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Colombia Bill to Decriminalize Drug Crops Advances

A the first draft of a bill that would decriminalize the cultivation of illegal drug plants in Colombia, including coca, opium poppies, and marijuana, was approved by its lower house of congress last Wednesday, according to Colombia Reports.

coca eradication plane spraying herbicides in Colombia (wikimedia.org)
An incident in the country's northeast that same day underscored the need for a new approach in Colombia. Suspected leftist guerrillas attacked a police coca eradication team, leaving at least seven dead and 12 wounded. Police sources blamed fighters of the FARC, which has been engaged in an insurgency against the central government since 1964 and finances its operations at least in part through the coca and cocaine trade, for the attack in North Santander province.

Rep. Hugo Velazquez, who sponsored the bill, said the country cannot progress with "the failed drug policy pursued by Colombia and the United States."

Since the adoption of Plan Colombia in 1999, the US has spent more than $7 billion to fight the drug war in Colombia. While the effort has had some success -- the number of hectares cultivated is down from its peak early in the last decade -- that success has come at a high cost, not only in dollars, but in lives lost in the conflict, hundreds of thousands of internal refugees, and environmental damage from spraying crops with herbicides.And while, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, total cocaine production has declined by about one-third in the past decade, coca cultivation has increased in Peru, where its extent may now exceed Colombia's.

Under current Colombian law, persons convicted of growing illicit drug crops face between four and 12 years in prison. Of the 105,000 people in prison in the country, some 23,000 are there for either growing or trafficking in drugs.

"The important thing is that we have the opportunity to listen to congressmen from drug producing regions and hear from different government officials, not just those in opposition [to the bill] with Minister of Justice Juan Carlos Esguerra," Velazquez said, adding the drug crop production is an agricultural issue as well as a legal one.

While Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been a loud advocate of putting drug policy reform on the international agenda, he has been less interested in his own country leading the way. That position was reflected by Justice Minister Esguerra, who reiterated that the government is staunchly opposed to the bill.

The country is at a "turning point in the fight against drugs" and this is not the time to make policy changes, he said. "It's not the time to anticipate a set of rules on this issue. This cannot work like the Lone Ranger," he added.

But the bill remains alive.

Bogota
Colombia

Dutch to Ban Khat

In keeping with the regressive turn Dutch drug policy has taken under its conservative coalition government, the Dutch government said Tuesday it will ban khat, a plant used by people from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula for its mild stimulant properties.

Man chewing khat, Sanaa, Yemen, 2009 (wikimedia.org)
"Health Minister (Edith) Schippers will soon place khat on list II of the opium law. This will make possession and trade in khat illegal," said a joint statement from the Dutch interior affairs, security and justice and health ministries.

The ban is designed to serve a dual purpose for the Dutch. First, it is aimed at reducing domestic khat consumption, mainly among Ethiopian and Yemeni immigrants. Dutch officials said social problems, including high unemployment in the Somali community, prompted the ban, although it's not clear how banning khat will boost the jobs picture for immigrants.

They also cited longstanding pressures from other European countries to clamp down on the khat trade. The ban is thus also designed to stop the use of Amsterdam's Schipol Airport as a key hub for khat destined for other European countries where it is already illegal, including Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. (Khat is also banned in the US and Canada.)

The Dutch said that more than 800 tons of khat were imported into the Netherlands last year, 80% of which was exported to other European countries.

Swedish police welcomed the Dutch action, saying they suspected profits from the trade were going to finance militants like Al Shabaab in Somalia. Swedish police estimate that 200 tons of khat are smuggled into the country each year.

"Smuggling to Scandinavia is quite substantial... we catch smugglers on the Swedish border several times a week, though probably 9 in 10 transports get through," Stefan Kalman of the Swedish police drug squad told Reuters. "This ban means a huge change for us. I expect the numbers to go down now, as smuggling becomes more difficult," he added.

The Dutch khat ban is in line with the government's crackdown on the sale of marijuana and hashish. The number of cannabis coffee shops there is declining, and a ban on foreigners in coffee shops is set to begin going into effect this year.

Amsterdam
Netherlands

Afghan Opium Production on the Rebound

The amount of opium produced in Afghanistan this year has increased dramatically, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said in a report Tuesday. Production is up 61% over last year, according to the 2011 Afghan Opium Survey jointly released by UNODC and the Afghan Ministry of Counter Narcotics.

Afghan opium eradication poster. Apparently, no one is paying attention. (wikimedia.org)
The report comes as the US marks the 10th anniversary of its invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Since the US invasion, Afghanistan has been the world's leading opium producer, as US and NATO forces largely ignore poppy planting, favoring counterinsurgency over counter narcotics.

