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Chronicle AM -- April 3, 2014

British celebrity chef Nigella Lawson is banned from the US for admitting using coke, decrim dies for the year in Maryland, CBD medical marijuana bills continue to move, the resort to the overdose drug naloxone is spreading rapidly, Guatemala's president wants to legalize marijuana and license poppies for the medical market, and more. Let's get to it:

UK celebrity chef Nigella Lawson is too scary to allow in the US because she admitted doing coke. (Brian Minkoff via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Maryland Decriminalization Bill Killed; Task Force Will Study It Instead. Marijuana decriminalization is dead for the year in Maryland after a bill to do just that -- House Bill 879 -- died without a vote in the House Judiciary Committee. Instead, the committee, led by reform foe Rep. Joe Vallario Jr. (D-Prince Georges), chose to form a task force to study the issue.

Washington State Will Issue First Marijuana Store Licenses by July, Impose Lottery System. Colorado is the only state where you can walk into a store and legally purchase marijuana, but not for long. Washington state regulators announced Wednesday that the first retail marijuana licenses will be issued "no later than the first week of July." The state has already issued licenses to eight growers. After eliminating retail license applications that did not return required documents or were incomplete, the state still has more than a thousand applications for the 334 stores it will allow to open, so it is imposing a lottery system to determine who gets those licenses.

Northern Mariana Islands Senate Ponders Legalization. The Senate of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a US protectorate, discussed the possibility of legalizing marijuana Wednesday. The Fiscal Affairs Committee touched on legalization when discussing a decriminalization bill, and committee member Sen. Pete Reyes (IN-Saipan) said members had asked the Senate legal counsel to research Colorado's legalization model. "Yes, the committee is tinkering with the idea, whether it's a good idea to legalize it or not. But nothing is final. Nothing is decided," Reyes told The Saipan Tribune.

Medical Marijuana

New Jersey Patient Sues NJ Transit for Denying Him a Job. A former New Jersey Transit worker and medical marijuana patient who was denied a new position with the agency after testing positive for marijuana is suing in hopes of seeing marijuana recognized as a legitimate medication. Charlie Davis, 57, said he was denied both safety sensitive and non-safety sensitive positions with the agency. Courts in other medical marijuana states have generally upheld the rights of employers to fire workers who use medical marijuana even if it is legal.

Illinois Senate Passes CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. A bill that would allow children to use high-CBD cannabis oil to treat epilepsy passed the Senate Wednesday. Filed by Sen. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago), Senate Bill 2636 now heads for the House.

Minnesota TV Ad Attacks Gov. Dayton for Opposing Medical Marijuana. Patients and medical marijuana advocates have unleashed an aggressive TV ad targeting Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) for standing in the way of medical marijuana legislation. The ad features a St. Paul mother and her seizure-ridden child, whom Gov. Dayton told to just find medical marijuana on the street!

South Carolina House Passes CBD Medical Marijuana Bill. The House Wednesday passed a bill allowing people suffering from severe epilepsy to legally use CBD cannabis oil to control their seizures. House Bill 4803 is less restrictive than a Senate measure passed last week. It's unclear what happens next.

Harm Reduction

Louisiana House Committee Passes Bill to Allow Overdose Reversal Drug. The House Health and Welfare Committee Wednesday passed a bill that would allow first responders to provide the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan). House Bill 754 now heads for a House floor vote.

Every Cop in New York Will Carry Overdose Reversal Drug. Under a new initiative announced today by Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D), every state and local law enforcement officer in the state will be able to carry with them the overdose reversal drug naloxone (Narcan). The Community Overdose Prevention program will provide police with kits containing two syringes filled with naloxone, two inhalers of the drug, sterile gloves and a booklet on using them. The cost of the kit is roughly $60. Each has a shelf life of about two years.

Some New Jersey Cops to Carry Overdose Reversal Drug. Police throughout Ocean and Monmouth Counties soon will be armed with a drug that can save heroin users from fatal overdose, launching a program officials hope will be adopted statewide in New Jersey. All 32 Ocean County police departments are participating in a pilot program backed by Gov. Christie, who said Wednesday that equipping police with the drug, naloxone (Narcan), would help save lives.

