(renamed "Drug War Chronicle" effective issue #300, August 2003)
Issue #213, 11/30/01
"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"
TABLE OF CONTENTS
David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 11/30/01
Often, divergent intellectual pathways can lead to similar conclusions, and drug policy reform is an excellent example of this. There may be no other issue that draws together such diverse advocates, representing such wide ranging, sometimes starkly opposing viewpoints.
Several years ago, I was part of a team that helped organize the drug policy track for a justice reform conference held in Springfield, a mid-size city in western Massachusetts. One of the panelists there was Dr. Jeffrey Miron, an economist at Boston University and a true, free-market libertarian. In a journal article published a short time later, Miron discussed drug prohibition and its economics, in which he pointed out among other things -- in contrast with the prevailing view of drug use as a drain on society -- that in strict economic terms, money spent by consumers on drugs is a benefit, not a cost.
Miron wasn't advocating that people use drugs -- nor that they don't -- but merely explaining a concept to help others think through the issue more clearly. Though I accepted Miron's observation in that spirit, my initial reaction was that this is not our strongest argument (politically at least) for drug legalization. Money spent by consumers on drugs might help to employ people and aid the economy on that end of the equation. But on the other end, drug use, while not universally evil as many believe, does indeed cause serious harm to some. There were, in my opinion, much stronger, certainly more palatable reasons to be for legalization than the economic benefits of the drug trade.
In the intervening years, I've concluded that Miron's argument is more compelling than I originally thought. It's easy to dismiss the economic benefits of an industry when you already have a job. But for many in our nation's poorest neighborhoods -- or in the world's poorest regions -- drug growing or distributing or selling is the only work available.
The ripple effects from that may be even more important. At a conference in New Jersey a few years ago, Imani Woods, a notable in the harm reduction movement, described a chain of events she'd observed on a corridor of a once busy Harlem avenue. The neighborhood, in addition to all its storefronts, had a substantial drug scene -- the "open-air drug market," as it's often called.
Eventually, the city conducted a "sweep," clearing the drug market off of that neighborhood's sidewalks, or at least eliminating that glaring form of it. But the neighborhood didn't let out a sigh of relief, at least not for long. It turned out that for all the pathologies associated with the illicit, open-air drug trade, the influx of people and cash that it brought was a cornerstone of the local economy, without which the rest would become unsustainable. Over the months following the sweep, store after store shut down for block after block, leaving a desolate stretch of blighted urban cityscape.
The unintended consequences of a drug war operation serve as an indicator of some of the challenges that may be faced in the immediate years after legalization is enacted. Earlier this week, I spoke with an economic justice activist in Philadelphia, with whom I shared my view of the impact of drug prohibition on our poorest communities. By creating a massive criminal underground, I argued, prohibition fuels violence and disorder, particularly in the inner cities, and these conditions drive away business and make every other method of addressing poverty far more difficult. Legalization could reduce the violence and open up greater possibilities for economic development, better schools, etc.
He agreed, but pointed out a problem given where we are at now. Large numbers of people are dependent on the drug trade in its current form for their only source of employment. If drugs were legalized tomorrow, the resulting unemployment would cause massive economic turmoil. As damaging as prohibition is to poor communities, then, how we make the transition to a post-prohibition system is also an issue of great importance.
Drug trade participants understand this. According to Valerie Vande Panne, a drug reform activist and former East Harlem resident, the neighborhood drug dealers were not in favor of legalization; they understood very well that legalization would put them out of business, and that was a greater threat to them than the risk of incarceration. Across the continent in rural British Columbia, organizers with the province's Marijuana Party report that many marijuana growers are less than enthusiastic about the party's efforts to enact marijuana legalization, for the same reason.
All of the above would also apply if the drug trade were erased, not through legalization, but by a cessation of use. As damaging as drug use can sometimes be, the economic consequences for society could be catastrophic, if the drug warriors were to suddenly succeed in their implausible goal of eradicating drugs -- as legitimately problematic as drug addiction and its attendant consequences can be. But if drug sales, and therefore drug users and dealers, play that important a part in our economy, do they deserve to be so demonized as government and society currently do?
Economic laws are not so easily repealed as are laws of Congress, the views of congressional drug warriors notwithstanding; cracking down on drug users or sellers has no hope of stopping the overwhelming economic force of human habit. Those who participate in the drug scene, in whatever capacity, cannot simply be removed from society, as for better or worse, we are all interdependent and interlinked in a web of social and economic activity. We marginalize and persecute members of society, and ignore their fundamental economic realities, at our cost and peril.