Production declined dramatically last year owing primarily to a blight that struck opium poppies. But this year, poppy was back with a bang. Not only did opium production increase dramatically, but the amount of land sown with poppy also increased, although not so dramatically. The number of hectares under poppy production increased from 120,000 last year to 131,000 this year, up 7%. That was to be expected after last year's blight caused raw opium prices to soar.

UNODC estimated the farm gate value of the poppy crop at $1.4 billion or about 9% of Afghanistan's gross domestic product. But when heroin processing and trafficking is added to the mix, poppy takes on an even greater role in the national economy, contributing to something between one-third and one-half of all economic activity.

UNODC estimated that the Taliban receives 10% of poppy harvest proceeds, or around $140 million a year. But that figure is even larger when Taliban taxation of or involvement in opium and heroin trafficking is taken into account.

Poppy production is centered in areas that are largely outside the control of the government in Kabul. The Taliban bastions of Helmand and Kandahar provinces accounted for the majority of Afghan opium production, with production also booming in conflictive Nangahar province along the Pakistan border in eastern Afghanistan. 

This year's estimated 5,800 metric tons of opium production, while a large increase over last year, is still below Afghanistan's peak production. In 2006 through 2009, production was over 6,000 metric tons each year, reaching nearly 8,0000 metric tons in 2007. Still, Afghanistan's position as the world's leading opium producer remains unchallenged, and it accounts for more than 80% of global opium production.

Afghanistan

Chronicle Book Review: The Wars of Afghanistan

The Wars of Afghanistan: Messianic Terrorism, Tribal Conflicts, and the Failures of Great Powers, by Peter Tomsen (2011, Public Affairs Press, 849 pp., $39.99 HB)

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/the-wars-of-afghanistan.jpg
With a publication date this week, The Wars of Afghanistan couldn't be more timely. On Monday, the Obama administration, angered by Pakistani double-dealing, announced it was cutting $800 million in military assistance, and the Pakistani military responded by announcing it would withdraw troops deployed near the Afghan border whose stated purpose was to assist the US effort in Afghanistan by blocking infiltration routes for Taliban and allied fighters. On Tuesday, a gunman assassinated a major Afghan government player, regional warlord, CIA asset, and reputed opium and heroin trafficker, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who just happens to be the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. (The Taliban took credit for the deed, but who really knows?)

Meanwhile, US drone attacks killed a reported 58 suspected terrorists on the Pakistan side of the border, the latest in an escalating campaign aimed at Al Qaeda, Taliban, and affiliated fighters in what had formerly been a secure rear base for Afghan insurgents and Arab Islamist holy warriors alike. And, nearly a decade after the US invaded Afghanistan to eliminate Al Qaeda and the Taliban, US and NATO soldiers are killing and being killed on a daily basis. Five French NATO troops died Tuesday in a roadside bombing.

If its timing couldn't be better, it is also difficult to imagine a more impeccably informed author than Peter Tomsen, a career State Department diplomat who served as the ambassador-rank US special envoy to the Afghan mujahedeen from 1989 to 1992, met with everyone from Saudi and Russian diplomats to Afghan warlords of various stripes to the Taliban to the Pakistani military and intelligence officers who guided the jihad against the Russians, then played the Americans for fools for the past quarter-century. Tomsen, now retired from the State Department, has kept a close eye on the region ever since, and, with The Wars of Afghanistan, has produced a magnum opus.

The Wars of Afghanistan is not about opium farmers or drug trafficking. Tomsen mentions US concerns about the drug trade as part of longstanding American policy considerations in Afghanistan, and he makes occasional references to this or that warlord fighting over control of the drug trade, but that's about the extent of it for drug policy. And that's just fine, because while Drug War Chronicle is by its very nature drug policy-centric, larger reality is not necessarily so, and neither are the conflicts in Afghan and Pakistan. As drug policy wonks, it behooves us to view our concerns within the broader context, and in this particular case, while Tomsen perhaps underplays the role of drug prohibition and the poppy trade in the Afghanistan wars of the past 30 years, he does an outstanding job of making a hideously complex and complicated conflict comprehensible to the educated lay reader.

Tomsen guides readers through the intricacies of Afghanistan's still powerful ethnic and tribal politics, the delicate balance between center and periphery in the Afghan state, and -- very importantly -- how successive outside powers have failed to understand the nature of Afghan politics, fatally undermining their efforts to control Afghanistan for their own purposes. The US is just the latest, and, Tomsen argues, is making the same errors as the British, the Soviets, and the Pakistanis before them.