Sentencing

Louisiana House Passes Harsh Heroin Sentencing Bill. The House voted 96-0 Wednesday in favor of a bill that imposes mandatory minimum prison sentence for heroin possession and increases sentences for heroin dealers. But first, it amended House Bill 332 so that, in addition to prison time, heroin users would also have to undergo court-approved drug treatment. Under the bill, heroin possessors would have to do at least two years in prison, while dealers would see their mandatory minimum sentence doubled from five years to 10. The bill now goes to the Senate.

International

Mexican Drug War Victims Criticize Lack of Progress on Tens of Thousands of Cases. Families of drug war victims who were hoping to see concrete policy shifts with the change of administrations a year and a half ago are growing impatient with the lack of progress on tens of thousands of cases of murders and disappearances. An estimated 100,000 Mexicans have been killed since former President Felipe Calderon turned drug prohibition policies into a militarized offensive. The whereabouts of another 26,000 are unknown. They are Mexico's "disappeared". Some are believed to have been kidnapped by criminals, others have vanished after being taken into police custody. Click on the link for the full report.

Guatemalan President Will Present Plan to Legalize Marijuana and License Opium Production. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said Wednesday his country could present a plan before year's end to legalize the production of marijuana and opium poppies. See our news brief today for more detail.

Albanian Cops Try Persuasion in Marijuana-Growing Village. Albanian Police peacefully visited the village of Lazarati this week in a bid to get school children to persuade their parents not to grow marijuana there. Lazarati is described as "a paradise for cannabis growers and criminals," and has been a no-go zone for police for nearly two decades. Villagers in the past have created armed groups to fend off eradication efforts, and even the kids didn't seem too keen on giving up the trade. "If you tell us to convince our parents not to grow cannabis, do you guarantee us that you will provide jobs for them? This is our way of life," one student replied.

British Celebrity Chef Nigella Lawson Denied Entry to US Over Cocaine Use Admission. Nigella Lawson was stopped from boarding a flight from London to the US because of her courtroom confession that she used cocaine. Lawson was never charged with a criminal offense over her confession, but the US can deny travel to foreigners who have committed offenses without being charged.

Pew Poll Reveals Seismic Shift in Drug Policy Attitudes [FEATURE]

A new national survey released today by the Pew Research Center provides strong evidence that Americans are undergoing a tectonic shift in their views on drug policy. Not only are Americans convinced that marijuana legalization is coming; a majority supports it, and even larger majorities support a fundamental realignment of our drug policies away from the criminal justice system and toward treatment instead of punishment for hard drug users.

rethinking...
Among the key findings of the report was that more than six in ten Americans (63%) say that state governments moving away from mandatory prison terms for drug law violations is a good thing, while just 32% say these policy changes are a bad thing. This is a substantial shift from 2001 when the public was evenly divided (47% good thing vs. 45% bad thing). The majority of all demographic groups, including Republicans and Americans over 65 years old, support this shift.

Similarly, two-thirds (67%) say the government should focus more on providing treatment for people who use drugs like cocaine and heroin. Just 26% think the focus should be more on prosecuting people who use such drugs. The poll did not ask if hard drug users should just be left alone barring harm to others.

"Given that the vast majority of Americans don't think people should be prosecuted for drug possession, it's time to ask the question: Why are we still arresting people for nothing more than drug possession?" asked Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

More than 1.5 million people are arrested in the U.S. every year for a drug law violation. The vast majority -- more than 80% -- are arrested for possession only. Roughly 500,000 Americans are behind bars on any given night for a drug law violation, including more than 55,000 people in state prisons for simple drug possession.

"There's a new consensus that mandatory minimums are no longer appropriate for drug and other nonviolent offenders," said Nadelmann. "This is reflected and confirmed by the growing bipartisan support for rolling back and ending such laws."

