psmith's blog

In the Rain on the Shores of Lake Titicaca---This Is a Potential Problem

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I´m in Puno, Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca in heavy downpour. There is already massive flooding in Bolivia (I saw it on CNN en espanol tonight and heard about it from Kathryn Ledebur of the Andean Information Network a couple of days ago), so the rain here is not a good sign. Kathryn said her husband was lucky to get back from the Chapare a couple of days ago, and it´s only gotten worse. What does this mean? It means it may be impossible to get to either of the major coca regions in the next few days. I don´t know that for sure, but that road to Las Yungas (the world´s deadliest highway) is dirt, and with heavy rains, it sounds very iffy. And the Chapare is where the deadly flooding is (36 dead so far), so that sounds pretty iffy, too. I had hoped to be in Bolivia tonight, but it was not to be. By the time my rain-delayed bus from Cusco got here to Puno, it was late afternoon, and the Bolivians close the border crossing at 6:30 local time, and given that it´s another two or three hours to the border, I stopped here rather than face the prospect of getting trapped overnight in the middle of nowhere. I will arrive in La Paz tomorrow afternoon, God willin´ and the creek don´t rise (as my old man used to say, and it seems appropriate in these circumstances) and will probably meet up with Annie Murphy from the Bolivian embassy in Washington. She is in La Paz. Since Kathryn and the AIN are in Cochabamba, on the way to the Chapare, with the roads doubtful, and since the Drug War Chronicle deadline looms, I think I will just stay in La Paz Thursday and write from there. Of course, the Coca Museum is there, too. My return flight is a week from Friday, but it´s next Friday at 12:30am, which means I´m effectively gone as of Thursday since I will have to travel back to Lima to catch that flight. Maybe it´s worth investigating what it would cost to switch tickets and postpone my return for another week. I think I can afford the extra days of food and cheap hotels...Something to ponder. Otherwise, I will effectively have only six days in Bolivia, and I may not be able to go where we need to go. In other news, I managed to interview the owner of the Coca Shop in Cusco last night. Very interesting fellow and a nice little place he has. I took some photos, too, so I´ll blog about that one of these days.
Location: 
Puno, PU
Peru
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Coca at Machu Picchu--Who Knew?

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Yesterday, I visited the world class Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. Despite it being a cloudy, foggy, rainy day (it is that season, after all), it was a very impressive experience, one I cannot recommend too highly. Located atop a mountain peak several thousand feet above the raging Rio Urubamba (to enter its waters at this time of year is certain death), Machu Picchu was the primary center for scientific and philosophical research for the Inca empire and a place of retreat for the Inca nobility. Its stonework is amazingly well-hewn, and the complex is huge. About a thousand people lived there full-time, with others coming for special occasions along the Inca trail from Cusco, the capital of the empire. If you ever get to Peru, seeing Machu Picchu is an absolute must. I’m sure I haven’t done it justice with these brief comments. I benefited from traveling with a small group that had a very well-informed tour guide, and it was from him that I learned that coca was part of the Inca diet. In addition to using it for its hunger-suppressing and energy-providing qualities, the Incas used it to keep their teeth strong! The coca leaf is heavy in calcium, and because the Inca lacked cows and llamas provided only enough milk for their young, the coca leaf was their primary source of calcium. Our guide was quite proud of the fact that Inca skeletons always showed strong, healthy teeth, a fact he attributed to chewing the coca leaf. Among the ruins at Machu Picchu, there is a garden packed with plants used by the Inca. Among them is coca, even though it is ill-suited to grow well at such elevations. In fact, the coca plant in the garden there was stunted and scraggly, growing only about 18 inches high, or about one-half to one-fourth of the size obtained by coca plants at elevations to which it is more suited. Still, they grew it at Machu Picchu, for the reasons mentioned above. Today, I’m trying to catch up on emails and news and all that good stuff before heading for Bolivia tomorrow. One thing I will do today, though, is visit the Buen Pastor shop, that place I mentioned a blog post or two ago, where they sell coca products here in Cusco. Look for something about that later today or Wednesday, since tomorrow will be a long day of bus travel across the 12,000-foot altiplano past Lake Titicaca and up to La Paz. I think I will be heading on to Cochabamba the next day, where my friends from the Andean Information Network await me. The coca leaf is ubiquitous around here. My hotel provides some with breakfast every day. All the restaurants offer mate de coca (coca tea). Little indigenous women near Machu Picchu offer it to travelers getting ready to trek around the heights. And the US government wants to eradicate it all. Now, I'm off to visit the coca shops of Cusco. Stay tuned. Note: Dave Borden will be posting some Machu Picchu photos I sent him later today. Come back and check 'em out!
Location: 
CU
Peru
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On the Gringo Trail, Getting Whispered Solicitations, and Sipping Mate de Coca