Equally importantly, Tomsen makes a highly persuasive case that since the withdrawal of the Soviets in 1988, the US and Pakistan -- ostensible allies -- have actually been deadly rivals in Afghanistan, with the Pakistani intelligence services (the ISI) and the Pakistani military high command working relentlessly to create an "unholy alliance" of Islamic fundamentalist radicals -- Wahhabite Arabs including bin Laden and Al Qaeda also supported by Saudi cash, disaffected Pashtuns from both sides of the border, Pakistani religious parties and their militias, Islamic militants from around the world, and now, the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban -- first to drive out the Soviets, then later and to the present day to impose an Islamic fundamentalist puppet state in Kabul. Tomsen names names and cites specific meetings, as well as relying on once classified diplomatic cables and other sources to make his case.

It's bad enough to think successive US governments dating back to Clinton have been suckered by Pakistani duplicity -- the US government has given the Pakistanis $13 billion in military assistance since 2001, some not insignificant portion of which has gone to support the Taliban and associated warlords (Gulbuddin Hekmatyr, the Haqqani network) killing US, NATO, and Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan -- but Tomsen offers an even more damning assessment of the role of the CIA and, to a lesser degree, the Pentagon.

Going back to the Afghan civil wars of the early 1990s, after the Soviet effort at hegemony in Afghanistan collapsed (and helped precipitate the collapse of the Soviet Union itself), Tomsen argues persuasively that the CIA effectively allowed itself to be led by the ISI, thus subverting official US policy in Afghanistan. In that era, US policy (running on autopilot after the Russians left) was to support movement toward a broad-based, moderate, democratic Afghan government, but the CIA instead supported the ISI in its efforts to impose a fundamentalist Islamic warlord government. The CIA thus helped turn Afghanistan into a bloody "shatter zone" for years and abetted the rise of the Taliban. This is ugly and disturbing stuff and cries out for deeper investigation.

While Tomsen has harsh words for every US administration since Bush the Elder when it comes to Afghanistan policy, he does give the Obama administration some props for its belated efforts to turn the screws on the Pakistanis and to actually make a working Afghan government. In fact, the US action cutting military assistance this week could have come right out of Tomsen's playbook for how to begin extricating ourselves from this graveyard of empires.

But we're a long way from there right now. There are currently about 100,000 US and 30,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan and, Tomsen reports, about 150,000 mercenaries and contractors. We are spending $2 billion a week to support our war efforts there, and through a decade of military assistance to our Pakistani "allies," contributing hundreds of millions or billions more to the people who are killing our troops. Bizarrely, in this Afghanistan war, we seem to be paying for both sides.

The drug trade in Afghanistan is probably worth a billion or two dollars a year, but that's what US taxpayers are spending there in a week. Yes, the profits of prohibition fill the coffers of the Taliban… and criminal gangs… and Afghan traffickers… and Pakistani traffickers… and Afghan government officials, not to mention tens of thousands of Afghan farm families, but, as Tomsen makes perfectly clear, it's not all about the drugs.

The Wars of Afghanistan is an important work and an urgent warning. Anyone with an interest US foreign policy in the region needs to read it, starting with our policymakers.

Afghanistan

Chronicle Book Review: Hostage Nation

Hostage Nation: Colombia's Guerrilla Army and the Failed War on Drugs, by Victoria Bruce and Karin Mayes, with Jorge Enrique Botero (2010, Alfred E. Knopf Publishers, 315 pp., $26.95 HB)

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/hostagenation.jpg
Hostage Nation is a great read, but its title is something of misnomer. What the book is really about is the capture of four American contractors by FARC guerrillas after their plane went down on an anti-coca pesticide-spraying mission in 2003. One was executed by the FARC at the scene; the others spent more than five years in captivity in the jungles of Colombia before being rescued by the Colombian military in a stunning charade in which Colombian soldiers tricked rebels into delivering their hostages, who also included the famous former presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, into their waiting arms.

In a sense, though, Hostage Nation is a synecdoche for Colombia's experience fighting its own leftist guerrilla insurgency -- the longest-lived insurgency in the hemisphere, now in its 47th year -- as well as fighting America's war on drugs. In a very real sense, Colombia has been a hostage nation -- held hostage by its own internal divisions and American drug war geopolitics, as well as seeing hundreds, if not thousands of its citizens literally held hostage, taken captive to be used as bargaining chips by the FARC in its relentless struggle against the Colombian state.

And while, until the very last chapter, Hostage Nation does not directly confront US drug policies in Colombia or their failures, its briskly paced narrative illuminates -- at times, starkly -- just what those policies have wrought. At the beginning, the book opens a window into the murky world of American defense contractors and subcontractors working for the State Department in its efforts to poison the coca crop from the air. Those contractors, like Northrup Grumman, were perhaps the primary beneficiaries of Plan Colombia, gobbling up hundreds of millions of dollars in lucrative spraying contracts at taxpayer expense.