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/pew-mandatory-minimums-poll.jpg
The passage of the Fair Sentencing Act in 2010, which reduced, but did not eliminate, sentencing disparities between federal crack and powder cocaine offenders is one example of the emerging reformist consensus. Sentencing reform measures passed by around half the states in the past decade, which have resulted in an absolute decline in state prison populations, have also proven popular with a citizenry increasingly tired of drug war without end.

And President Obama and Attorney General Holder have continued to make a series of moves over the past year indicating that they are serious about reducing mass incarceration and fixing the criminal justice system, including a call from Holder to federal prosecutors to not use mandatory minimum charges if they don't have to.

Likewise, in an otherwise-bitterly-divided Congress, legislators from both sides of the aisle are pushing to reform mandatory minimum drug laws. The reforms are supported by a group of Senators who can only be described as strange bedfellows: Senators Mike Lee (R-Utah), Rand Paul (R-Kentucky), Jeff Flake (R-Arizona), Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont), Dick Durbin (D-Illinois), Carl Levin (D-Michigan) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-Rhode Island).

At the same time, the Pew poll illuminates what has been a major shift in attitudes on whether the use of marijuana should be legal. As recently as four years ago, about half (52%) said they thought the use of marijuana should not be legal; 41% said marijuana use should be legal. Today those numbers are roughly reversed -- 54% favor marijuana legalization while 42% are opposed. Just 16% say it should not be legal for either medical or recreational use.

And no matter respondents' personal feelings for or against marijuana legalization, 75% of them think it is inevitable.

Also, more than two-thirds (69%) said that alcohol was more harmful than marijuana for individuals. And nearly the same number (63%) said alcohol was more harmful to society.

"Leadership is needed to overcome the institutional lethargy and vested interest that have stymied meaningful police and sentencing reform," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter). "The policies are counterproductive, and too many otherwise law-abiding people are getting caught up in the justice system because of them."

"It is good to know that despite the DEA's best efforts the American people are getting scientifically accurate information about marijuana, and the fact that it is objectively less harmful than alcohol to both individual health and society at large. The increase in support since last year's poll shows that more and more Americans understand it's simply bad public policy to steer adults toward alcohol by punishing those who prefer marijuana as a less harmful alternative," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Now that three-quarters of Americans understand taxing and regulating marijuana is inevitable, the writing is on the wall. Congress needs to read it and move forward with legislation allowing states to choose more effective policies without federal interference," Riffle added.

While Nadelmann also greeted the poll results, he warned that it should not be used as fuel for even more, if softer, expansion of the criminal justice system.

"It's good to see yet another poll confirm the results of other state and national polls showing majority support for legalizing marijuana," he said. "And it's nice to see that Americans overwhelmingly support treatment-instead-of-incarceration. But it's important to recognize that there has been overwhelming support for treatment-instead-of-incarceration for well over a decade now -- and that we've reached the point where the public needs to be better educated about the benefits of providing treatment outside the criminal justice system rather than within and through it. It would be a shame if this latest poll result were used to promote drug courts and other coercive, abstinence-only programs rather than meaningful treatment in the community."

Editorial: Did Trey Radel Really Vote for Drug Testing?

One of the top political stories this week was the recent arrest of Rep. Trey Radel, a freshman Republican congressman from Florida. Radel pleaded guilty to cocaine possession yesterday and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation. Last night he gave a press conference to apologize to the country and his constituents and family, and announced he would be taking a leave of absence to pursue counseling and drug treatment.

http://stopthedrugwar.com/files/borden12.jpg
David Borden
Since the bust came to light, numerous headlines have circulated to the effect of Radel having voted for legislation to drug test food stamp recipients. But this is only true in a technical sense. As the text of these articles notes, unlike their headlines, the legislation Radel voted for was an ultimately failed version of the Farm Bill, one of the recurring major federal budget packages authorized every five years. Drug testing was a noxious but small part of the legislation, which also was a mechanism for continuing agricultural subsidies, for continuing the SNAP program itself, and many other things. There were Democrats who voted for the bill too, the roll call shows, some of them liberals who undoubtedly opposed the drug testing provision. Also, the amendment that got drug testing added to the Farm Bill was passed through a voice vote, and there is therefore no record of who voted for or against it. That means that Radel's vote for the Farm Bill could have been consistent with supporting drug testing of SNAP recipients, opposing drug testing, or having no position on it. There is no way to know without delving further. Politicians often have to vote for bills despite there being provisions they don't like, because they want an overall bill to pass.