Americans for Medical Rights (AMR), the organization that fielded successful medical marijuana initiative campaigns in several states, including California, is taking aim at the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) crackdown on medical marijuana in the states with a proposed initiative to set up a state-controlled distribution network. A successful initiative would almost certainly result in a Supreme Court showdown over states' vs. federal rights.
"Through the actions of Attorney General Ashcroft, the federal government is trying to thwart the will of the voters in California and other states," said AMR's Gina Palencar. "We are looking at doing an initiative in response to the federal government's recent actions in California, the raids and the closing of the cannabis distribution center," she told DRCNet.
Saying that last summer's Supreme Court ruling in the Oakland Cannabis Buyers' Co-op case, which held that state medical marijuana laws provided no defense against federal prosecution, had frightened legislators and led to an impasse at state houses, Palencar said it was time to look again at the initiative process. "We are looking at the possibility of an initiative in 2002 in Arizona, Oregon or Washington," she said. "That would give the voters the opportunity to decide if the state government should have a role in distribution."
But although California has been the scene of the most recent federal enforcement activity against medical marijuana distribution, AMR has pretty much ruled out another initiative there as too expensive, said Palencar. "California would require more time and more resources," she said. "It is the largest state, and that makes any campaign more expensive. We don't think medical marijuana patients can afford to wait."
That's fine with Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML (http://www.canorml.org), who told DRCNet that while he generally opposed any new medical marijuana initiatives in California, he would support AMR's effort. "We don't need any new initiatives in California," he said, "but I do support AMR's idea of having another challenge to the feds with a state distribution system that would raise constitutional issues that would have to be decided by the Supreme Court," Gieringer said. "We don't need that here in California; a state distribution system would be much more restrictive that what we currently have with the de facto club system that is still out there. But if they went to a state like Arizona, where there is a nominal medical marijuana law that is so restrictive it's never been used, that could be useful."
For Gieringer, the courts hold more promise than the chance of a sudden burst of enlightenment within the federal government. "We're certainly not getting any progress out of the Bush administration," he said. "The courts are the only place we can go."
Palencar, too, is looking to the courts. "There is an impasse because of federal policy," she said. "Ultimately this is a battle that will be played out between the states and the federal government in the courts."
But it is also a matter of public opinion and political will, she added. "If we pass one of these initiatives, it will be time to see what the federal government is made of," said Palencar. "How far will they go to enforce their laws? Under this scenario, they would have to get injunctions against states or state officials. We don't think they are willing to do that, but there is no turning back. We can only engage the feds."
According to AMR's Palencar, the group is studying two models for an initiative. In the first model, states would petition the federal government for marijuana from its farm in Mississippi. "We think, however, that the feds would likely ignore or deny any such request, so we are falling back on a model of having the state do the actual cultivation in a secure location and distribute the medicine to qualified patients."
While Palencar and AMR would like to formally announce the new initiative, it isn't yet a done deal. "We are definitely planning an initiative, but it will depend on polling and public opinion research, so we can't say where yet, and we can't say absolutely that it will happen. Look for an announcement in February," Palencar added.
The Justice Department's campaign to use federal crack house laws against rave club owners took a serious hit this week when jurors in federal court in Florida declined to convict two Panama City Beach club owners targeted by state and federal law enforcement officials. Club La Vela bills itself as the nation's largest nightclub, with the multi-tiered playpen accommodating thousands of people. In addition to holding numerous raves, it is a significant live music and performance space, having hosted such events as the VANS Warped Tour, the Skoal ROAR tour, World Championship Wrestling and even the Bay Watch Talent Search. Brothers and co-owners CEO Patrick Pfeffer, 31, and general manager Thorsten Pfeffer, 30, were charged with conspiring to use the club, or allow it to be used, for the use and distribution of drugs. If convicted, they faced up to 20 years in prison, fines and the possible forfeiture of the club.
But after six weeks of testimony, it took the jury only 75 minutes to come back with "not guilty" verdicts on all counts. Coming after a New Orleans crack house prosecution that ended with a whimper instead of a bang -- federal prosecutors settled for a consent agreement wherein the club owners banned glow sticks and similar items, and even that settlement was blocked as an appeal winds through the courts -- the decision in the La Vela case strikes a major blow against federal prosecutors hoping to use the tactic in their war on the rave culture, which in their minds is indistinguishably linked with ecstasy use.