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I'm not sitting in Cusco, the old Inca capital, where the Spanish invaders built their churches and houses on the ruins of the Inca city. There is still that fine Inca rock work all over the place; in fact, the place I'm staying in, the Posada de Loreto, has exterior walls that are made of Inca stone, and the whole Callejon de Loreto is one of the streets most noted for its Inca stone work. In Ayachucho, mine was a rare white face; in the rural countryside of the high Andes and the Amazonian selva, mine was the only white face; one that men and women stared at and little child hid from. That's not the case here in Cusco, the gringo capital of Latin America. This city of about 400,000, with its incredible Inca cachet and closeness to the ruins of Machu Picchu, attracts droves of tourists, from tour groups of old people to the international youth backpacker set to the Andean hippies (you know the type, long haired, wearing indigenous ponchos and caps and playing flutes and beating on drums and getting quite messed up on local substances, could be American or German or Australian or even Peruvian). And where there are lots of gringo tourists, there are people wanting to sell them things, including drugs. I don't know what it is about me—is there a neon sign above my head?—but once again it didn’t take more than a few minutes from the time I ventured into the main square this afternoon to be offered cocaine, marijuana, and women. My worry-wart boss will be happen to know I passed on all them, although I feel remiss in not having inquired about prices. Maybe tomorrow. Cusco is high, some 11,000 feet, so I figured this was the time for me to try mate de coca (coca tea) for the first time. I've chewed the leaves before, several times in the last week, as a matter of fact, but I had never had the tea. It was basically a glass of hot water with coca leaves steeping in it. According to my waiter, I was supposed to chew the leaves as I sipped the tea. I did, and I got a nice coca jolt within seconds. Did it help me cope with the altitude? Well, it seems likely; I certainly felt more energetic. I also discovered that there is a store here in Cusco that sells various coca products, along with other hip, "socially conscious" stuff. It's name is the Buen Pastor (Good Shepherd), but they were closed by the time I tracked them down this evening. Since I'll spend the day at Machu Picchu tomorrow, I'll track them down on Monday and see what the deal is. And since I'll be gone all day—up at 5am to catch the train up the Sacred Valley, getting to Machu Picchu about 10am, spending the day at the site, and returning to Cusco about 8pm—you won't be hearing anything more from me for awhile. But there should be some pictures posted. I'm going back to my hotel right now to get the camera, so I can upload them and Borden can download them. On Tuesday, it's on to Bolivia…
Location: 
Peru
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What a trip it's been, and it's only the end of week one!

Since last I blogged, I've gone by overnight bus from Lima to the Andean highlands city of Ayacucho, thence over the top of the Andes and down into the Amazonian selva (actually, the "ceja de selva," the eyebrow of the jungle) to the small towns of San Francisco, Ayacucho, and Kirimbiri, Cusco, on the other side of the rain-swollen Rio Apurimac deep in the heart of the coca growing region known as the VRAE (Valleys of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers), and then back to Ayacucho. It has been brutal—hours of travel on crappy, crappy dirt roads over mountains and across flooded out stretches of road through some of the poorest land in the country. Tomorrow (Saturday) morning, I get up a 5AM to catch a flight back to Lima and then on to Cusco, for a little rest and tourism at Machu Picchu. (Ayacucho is halfway between Lima and Cusco, but as they say, "you can’t get there from here." There are no city to city flights in Peru except to and from Lima. Go figure. An Aero Condor rep told me it's because they're a Fourth World country.) The travel to coca country was mind-bending: Huge mountains, endless switchbacks on dirt roads with no shoulder and a thousand-foot drop-off, indigenous people herding sheep and goats and burros and horses, the women wearing those funny Andean hats. (I hope Dave Borden will be good enough to post some more pictures here.) It is rainy season, so water is pouring down the mountains in spectacular cascades, but also ripping the road open and causing landslides that block the road. Local people come out to fix it, but put rocks in the road to collect a toll for their labors. From the crest of the Andes, somewhere at about 12,000 feet near Tambo, it was downhill all the way to the Apurimac River, a tributary of the Amazon. You go from jacket weather to dripping with sweat in the heat and humidity of the Amazon, pine trees turn to palm trees and tropical fronds. It was in some towns along the Apurimac that I hooked up with some local cocalero leaders and went out into the poverty-stricken countryside to view the fields myself. I've seen a lot of poverty in my day, but the conditions in which the coca farmers live are truly grim. They have to walk miles just to get to the nearest town, they have no running water or electricity, and even with four coca crops a year, they barely make enough money to feed and clothe their children. One of the highlights was one of the cocalero leaders pointing out the houses (more like shanties) of the cocaleros and demanding to know "Where are the narco mansions?" Well, certainly not around here. Every cocalero I've talked to has had the same refrain: This is our sacred plant, we have nothing to do with the drug trade, either leave us alone or provide real agricultural development assistance. And that refrain resonates: Of 70 municipalities in the VRAE, cocaleros hold power in all 70. This is also the home of the country's premier cocalero leader, Nelson Palomino of CONCPACCP, with whom I talked in Lima earlier this week. Will it be pretty much the same in Bolivia? I don't know. Check back later. Editor's Note: I certainly will post Phil's pictures, but it will be a little later this weekend. In the meanwhile, be sure to read Phil's Drug War Chronicle article from Peru, published earlier today -- three pictures, interviews with key people and lots of good info. -- Dave
Location: 
AY
Peru
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First Pictures from Coca Land