Radel is also one of just three Republican sponsors of the Justice Safety Valve Act, a bill to undo mandatory minimum sentencing by allowing judges to impose sentences below any specified minimums. Although mandatory minimums extend to more issues than drugs, it is drug offenders who are the principle targets of them. So Radel has actually done more than most members of Congress to try to at least reduce the use of incarceration in America, and for drug offenders in particular. A piece published on ThinkProgress.org Tuesday in fact noted a number of statements Radel has made that express skepticism about drug war policies. It also noted that he has expressed opposition to marijuana legalization, so there are facts on both sides. On the other hand, most members of Congress are still likely to say they're not for legalization, despite our movement's recent victories and where opinion polls have gone, so I'm not inclined to attach much significance to that.

Radel news conference, 11/20/13 (TodayNews via YouTube)
That doesn't mean there isn't a valid lesson to be learned from the Radel arrest. A Politico article fairly described the incident as "bring[ing] up drug testing for food stamps." Nancy Pelosi legitimately made this point. Radel's Republican colleagues who are the main supporters of the drug testing amendment may deserve the hypocrisy charge. But it's less than clear that Radel does.

More important than piling on a member of Congress who probably doesn't deserve it, but more important in any case, is to make the points that the incident helps to illustrate about the discrimination and injustices inherent in drug war policies -- like drug testing poor people who don't use drugs more than anyone else, and throwing them out the window when they make the same mistakes in their stressful lives that many others who have easier lives make too.

Radel Hypocrisy Charge Doesn't Withstand Scrutiny

[Update: I've posted an improved version of this editorial in the Chronicle. Request links and likes there instead. - DB]

One of the top political stories this week is the recent bust for cocaine possession of Rep. Trey Radel, a Republican freshman congressman from Florida. Radel pleaded guilty today, and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation. As I write this piece, he is giving a press conference to apologize to the country and his family.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/trey-radel-200px.jpg
Trey Radel
Since the bust came to light, headlines have been circulating to the effect of Radel having voted for legislation to drug test food stamp recipients. I believe this is off base, because it is true only in a technical sense. As the body of the articles explain, what Radel voted for was an ultimately failed version of the Farm Bill, one of the major, recurring federal budget bills that get authorized every five years. It includes things like agricultural subsidies, funding for the food stamps program as a whole (now known as SNAP, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, rather than "food stamps"), many other items. Drug testing of food stamp recipients was just one provision out of many in the bill, and a look at the bill's roll call shows that while it was mostly Republicans who voted for it, there were also some Democrats, including some liberals who almost certainly opposed the drug testing provision. Politicians frequently have to vote for bills that include provisions they don't like, because they want to larger package to pass.

The drug testing language was actually added to the bill through an amendment sponsored by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), which was passed on a voice vote, no roll call. That means there is no way to know, at least from the official legislative record, what Radel's position on the amendment was. His vote for the Farm Bill is consistent with supporting the amendment, with opposing the amendment, or with having no position on it. It's legitimate to point out, as a Politico article did, that Radel's arrest "brings up drug testing for food stamps." I hope it does, but that's a different point.

A ThinkProgress article noted that Radel has made comments suggesting "nuance" in his views on drug policy, pointing out he cosponsored a bill to reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses. Perhaps in a nod to the "drug testing vote" headlines, the article has an update at the bottom mentioning the vote. I believe the original thrust of the article was on target, and I don't see the hypocrisy angle holding up in this case, at least from as much as we know right now.

Venezuela to Shoot Down Drug Planes

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro warned last week this his government will shoot down planes using Venezuelan air space to smuggle drugs. The National Assembly passed a law allowing for such actions in May, but it did not go into effect until this month.

