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Obama Compares Drug War to Alcohol Prohibition

Via NORML's Russ Belville, CBS's Bob Schieffer asked President Obama about the drug war violence in Mexico and got this surprising response:

President Obama:  Well, what’s happened is that President Calderon I think has been very bold and rightly has decided that it’s gotten carried away. The drug cartels have too much power, are undermining and corrupting huge segments of Mexican society. And so he has taken them on in the same way that when, you know, Elliot Ness took on Al Capone back during Prohibition, oftentimes that causes even more violence. And we’re seeing that flare up.

I honestly cannot believe the president is looking towards alcohol prohibition for a little perspective on our present predicament. Everyone knows that story. Elliot Ness didn't defeat those cartels. Legalization defeated them.

Feature: Meeting in Vienna, UN Commission on Narcotics Drugs Prepares to Head Further Down Same Prohibitionist Path, But Dissenting Voices Grow Louder

The United Nations Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) met this week in Vienna to draft a political statement and plan of action to guide international drug policy for the next decade. The statement largely affirms existing prohibitionist policies and ignores harm reduction, as the CND has done it the past. [Editor's note: The draft statement had not been formally approved as of press time, but is likely to be approved as is.]

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Vienna International Center, home of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime
The political statement is supposed to evaluate the implementation of the previous political declaration and action plan approved by the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) in 1998. At the 1998 session, UNGASS adopted the slogan "A Drug-Free World -- We Can Do It" and launched a "campaign" to wipe out all drug crops -- from marijuana to opium to coca -- by 2008.

But while the international community continues to slide down its century-old prohibitionist path regarding non-medicinal drug use and sales, it is encountering an increasing amount of friction. The United States, as leader of the hard-liners, continues to dominate the debates and set the agenda, but an emerging bloc of mainly Latin American and European countries is expressing deep reservations about continuing the same policies for another decade.

The atmosphere in Vienna this week was circus like, complete with street protests, as national delegations, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and other interested parties heatedly debated what an increasingly vociferous minority called a "failed" approach to the issue. Debate was particularly intense about the inclusion of harm reduction in the political statement -- a position rejected by the US delegation, led by outgoing acting drug czar Edward Jurith.

The drug summit came as the UN, the CND, and the countries pushing the prohibitionist hard-line have come under repeated attack for essentially maintaining the status quo. On Tuesday, the European Commission issued a report that found while in the past decade policies to help drug users and go after drug traffickers have matured, there was little evidence to suggest that the global drug situation had improved.

"Broadly speaking the situation has improved a little in some of the richer countries, while for others it worsened, and for some of those it worsened sharply and substantially, among which are a few large developing or transitional countries," an EC media statement on the report said. "In other words, the world drugs problem seems to be more or less in the same state as in 1998: if anything, the situation has become more complex: prices for drugs in most Western countries have fallen since 1998 by as much as 10% to 30%, despite tougher sentencing of the sellers of e.g. cocaine and heroin in some of these markets."

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SSDP's Kris Krane, caged as part of HCLU demonstration at UN (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Current anti-drug policies also came under attack from a growing coalition of NGOs, including Human Rights Watch, the International Harm Reduction Association, the European NGO Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD), and the International Drug Policy Consortium, as well as various NGOs from the US, Brazil, Canada, and England, among others, all of whom were in Vienna for the meeting. Human Rights Watch urged the CND to undo a decade of neglect, while the English group Transform Drug Policy Foundation called for a moratorium on global strategic drug policy setting, a review of the consequences of prohibitionist policies, and a commission to explore alternatives to the failed war on drugs.

"Every state that signs up to the political declaration at this commission recommits the UN to complicity in fighting a catastrophic war on drugs," said Danny Kushlick, policy director for Transform. "It is a tragic irony that the UN, so often renowned for peacekeeping, is being used to fight a war that brings untold misery to some of the most marginalized people on earth. 8,000 deaths in Mexico in recent years, the destabilization of Colombia and Afghanistan, continued corruption and instability in the Caribbean and West Africa are testament to the catastrophic impact of a drug control system based upon global prohibition. It is no surprise that the declaration is unlikely even to mention harm reduction, as it runs counter to the primary impact of the prevailing drug control system which, as the past ten years demonstrate, increases harm."