Mana coca foods (and other foods) store
Location: 
Lima
Peru
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Off to Ayacucho and the Valleys of the Apurimac and Ene Rivers

Oh, my situation is fluid. I was supposed to travel to Ayacucho today to visit cocalero leader Nelson Palomino and check out what is going on in the coca fields of the Valles de los rios Apurimac y Ene (VRAE), one of the most conflictive coca zones in the country. But last night, I got word that Palomino and his crew had come to Lima for meetings. I managed to hook up with them this morning, as well as visiting Mana Integral, a small company devoted to the nutrional uses of coca. It makes coca wheat, coca yoghurt, coca energy packets (they would look great at your local convenience store). And now, although Palomino is headed up to San Martin in the northeast for more meetings, one of his men is going to accompany me on an overnight bus ride, getting into Ayacucho at dawn, then another ride of four or five hours into the heart of the VRAE. It´ll be up and over the Andes and down into the selva at the edge of the Amazon basin. Should be very, very interesting in the VRAE. It takes so long to get there that we will stay there tomorrow night and return to Ayacucho Thursday afternoon. This has some implications for near-term blogging and for getting the Chronicle out in a timely manner this week. I don´t think I´m going to find high speed internet access in the VRAE, so you may not hear from me for a day or two. I also had very interesting and disturbing conversations with coca experts Baldomero Caceres and Ricardo Soberon yesterday. Look for some of that in one of the articles I do for the Chronicle this week. This working from the road in the Third World is really kind of a hassle. I have to rely on internet cafes, and often the people working them don´t have a clue about why my connection won´t work. Then, if I have to use their machines, I have problems with the strange keyboards. But I do my best.
Location: 
Lima
Peru
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With Baldomero Caceres in Miraflores

I´ve spent the last few hours with Baldomeo Caceres, the Peruvian psychologist and coca expert, walking around central Lima and talking about the politics of coca. Now, we´ve traveled to Baldo´s house in the upscale Lima suburb of Miraflores, where we´re going to have a nice Peruvian lunch, then I´ll pull out my laptop and do a formal interview with him. One of the points that Baldo hammered away on while we walked and talked was his frustration with the slow pace of efforts to get coca removed from the list of banned plants in the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics. Evo Morales is supposedly ready to formally request coca´s removal from the list, but according to Baldo, he isn´t getting support from some of the quarters he should be in the world of the non-governmental organizations. We´ll see what Baldo is willing to say about that on the record. He was also pessimistic about the prospects for change at the UN General Assembly special session on drugs in Vienna next year. Again, we´ll see what he says about that on the record. I have just been called to lunch, so I will keep this short. After this, I go to interview Peruvian defense and drug policy analyst Ricardo Soberon, formerly an advisor to Congresswoman Nancy Obregon. I will have photos soon. I had to buy a cable for the camera so I can transfer the photos. I´ll try to post some this evening.
Location: 
Lima
Peru
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In Lima, the Cocaine is Cheap, High Quality, and Easily Available