"Let drug traffickers know that starting today any plane that enters Venezuela (to smuggle drugs) will be forced to land in peace, or else it will by shot down by our Sukhoi, our F-16s and the entire Venezuelan Air Force," Maduro said in a speech last Wednesday. "I will begin applying this law immediately in coordination with our armed forces," he added.

While Venezuela is not a drug-producing country, it has become a key transit route for cocaine produced in neighboring Colombia, only this year displaced by Peru as the world's leading coca and cocaine producer. The US government has placed Venezuela and its South American ally Bolivia on its annual list of countries not complying with US drug war objectives, a charge both countries categorically rejected. (Oddly enough, neither Colombia nor Peru are on that list, nor Mexico, the country from which the most drugs are imported to the US.)

The drug plane shoot-down law, known officially as the Law of Control for the Integral Defense of Airspace, was originally proposed in 2011 by the late President Hugo Chavez. After Chavez's death last December, the law was approved by the National Assembly.

While an apparent violation of international civil aviation law, the shooting down of civilian planes suspected of drug running led to the downing of at least 30 planes by Peruvian authorities in the 1990s. The US suspended its cooperation with Peru in that effort after Peruvian fighter jets working with CIA spotters blasted a plane carrying American missionaries out of the sky in 2001, resulting in the deaths of Veronica Bowers and her infant child. Brazil also has had such a policy in place since 2004.

Caracas
Venezuela

Peru Retakes Spot as World's #1 Coca Producer

And the wheel turns. Twenty years ago, Peru produced about 60% of the world's coca crop, from which cocaine is derived. But crop disease and aggressive anti-trafficking efforts in Peru hurt output there even as cultivation blossomed in Colombia, which took first place honors by the turn of the century.

coca leaf statues in Peruvian village (Phillip Smith)
But now, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Peru has regained its status as the number one producer. In a report issued last week, UNODC estimated that Peru had 151,000 acres of land devoted to coca production, compared to 125,000 acres in second place Colombia and about 63,000 acres in third place Bolivia.

Just as aggressive eradication and interdiction campaigns in Peru -- including a US-aided policy of shooting down suspected drug trafficking planes -- reduced the coca supply there in the 1990s, the massive US aid program known as Plan Colombia, with its aerial fumigation and aggressive eradication programs, has managed to shrink production in Colombia.

At its peak in 2000, Colombia accounted for 90% of the world's cocaine, with about 400,000 acres planted with coca. Since then, that figure has shrunk by about one third.

But in a clear example of "the balloon effect," Peru has taken up the slack, and has been well-situated to take advantage of growing Brazilian and European demand for cocaine. Peru's reemergence as the global coca leader comes despite renewed efforts by President Ollanta Humala to crack down on coca cultivation, as well as the trafficking and armed rebel groups -- remnants of the feared Shining Path insurgency of the 1980s -- who protect and profit from it.

Peru actually managed to decrease cultivation this year by about 4,000 acres, or 3.4%, according to UNODC. But given continuing declines in Colombia and stable, lower-level production in Bolivia, the country retakes first place even with the decline.

Unlike Colombia, both Peru and Bolivia have long histories of indigenous coca use, and both countries have large legal coca markets. But according to the UNODC, of Peru's estimated 129,000 tons of dried coca leaves, only 9,000 tons were destined for the legal market. That leaves 120,000 tons of leaves ready to be turned into cocaine hydrochloride and snorted up noses in Rio de Janeiro, Rome, and Riyadh.

Peru

Bolivia, Venezuela Reject US Drug Criticism

Last Friday, the White House released its annual score card on other countries' compliance with US drug policy demands, the presidential determination on major drug producing and trafficking countries. It identified 22 countries as "major drug transit and/or major illicit drug producing countries," but listed only three -- Bolivia, Burma, and Venezuela -- as having "failed demonstrably" to comply with US drug war objectives.

