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Southwest Asia: US, UN Squabble Over Afghanistan Opium Production Drop, But Taliban Stash Suggests No Shortages Any Time Soon

In August, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its annual survey of Afghan opium production, reporting for the first time in several years a slight -- 6% -- decrease in overall production. Last Friday, the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), released its own US government estimate, claiming that production was down a whopping 31%.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/afghanistanopiummap08.gif
opium security map, ONDCP, July 2008, from whitehousedrugpolicy.gov
Both the UNODC and ONDCP concurred that acreage devoted to poppy production was down, but the UNODC said increased productivity in remaining poppy fields meant the decrease in production was not as great as the decrease in acreage. The ONDCP report said yields were decreasing, not increasing. Both UNODC and ONDCP agreed that 18 provinces were now poppy-free, up from 12 two years ago.

"Afghanistan needs peace, a flourishing economy and the rule of law to succeed as a democracy," said drug czar John Walters as he announced the figures. "Each of these conditions is undone by narcotics production. That is why today's news is so encouraging to the people of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has been victimized for too long by the violence, misery, and addiction caused by the illegal drug trade. We look forward to continuing cooperation with the Government of Afghanistan and our allies as we work to defeat the narcotics industry and the terrorist groups that rely on the drug business to kill innocent people and attack democracy and freedom across the globe."

Despite the US report, UNODC officials in Afghanistan were sticking to their numbers. At a Kabul press conference Monday, UNODC Afghanistan head Christina Orguz said she had "high confidence" in the UNODC numbers because they were based on ground inspections, analysis of the actual opium yield of the latest crop and satellite imagery.

"Whichever figure it would turn out to be right would be a tragedy because it's still far too much produced, in any case," she said.

Both the US and the UN reported some successes in luring farmers away from the poppy crop with public information campaigns and alternative development programs. Eradication and interdiction have been less successful, but now NATO and the US have committed their forces to deeper involvement in the anti-drug effort. Still, Afghanistan remains the world's leading opium producer by far, accounting for 93% of global production.

And, if UNODC head Antonio Maria Costa is correct, Afghanistan has for the past several years produced more opium than the global illicit market can absorb. According to the UNODC, global demand for illicit opium is steady at about 4,500 tons a year, while Afghanistan has been producing considerably more for the past few years. Some 6,000 to 8,000 tons are surplus, and Costa thinks he knows where they are.

"Where is it? We have been asking," he told Time. Because of the surplus, "the prices should have collapsed," said Costa. "But there has been no price collapse."

Costa said he believed the missing opium was being stockpiled by the Taliban for lean times and as a price control mechanism. "This is classic market manipulation," he said.

So, while the US and the UN can congratulate themselves on production reductions and squabble over how big they really are, the Taliban is sitting on a gold mine of opium. At an estimated $465,000 a ton for opium, that adds up to a $3.2 billion war chest, and even a dramatic drop in production or successful eradication will not impede the Taliban's ability to wage war against the West and the government in Kabul.

Public Opinion: Three-Quarters of Likely Voters Believe Drug War is Failing and More than One-Quarter Favor Legalization, Zogby Poll Finds

According to a Zogby/Inter-American Dialogue poll released Thursday, more than three-quarters of likely voters polled said America's drug war is a failure. That is a sharp contrast with current US and state drug policies. The poll also found significant differences between US policy in the hemisphere and what respondents would like to see.

On drug policy, 76% believe the US war on drugs is failing. That included the vast majority of Democrats (86%) and independents (81%) and even a majority of Republicans (61%). Among Barack Obama supporters, 89% agreed, and among John McCain supporters 61% agreed. While it is not clear that a belief that the war on drugs is failing suggests support for drug reform -- it could include those who believe it is failing because we have not tried hard enough -- it does suggest an emerging consensus that the current path is the wrong one.

When asked what was the best way to confront drug use and the international drug trade, respondents were split. Some 27% of likely voters said legalizing some drugs was the best approach (Obama supporters 34%, McCain supporters 20%); 25% said stopping drugs at the border (Obama supporters 12%, McCain supporters 39%); 19% said reducing demand through treatment and education; and 13% said crop eradication in source countries was the best approach.