Well, that didn't take long. I arrived in Lima late last night and didn't clear customs and make my way to my very cheap ($10) hotel in the center of the city a few blocks off the Plaza de Armas, the main square at the heart of the city. But I went to the Plaza today, where I met some Canadians and Russians. As we sat drinking Inka -Cola, we were soon engaged in conversation by one of the numerout touts trying to make a living off the tourists. The young man wanted to sell bronzed llamas and stuff like that, but the Russians had more decadent pleasures in mind, and the young man disappeared and returned in a matter of minutes. An under the table transaction occurred, and our group adjourned to the Russian´s hotel, where they proceeded to put their contribution to the Peruvian economy right up their noses. They paid $40 for what was supposed to be a gram, but looked like maybe twice that. I ran into the tout again a few minutes ago. He wanted to know if I wanted some. When I said no, he dropped the price to $20. How low would he have gone? I don´t know because I wasn't haggling. From what I can tell, though, it was so pure that if I had snorted any it would have probably blown out my sinuses. A couple of points here: I don't really recommend buying cocaine off strangers in the main plaza of a strange city. There are plenty of stories here about people like that turning out to be cops. (Ah, the old reverse sting. It's particularly profitable for Third World cops working on gringo tourists. How much would you pay to make that sort of trouble go away?) In this case, however, my concerns were lessened somewhat because it wasn't the tout but the Russians who mentioned the stuff. In those stings, it´s usually the other way around. The second point has to do with coca. All the coca growers say they are only growing for the traditional markets, but that's clearly not the case. I don't think it serves their leaders well to pretend otherwise. I guess I'll see what they have to say about it when I talk to some of them next week.
Location: 
Lima
Peru
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The Drug War Chronicle Andean Coca Tour 2007 is about to get underway

Friday night, I will be bedding down in Peru, after a day-long flight from Sioux Falls to Denver to Houston to Lima. That will be the first of 21 nights in Peru and Bolivia as the Drug War Chronicle explores the coca industry and its unsavory relative, the cocaine industry, in the Andes. While the process of making connections is ongoing and always a little shaky in developing countries, things are falling into place. While I will spend most of that first weekend resting and getting oriented, it looks like I'll have lunch Monday with Peruvian psychologist and coca expert Baldomero Caceres and Anthony Henman. Henman is a legendary name when it comes to coca. The British anthropologist (since gone native) is the man who, under a pseudonym, wrote "Mama Coca" back in the 1970s. That was the first serious ethnographic study of coca's history and use in the Andes for lay readers in English. I look forward to seeing what Henman has to say about the current state of affairs. Later that day, I will go to the upscale suburb of Miraflores for dinner with Ricardo Soberon, a leading Peruvian drugs and security expert. He was an advisor to coca grower leader turned congresswoman Nancy Obregon, but has since departed over unspecified political differences. I'll be sure to query him (and Nancy) about the nature of those differences. Speaking of Nancy, she is currently back home in northern Peru, so I won't be able to talk to her during that first week. But she will be back in Lima at the end of the month, and I will do an interview with her then. (I have to be out of Bolivia by February 28 because their visa requirements kick in on March 1.) I think I will fly from Lima to Ayacucho next Wednesday. That ancient city high in the Andes is the historic heartland of Sendero Luminoso, the Maoist guerrillas who led an uprising in the 1980s where tens of thousands were killed. The Senderistas are still around, though much weakened, and they try to gain the support of coca growers by killing policemen and anti-government drug workers. But Ayacucho is also the home of national coca growers' union leader Nelson Palomino, whom I will interview. Palomino and his crew have also promised to show me the coca fields and let me talk to farmers, so that should be enlightening. After that, I'll take a couple of days for the mandatory tourist visit to Machu Picchu outside Cusco, then I'll bus it from Cusco across the altiplano to Bolivia. At least that's the plan right now; there are reports of severe flooding right where I'll be crossing the border. I'm still trying to set things up with the American embassy in Lima and with the big Peruvian drug bureaucracies, ENACO (the coca monopoly) and DEVIDA (the drug enforcement bureaucracy). I've been talking with the US press officer in Lima about getting a meeting, but because I don't represent established media, I can't get official press status with the embassy, which means the press officer won't officially deal with me, but may manage to hook me up with some of the drug people in the embassy. Similar plans are in the works for Bolivia. Stay tuned.
Location: 
United States
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More on the Meth Conference