Cocaine has Washington's nose out of joint when it comes to Bolivia and Venezuela. (wikipedia.org)
Among those countries that are not listed as having "failed demonstrably" are the world's largest opium producer (Afghanistan), the world's two largest coca and cocaine producers (Colombia and Peru), the leading springboard for drugs coming into the US (Mexico), and the weak Central American states that serve as lesser springboards for drug loads destined for the US. They are all US allies; Bolivia and Venezuela are not.

Both the Bolivians and the Venezuelans responded angrily to the determination.

"We strongly reject the accusation... The United States is trying to ignore our government's sovereign policies," Alejandro Keleris, the head of Venezuela's national anti-drug office, said late on Saturday in response to the US report.

Keleris said Venezuela had arrested more than 6,400 people for drug trafficking so far this year and seized almost 80,000 pounds of various drugs. Venezuela had arrested over a hundred drug gang bosses since 2006 and extradited at least 75 of them, including some to the US, he said.

Drug enforcement ties between Washington and Caracas have been strained since at least 2005, when then President Hugo Chavez threw the DEA out of the country, accusing it of intervening in internal Venezuelan affairs. Venezuela is not a drug producing nation, but has been a transit country for cocaine produced in Colombia.

Bolivia's denunciation of the presidential determination was even stronger.

"The Bolivian government does not recognize the authority of the US government to certify or decertify the war on drugs," Vice Minister of Social Defense and Controlled Substances Felipe Caceres said Saturday. "The only internationally accredited body is the UN, whose report was recently met."

The UN report that Caceres referenced was last month's Bolivian Coca Monitoring Survey, which found that the government of President Evo Morales had successfully reduced the number of acres under coca cultivation for the second year in a row.

"President Obama makes that statement even though only two months ago the Office of National Drug Control Policy of the White House verified that the total cocaine production in Bolivia has fallen by 18% since 2011," the Bolivian government said last Friday. "The United States seeks to undermine that the government of President Evo Morales has achieved these things with dignity, sovereignty and social control without any type of interference from abroad."

Like Venezuela, Bolivia has thrown out the DEA, which has been absent from the country for five years now. In May, Bolivia announced it had expelled a USAID official, and in June, the US embassy announced it was ending anti-drug efforts with the Bolivians.

Peru Rebels Call on Farmers to Defend Coca Crops

Remnants of Peru's Shining Path guerrillas are calling on coca farmers in the country's south-central coca-producing region to take up arms to defend their crops against government eradicators. The call came in a recording made by the rebels and broadcast on local radio, according to a report in the Lima daily El Comercio.

drying coca leaves in Peru's Ayacucho province (Phillip Smith)
The radio broadcast in Ayacucho province came last week, just one day after Sendero Luminoso guerrillas handed out pamphlets in nearby Huancavelica calling on coca farmers to confront eradicators "with arms in hand."

The guerrilla remnants, a mere shadow of the fearsome insurgency that cost the country some 75,000 lives in the 1980s, operate in Peru's most productive coca-producing region, a series of ultra-montane river valleys known by its Spanish acronym as the VRAEM (Apurimac, Ene, and Mantaro River Valleys). The current Senderistas have shed the hyper-Maoist ideology of their long-imprisoned leader Comrade Gonazalo (Abimael Guzman) and now operate as well-armed and often uniformed protectors of producers and traffickers in the coca and cocaine trade.

Peru and Colombia are currently the world's largest coca and cocaine producers, with Bolivia in third place.

Peruvian President Ollanta Humala has pledged to wipe out the Senderistas in the VRAEM and has vowed that eradication will take place there this year. His government has already begun building military bases in the remote region.

Peruvian soldiers and police are already being targeted by Senderistas in the VRAEM. Dozens have been killed in guerrilla attacks in the past two years alone.

Peru

Spending Cuts Hurting Cocaine Interdiction, Admiral Says

Spending cuts imposed by sequestration are devastating efforts to block the flow of cocaine into the US, the director of the Joint Interagency Task Force told the Defense Writers Group in Washington Wednesday. Some 38 metric tons of cocaine that otherwise would have been interdicted will make it to US shores, claimed Coast Guard Rear Admiral Charles Michel.

Some, including the analysts who wrote a major report on drug policy for the Organization of American States (OAS) last week, wonder if it even matters.