Hostage Nation also presents a critical, but not completely unsympathetic portrayal of the FARC, a group now commonly caricatured as little more than drug trafficking terrorists. They do profit off the coca and cocaine trade, of course, as the authors show, and they have committed numerous acts that could be qualified as terrorism. But even though now staggering militarily and politically, the FARC continues to be a stolidly Marxist organization in a world where Marxism is dead (although someone might want to let India's Naxalites know that). The authors provide hints of the violence, injustice, and revolutionary fervor out of which the FARC emerged.

They tell the tale of the FARC in part through recounting the travails of the captured American contractors and others the guerrillas considered POWs -- latterly including elected officials -- in a deadly game where people were pawns whose lives and freedom were to be bartered. While mostly not sadistically cruel to their captives, the FARC was not very nice, either. And its policy was to kill captives on the first hint of an attempted rescue, something it did at least twice, once in a false alarm.

But prisoner exchanges had gone off successfully before, and the FARC wanted some of its people in exchange for the high-value Americans and the high-profile Betancourt. Unfortunately for FARC plans, the post-911 Bush administration had absolutely no interest in "negotiating with terrorists," and then Colombian President Uribe followed suit. Of course, that stance was also unfortunate for the American contractors, who quickly dropped from public notice.

As the war on drugs morphed into the war on terror in Colombia, the authors make clear that they see the other main beneficiary of Plan Colombia as the Colombian military. Thanks to training and military assistance from the US, the Colombian military under Uribe and then Defense Minister (now President) Juan Manuel Santos, improved its fighting abilities dramatically. More importantly, the Colombian military sharply improved its intelligence capabilities, leading it to achieve a number of lethal blows to the FARC leadership and enabling it to salt the FARC with spies when the rebels lowered their standards in a mass recruiting drive at the turn of the last decade.

The Colombian military has probably strategically defeated the FARC, but at great cost to the country's civilian population, which has seen tens of thousands killed and hundreds of thousands turned into refugees in their own country under onslaughts from the military and its erstwhile allies, the drug trafficking rightist paramilitaries. Hostage Nation only hints at that reality.

But its final chapter is a scathing attack on US drug policy in general and in Colombia in particular. The US has spent, and continues to spend, billions to repress the coca and cocaine traffic, and has had middling results at best, while sowing political violence, criminality, and environmental destruction, the authors assert. And they warn that the US is on course to embark on a similar drug war policy disaster in Mexico.

As an in-depth, sustained account of US drug policy in Colombia, the history of the FARC, or the politics of kidnapping, Hostage Nation doesn't quite make it. But it is an engaging read that does provide some real insights into Colombian reality and is a well-informed contribution to the popular literature on the subject.

Drugs Playing Role in Peru Presidential Contest

Drug policy and drug use have become issues in Peru's upcoming presidential election, albeit in a strange and sometimes silly way. Former President Alejandro Toledo, the front-runner in a crowded field of candidates, called late last month for the decriminalization of drug use, sparking fevered denunciations from his opponents, and that was just the beginning.

Peruvian presidential contenders Luis Castaneda (l) and Alejandro Toledo (r) in happier times. (image via Wikimedia)
In a campaign where most of the major candidates are on the same page in terms of economic policy, social issues have been a way for them to differentiate themselves from others. Toledo has staked out a position as the sole social progressive, also supporting legalized abortion and gay rights -- and being attacked for those positions as well.

There's just one problem, both with Toledo's decriminalization suggestion and with his foes' attacks: The possession of small amounts of drug for personal use is already decriminalized in Peru. One can possess, for example, up to seven grams of marijuana and up to two grams of cocaine without criminal penalty.

"Depenalization is an alternative that must be looked at," Toledo told the foreign press in a late January speech in Lima. While acknowledging that decriminalization already existed in Peru, he asserted vaguely that he may seek to somehow deepen it if elected.

He also said that police and the judiciary must be reformed to strengthen the fight against Shining Path remnants that have gone into the drug trade. "Otherwise, it will become a narco-state," he said. "It's a serious issue."

Ignoring Toledo's remarks about fighting the drug trade, his four primary opponents opened fire on the decriminalization issue. It was a barrage of attacks.

"It amazes me that Toledo is offering falsehoods throughout his campaign and proposing things that are not applicable to our society as the legalization of abortion and drugs," said Pedro Pablo Kucyzinski. "I think if you decriminalize the drug trade in a country that is a major drug producer in the world, what we do is go to a pool full of whiskey and drugs in this country," he finished.

"It seems absurd, we are one of the largest producers of drugs in the world and by legalizing it we will lose our youth, it would be really terrible," said Keiko Fujimori, who is vying for second place and a shot at a run-off bid. "Crime rates have doubled in the last 10 years and drugs are is one of the major causes."

She was joined by the other leading contender for second place and a shot at a run-off, Lima Mayor Luis Castaneda. "I oppose the legalization of drugs because it breeds violence and we are going to fight this problem, drugs are evil and a disturbance to society that turns into violence and death."