The nightclub, opened in 1996, quickly drew the attention of local authorities, and undercover officers sent into the club reported repeated drug use and sales. In 1997, it gained the dubious distinction of being the first club raided under Florida's new Anti-Rave law. The 1999 "Operation Heat Rave," unleashed by the Florida Office of Drug Control and the state's sheriffs, spotlighted La Vela, and in April 2000, local law enforcement officials raided the club with great fanfare, but found no drugs.
That didn't stop Bay County Sheriff Guy Tunnell from using a post-raid press conference to demonize the Pfeffer brothers and the club as a place to groom drug consumers. Tunnell pointed to the presence of underage patrons (there legally) and a "lackadaisical" attitude toward drug use that, he said, made it likely that young people would be exposed to drugs. "They were raising them to come back and buy their drugs later," he claimed. He also attempted to tar the brothers with numerous drugs seized over the course of a three-year investigation centering on La Vela, but failed to provide any link between the drug seizures and the Pfeffers. (Neither did prosecutors during the trial. The Sheriff's Department refuses to comment on those claims now.)
Despite Tunnell's show for the reporters, state charges against the brothers fizzled. But the feds picked up the ball, and in June 2000 a federal grand jury indicted the club and the brothers under the federal crack house statute, a heavy-handed weapon crafted during the late-1980's drug hysteria designed to go after property-owners actively involved in ongoing drug sales. The indictment marked only the second time US Attorneys had sought to use the crack house law against rave clubs, and while law enforcement officials in Austin had been making similar threatening noises, the disappointing State Theater case in New Orleans and the La Vela fiasco may quiet them down.
During the trial, federal prosecutors and their witnesses painted a lurid portrait of orgiastic excess and open drug use. Assistant US Attorney Greg Miller told the jurors the club was little more than "what could only be described as a full-service drug shop." He also accused the club of promoting raves, which he described as parties that promote and enhance drug use, citing "chill out" rooms, where overheated patrons could cool off, as evidence. And while various undercover police, club patrons and employees testified that drug use did occur at the club, Miller was reduced to waving around glow sticks as he failed to provide any evidence that the Pfeffer brothers conspired to engage in drug sales at the club or negligently allowed them to take place.
While defense attorneys conceded that drugs were present at times and even admitted that Patrick Pfeffer had a personal fondness for ecstasy, jurors were apparently swayed by some hard numbers. La Vela attorney Todd Foster told the jury that the club grossed $2.5 million in alcohol sales and $3.2 million from cover charges in last year. "That's where they're making their money," he said in his opening argument.
In his closing argument, Prosecutor Miller told the jurors he had only to show that the Pfeffers had entered into some sort of agreement to use the club to distribute drugs, not that they had profited from drug sales. "At the end of this case," he said, "I'm going to ask you to return a verdict that is consistent with the evidence, consistent with the truth and consistent with justice."
Much to Miller's chagrin, they did just that.
Austin has long had a reputation as a live music capital, and in recent years it has also become a powerhouse in the rave and electronic music scene. But a letter sent to local club owners and promoters by Austin police commander Robert Dahtstrom put the city's vibrant music scene on notice that law enforcement's war on Ecstasy was poised to impose some significant collateral damage.
Directed to such Austin music institutions as the Backyard, La Zona Rosa and the Austin Music Hall, as well as the nightclubs Texture and Element, and promoter Coy West of 626 Soul Productions, the letter warned that clubs and promoters who hold raves would face a triple-whammy of scrutiny from the Austin police, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission (TABC), a legendarily crusty bunch of good ol' boys who enforce the state's liquor laws.
"We have gotten intelligence that points to a RAVE being nothing more than a haven for drug dealers and drug use," wrote Dahlstrom, who heads the Austin Police Department's Organized Crime Unit. "If the owner of the business or the promoter of the event continues to allow this type of behavior, appropriate charges will be filed on those responsible."
"There's been a real increase in ecstasy in the last six months or year," Dahlstrom told DRCNet. "We've been making lots of arrests, a lot of it coming from Houston, and the rave scene has blatant dealers all over the place. "Hell," he drawled, "I've been to rock concerts where there's drugs and we'll make arrests there, but we've been to raves where there's people lined up 30 deep to buy their dope. That's the difference. I want to see no more blatant drug use like we've seen at all the raves we've gone to," he said.