Joint Interagency Task Force South headquarters, Key West, Florida (jiatfs.southcom.mil)
Three South American nations -- Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru -- produce the world's coca and cocaine supply, creating about 1,200 metric tons a year of the marching powder. About 500 tons of that are estimated to head for the US.

Michel said the joint command interdicted or disrupted about a third of cocaine shipments to the US last year, but that he expected that figure to drop to between 20% and 25% this year. Both figures are unusually high; the heuristic is that interdiction normally accounts for about 10% of drug trafficking.

"It breaks my heart to see multi-metric-ton cocaine shipments go by that we know are there and we don't have a ship to target it," Michel said. "Once it gets on land, it becomes almost impossible to police up."

Michel blamed not only sequestration, but also a history of declining support within the Defense Department. The task force depends on the US Southern Command for support, and even though that has "always been an economy-of-force theater," more ships and aircraft were devoted to the mission in the past.

"With sequestration, as well as other Department of Defense cuts, those resources become scarcer," he said. At his interagency group based in Key West, Fla., resources have been on a "multi-, multiyear downward trend," Michel said,"particularly for aircraft and vessels. There is more intelligence out there on the movement of cocaine than there are surface vessels to interdict this product," Michel said.

The task force covers an areas 12 times the size of the continental US, but only has a handful of assets, Michel complained.

"Right now… on any given day, I’d estimate that for US capital ships I have about three or four" and a like number of major aircraft assets such as P-3 Orions, he said. "Go back 20 years and we would have multiple times the number of ships and aircraft. It is difficult to resource this mission set, and sequestration has been devastating to it," he said.

Not everyone sees interdiction as a panacea. In last week's OAS report, The Drug Problem in the Americas, while analysts noted that interdiction successfully stopped some drugs from making it to consumer markets, producer countries were more likely to want to use their limited resources elsewhere. They also scoffed at the resort to interdiction in general.

"Interdiction is a joke. At most it will net you 5% of the drug flows, and this is seen by the traffickers as just a cost of doing business," they say in an unattributed quote include in the scenarios section of the report. "They will find another route. It's like just stopping up one mouse hole -- there are not enough resources to stop all routes. "

Washington, DC
United States

Colombia's FARC Wants Legal Coca Cultivation

In peace talks in Havana Tuesday, Colombia's FARC guerrillas called on the Colombian government to consider legalizing coca cultivation. The proposal was part of the FARC's broader proposal on agrarian development and land reform.

FARC negotiator Rube Zamora (pazfarc-ep.blogspot.com)
The proposal came one day after the FARC ended its self-imposed cease-fire (the Colombian government never agreed to a cease-fire during the peace talks) and launched a series of attacks on security forces, leaving at least one soldier dead.

The FARC is a socialist político-military formation that has been in rebellion against the central government in Bogota since 1964. Its military strength seems to have peaked about a decade ago, but it remains a potent forcé in some sectors of rural Colombia.

After first opposing the cultivation of coca among the peasantry, it gradually shifted to supporting and taxing it, and the group has had some involvement in the cocaine trade as well. Colombia is either the world's largest or second largest coca and cocaine producer, depending on which figures you believe. That's despite more than $7 billion in US anti-drug and counterinsurgency assistance since 1999 and massive, years-long aerial fumigation campaigns.

In its agrarian reform proposal, FARC negotiator Rube Zamora called on the government to "contemplate actions regarding the cultivation of illicit crops to transition toward substitute or alternative production or for their legalization for medicinal or therapeutic ends or cultural reasons."

More broadly, the FARC called for the creation of a "land bank" of unused or underused areas that could be distributed to landless peasants and for a more democratic method of rural planning. The land would include "latifundia," or large rural estates, confiscated from drug traffickers. The proposal marks a retreat from the previous FARC position that called for the seizure and redistribution of all latifundia.

There is no word on the Colombian government's response to the proposals. Both parties in the talks have agreed not to talk publicly about their progress. They restarted Tuesday after going on hiatus for the Christmas holidays.

Havana
Cuba

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