The poll was by no means limited to drug policy. On other hemispheric issues, it found that 60% believe the US should revise its policies toward Cuba, 67% support a path to citizenship for tax-paying undocumented immigrants who learn English, 46% believe the US should seek to improve ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (10% want to completely break relations), 54% believe the US should lower tariffs on Brazilian ethanol, and 42% believe the North American Free Trade Agreement should be revised.

"The poll results indicate that American public opinion is far more open and flexible on issues of importance for US relations with Latin America than current policy would suggest," noted Peter Hakim, the President of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank that collaborated with Zogby International on the poll. "It also suggests, however, that public opinion may not be all that relevant in decisions regarding policy issues of greatest concern to Latin America -- that these may be largely determined by smaller groups with intense sentiments about the issues," he said in a press release accompanying the poll results.

"While there are significant differences between Obama and McCain supporters on most issues, the poll suggests that the general public agrees on ethanol tariffs, temporary workers, and the failure of the drug war -- these are important issues in hemispheric relations that the next US president will have an opportunity to deal with," Hakim added.

Feature: Venezuela, US Governments Spar Over Drug Fighting

The tense relations between the Bush administration and Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez grew even more strained this week as Washington and Caracas traded charges and counter-charges over Venezuela's fight against cocaine trafficking. While it seems indisputable that cocaine trafficking through Venezuela has increased in recent years, the two governments are trading barbs over the extent of official Venezuelan complicity in the trade, whether Venezuela is doing enough to combat trafficking, and whether it needs to comply with US demands in order to effectively fight the drug trade.

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Venezuela (from the CIA World Factbook)
Venezuela does not grow coca or process cocaine, but like other countries in Latin America, it has been used as a conduit, especially by traffickers from neighboring Colombia, the region's largest coca and cocaine producer. The rise of the European cocaine market in recent years has undoubtedly made the country an attractive way station for cocaine headed east.

"The flow of cocaine through Venezuela -- both north particularly through the Dominican Republic and Haiti but also into Europe through Africa and other places -- has increased dramatically," US drug czar John Walters told the Associated Press in a recent interview. He said smuggling through Venezuela had quadrupled since 2004, to about 250 metric tons last year, or about one-quarter of total regional (and thus global) cocaine production.

The remarks come as the US is pressing Venezuela to renew cooperation with it on drug trafficking, and are probably laying the groundwork for a looming decertification of Venezuela's compliance with US drug war goals. Relations between the US DEA and the Venezuelan government have been almost nonexistent since Chávez expelled the DEA in 2005, charging that it was spying on his country. Only two DEA agents are currently stationed in Venezuela, and their activities are very circumscribed.

But Venezuela last weekend brusquely rejected renewed calls from Washington to accept a visit from Walters and resume cooperation on the drug front, saying it had made progress by itself and working with other countries. "The anti-drug fight in Venezuela has shown significant progress during recent years, especially since the government ended official cooperation programs with the DEA," Venezuela's foreign ministry said in a statement. Renewing talks on drugs would be "useless and inopportune," the statement said.

Walters had tried to "impose his visit as an obligation," the foreign ministry complained. "The government considers this kind of visit useless and ill-timed and feels that this official would better use his time to control the flourishing drug trafficking and abuse in his own country," the statement said. "Venezuela has become today a country free of drug farms, neither producing nor processing illicit drugs, and which has smashed records one year after another for seizing substances from neighboring countries," it added.
That statement came one day after US Ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy ruffled feathers in Caracas by saying that Venezuela's failure to cooperate with the US was leaving an opening for traffickers. "The drug traffickers are taking advantage of the gap that exists between the two governments," Duddy told reporters, citing the estimated fourfold rise in trafficking.

President Chávez responded to those remarks Sunday by calling them "stupid" and warning that Duddy would soon be "packing his bags" if he is not careful. Chávez also suggested that the US concentrate on its own drug use and marijuana production.

On Monday, Venezuelan Vice-President Ramón Carrizales echoed his chief, telling reporters in Caracas that Venezuela was cooperating internationally, just not on US terms. "The DEA asks for freedom to fly over our territory indiscriminately," Carrizales said. "Well, they aren't going to have that freedom. We are a sovereign country."