Radical nationalist Ollanta Humala at least addressed the broader issue of drug production even as he attacked Toledo. "We are against the legalization of drugs," he said. "But we have a proposal for comprehensive fight against them that involves not separating the coca growers from the rest of the country, they are not the first link in the chain of drug trafficking, they are the first victims."

Then things deteriorated. Early this month, Fujimori challenged the other candidates to take a drug test after submitting to one herself and revealing the results. (She passed.) "I am doing this test so everybody knows I don't do cocaine," she said.

Toledo initially responded by saying that he would submit to a drug test, but hours later said he wouldn't be "part of that game."

His campaign chief, Carlos Bruce, said Toledo had nothing to prove other than to remind voters of his track record. "When we were government, we fought against drug trafficking," Bruce said "Neither Perú Posible nor Toledo were accused of having links with drug trafficking," he added. "Those who want to cut their hair and go to the lab, I salute them."

Toledo did, however, take care to assure voters that he has never consumed drugs, nor smoked cigars, because he never learned how to. Nor is he an alcoholic, he said, despite what his opponents say.

Ollanta Humala had perhaps the most pointed response to the drug test demand. "Instead of a drug test, candidates should submit themselves to a patriotic test to see if they have ever been concerned about defending our national interests, resources and sovereignty."

Humala added that he will not do a drug test because he doesn't want to be part of a "media show."

The first round of elections is April 10. If no candidate wins a majority of the vote, the first- and second-place finishers will compete in a head-to-head run-off.

Peru

Colombia's Santos Open to Drug Legalization

In an interview with the magazine Semana published Sunday, Conservative Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said he was open to decriminalizing drug possession. Drug possession had been decriminalized in Colombia from the early 1990s until 2009, when, after years of effort, then President Alvaro Uribe managed to push through re-criminalization.

Juan Manuel Santos (wikimedia.org)
Decriminalization "is an alternative that we can discuss," he said, but further comments suggested he is open to ending prohibition of production and sales of drugs as well. "I am not opposed to any formula that is effective, and if the world decides to legalize and thinks that that is how we reduce violence and crime, I could go along with that," he added.

Colombia is one of the world's leading coca and cocaine producers. Leftist guerrillas and rightist paramilitaries have both profited from the trade, as have non-political criminal elements.

"President Santos's cautious but clear support for seriously debating the option of legalization as a solution to prohibition-related violence and crime sends an important message to other presidents and prime ministers," said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann in a statement Monday. "Taken together with President Obama's recent acknowledgement that legalization is a legitimate topic for debate, it suggests that the debate is opening up globally in ways that are both unprecedented and essential to meaningful drug policy reform."

Santos also signaled support for Bolivia's efforts to have coca removed from the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotics list of controlled substances. That request is before the United Nations right now and has been challenged by the US and a number of European countries.

"I am open to discussing new alternatives, but we cannot make the change alone," he said. "And we have no alternative to fighting the chain of drug trafficking. We support Bolivia because this is established in the constitution: respect the indigenous peoples and their traditions."

Santos' remarks on decriminalization come as Colombia's Constitutional Court hears a challenge to the 2009 re-criminalization law. The International Center on Human Rights and Drug Policy last week submitted an amicus brief to the court arguing that decriminalization is not prohibited by the UN anti-drug conventions or the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Bogota
Colombia

This Year's Top 10 International Drug Policy Stories

This year saw continued turmoil, agitation, and evolution on the international drug policy front. While we don't have the space to cover all the developments -- the expansion of medical marijuana access in Israel, the rise of Portugal as a drug reform model, the slow spread of harm reduction practices across Eurasia -- here are what we see as the most significant international drug policy developments of the year.

The Mexican Tragedy

San Malverde, Mexico's patron saint of narco-traffickers
Mexico's ongoing tragedy is exhibit number one in the failure of global drug prohibition. This month, the official death toll since President Felipe Calderon deployed the military against the so-called cartels in December 2006 passed 30,000, with 10,000 killed this year alone. The multi-sided conflict pits the cartels against each other, cartel factions against each other, cartels against law enforcement and the military, and, at times, elements of the military and different levels of law enforcement against each other. The US has spent $1.2 billion of Plan Merida funds, mainly beefing up the police and the military, and appropriated another $600 million this summer, much of it to send more lawmen, prosecutors, and National Guard units to the border. None of it seems to make much difference in the supply of cocaine, heroin, marijuana, and methamphetamine coming over (under, around, and through) the border, but the horrorific violence of Mexico's drug war is eroding public confidence in the state and its ability to exercise one of its essential functions: maintaining order. The slow-motion disaster has spurred talk of legalization in Mexico -- and beyond -- but there is little chance of any real movement toward that solution anytime in the near future. In the mean time, Mexico bleeds for our sins.