No one that DRCNet interviewed denied that ecstasy use occurs at raves, but club owners and promoters see a threat to livelihoods as well as to the rave culture in general. According to the Austin Chronicle, an alternative weekly, Noah Balch of Ark Entertainment has already been squeezed. It happened 75 miles down the road in San Antonio, when San Antonio police and the TABC pressured Sunset Station, the huge venue where Balch had massives (great big raves) scheduled in September and October.
"They told us, 'We don't like raves in San Antonio, and that's all there is to it,'" Balch told the Chronicle, adding that San Antonio police specifically threatened club owners with the federal crack house law if the show was not canceled. "I ended up losing $30,000 that night," he said. "We still had to pay for Bad Boy Bill, the fliers, lighting crews -- all the stuff that suddenly wasn't going to be happening."
Balch's attorney, Buck McKinnon, told the Chronicle, "If you can read that crack house statute and see how it ought to apply to a rave, I'd like you to explain it to me. It's just the most tortured reading that you could possibly imagine. The primary purpose of a rave is to put on a concert, not to provide a place for people to come do drugs, and frankly I don't see how you can even get there from here."
McKinnon's view notwithstanding, Balch's San Antonio experience, along with back-channel rumblings from the TABC, and the letter, were enough for the Austin Music Hall, the city's largest club, to drop raves. "We've probably done a hundred or so rave events in the past six or seven years," said Shay Jones, the club's manager. "Our first inkling of trouble was when the Austin police told us we couldn't hire off-duty officers for security anymore. Then when we heard about one of our main promoters, Noah Balch of Ark Entertainment, getting harassed in San Antonio, we investigated through our TABC connections," Jones told DRCNet. "They told us in no uncertain terms that we'd be lunatics if we went ahead with rave events. "I got the distinct impression this was coming from higher up," he said. Then the letter arrived.
"It's the DEA and local law enforcement, basically saying if you have an arrest at your event, we'll shut you down for a TABC violation," said Jones. "With the threat of a death penalty for an arrest, we can't take that chance. We're not booking raves. Funny though, we had 2,500 people drinking and smoking pot at a Tesla show -- that's not a problem."
The Austin electronica industry is not just complaining, however. Led by local old-school performer and promoter Coy West of 626 Soul Production, promoters, performers, and club owners have formed the Austin Nightlife Coalition to attempt to find workable solutions. "Here in Austin, we have tons of talented performers, multiple record labels and some of the best djs in the country," West told DRCNet. "The crackdown has prevented promoters from promoting, performers from performing. Local clubs and promoters are taking the hit, but they're not the only ones. Local record stores, late night restaurants, taxis who profit off the clubbers, this is having an economic impact," he said.
The coalition has held one meeting with law enforcement officials, West said, and there are plans for another. "The police have been relatively open-minded," said West. "We went in with about 40 music professionals and discussed our concerns, and although we're not exactly on the same page as law enforcement, I'm optimistic we can reach some sort of solution. I mean, the DEA wants some sort of grand coalition to 'fight ecstasy use,' but we are more interested in the welfare of the electronic music industry in town."
Commander Dahlstrom inadvertantly echoed West's point. "The purpose of the meeting was to make it where they would get rid of the drugs," said Dahlstrom. "I think it was very positive. We're meeting with a smaller group from the coalition to come up with guidelines to help promoters keep better control and have better security," he said.
The Music Hall's Jones is willing to give the meetings a chance. "Thanks to Coy's hard work, we've got an organized front now, and maybe we can come up with some rules to make the shows less frightening for the cops," he said. "We have a long history of doing events, and we think the police and the fire department will respect that. We'll see how far Coy's proactive approach gets us and take it from there. But you can't tell people they can't come listen to music because ecstasy might show up."
So far, organized resistance to the anti-rave campaign has been limited to the Austin Nightlife Coalition, which represents the interests of the industry, not the ecstasy users who populate its shows. West likes it that way. "We're trying to avoid being tagged with the electronica equals ecstasy label," he said. "In fact, I kind of resent the assumption. We're avoiding the DanceSafe approach where they hand out drug information. We're taking the industry approach."
And where are the candy kids? West doesn't know what they're up to, but he did say that the local contingent of the rave nation was invited to a public meeting being scheduled for late January. In the meantime, West and others are working to fend off the feds and the local law. "The DEA is behind this," West said. "They made it clear they're picking on raves, and their local agent has been hyping it to the local media, undoing much of the community education and relations work we've been trying to do."
"The rave scene is easy to pick on," West said. "That's because a lot of promoters haven't protected themselves by holding responsible events. It's also because a lot of people in the scene don't know their rights, don't know how to coordinate a community effort to defend themselves."