Not all the action took place in the conference hall. Wednesday saw a lively demonstration by NGO groups including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the drug user group INPUD, ENCOD, and the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union, among others. Protestors spoke to reporters from jail-like cages, waved signs and passed out pamphlets to delegates forced to run their gauntlet, and decried the harms of drug prohibition. One particularly effective protestor was dressed as a sun-glass wearing, cigar-puffing Mafioso, celebrating that business was good thanks to prohibition.

Even UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa, while whistling past the graveyard to insist that progress had been made in the past decade, acknowledged that current global policies have backfired in some ways. Giving the opening address Wednesday, Costa said "the world drug problem has been contained, but not solved" thanks to international anti-drug efforts.

But global drug control efforts have had "a dramatic unintended consequence," he added, "a criminal black market of staggering proportions." The international drug trade is "undermining security and development and causing some to make a dangerous wager in favor of legalization. Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled; they are controlled because they are harmful." Drug legalization would be "a historic mistake," he said.

Even so, Costa painted a dire picture of what prohibition had wrought: "When mafias can buy elections, candidates, political parties, in a word, power, the consequences can only be highly destabilizing" he said. "While ghettoes burn, West Africa is under attack, drug cartels threaten Central America and drug money penetrates bankrupt financial institutions".

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activists from International Network of People Who Use Drugs (INPUD) at demo (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Not everybody was buying into the UNODC-CND-US position of more of the same. Bolivian President Evo Morales brandished a coca leaf, then chewed it during his address to the delegates to underline his demand that coca be removed from the list of proscribed substances.

"This is coca leaf, this is not cocaine; this is part and parcel of a culture," Morales said. The ban on coca was a "major historical mistake," he added. "It has no harmful impact, no harmful impact at all in its natural state. It causes no mental disturbances, it does not make people run mad, as some would have us believe, and it does not cause addiction."

Neighboring Brazil was also critical. "We ought to recognize the important progress achieved over the last decade," said Brazilian delegate Jorge Armando Felix. "But the achievements have not been accomplished. The aim of a world free of drugs has proven to be unobtainable and in fact has led to unintended consequences such as the increase of the prison population, increase in violence related to an illegal drug market, increase in homicide and violence among the young population with a dramatic impact on mortality and life expectancy -- social exclusion due to drug use and the emergence of synthetic drugs."

Felix also had some prescriptions for UNGASS and the CND. "At this historic moment with the opportunity to reassess the past 10 years and more importantly to think about the challenges to come, Brazil enforces the need for recognition of and moving towards: harm reduction strategies; assessing drug dependence, and HIV AIDS populations; securing the human rights of drug users; correcting the imbalance between investments in supply and demand reduction areas; increasing actions and programs of prevention based on scientific evidence with an emphasis towards vulnerable populations and towards increase of access to and care for problematic or vulnerable drug users; and to the acknowledgment of different models of treatment for the need for increased funding of these efforts."

Brazilian Luiz Paulo Guanabara, head of the NGO Psicotropicus, observed it all with mixed feelings. "Early on, I thought the NGO strategy for harm reduction would not result in anything and that we should aim for drug regulation instead," he said. "And in the end, the term harm reduction is not in the political declaration, but the Beyond 2008 document is very strong and has not gone unnoticed."

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Mafioso-looking activist distributing ''United Nations of Prohibition'' 1,000 note bills with UNODC chief Costa's face on one side, and a thank you from the In Memoriam Al Capone Trust on the other (drogriporter.hu/en/demonstration)
Guanabara had harsh words for both the Americans and the UN. "It seems like the American delegates believe harm reduction is a sin -- or they favor harm increase, so they can lock up more people and have more HIV patients, increase crime, sell more weapons and make money out of the disgrace of others and families' destruction. Their prohibitionist stance is obscene," he declared. "And these guys at the CND understand nothing of drugs and drug use, they are just bureaucrats. To put drugs in the hands of bureaucrats is as dangerous as putting them in the hands of criminals."

But despite the lack of results this time around, Guanabara was thrilled by the participation of civil society. "The civil society mobilization is enormous and intense," he said. "The NGO events around the meeting were the real high-level meetings, not the low-level ones with the bureaucrats at the CND."

While the sentiments from Brazil and Bolivia were echoed by various national delegations, mainly European, and while even the UNODC and the US are willing to give nods to an increased emphasis on treatment and prevention, with the US delegation even going so far as to approve of needle exchanges, at the end of the day, the CND political declaration and action plan represents a stubborn adherence to the prohibitionist status quo.