The Rising Clamor for a New Paradigm and an End to Drug Prohibition

The critique of the international drug policy status quo that has been growing louder and louder for the past decade or so turned into a roar in 2010. Impelled in part by the ongoing crisis in Mexico and in part by a more generalized disdain for failed drug war policies, calls for radical reform came fast and furious, and from some unexpected corners this year.

In January, the former French Polynesian President Oscar Temaru called for Tahiti to legalize marijuana and sell it to European tourists to provide jobs for unemployed youth. Three months later, members of the ruling party of another island nation spoke out for reform. In traditionally tough on drugs Bermuda, leading Progressive Labor Party members called for decriminalization.

In February, an international conference of political figures, academics, social scientists, security experts, and activists in Mexico City called prohibition in Mexico a disaster and urged drug policies based on prevention, scientific evidence, and respect for human life. By August, as the wave of violence sweeping Mexico grew ever more threatening, President Felipe Calderon opened the door to a discussion of drug legalization, and although he quickly tried to slam it shut, former President Vicente Fox quickly jumped in to call for the legalization of the production, distribution, and sale of drugs. "Radical prohibition strategies have never worked," he said. That inspired Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos to say that he supported the call for a debate on legalization. The situation in Mexico also inspired two leading Spanish political figures, former Prime Minister Felipe Gonzales and former drug czar Araceli Manjon-Cabeza to call for an end to drug prohibition in the fall.

Midsummer saw the emergence of the Vienna Declaration, an official conference declaration of the World AIDS Conference, which called for evidence-based policy making and the decriminalization of drug use. The declaration has garnered thousands of signatures and endorsements, including the endorsements of three former Latin American presidents, Henrique Cardoso of Brazil, Ernesto Zedillo of Mexico, and Cesar Gaviria of Colombia. It has also picked up the support of public health organizations and municipalities worldwide, including the city of Vancouver.

Great Britain has also been a locus of drug war criticism this year, beginning with continuing resignations from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. Several members of the official body had quit late last year in the wake of the firing of Professor David Nutt as ACMD after he criticized government decisions to reschedule cannabis and not to down-schedule ecstasy. In April, two more ACMD members resigned, this time in response to the government's ignoring their recommendations and banning mephedrone (see below).

The revolt continued in August, when the former head of Britain's Royal College of Physicians joined the growing chorus calling for radical reforms of the country's drug laws. Sir Ian Gilmore said the government should consider decriminalizing drug possession because prohibition neither reduced crime nor improved health. That came just three weeks after Nicholas Green, chairman of the Bar Council (the British equivalent of the ABA), called for decriminalization. The following month, Britain's leading cannabis scientist, Roger Pertwee called for cannabis to be legalized and regulated like alcohol and tobacco, and the chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officer's drug committee said marijuana should be decriminalized. Chief Constable Tim Hollis said decrim would allow police to concentrate on more serious crime. The following day, the Liberal Democrats, junior partners in a coalition government with the Conservatives, were lambasted by one of their own. Ewan Hoyle called for a rational debate on drug policy and scolded the party for remaining silent on the issue. And just this past week, former Blair administration Home Office drug minister and defense minister Bob Ainsworth called for the legalization of all illicit drugs, including cocaine and heroin.

From Mexico to Great Britain, Vancouver to Vienna, not to mention from Tahiti to Bermuda, the clamor for drug legalization has clearly grown in volume in 2010.

Opium and the Afghan War

More than nine years after the US invaded Afghanistan in a bid to decapitate Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban, the US and NATO occupation drags bloodily on. This year has been the deadliest so far for Western occupiers, with 697 US and NATO troops killed as of December 20. And while the US war machine is fueled by a seemingly endless supply of borrowed cash -- another $160 billion was just authorized for the coming year -- the Taliban runs to a large degree on profits from the opium and heroin trade. In a Faustian bargain, the West has found itself forced to accept widespread opium production as the price of keeping the peasantry out of Taliban ranks while at the same time acknowledging that the profits from the poppies end up as shiny new weapons used to kill Western soldiers and their Afghan allies. The Afghan poppy crop was down this year, not because of successful eradication programs, but because a fungus blighted much of the crop. But even that is not good news: The poppy shortage means prices will rebound and more farmers will plant next year. The West could buy up the entire poppy crop for less than what the US spends in a week to prosecute this war, but it has so far rejected that option.