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The 2nd National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV and Hepatitis wrapped up Saturday in Salt Lake. It was an amazing array of panels, plenaries, and presentations on dozens of topics related to methamphetamine policy, treatment, prevention, and education, and it's given me several story ideas: In a panel on the good, the bad, and the ugly in meth policy, Lynn Paltrow of National Advocates for Pregnant Women gave a powerful presentation on efforts to criminalize drug using pregnant women despite the lack of evidence that neonatal drug exposures result in damage to the fetus (or more damage than can result from non-criminalized exposures). In Arkansas last year, the legislature passed a law making a positive drug test in a newborn evidence of presumptive child abuse. Now, a report on how the law has worked has just been issued. Look for a story on this issue this week, as well as a heads up for activists in other states where similar measures are pending. I'll also be looking into stimulant substitution therapy. Although it was a disappointment that Dr. John Grabowski of the University of Texas at Houston, the leading American researcher on the topic, couldn't make it, there was a good panel discussion on the topic led by Bill Piper of the Drug Policy Alliance. It's also timely, given that Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan is seeking to embark on a massive, 700-person pilot program there. Look for an article on this soon, too. I also had a nice chat with Boston-based anthropologist Patricia Case, who gave a fascinating presentation on the history of amphetamines. When she heard that I live in an area with lots of meat-packers, she got very excited about doing some research on meth use in the industry. She and I will work on getting that done. She's interested in the anthropology of it; I'm interested in seeing if there is evidence of "normal" meth use, or meth users who are not totally deranged. It seems as if everyone assumes every who uses the drug is an insane tweaker, but I wonder about that. This will be a more long-term project, though.
Location: 
Salt Lake City, UT
United States
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The Salt Lake Methamphetamine Conference Gets Underway

EDITOR'S NOTE: I tried to post this Friday morning from the Hilton in Salt Lake City, but due to some mysterious problem with the internets, it didn't get through. The 2nd National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV, and Hepatitis is now in its second day. The Hilton Hotel in downtown Salt Lake City is doing an admirable job of dealing with the influx of treatment providers, social service workers, needle exchangers, speed freaks, drug company representatives, academics, researchers, and politicos who have flooded into the hotel for three days of plenaries, panels, workshops, and breakout sessions on various aspects of the methamphetamine phenomenon. For me, a lot of the sessions and presentations are of limited interest, which is not to say they have no value, only that they are directed at people who are doing the hands-on work in the field. As someone interested in drug policy reform and, frankly, legalizing meth and everything else, the differences in behavior or susceptibility to treatment between gay urban speed freaks and rural hetero speed freaks is not really that important to me. Ditto for comparisons of different treatment modalities. Again, I'm not saying this stuff is unimportant, only that it's not what I'm about. I'm much more interested in the politics of meth, the methods of blunting repressive, reactionary responses from the state, and the ways of means of crafting more enlightened policies. For all the progress we have made in the drug reform arena in the past decade or so, it seems like all someone has to do is shout "Meth!" and we are once again in the realm of harsh sentencing, repressive new legislation, and drug war mania reminiscent of the crack days of the 1980s. That's why it's so heartening to see political figures like Salt Lake Mayor Rocky Anderson stand front and center for enlightened responses to meth use and abuse. Of course, it isn't just Rocky. Here in the Salt Lake Valley, state and local officials from the governor on down are attempting a progressive response, whether it's the governor lobbying for more money for treatment or local prosecutors practicing restorative justice. And it's not just Utah. Cut across the Four Corners into New Mexico, and you find another state where officials are rejecting harsh, repressive measures and instead seeking to educate youth and adults alike with evidence-based curricula. As one measure of the changing status quo, the Drug Policy Alliance is getting involved in the Land of Enchantment. It has been selected by the state government to administer a $500,000 grant to develop prevention and education curricula. I find it just a little bit ironic that I'm sitting in Salt Lake at this major meth conference just as SAMSHA puts out an analysis of national survey data showing that meth use is declining after about a decade a stable usage patterns. There was a significant drop in the number of new meth users between 2004 and 2005 and a steady decline in past year meth users since 2002. Despite all the hoopla, meth users now account for only 8% of all drug treatment admissions. Meth crisis? While there is no denying the social and personal problems that can and do result from excessive resort to the stimulant, it seems like there is less to it than meets the eye. Still, it has the politicians and funding agencies riled up enough to cough up money for programs and conferences and the like. I guess we'll take what we can get.
Location: 
Salt Lake City, UT
United States
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I'm hitting the road, heading for Salt Lake City

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I'll pull out of South Dakota just after dawn, headed across the Northern Plains to Denver tonight, then over the high passes of the Rockies and on to Salt Lake City Wednesday night, so I can get up bright and early Thursday morning to attend the opening session of the Harm Reduction Project's 2nd National Conference on Methamphetamine, HIV, and Hepatis.
Location: 
Salt Lake City, UT
United States
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My Letter to a Crime-Beat Reporter