"Government delegations could have used this process to take stock of what has failed in the last decade in drug-control efforts, and to craft a new international drug policy that reflects current realities and challenges," said Prof. Gerry Stimson, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association. "Instead, they produced a declaration that is not only weak -- it actually undermines fundamental health and human rights obligations."

American attendee and long-time drug reform activist Michael Krawitz also had mixed feelings. "The slow train wreck that Harry Anslinger started with the 1961 Single Convention is finally grinding to a halt," he said. "The argument here has been a semantic one over harm reduction, but the subtext is much more important, and the subtext is that the treaties were set up to protect public health and are currently being interpreted in such a way as to do the opposite. The declaration wound up being watered down and piled high with reservations. The next five years should prove interesting."

The IHRA and other NGOs called on governments with reservations about the political declaration to refuse to endorse it. That probably will not happen, but some governments have indicated they will add reservations to their approval of the declaration. After a century of prohibition, the first formal cracks are beginning to appear at the center of the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. Given that the dissent has largely appeared only since the last UNGASS in 1998, perhaps this isn't such a bad start.

Mexican President Surprised to Learn That the Drug War is Super Violent

Does Felipe Calderon even know what he's doing?

MEXICO CITY (AFP) — President Felipe Calderon Friday acknowledged the country's drug war is bloodier and tougher than he thought when he first took office in 2006, but vowed to eradicate the "cancer" that is consuming Mexico.

Really? That's odd because this has gone exactly as I expected and I haven’t been to Mexico in 20 years. He's the president. Why is he struggling to understand the basic dimensions of his own drug war?

If he admits that he didn't know it would get this bad, one wonders what else he doesn’t know. There were 6,000 people killed in Mexico's drug war last year alone and things appear to be getting worse, not better. Even Calderon's updated assessment may be proven horribly naïve.  

How much longer can the leaders of the drug war continue feigning surprise when their policies fail?

Drug War Protestors Block Traffic Along Mexican Border

Sandwiched between violent cartels and a brutal military occupation force, the Mexican people are understandably running out of patience:

Hundreds of people in Mexico have blocked key crossings into the US in protests against the deployment of the army fighting drug traffickers.

Traffic was brought to a halt on a number of bridges in several border towns in northern Mexico.

The protesters accused the army of abuse against civilians. [BBC]
We tend to view the U.S. and Mexican governments as well as the cartels as the primary actors in shaping the discussion of the nation’s drug war, but the Mexican people themselves will likely begin to play a more visible role as the situation further deteriorates. Rampant civil rights abuses by the Mexican military are quickly becoming regarded as a cure worse than the disease and it may only be a matter of time before public sentiments tip in favor of a dramatic change of course.

As one might expect, the Mexican government has been quick to dismiss the protestors, even going so far as to accuse them of collaborating with the drug traffickers:

…the governor of one state - Nuevo Leon - said he believed the Gulf drugs cartel and its armed wing, the Zetas, were behind the border protests.

"There are reasons to believe it has to do with the Gulf cartel and the group known as the Zetas," Governor Natividad Gonzalez said.

Unbelievable. I guess the idea that the citizens of Mexico would complain about human rights violations by their own military is so inconceivable that it simply must be the drug lords who made them do it.

Ultimately, it should prove difficult for the government to continue portraying public opposition as a PR experiment sponsored the traffickers. Trivializing public sentiment is a losing proposition in the long term, especially when you’re thoroughly unprepared to address the conditions that are pissing everyone off.

If anyone is serving the political and financial interests of the drug traffickers it is the U.S. and Mexican government officials who continue to champion the failed drug strategy that is ripping Mexico apart before our eyes.

Drug War Logic 101

Pete Guither and Dave Borden already mentioned it, but I just can’t get enough of this quote from the Wall Street Journal:

"If the drug effort were failing there would be no violence," a senior U.S. official said Wednesday. There is violence "because these guys are flailing. We're taking these guys out. The worst thing you could do is stop now."

So let me get this straight. According to the U.S. government:

No violence = drug war is failing
Intense violence = drug war is going well

So when do we win the drug war then? When everyone’s dead?