The Netherlands Reins in Its Cannabis Coffee Shops

Holland's three-decade long experiment with tolerated marijuana sales at the country's famous coffee shops is probable not going to end under the current conservative government, but it is under pressure. The number of coffee shops operating in the country has dropped by about half from its peak, local governments are putting the squeeze on them via measures such as distance restrictions (must be so far from a school, etc.), and the national government is about to unveil a plan to effectively bar foreigners from the shops. The way for that was cleared this month when the European Court of Justice ruled that such a ban did not violate European Union guarantees of freedom of travel and equality under the law within the EU because what the coffee shops sell is an illegal product that promotes drug use and public disorder. Whether the "weed pass" system contemplated by opponents of "drug tourism" will come to pass nationwide remains to be seen, but it appears the famous Dutch tolerance is eroding, especially when it comes to foreigners. Do the Dutch really think most people go there just to visit the windmills and the Rijksmuseum?

Russian Takeover at the UNODC

In September, there was a changing of the guard at the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), one of the key bureaucratic power centers for the global drug prohibition regime. Outgoing UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa, a former Italian prosecutor, was replaced by veteran Russian diplomat Yury Fedotov. Given Russia's dismal record on drug policy, especially around human rights issues, the treatment of hard drug users, and HIV/AIDS prevention, as well as the Russian government's insistence that the West resort to opium eradication in Afghanistan (Russia is in the throes of a heroin epidemic based on cheap Afghan smack), the international drug reform community looked askance at Fedotov's appointment. But the diplomat's first missive as ONDCP head talked of drug dependence as a disease, not something to be punished, and emphasized a concern with public health and human rights. Fedotov has shown he can talk the talk, but whether he will walk the walk remains to be seen.

US War on Coca on Autopilot

Coca production is ongoing, if down slightly, in the Andes, after more than a quarter century of US efforts to wipe it out. Plan Colombia continues to be funded, although at declining levels, and aerial and manual eradication continues there. That, and a boom in coca growing in Peru, have led to Peru's arguably retaking first place in coca production from Colombia, but have also led to increased conflict between Peruvian coca growers and a hostile national government. And remnants of the Shining Path have appointed themselves protectors of the trade in several Peruvian coca producing regions. They have clashed repeatedly with Peruvian police, military, and coca eradicators. Meanwhile, Bolivia, the world's number three coca producer continues to be governed by former coca grower union leader Evo Morales, who has allowed a limited increase in coca leaf production. That's enough to upset the US, but not enough to satisfy Bolivian coca growers, who this fall forced Evo's government to repeal a law limiting coca leaf sales.

Canada Marches Boldly Backward

Canada under the Conservatives continues to disappoint. When the Liberals held power in the early part of this decade, Canada was something of a drug reform beacon, even if the Liberals could never quite get around to passing their own marijuana decriminalization bill while in power. They supported Vancouver's safe injection site and embraced harm reduction policies. But under the government of Prime Minister Steven Harper, Canada this year fought and lost (again) to shut down the safe injection site. Harper's justice minister, Rob Nicholson, in May signed extradition papers allowing "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery to fall into the clutches of the Americans, in whose gulag he now resides for the next four years for selling pot seeds. And while Harper's dismissal of parliament in January killed the government's bill to introduced mandatory minimum sentences for a number of offenses, including growing as few as five pot plants, his government reintroduced the bill this fall. It just passed the Senate, but needs to win approval in the House of Commons. The Conservatives won't be able to pass it by themselves there, so the question now becomes whether the Liberals will have the gumption to stand against it. This as polls consistently show a majority of Canadians favoring marijuana legalization.

A New Drug Generates a Tired, Old Response

When in doubt, prohibit. That would seem to be the mantra in Europe, where, confronted by the emergence of mephedrone, a synthetic stimulant derived from cathinone, the active ingredient in the khat plant, first Britain and then the entire European Union responded by banning it. Described as having effects similar to cocaine or ecstasy, mephedrone emerged in the English club scene in the past 18 months, generating hysterical tabloid press accounts of its alleged dangers. When two young people supposedly died of mephedrone early this year, the British government ignored the advice of its Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which called for it to be a Schedule B drug, and banned it. Poland followed suit in September, shutting down shops that sold the drug and claiming the power to pull from the shelves any product that could be harmful to life or health. And just this month, after misrepresenting a study by the European Monitoring Center on Drugs and Drug Addiction, the EU instituted a continent-wide ban on mephedrone. Meet the newest entrant into the black market.

Heroin Maintenance Expands Slowly in Europe

Heroin maintenance continues its slow spread in Europe. In March, Denmark became the latest country to embrace heroin maintenance. The Danes thus join Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and, to a lesser degree, Britain, in the heroin maintenance club. In June, British scientists rolled out a study showing heroin maintenance worked and urging the expansion of limited existing programs there. The following month, a blue-ribbon Norwegian committee called for heroin prescription trials and other harm reduction measures there. Research reports on heron maintenance programs have shown they reduce criminality among participants, decrease the chaos in their lives, and make them more amenable to integration into society.