I've been brooding about an article in the Gary (Indiana) Post-Tribune about a drug raid where a police SWAT team badly burned a drug suspect when they tossed a flash-bang grenade into his home. I felt the opening sentence was entirely inappropriate and that the reporter was remiss in merely taking the police version of events and not asking the police some serious questions. Here are the opening paragraphs of the article:
Flash-bang burns drug raid suspect January 24, 2007 By LORI CALDWELL Post-Tribune With a little help from the Gary police S.W.A.T. team, Darrell Newburn had a most appropriate name Monday. Newburn, 31, is hospitalized with a new, serious burn on his back caused by a flash-bang that hit his back before officers stormed his Glen Park home Monday afternoon. "How it happened, I'm not certain," Sgt. John Jelks, drug unit commander said a day later. "It's normal practice for them to throw the distraction device in first." Detectives from the Narcotics-Vice Unit obtained a search warrant for Newburn's home at 4433 Delaware St. after making a series of undercover buys from him there. Police surrounded the house and a member of the S.W.A.T. team, led by Cmdr. Anthony Stanley, tossed in the grenade-like device that explodes with a loud bang and bright light. Newburn was hit in the back and suffered a burn about 12 inches in diameter. He is being held under police guard at Methodist Hospitals Northlake Campus.
A few minutes ago I sent a letter to the reporter. I'll let you know if I get any response. Here's the letter:
Dear Ms. Caldwell: I write to protest the flippancy of your lead sentence in the January 24 story, “Flash-Bang Burns Drug Suspect.” Let me get this straight: A man, who is presumed innocent, is severely burned in an unprovoked assault during a drug raid, and you lead with an unfunny pun on his name? Instead of looking for cheap yuks, a good reporter might be asking the police some questions, such as: Why is it standard procedure to use paramilitary SWAT-style teams on small-time drug raids? Why is it standard procedure to throw military-style explosives into the homes of suspects? SWAT teams were originally designed to be used in hostage and other extremely dangerous situations, but there aren’t really that many of those. Give the police a SWAT team, and they will find a way to use it. But is it really appropriate for police to treat a small-time criminal infraction as if they were raiding an insurgent stronghold in Baghdad? I refer you to a recent report about the massive increase in the use of SWAT-style teams, especially in policing the drug war, by Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko. It’s called “Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America.” Here’s the link: http://www.cato.org/pub_display.php?pub_id=6476 In it, you will find incident after incident of raids gone bad, innocent people killed, and police endangering themselves and others. It’s worth a look. A good reporter might also want to ask the police just what they have accomplished with 40 years of drug raids, and whether there might be another, more reasonable way to deal with drug use. I don’t mean to attack you, only to suggest that there are stories left undiscovered if you rely merely on police and their press releases and don’t ask them the hard questions. I do hope you’ll keep this letter in mind next time you write one of those drug raid stories. Sincerely, Phillip Smith Editor, Drug War Chronicle www.stopthedrugwar.org P.S. If you have any interest in pursuing this, I can put you in touch with a number of current and former police officers (including former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper) who are harshly critical of this gung-ho, paramilitary-style drug war policing and who challenge the whole notion of drug prohibition altogether.
Location: 
Gary, IN
United States
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This Judge Is An Idiot