Feature: It's Time for a New Drug Policy Paradigm, Say Latin American Leaders

A blue-ribbon commission of Latin American leaders has issued a report saying that the US-led war on drugs has failed and it is time to consider new policies, particularly treating drug use as a public health problem and decriminalizing marijuana. The report is an attempt to intervene not only in Latin American, US, and European drug policy debates, but also in the United Nations' ongoing 10-year review of global drug policies, which will culminate next month in a ministerial meeting in Vienna.

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The report, Drugs and Democracy: Toward a Paradigm Shift, is the work of the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, a 17-member panel that includes former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, and former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria. Other commission members include the writers Paulo Coelho, Mario Vargas Llosa, Sergio Ramírez and Tomás Eloy Martínez as well as leading scholars, media members and politicians.

Latin America is the leading exporter of both cocaine and marijuana. As such, it has faced the ravages of heavy-handed American anti-drug interventions, such as Plan Colombia and earlier efforts to destroy the Bolivian coca crop, as well as the violence of drug trafficking organizations and politico-military formations of the left and right that have grown wealthy off the black market bonanza. And while the region's level of drug consumption has historically been low, it is on the rise.

"The main reason we organized this commission is because the available evidence indicates the war on drugs is a failed war," said Cardoso at a Wednesday press conference in Rio de Janeiro to announce the report. "We need a different paradigm to cope with the problem of drugs. The power of organized crime is undermining the very foundations of democracy in some Latin American countries. We must acknowledge that these policies have failed and we must break the taboo that prevents us from discussing different strategies."

In the report, the commission calls for more humane and effective drug strategies. It emphasizes the following broad themes:

  • Treat drug use as a public health issue;
  • Reduce consumption through information and prevention actions;
  • Focus on enforcement against organized crime.

The commission also called on governments and civil society around the globe to "assess in the light of public health and advanced medical science the possibility of decriminalizing possession of marijuana for personal consumption."

"We need to break the taboo that's blocking an honest debate," Cardoso said, repeating one of the phrases of the day. "Numerous scientific studies show that the damage caused by marijuana is similar to that of alcohol or tobacco," said the well-respected former Brazilian leader.

"Decriminalization is only part of the solution," warned former Colombian President Gaviria. "You need to do what the Europeans are doing, which is helping addicts. That's what the US doesn't do; it just puts them in jail," he scolded. "You tripled the jail population in the US in the last 20 years because of prohibitionism. The half million people in jail because of drug consumption, is that reducing consumption?" he asked. "The excuse is that people commit crimes to get money, but you deal with that putting addicts under a doctor and helping them with their problem."

The commission has three objectives, said Gaviria. "We want to create a Latin American policy around the consumption of drugs, we want to promote a debate in the US -- we are very concerned that there is no real public debate on the politics of drug trafficking in US politics -- and we want the European Union countries to take more responsibility for drug consumption," he said. "They are not doing enough to reduce the consumption of drugs."

"This report represents a major leap forward in the global drug policy debate," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who addressed a commission session in Bogotá last September. "It's not the first high-level commission to call the drug war a failure, nor is it the first time any Latin American leader has criticized the prohibitionist approach to global drug control. But it is the first time that such a distinguished group of Latin Americans, including three highly regarded ex-presidents, have gone so far in their critique of US and global drug policy and recommendations for what needs to be done."

The commission report is on "the cutting edge" of the global drug policy debate, said Nadelmann. "This is evident in its call for a 'paradigm shift,' in its recognition of the important role of harm reduction precepts and policies, in its push for decriminalization of cannabis, and in its critique of 'the criminalization of consumption.'"

Now it is on to Vienna -- and beyond -- said commission members. It is past time for a new approach, not only in the US, but internationally, they said.

"We hope the meeting in Vienna will not produce a result like previous meetings, where they just kept pushing back the date on which drugs will disappear," said Rubem Cesar Fernandes of the civil society organization Viva Rio. "The main discussion in Vienna should be whether the world should adopt European harm reduction policies. Most Latin American countries are supporting the approach of dealing with this as a health problem, not a criminal one."

Fernandes looked with guarded optimism at the new Obama administration. "We hope the Obama administration will at least be able to open that possibility because now the US totally opposes harm reduction as good policy," he said. "The world is not moving to follow the US jail policy. The US needs to think about whether putting people in jail is really solving the problem."

"Discussions in Vienna are not enough," said Cardoso. "We need national debates in all our countries, as well as inside the US. A clear dialog with the US is very important. We will try to get in contact with the Obama administration."

