 people, with a death toll of over 5,000 so far in 2009. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrest of several high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Wednesday, November 11

In Tijuana, several policemen were the victims of an assassination attempt after gunmen opened fire on them outside a hotel. A TV cameraman from TV Azteca who was at the scene to cover the event was detained and beaten with a rifle by a policeman, even after having identified himself.

Thursday, November 12

Business groups in Ciudad Juarez publicly called on the United Nations to send peacekeepers to quell the violence in the city. The groups, which represent various assembly plants, retailers, and others businesses, said they plan to submit a request to the Mexican government and to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. Daniel Murguia, president of the Ciudad Juarez chapter of the National Chamber of Commerce, Services and Tourism, was quoted as saying that "We have seen the UN peacekeepers enter other countries that have a lot fewer problems than we have." Ciudad Juarez has had 1,986 homicides through mid-October. Antonio Mazziteli, regional chief of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, quickly dismissed the idea, saying that he believed that the situation in Mexico did not warrant peacekeepers, as they have not been requested by the government.

Sunday, November 15

In Managua, Nicaragua, police seized a large cache of weapons thought to belong to the Sinaloa Cartel. The weapons -- which included 58 assault rifles, 2 mortars, 10 grenades, and 30 sticks of TNT -- were seized after a car chase and shootout with suspected cartel members, who managed to escape. Police are now searching for a Mexican national who is thought to be the group's leader and who has rented a house in Managua for at least the last month. Mexican cartels are known to have a strong presence throughout Central America, which is an important route for drugs coming from South America on their way to the US border.

In Ciudad Juarez, at least 15 people were killed in violence across the city. Among them were a seven-year old child and his parents from El Paso who were killed after being attacked by several gunmen. In a separate incident, a university professor was killed after his car was ambushed. His wife was left wounded. In another incident, soldiers killed a suspected cartel gunman while wounding and capturing another. In Sinaloa, a high-ranking public security official was shot 38 times and killed. At least 6 other people were killed in drug-related violence in other parts of Mexico, including an army officer who was attacked while driving on the Guadalajara-Colima highway.

Additionally, 11 teenagers were wounded in Durango after gunmen opened fire inside a crowded bar. According to some reports, the gunmen had been chasing after rivals that sought refuge in the bar.

Tuesday, November 17

In Chihuahua, three men were killed after gunmen attacked a baseball game in which they were playing. Seven people were killed in various incidents across Ciudad Juarez, and three were killed in Sinaloa. Additionally, two men confessed to having been involved in at least 45 homicides committed in the Ciudad Juarez area.

Body count for the week of November 4th-November 10th: 196
Body Count for Last Week: 97
Total Body Count for the Year: 6,580

Read the last Mexico Drug War Update here.

The Border: US Begins Turning Busted Smugglers Over to Mexico for Prosecution

For years, getting caught trying to smuggle drugs across the US-Mexican border meant being handed over to US authorities for prosecution. Problem was, US Attorneys on the border were so swamped with marijuana smuggling cases, the general rule was they wouldn't prosecute for less than 500 pounds. Instead, local prosecutors got those cases, but they were swamped, too. As a result, thousands of Mexican marijuana smugglers never faced prosecution in the US -- they were simply deported back over the border to Mexico.

Reynosa/Hidalgo border crossing (courtesy portland.indymedia.org)
But now, according to the New York Times, under an agreement reached last month, US authorities have begun returning captured Mexican pot smugglers to Mexico for prosecution by Mexican authorities. Late last month, Sonora, Mexico, resident Eleazar Gonzalez-Sanchez won the dubious distinction of being the first person turned over to Mexican authorities after he was popped with 44 pounds by Immigration and Customs Enforcement at the Nogales, Arizona, border crossing.

The border agreement is a sign of "our effort to enhance cooperation between the US and Mexico on prosecuting drug trafficking cases," said Arizona US Attorney Dennis Burke.

There is plenty of work to do. In the past year, ICE opened 646 smuggling cases out of busts at the Nogales port of entry. In the fiscal year ending in October 2008, ICE busted 71,000 pounds of pot on the Arizona border.