Venezuela has seized tons of cocaine in recent years and has some 4,000 people behind bars on trafficking charges, he added. Most US-bound cocaine moves north by sea, he said, largely along Colombia's Pacific Coast.

But the Bush administration wasn't backing down. On Tuesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormick said: "Our officials, including Ambassador Duddy, are going to continue to speak out on the state of US-Venezuelan relations... (and) what we see happening inside Venezuela. That does not foreclose the possibility of a better relationship... and certainly we're prepared to have a better relationship," he added, saying Washington first needed to see some unspecified actions by the Venezuelan government.

Good luck with that, said a trio of analysts consulted by the Chronicle. "There is little chance of increased cooperation," said Ian Vasquez, director of the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute, who cited corruption within the Venezuelan government.

Prospects for a rapprochement on drug policy are low, said Adam Isaacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy. "There is so much distrust between the two governments," he said. "Chávez's threat scenario is a US invasion, and a US military, security, or even police presence would be seen as probing for weaknesses. On the other hand, the US thinks Venezuela is on a campaign to bring Iran and Russia into the region, and Walters is an ideologue who thinks Venezuela is doing this to destabilize the region, you know, the idea of a leftist leader making common cause with drug traffickers. There is no trust, and there's not going to be any trust. The drug war stuff is really only one aspect of that larger context," he said.

"The Venezuelans have repeatedly stated they want to cooperate with the US on drugs, but Chávez deeply distrusts the US government," said Larry Birns, head of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "He has had a terrible time with activist US ambassadors and he feels they have intervened repeatedly in Venezuela's sovereign affairs, but this could be a propitious moment. The Bush administration will get nowhere with any new anti-Chávez initiatives, so they just might be interested in taking some steps toward normalizing relations with Venezuela simply to show that the US is capable of using diplomacy."

Still, said Birns, don't look for any dramatic breakthroughs. "There won't be any effective agreement on drug trafficking unless it's part of a larger mix of confidence-building measures," he said. "Hugo Chávez has a confrontational, combative personality, but he's relatively clean when it comes to human rights violations or other derelictions, and that's very frustrating for Washington. There will not be any comprehensive agreement on this issue, just some de facto improvements on a graduated basis because the necessary confidence between the two governments just doesn't exist."

All three agreed that cocaine trafficking through Venezuela is increasing, but none thought it was a matter of official policy. "It's true there is now a lot of cocaine going through Venezuela," said Isaacson. "While I don't think that Chávez is actively trying to turn the country into a narco playground, I haven't seen any major effort to root out drug-related corruption. Chávez also has problems controlling his national territory; there are security and public security problems, common crime is a serious problem, and organized crime is growing."

"Venezuela has an income of $100 billion a year from oil revenues, why would they be interested in drug revenues?" Birns asked. "I'm sure there are some rogue elements in the government, but this is not a matter of state policy," he said. "You can't deny there is drug trafficking in Venezuela, but I can't imagine that Chávez has anything to do with or gain from it. After all, he's giving away hundreds of millions of dollars a year around the world, including the US, in oil and heating oil, so this just doesn't seem like an income opportunity he would be interested in."

The war on drugs is just a waste of time and resources, said Vasquez. "Asking countries to enforce US drug prohibition is asking them to do the impossible," said Vasquez. "It hasn't succeeded in Colombia, Mexico, or anywhere in the Andes. You see some ephemeral victories -- you might kill a drug lord or shut down a cartel, but this is a multi-billion dollar multinational industry that can easily adapt to whatever is thrown at it."

Asking for more enforcement is only asking for trouble, said Vasquez. "The more prohibition, the more law enforcement, the more violent it becomes," he said. "There is no light at the end of the tunnel. To the extent that the drug war is more aggressively pursued, we can expect more violence and corruption."

Still, there are things Venezuela could do to ease tensions, said Isaacson. "Venezuela could be more cooperative in monitoring its airspace, sharing radar information, even allowing occasional US verification flights like the other Latin American countries do," he said. "And as Fidel Castro has done, they need to take a hard line against drug corruption in the state -- it can eat a state from the inside out."