At the end of a Michigan murder case in which the victim was a marijuana dealer gunned down during a home invasion robbery, the judge railed against the "urban myth" that marijuana is harmless. Here is some of what Muskegon County 14th Circuit Judge Timothy Hicks had to say (read the article about the trial's conclusion here):
Before sentencing Weissert [the convicted murderer], Hicks addressed what he called a series of "urban myths." "Urban myth number one" is that "drug use is a victimless crime," Hicks said from the bench. "Here we have orphaned children, devastated families." Myth number two: " 'It's only marijuana,' " Hicks said. "Marijuana is as evil as the rest of this stuff. ... Marijuana indirectly caused all the carnage." The third myth is that drugs are only a "downtown" problem. "It's a problem everywhere -- in the suburbs, in rural areas," the judge said. And fourth: "The urban myth that you can stay in control of this." Although Sibson never intended it, his drug dealing "exposed his family to danger," Hicks said.
Let's take these one by one. Judge Hicks claims that this murder disproves the notion that "drug use is a victimless crime." Of course, it does nothing of the sort. The murder had nothing to do with drug use, but was the result of an attempted armed robbery, plain and simple. The robbers went after the marijuana dealer because there were valuable items they could take. Would the judge have railed against alcohol if someone had been murdered in a liquor store robbery? Next, Judge Hicks derides the notion that marijuana is a soft drug, not as dangerous as other drugs like cocaine, speed, or heroin. Marijuana is "as evil" as those other drugs and "indirectly caused all that carnage." Sorry, judge, pot is not "evil," nor are other drugs. Evilness does not inhere to plants or chemical compounds, but to human behavior. What is evil is breaking into someone's home and killing them because they have something valuable you want. I wonder if the judge would call cold, hard cash "evil" because someone robbed an armored car to steal some. Next, Judge Hicks decries the myth that drugs are only a "downtown" (read: black) problem, saying that "it's a problem everywhere." Well, yes, drug use knows no geographic boundaries, and the problems associated with drug use don't, either. But I suspect that the judge is thinking about the crime and violence associated with drug use and sales under prohibition, like, for instance, the murder case in front of him. To blame that killing on drugs in general and marijuana in particular is just plain stupid. The judge might want to get his head out of his ass and look around at what drug prohibition—not drugs—has wrought. He doubtless sees it every day in his courtroom. Finally, Judge Hicks attacks the victim. The dead man "exposed his family to danger" because he dealt in valuable marijuana. If I'm out riding in my new Cadillac with my family and we get carjacked by some envious punk, does that mean I exposed my family to danger by having something valuable that some criminal wants? It was not the murder victim but the prohibition laws routinely applied by Judge Hicks and his criminal justice system colleagues that created the situation where a bunch of dead plant material is assigned so much value that people are willing to rob and kill for it. It must be nice for armed robbers to know their victims are unlikely to seek protection from the police. Justice may be blind, but judges shouldn't be. Judge Hicks has clearly shown that he has an extreme case of tunnel vision. This guy doesn’t deserve to sit on the bench.
Location: 
Muskegon, MI
United States
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Is the Bush Administration Getting Nervous About Afghan Opium Licensing Schemes?

When the European drug policy and defense think-tank the Senlis Council in late 2005 unveiled its proposal to deal with illicit Afghan opium by licensing growers and diverting production to the global legal medicinal market for opioid pain medications, just about nobody thought the idea had a chance of going anywhere. Since then, as opium production there has continued to increase—Afghanistan now accounts for 90% of the global illicit opium supply—and Taliban insurgents have gathered strength, the licensing scheme has picked up support from politicians in Canada, England, and Italy, but still remains a long-shot. This week, as I will report in the Chronicle on Friday, the licensing notion gained new support, as the British Medical Association is suggesting that Afghan opium be used to produce medicinal diamorphine (heroin) for use in the National Health Service. The licensing idea also made it to the op-ed pages of the Washington Post last week, when columnist Anne Applebaum wrote a piece, "Ending an Opium War; Poppies and Afghan Recovery Can Both Bloom, arguing that the US should do in Afghanistan now what it did so successfully in Turkey under President Nixon. Then, faced with an influx of Turkish heroin (the stuff of the infamous French Connection), the US worked with the Turkish government and farmers to regulate poppy production. Now, Turkey is the main supplier of medicinal narcotics to the US. The current US administration, however, is adamantly opposed to any such effort in Afghanistan. Instead, drug war extremists in Washington are pushing the Afghans to make stronger efforts to eradicate the poppy crop and are even trying to push herbicidal eradication down the throat of the Karzai government. That idea has little support in Afghanistan or even among our NATO allies. Both groups fear a sustained attack on the country's economic mainstay will lead to political upheaval and end up benefiting the Taliban, a not unreasonable worry. But it seems like the Bush administration is starting to worry that the licensing scheme is gaining too much ground. Or, at least, it has bestirred itself to attack the notion. In a letter from James O'Gara, the drug czars deputy for supply reduction in today's Washington Post, the administration tried to fight back:
The Wrong Plan for Afghanistan's Opium Anne Applebaum's proposal to foster legal Afghan opium ["Ending an Opium War; Poppies and Afghan Recovery Can Both Bloom," op-ed, Jan. 16] is based on a misdiagnosis of the problem. First, there is no licit demand for Afghanistan's enormous supply of opium, currently more than 90 percent of the world's illicit market and almost double the world's entire licit production requirement. The United Nations reports a current global oversupply of opium-based products from existing licit producers. Pouring vastly more legal opium into the world system would cause prices to plummet, making the illicit trade that much more attractive to farmers. Second, Afghanistan produces opium because some regions remain under attack and lack security, to say nothing of the controls that are a prerequisite for any legal trade in narcotics. In the absence of such institutional controls, the distinction between legal and illicit opium is meaningless. Afghanistan needs peace, a flourishing economy and the rule of law. Each of these conditions is undone by narcotics production. Nowhere in the world do narco-warlords willingly relinquish their stranglehold on poor opium farmers, and nowhere in the world do such farmers become rich. The opium trade must be broken, not fostered, before it undoes the rest of Afghanistan.
O'Gara first claims there is no global need for more opioid pain relievers, citing the International Narcotics Control Board. That claim is debatable. In its proposal, the Senlis Council begged to differ, citing serious undersupplies, especially in the underdeveloped world. Second, O'Gara suggests that opium is being grown in Afghanistan only because of a lack of security and an effective national state. But the US government's insistence on attacking the poppy crop is precisely what contributes greatly to continued insecurity and political conflict within the country. Does he really think an all-out assault on the poppies is going to bring peace and tranquility? Whether the idea of licensing Afghan opium production is a good idea is open for debate. It is certainly as reasonable a response to the problem as heavy-handed repression efforts, and is much less likely to incite peasant resistance and support for the Taliban. But what is really interesting about all this is the fact that the drug czar's office feels a need to attack supporters of the idea. That suggests the idea is getting enough traction to pose a threat to the drug war as usual. We'll be staying tuned to this debate.
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Tyrone Brown is one step from freedom, and you can help today!