Opium is Back in the Golden Triangle

Okay, it never really went away in Laos, Burma, and Thailand, and it is still below its levels of the mid-1990s, but opium planting has been on the increase for the last four years in the Golden Triangle. Production has nearly doubled in Burma since 2006 to more than 38,000 hectares, while in Laos, production has more than doubled since 2007. The UNODC values the crop this year at more than $200 million, more than double the estimate of last year's crop. Part of the increase is attributable to increased planting, but part is accounted for by rising prices. While Southeast Asian opium production still trails far behind that in Afghanistan, opium is back with a vengeance in the Golden Triangle.

Former British Drug Czar Says Legalize It All

Former Home Office drug minister and former Defense Minister Bob Ainsworth has called for all illegal drugs, including cocaine and heroin, to be legalized. He told the House of Commons Friday that addicts should be prescribed heroin rather than allowing global criminal organizations to handle and get rich from the illicit drug trade.

Bob Ainsworth breaks ranks with drug prohibition. (image courtesy Wikimedia)
Ainsworth called in the House of Commons for a fundamental rethink of British drug policy. Ainsworth's call was met with support from some MPs from all parties, but was roundly criticized by his own Labor Party.

Ainsworth served as head of drug policy under former Prime Minister Tony Blair, and as Blair's defense minister, he oversaw the British effort to eliminate opium planting in Afghanistan.

"Prohibition has failed to protect us. Leaving the drugs market in the hands of criminals causes huge and unnecessary harm to individuals, communities and entire countries, with the poor the hardest hit," Ainsworth said in remarks reported by The Independent. "We spend billions of pounds without preventing the wide availability of drugs. It is time to replace our failed war on drugs with a strict system of legal regulation, to make the world a safer, healthier place, especially for our children. We must take the trade away from organized criminals and hand it to the control of doctors and pharmacists."

Ainsworth said his experiences in Afghanistan had been an education. "Bombs and bullets and the wherewithal to produce IEDs are bought by funds supplied by international drugs," he said. A massive NATO occupation had failed to stamp out the heroin traffic, he said, so it was now time to consider "taking the market away" by legalizing drugs.

Former deputy Conservative leader Peter Lilley said he favored legalizing marijuana, while continuing to keep hard drugs illegal. Still, he supported Ainsworth's call for a reexamination of British drug policy. "I support Bob Ainsworth's sensible call for a proper, evidence-based review, comparing the pros and cons of the current prohibitionist approach, with all the alternatives, including wider decriminalization, and legal regulation."

"This could be a turning point in the failing UK 'war on drugs,'" said Labor MP Paul Flynn, a legalization supporter.

But Labor's leadership was quick to distance itself from Ainsworth's remarks. "Bob's views do not reflect Ed's views, the party's view or indeed the view of the vast majority of the public," a spokeswoman for Labor Leader Ed Miliband said.

Ainsworth's remarks were "extremely irresponsible," said an unnamed party source. "I don’t know what he was thinking."

London
United Kingdom

Afghan Opium Supply Halved, But Not for Long, UN Warns

opium poppies (incised papaver specimens)
Although the extent of opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan remained unchanged from last year, opium production declined by nearly half, thanks largely to a plant disease that affected poppy fields, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Thursday. But that means rising prices could provoke an increase in cultivation, UNODC warned in the executive summary of its 2010 Afghanistan Opium Survey. The full report will be released later this year.

"This is good news but there is no room for false optimism; the market may again become lucrative for poppy-crop growers so we have to monitor the situation closely," said Yuri Fedotov, new executive director of UNODC.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's opium, the raw ingredient used to make heroin. Production of the illicit crop is centered in southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces, home base of the Taliban insurgents. Profits from the opium trade fund the Taliban to the tune of an estimated hundred millions of dollars each year.

UNODC said slightly more than 300,000 acres were planted with poppy this year, about the same as last year after declines the two previous years. But because of the plant disease, opium production was estimated at 3,600 metric tons, down 48% from 2009.

The disease is likely spurring opium price increases, UNODC said. Prices declined from 2005 to 2009 as production boomed and stockpiles soared, but now the price is shooting up. Last year, farmers could expect to get $64 per kilogram of opium; this year, the price has nearly tripled, to $169 per kilo.

The stability in poppy cultivation comes despite years of efforts and billions of dollars invested in suppressing the trade. The US spent $250 million on anti-drug efforts in Afghanistan this year alone, according to the State Department's Office of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (or "drugs and thugs," as Foggy Bottom wits like to call it).

Fedetov, a veteran Russian diplomat who took over the reins of UNODC earlier this year and whose home country is confronting high levels of heroin addiction, said a broader strategy was needed to end Afghan poppy planting. "As long as demand drives this market, there will always be another farmer to replace one we convince to stop cultivating, and another trafficker to replace one we catch," he said.

Afghanistan

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