But if Chávez can be accused of playing politics with the drug issue, so can the US, said Isaacson. "US anti-drug goals look even more politicized. I'm sure Venezuela will be decertified, and people will fairly say they're singling out Venezuela because they're leftists and say bad things about the US. Meanwhile, Colombia, with the world's largest coca crop, and Mexico, which has a huge drug trafficking industry, will get a pass because they're pro-US."

"The US certification process on drugs is very tarnished," agreed Birns. "All of these annual mandates from Congress on drugs and terrorism and the like have been carried out in an archly political manner. The US minimizes the sins of its friends and maximizes those of its enemies."

Washington's problems with Venezuela are just part of an overall decline in US influence in the region, said Birns. "With countries like Peru having high growth rates because of the increased valuation of natural resources across the board and new resource discoveries, with Brazil on the verge of becoming a superpower, with various new organizations of which the US is not a part, like the Rio Group and the South American security zone, our leverage over Latin America is waning. The only way to achieve real results on any of these issues is earnest negotiation where real concessions are made."

Isn't it Already Illegal to Traffic Drugs in a Submarine?

Joe Biden! Hello! I just read your new press release and I need help understanding what the hell you're trying to do:

Legislation Takes Aim at the Use of Submarines for Drug Trade;
House Passes Key Biden Provisions Today

Washington, DC – U.S. Senator Joseph R. Biden, Jr. (D-DE), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Drugs and the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, introduced the Drug Trafficking Interdiction Assistance Act of 2008 (S.3351), legislation designed to help disrupt drug trafficking by criminalizing the use of unregistered, un-flagged submersible or semi-submersible vessels in international waters whose operators intend to evade detection. Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) joined Sen. Biden in introducing this bill, which will give authorities a new tool to go after the drug lords who have been using this technology to avoid prosecution. [sorry, no link]

Raise your hand if you think anyone who moves drugs by the submarine-full gives a flying crap about the law. Ok, then.

This is the kind of legislation that makes drug lords cough up their caviar with laughter. They're building submarines in the f@#king jungle. They'll dig a tunnel from Bogota to Brooklyn if they have to and I really don’t understand why Joe Biden is even bothering to pretend they give a damn about anything he does. Give us a break, seriously.

The drug war is wasteful, brutal and destructive enough without our politicians goofing around dreaming up ludicrous, useless legislation at our expense. Just stop. You're embarrassing us all.

Drug Smugglers Use Hurricane For Cover

Conditions that send everyone else running for shelter are actually appealing to drug traffickers:

Smugglers tried to use Hurricane Dolly as a cover in at least three attempts to move drugs or illegal aliens through Texas, border officials said Wednesday.

About 9,600 pounds of marijuana was found buried under cotton seeds on a truck on U.S. 77 at the Border Patrol's Sarita checkpoint south of Kingsville, Texas, said Lloyd Easterling, a spokesman for Customs and Border Protection.


Jayson Ahern, deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, said the Sarita checkpoint marijuana bust was one of three Wednesday in which smuggling operations appeared to be attempting to operate under the cover of the storm. [CNN]

Well, shucks, what are we gonna do about this? I guess it will be necessary to double border security during hurricanes to prevent smuggling. Any volunteers?

Feature: Beyond 2008 -- Global Civil Society Tells the UN It's Time to Fix International Drug Policy

Last week, some 300 delegates representing organizations from across the drug policy spectrum met in Vienna for the Beyond 2008 NGO Forum, an effort to provide civil society input on global drug policy. Building on a series of regional meetings last year, the forum was part of an ongoing campaign to reshape the United Nations' drug policy agenda as the world organization grapples with its next 10-year plan.

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UN building housing the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, Vienna (interior shot)
In 1998, the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs issued a declaration outlining its 10-year strategy to "eliminate or significantly reduce" the cultivation of marijuana, coca, and opium poppies. "A drug-free world -- we can do it!" was the motto adopted by UNGASS a decade ago. Now, with the 10-year review bumped back to next March, it is clear that the global anti-drug bureaucracy cannot claim to have achieved its goals, and civil society is taking the opportunity to intervene in search of a new, more pragmatic and humane direction in global drug policy.