And so the pressure builds, on both the UN and the US. Will it be enough to force dramatic changes in Vienna or Washington? Probably not yet. But the global prohibitionist consensus is crumbling, clearly if slowly.

Mexican Drug Cartels Dissolve Corpses in Vats of Acid

Lately, the drug war is sounding less and less like an actual government policy and more like a distopian future from a science fiction movie:

As the nation's drug war rages on, with its weekly tallies of headless torsos, it is getting harder to produce a shock wave in the Mexican media. But the gruesome recipes of "The Stewmaker" have gripped public attention here, as authorities describe how a "disposal expert" working for a Tijuana drug cartel boss allegedly got rid of hundreds of bodies by dissolving the corpses in vats of caustic liquid. [Washington Post]

They call him "The Stewmaker" and his henchmen attacked the police station with machine guns after he was captured.

Does any of this sound like the story of a drug policy that works? How much more of this unfathomable gory mayhem do we feel like putting up with? We’ve crossed the line into some seriously dark territory here and it’s way past time something is done about it, something completely different from everything we’ve tried before.

The Drug Cartels are Becoming More Powerful Than the Government

They’re even doing their own diplomacy:

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico – Mexico's warring cartels are negotiating a truce that, if it holds, could end one of the bloodiest eras since the 1910-20 Mexican Revolution, according to a U.S. official and experts familiar with the talks.

A peace agreement would be the second in two years and, like the last one, its chances of surviving are slim, the U.S. official said.

"In the end, greed prevails over reason," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. [Dallas Morning News]

Actually, it was the drug war that prevailed over reason. We were all watching when Calderón declared war on the cartels and…wait for it…a huge bloody war broke out! Why is anyone acting confused or surprised by what happened? It’s all perfectly clear. If you throw rocks at a beehive, expect swarms of angry bees.

The fact that they’re negotiating their own peace agreements does not reflect well on the decades-long war that was supposed to disrupt the drug industry. They’ve become a second government that even controls its own territories:

Already, the violence is crippling regions and cities, some of them on the border with Texas. Some top U.S. officials and analysts describe these cities, including Ciudad Juárez, across the border from El Paso, as "failed cities," in which cartels, not city or police officials, have control. [Dallas Morning News]

Amazingly, the U.S. and Mexican governments actually believe we should continue the policies that produced this outcome.

The Drug War Only Causes Violence. It Can't Create Peace.

Someone help me understand what Mexico’s U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza is thinking:

"Calderón must, and will, keep the pressure on the cartels, but look, let's not be naïve – there will be more violence, more blood, and, yes, things will get worse before they get better. That's the nature of the battle," Garza said. "The more pressure the cartels feel, the more they'll lash out like cornered animals." [Dallas Morning News]

This is correct except for the part about how Calderón has to do this (no, he doesn't) and the part about how things will get better (no, they won't). We’ve heard all this a thousand times before and it just gets sillier every time. The bottom line is that cracking down on the cartels either works or it doesn’t. It makes no sense to say that aggressive drug war policies will create violence in the short term, and then eventually that same approach will begin reducing bloodshed. That’s not logical.

The drug war causes violence. Just admit it. Stop pretending that it’s going to produce the opposite result at some point in the future. It isn’t going to.

Mexican Gangs Threaten School Children

Every day, the stories coming from Mexico get worse. Nothing surprises me at this point. Not even this:


MEXICO CITY – Elementary school teachers are the latest victims of an exploding extortion racket in the border city of Ciudad Juárez, as criminal gangs threaten educators to either hand over their coming Christmas bonuses or see harm done to their families or students, teachers' groups say.

With Monday a school holiday and news of the threats spreading in the media, on the Internet and by word of mouth during the long weekend, there were fears that an increasing number of parents would keep their children at home today, forcing additional schools to close. [Dallas News]


Is anybody going to come forward and claim this is just a temporary problem? Shall we double our drug war donations to restore law and order? Let’s get real. The drug war is destroying the entire country before our eyes and there’s no limit to how bad it can get.

It’s amazing to witness the criminal feeding frenzy that is now erupting all over the country now that the drug war has turned Mexico’s justice system into a complete mockery. Dangerous levels of police corruption have created a horrific laboratory in which violent criminals have begun experimenting with all sorts of terrible schemes. Can you even imagine what’s next?

If anything can solve the crime problems plaguing Mexico, it will have to be the exact opposite of everything we're doing right now.

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