The program is a pilot program currently operating in Arizona. US officials will be monitoring the cases returned to Mexico, and if satisfied with the results, may extend it all along the border.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Drug War Zone: Frontline Dispatches from the Streets of El Paso and Juarez," by Howard Campbell (2009, University of Texas Press, 310 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer Editor

Howard Campbell's "Drug War Zone" couldn't be more timely. Ciudad Juárez, just across the Rio Grande from El Paso, is awash in blood as the competing Juárez and Sinaloa cartels wage a deadly war over who will control the city's lucrative drug trafficking franchise. More than 2,000 people have been killed in Juárez this year in the drug wars, making the early days of Juárez Cartel dominance, when the annual narco-death toll was around 200 a year, seem downright bucolic by comparison.

The violence in Mexico, of which Juárez is the current epicenter, has been setting off alarm bells in Washington, and the US has responded with thousands more law enforcement agents on the border and more than a billion dollars in aid to the Mexican government. In other words, what we've been doing hasn't worked, so let's do even more of it, even more intensely.

We've all seen the horrific headlines; we've all seen the grim and garish displays of exemplary violence; we've read the statistics about the immense size of the illegal drug business in Mexico and the insatiable appetites of drug consumers in El Norte ("the north," e.g. the US). What we haven't had -- up until now -- is a portrayal of the El Paso-Juárez drug trade and drug culture that gets beneath the headlines, the politicians' platitudes, and law enforcement's self-justifying pronouncements. With "Drug War Zone," Campbell provides just that.

He's the right guy in the right place at the right time. A professor of sociology and anthropology at the University of Texas-El Paso who has two decades in the area, Campbell is able to do his fieldwork when he walks out his front door and has been able to develop relationships with all sorts of people involved in the drug trade and its repression, from low-level street dealers in Juárez to middle class dabblers in dealing in El Paso, from El Paso barrio boys to Mexican smugglers, from journalists to Juárez cops, from relatives of cartel victims to highly-placed US drug fight bureaucrats.

Using an extended interview format, Campbell lets his informants paint a detailed picture of the social realities of the El Paso-Juárez "drug war zone." The overall portrait that emerges is of a desert metropolis (about a half million people on the US side, a million and a half across the river), distant both geographically and culturally from either Washington or Mexico City, with a long tradition of smuggling and a dense binational social network where families and relationships span two nations. This intricately imbricated web of social relations and historical factors -- the rise of a US drug culture, NAFTA and globalization -- have given rise to a border narco-culture deeply embedded in the social fabric of both cities.

(One thing that strikes me as I ponder Campbell's work, with its description of binational barrio gangs working for the Juárez Cartel, and narcos working both sides of the border, is how surprising it is that the violence plaguing Mexico has not crossed the border in any measurable degree. It's almost as if the warring factions have an unwritten agreement that the killings stay south of the Rio Grande. I'd wager they don't want to incite even more attention from the gringos.)

Campbell compares the so-called cartels to terrorists like Al Qaeda. With their terroristic violence, their use of both high tech (YouTube postings) and low tech (bodies hanging from bridges, warning banners adorning buildings) communications strategies, their existence as non-state actors acting both in conflict and complicity with various state elements, the comparison holds some water. Ultimately, going to battle against the tens of thousands of people employed by the cartels in the name of an abstraction called "the war on drugs" is likely to be as fruitless and self-defeating as going to battle against Pashtun tribesmen in the name of an abstraction called "the war on terror."

But that doesn't mean US drug war efforts are going to stop, or that the true believers in law enforcement are going to stop believing -- at least most of them. One of the virtues of "Drug War Zone" is that it studies not only the border narco-culture, but also the border policing culture. Again, Campbell lets his informants speak for him, and those interviews are fascinating and informative.

Having seen its result close-up and firsthand, Campbell has been a critic of drug prohibition. He still is, although he doesn't devote a lot of space to it in the book. Perhaps, like (and through) his informants, he lets prohibition speak for itself. The last interview in the book may echo Campbell's sentiments. It's with former Customs and Border Patrol agent Terry Nelson. In the view of his former colleagues, Nelson has gone over to the dark side. He's a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

If you're interested in the border or drug culture or the drug economy or drug prohibition, you need to read "Drug War Zone." This is a major contribution to the literature.

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.
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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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?

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.

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