The NGO meeting, which included drug treatment, prevention, education, and policy reform groups, harm reduction groups, and human rights groups from around the world, resulted in a resolution that will be presented to the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) at its meeting next March. At that meeting, the CND will draft the next UN 10-year global drug strategy.

Of the nine regions of the world, only North America sent two delegations. The first, which had met in St. Petersburg, Florida, in January, deliberately excluding harm reduction and drug reform groups, was the "official" delegation, representing hard-line prohibitionist organizations aligned with the Office of National Drug Control Policy, such as the Drug-Free America Foundation and the Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America (CADCA), the California Narcotics Officers Association, and the National Association of Drug Court Professionals.

The second North American grouping, which had held its regional meeting in Vancouver in February, included dozens of organizations in drug reform and harm reduction, as well as treatment, prevention, and rehabilitation groups. Among the organizations from the Vancouver meeting that went to Vienna were the ACLU Drug Law Policy Project, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Virginians Against Drug Violence, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Harm Reduction Coalition, Break The Chains, and the Institute for Policy Studies.

In many ways, the three-day meeting in Vienna was a debate among North Americans, with the NGOs of the other eight regions having largely agreed on a reformist and harm reduction approach. And strikingly, for the first time at a UN event, the prohibitionists found themselves in a distinct minority.

After three days of sometimes heated discussion, the unanimous declaration of the NGOs at Beyond 2008 called for:

  • Recognition of "the human rights abuses against people who use drugs";
  • "Evidence-based" drug policy focused on "mitigation of short-term and long-term harms" and "full respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms";
  • The UN to report on the collateral consequences of the current criminal justice-based approach to drugs and to provide an "analysis of the unintended consequences of the drug control system";
  • Comprehensive "reviews of the application of criminal sanctions as a drug control measure";
  • Recognition of harm reduction as a necessary and worthwhile response to drug abuse;
  • A shift in primary emphasis from interdiction to treatment and prevention;
  • Alternatives to incarceration;
  • The provision of development aid to farmers before eradication of coca or opium crops;
  • Acknowledging that young people represent a significant proportion of drug users worldwide, are disproportionately affected by drugs and drug policy, and should be actively involved in the setting of global drug policy.

"We achieved a set of declarations of what the people of the world think drug policy ought to look like," said Graham Boyd of the ACLU Drug Law Policy Project. "We reached a consensus on a set of policies that is really different from what we've seen so far. It's a shift away from interdiction, arrests, and imprisonment, and toward including concepts like human rights and harm reduction."

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Fayzal Sulliman (Sub-Saharan African Harm Reduction Network, Stijn Goossens (International Network Of People Who Use Drugs), Kris Krane (Students for Sensible Drug Policy)
"We hammered out a pretty amazing set of suggestions as to where the UNODC and CND should go in the next decade," said Jack Cole, executive director of LEAP. "I thought it was wonderful. This is a consensus document," Cole noted. "While that means anything that everybody couldn't agree on didn't get in, it also means that every single person there agreed with what did get in. That's why I'm so pleased with this. At the end, we were able to agree on some really, really good things."

"I think we accomplished a lot," said Lennice Werth of Virginians Against Drug Violence. "What was really important was where the rest of the world stood, and it was clear from the regional meetings that everyone else mentioned harm reduction and the decriminalization of drug use as goals. By the end of the meetings, the whole world was sitting back and watching as two US factions slugged it out. It became evident that the whole world is seeing the light except for these hard-liners in the States."

"This was a really good reality check for the US prohibitionists," said Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies. "They've never been forced to sit in a room with so many people who have evolved so far beyond them. A real wake-up call. And we even got some of them to engage us, and found we had a lot in common. That leaves the hardliners way out in the cold."

"The NGO community is united in insisting that the UN and member states respect the human rights of people who use drugs, and that all drug strategies must be drafted in the spirit of human rights declarations," said Kris Krane, executive director of SSDP. "If adopted by the United Nations, this could have a profound impact in many parts of the world where drug users are routinely treated as subhuman, and subjected to treatment that would be unthinkable even in the context of repressive United States drug policy."