Last month, the Chronicle featured the story of Tyrone Brown, the Texas black man doing life in prison for testing positive for marijuana while on probation for participating in a penny-ante armed robbery back in 1990. He's been languishing in prison ever since, but in the past year, a movement to free Tyrone Brown has really taken off, thanks to a pair of ABC News 20-20 reports that featured his sad story.
Location: 
Austin, TX
United States
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Finally, Someone is Getting Serious About Marijuana

Why screw around arresting pot smokers when you can get to the root of the problem by simply eliminating marijuana? That is the latest plan from Indonesia's National Narcotics Agency, at least according to this report, which notes that the country should be pot-free by 2015:
Location: 
Indonesia
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South America trip back on again, and maybe a visit to the meth conference, too.

As readers of this blog know, I had to postpone my trip to Peru and Bolivia to report on coca doings because the Bolivian government announced on New Year's Day that US citizens would need visas to enter the country, even if coming as tourists. That announcement was followed by days of uncertainty, with the Bolivian consulate in Washington saying first one thing, then another about visa requirements. That's when we decided to postpone the trip.
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United States
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Drug War Chronicle's South America trip postponed

I decided today to postpone my long-awaited trip to Bolivia and Peru because of uncertainty surrounding the situation with Bolivian visa requirements. As I blogged a few days ago, the Bolivian government announced New Year's Day that it would now require all American citizens traveling there to have visas (previously visas were not required for tourist visits lasting less than 30 days).
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United States
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I've Got Those Mean Old Bolivian Visa Blues

With my departure for South America set for 10 days from now, the Bolivian government has put a hitch in my plans. Bolivian President Evo Morales announced yesterday that as of now, American citizens will need a visa to visit Bolivia. As the Associated Press reported:
LA PAZ, Bolivia -- The government of President Evo Morales approved a decree Monday requiring U.S. citizens to obtain visas to enter Bolivia. Morales said the decree "a matter of reciprocity." The U.S. government requires Bolivians to obtain visas to enter the United States. "We are a small country but we have the same dignity as any other," Morales said. The decree, approved during a Cabinet meeting, applies to other countries, including Serbia and Montenegro and Cyprus. In February 2006, Leonilda Zurita, a congresswoman belonging to Morales' Movement Toward Socialism party, had her U.S. visa revoked. Zurita said Washington cited an alleged link between her and terrorist activities, which she denied. Morales also cited security concerns for the rule. An American man has been charged with setting off bombs in two La Paz hotels in March. Two Bolivians were killed and seven people were injured, including an American woman. U.S. ties to Bolivia have been tense partly due to Morales' friendship with Presidents Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, as well as by Morales' background as the leader of coca growers fighting U.S. attempts to eradicate their crops.
What the AP did not make clear is that the visa requirement for Bolivians to enter the US is a recent, post-911 move by the US reversing years of visa-free travel for South Americans coming north. The Brazilian government has also imposed a visa requirement for Americans now in this game of diplomatic tit-for-tat. Thanks, Mr. Bush. What this means for my trip is unclear at this point. The Bolivian consulate in Washington wasn't answering the phone today. One of colleagues in the Washington office will run over there first thing tomorrow morning to try to find out what the new requirements are and how fast I can actually get a visa. I am going first to Peru, which hasn't imposed a visa requirement, and it may be possible to get a visa there, but I don't know that yet. I'll keep you all updated on the situation. (Read the comment I've posted to learn a little more about Leonilda Zurita. - DB)
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