"We achieved some important gains," said Frederick Polak, speaking as a member of ENCOD, the European Coalition for Just and Effective Drug Policies. "But the central issue for ENCOD and its 150 organizations is to get alternative drug control policies on the agenda of CND and of individual countries. It is no longer acceptable that alternative policies are simply not discussed by governments, and not at the UN, at least not at the level of policymakers."

In that regard, said Polak, Beyond 2008 did not go far enough. "We made very little progress on actually getting legalization and regulation on the agenda, and only in the sense that most people are aware now that the issue 'hangs in the air' in Vienna," he said.

The haggling between the prohibitionist fringe and the rest of the NGOs not only prevented the adoption of more overtly anti-prohibitionist language, Polak said, it also prevented discussion of additional proposals for alternative drug control policies, including one advanced by ENCOD.

But it is a ways from passing a civil society resolution to seeing it adopted by the global anti-drug bureacracy. Now that Beyond 2008 has crafted its resolutions, the goal is to see that it has some impact on the deliberations of the UN drug bodies next year. That involves not only showing up in Vienna, but also impressing upon national governments that they need to heed what civil society is telling them.

"This was the first quarter in a game that has three quarters left," said Boyd. "But we did well in the sense that until this conference, NGOs didn't really have a place at the table when it came to discussing international drug policy. What this means is that when the nations convene and reassess international drug policy in coming months, they will know that NGOs from all of their countries have really called on them to reassess the direction they're going," he continued.

"This is going to provide traction for reform of the international drug control system, and the fact that it was a consensus document make it even more powerful," said Tree. "The prohibitionists were so marginalized, they had to consent. Some even opened their ears and listened. We have opened the door for drug policy approaches like harm reduction, public health, regulation, and ending the folly of blaming other countries for our demand."

"Now we need to make sure our voices are heard," said Boyd. "Part of that is just showing up in Vienna, but part of that is speaking to our national government representatives and making sure they're really representing us. In our case, our national government hasn't shown much empathy for the positions we've taken, but we're a democratic society, so I hope they will include our views."

Reformers must also continue to make the case against drug prohibition, said ENCOD's Polak. "The theory of prohibition is that it will diminish drug production, supply and use. Yet in reality it has achieved the exact opposite, and has additionally created violence, corruption and chaos that is now destroying millions of lives. It's safe to say that prohibition theory has been proven false," he said.

"In any other field of policy, alternative methods would be explored, but in international drug policy, consideration of alternative policies is taboo," Polak continued. "With this argument, drug policy activists should try to convince public opinion and politicians in their country that there is an urgent need for a thorough and rational study of alternative drug control policies."

"This could be an exercise in futility," said Werth, acknowledging the slow pace of change at the UN and the uncertainty over whether change will occur at all. "But it doesn't seem like it. The UN moves at a glacial pace, but they know they didn't achieve a drug-free world, and when they move, it will undercut the gang in charge of drug policy in this country."

Drug Prohibition: No Clue in the Texas Legislature

If drug reform is making any headway in the Lone Star State (and it is), there was little sign of it Wednesday at an Austin hearing of the state Senate Criminal Justice Committee. The committee is charged with examining current drug laws to see which are working and which are not and trying to come up with more effective drug policies.

With Mexican drug trafficking organizations sending billions of dollars worth of drugs across the border each year, much of it through Texas, state and local law enforcement agencies have been cooperating with federal agents to try to crack down on the trade. But it hasn't seemed to have had any impact, and that was a frustration for Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston).

"It don't affect the price of it at all, which means it ain't made a dent. Still huge amounts are getting through," he said in remarks reported by Austin TV station KVUE. "If you know where it's coming from, why can't you do more about it?" he asked plaintively.

Whitmire's ignorance of the laws of supply and demand when it comes to drug prohibition is apparently equaled only by his ignorance of the US Constitution, and particularly the Fourth Amendment. At least, that's what his next comment suggested.

"If in fact so much of the narcotics is just coming up and down our highways and the main roads out of Mexico, why don't we just pull over more trucks?" Whitmire said. "It would be fun to try. I like that, zero tolerance."

Of course, every vehicle entering the US from Mexico must go through US Customs at the border. And then there's the Border Patrol checkpoints on highways leading north from the border. And then there's the saturation level patrols of those highways (although, to be fair, Texas cops are as interested in cars heading south as those heading north, because while the latter may contain drugs, the former may contain cash). But none of that is enough for Whitmire. Nor does it cause him to question his premises.

It looks like it will be business as usual in the drug war in Texas.

Middle East: Iraq Becomes Key Conduit in Global Drug Trade

America's two-front "war on terror" in Afghanistan and Iraq is resulting in a one-two punch to US efforts to strangle the global drug trade. Afghan opium production has famously shot through the roof in the years since US forces invaded and overthrew the Taliban, and now, Iraq is emerging as a key player in the global drug trade, according to Iraqi and UN officials consulted by Agence France-Presse.

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Afghan opium
Many of the drugs being smuggled into and through Iraq to European and Middle Eastern markets are coming from Afghanistan via Iran, where the Islamic Republic is hard-pressed to patrol remote trafficking routes along its border with Afghanistan, officials said.

While hard numbers are hard to come by, Iraqi officials said the trade in illegal opiates, cannabis, and pills has risen steadily since the US invasion in 2003. They point to numerous drug trafficking arrests at border crossings with Iran, as well as Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

"A large number of smugglers are being arrested," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim Khalaf told AFP, adding that many were being detained in the southern Iraqi provinces of Basra and Maysan, both of which border Iran.

"The smugglers transfer hashish and opium across at Al-Shalamja at the Iranian border and Safwan near the Iraqi-Kuwaiti border," an anti-narcotics agent in Basra said on condition of anonymity. "Some of them are arrested from time to time, including Iranians and even Syrians," he said, adding that the smugglers used mainly trucks to haul their cargo into the Gulf region.

"The drugs come from Iran, then they are sold at the Saudi border," said a local police officer in Samawa in Muthanna province who did not want to be named. "Smugglers are young and they use motorcycles or animals to cross the desert late at night."

Iranian authorities say they seized about 900 tons of an estimated 2,500 tons of drugs that entered the country from Afghanistan last year. While Iran has arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate, Iranian officials estimated that more than 1,000 tons of drugs, mostly opium, heroin, and cannabis, transited the country on its way elsewhere last year.

The International Narcotics Control Board is also raising alarm bells. "Illicit drug trafficking and the risk of illicit cultivation of opium poppy have been increasing in some areas with grave security problems," it said, referring to Iraq in a report published last year.

"Drugs follow the paths of least resistance, and parts of Iraq certainly fit that description," an official of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime told AFP.

Not all the drugs are just passing through embattled Iraq. "Though official data are lacking, it appears that drug abuse in Iraq has increased dramatically, including among children from relatively affluent families," the INCB said in its report.

Police Discover World's Most Expensive Marijuana

During a routine traffic stop in Ohio, police discovered over 100 pounds of the most valuable marijuana ever documented:

Police curbed the gray, four-door Mercury Grand Marquis Ruci was driving after he allegedly committed a lane violation, the highway patrol statement indicated. A specially trained, narcotics-detecting dog was brought to the scene, and its reaction to the car signaled the presence of drugs, the statement said.

A search of the vehicle yielded 104 pounds of hydroponically-grown marijuana stuffed inside eight black plastic trash bags. Police said the marijuana had an estimated street sale value of more than $4.7 million. [Naperville Sun]


This is really an incredible discovery and I'm surprised it hasn’t generated more attention. At $4.7 million for 104 pounds, we're talking about an ounce that's worth $2824.51! That just blows away everything listed at High Times's market quotes section, where ounces of high-grade marijuana in Ohio last month were listed at $400. It also overwhelms the STRIDE data collected by drug enforcement officers showing that U.S. marijuana prices averaged around $200 per ounce as of 2003.

So far, I haven’t heard of anyone smoking this new type of marijuana, but that's probably because the police took it all.

*********
Ok, enough. In case you haven't figured it out yet, this marijuana isn't worth $4.7 million. The police maybe got a little carried away and reporters don't doublecheck their numbers on things like this. It's happened before.

The problem is the numbers are so far off here that it really takes the crime to a different level, an inaccurate one. They magnified the value by a factor of 10, roughly, if the smoker-submitted street prices at High Times are realistic (my guess is they're the most accurate numbers available). The Naperville Sun, The Toledo Blade, and local ABC News grabbed the story, with The Sun even rounding up in the headline, "Driver arrested with $5 million in pot". Ironically, the $300,000 they added for the headline is much closer to what it was actually worth. Police also stated that it was "hydroponically-grown," but they admitted not knowing where it came from, meaning they can't be sure how it was actually grown. Perhaps they just like to say "hydroponic," in which case they're certainly not alone.

Amidst the numerous tragedies and injustices caused by our nation's war on drugs, the tendency to exaggerate drug seizures is a minor one. But it's annoying, it happens a lot, and it might even have the unintended effect of encouraging people to think growing marijuana will make them a millionaire.

Action Alert: (Updated) Let's respond to this by contacting the papers that reported it and letting them know they've been pushing a false headline. Here are a few of them:

Cleveland Plain-Dealer: send a letter/comment here

ABC News send a letter/comment here

Toledo Blade send a letter/comment here.

Naperville Sun send a letter/comment here.

You can send more or less the same comment to each, but be sure to include the appropriate link for their coverage, so they know what you're referring to. And, of course, be brief, on topic, and polite.

Update 2: Fascinatingly, The Chicago Tribune has the story, but leaves out the claims that the marijuana was valued at $4.7 million. That was the headline elsewhere. Could it be that Chicago Tribune was suspicious of the numbers?

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Southwest Asia: West Threatens to Block Iran Drug Aid Over Nuclear Issue

With Afghan opium and the heroin made from it flooding into Europe, Iran is one of the first bulwarks in the effort to stem the tide. But now, the West is threatening to condition further anti-drug assistance on Tehran's compliance with its demands that the Islamic Republic halt uranium enrichment.

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/tehran.jpg
International Anti-Drugs Day drug burn, Tehran
Since the overthrow of the Taliban, Iran and the West had quietly cooperated in efforts to block the trade from Afghanistan. United by a common loathing for the Sunni insurgents, Iran and the West were able to work together on this issue. But that is now in doubt.

The threat came in a package of incentives presented June 14 by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (the US, France, Britain, China, Russia) and Germany in a bid to get Tehran to change its nuclear policy. Iran has repeatedly said it will not stop enriching uranium, and now the European Union is considering wider sanctions, including ending cooperation with Iranian anti-drug efforts.

The package promised Iran "intensified cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking" from Afghanistan, but only if it first stops uranium enrichment. Tehran insists it has the right to use such technology and says its nuclear program is only for peaceful purposes.

Burdened with a 560-mile-long border with Afghanistan, Iran has deployed some 30,000 soldiers and police to fight opium and heroin smuggling from its neighbor. Some 3,500 of them have been killed in the past two decades. Last year, Iranian officials reported seizing 660 tons of opium, nearly three-quarters of the total seized worldwide. Despite such efforts and a draconian Iranian response to drug trafficking offenses -- the death penalty -- Iran suffers arguably the world's highest opiate addiction rate.

But not all the opium and heroin smuggled across the Iranian border stays in Iran, and that had UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) head Antonio Maria Costa warning that Europe could be hit by a "heroin tsunami" if anti-drug aid is blocked. "We should definitely assist in this respect," he told the Associated Press this week. "Iran is a front-line country."

The UNODC's man in Tehran, Roberto Arbitrio, told the AP fighting the drug war should be seen as "a non-political area of mutual interest."

"Cooperating with Iran in Afghanistan on this and other issues is not a favor we do for Iran -- but something we need to do in our own interest," Barnett Rubin, perhaps the leading US academic expert on Afghanistan, told the AP.

"Fighting drug trafficking should not be politicized," said Ismail Ahmadi Moghaddam, the top anti-drug official in Iran. "When narcotics reach Europe, it is the people, not governments, that suffer."

Such objections notwithstanding, however, drug interdiction has manifestly failed to reduce the supply, making the specter of increased drug abuse should aid be withheld an uncertain outcome.

Neither the White House and State Department nor the office of European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana would comment on the linkage between continued anti-drug assistance and Tehran's compliance with Western demands.

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