Maybe that will change as their culture comes under concerted attack.
The Labor government of Western Australia Premier Geoff Gallop announced a sea change in the state's approach to drugs this week. Delivering its long-awaited response to the state's Community Drug Summit held in August, the government announced it was accepting 44 out of 45 recommendations, including the decriminalization of possession and consumption of small amounts of marijuana and prescription heroin trials. The drug summit had been a key election pledge of the Gallop government.
The government rejected a recommendation for safe injection rooms, arguing that the state did not have heroin users in sufficient concentrations to make the sites cost-effective. "Drug use is spread throughout the community," said Gallop. "We don't have the same extent of the problem that they get in Victoria and New South Wales," he explained.
And the heroin prescription trials will not happen as long as Prime Minister John Howard is around. He will be around for awhile. Howard, an avowed foe of such harm reduction measures, was elected to a new term earlier this month, running largely on an anti-immigrant platform.
"The fact of the matter is the federal government needs to give its endorsement and John Howard has made it clear he is not going to allow any heroin trials in Australia," said Gallop as he announced the new policies. "The notion of the heroin trials should be part of our armory, and we should keep it on the agenda, but the fact of the matter is we in Western Australia can't do it."
Under the state's new marijuana policy, people caught with up to two plants or less than 25 grams will face only civil penalties, such as fines, and will not enter the criminal justice system. Western Australia will join South Australia, which decriminalized in 1987, and Tasmania, Victoria and Queensland in the last four years have also instituted ticketing instead of arresting marijuana offenders caught with less than 50 grams.
The community drug summit recommendations also called for increased emphasis on prevention and treatment. The government responded with a 10% increase in the drug budget and the establishment of a new Drug and Alcohol Office within the state health department.
Local authorities in three cities took action affecting needle exchange programs (NEPs) this week, with San Diego finally giving the go-ahead to a privately-funded NEP, Albuquerque forcing one of the nation's largest NEPs to close or relocate, and Chicago giving well-deserved recognition -- and cash -- to one of its area NEPs.
In San Diego, the city council finally declared a health emergency and okayed a one-year trial program. (See http://www.drcnet.org/wol/207.html#sandiegonep for earlier coverage.) Under a bill signed by Gov. Gray Davis (D) in 1999, NEPs are legal in California if local authorities declare a health emergency. Surrounding San Diego County has refused to declare such an emergency, and it has taken the San Diego city council more than a year to approve a program proposed by the nonprofit Alliance Healthcare Foundation. Meanwhile, according to the county Health and Human Services Agency, AIDS and Hepatitis C are on the rise, Hep C having increased by 50% since 1999.
Under the approved plan, Alliance Healthcare will provide the $344,000 needed for the program so city taxpayers incur no costs.
The program had been recommended by a city task force, but was opposed by the local police chief, county sheriff and prosecutor. It passed narrowly on a 5-4 vote and carries some restrictions designed to placate opponents. Under the plan approved by the city council, the mobile van that will dispense syringes must not get within eight blocks of a school, and any council member can block the van from stopping in his district.
"It's time for San Diego to catch up," Councilman Ralph Inzunza told the council before voting in favor of the program. "People are dying, and we're not doing anything about it. I don't think telling a heroin addict to 'just say no' is the answer."
Now the city of San Diego is beginning to do something, even if the restrictions and council member's veto power are disturbing.
If San Diego is moving forward, Albuquerque is moving in the opposite direction. The Albuquerque city council voted unanimously this week to impose location restrictions on NEPs in a move clearly aimed at the Harm Reduction Project on Silver Avenue SE. The bill sets up a permit process under which permits will be granted only in certain parts of the city and with the mayor's approval. Under the bill, the center will be forced to move to a location not within 500 feet of a church or residential area or within 1,000 feet of a school.
The Harm Reduction Center runs one of the nation's largest NEPs -- it exchanged half a million syringes last year -- and also provides a range of goods and services to its clientele, including condoms, HIV testing, hepatitis screening and immunization, treatment referrals, peer education groups, bleach kits and naloxone. The clients can even do their laundry and get a quick shower. Operated by the nonprofit Health Care for the Homeless and funded by the state Department of Health, the program is one of a dozen NEPs in the city.
"Syringe exchange is probably 25 percent of what we do there," Maureen Rule, clinical adviser at the Harm Reduction Center, told the Albuquerque Tribune.
That was too much for neighbors in the trendy Nob Hill area near the University of New Mexico to handle. "How do they get their money for their drugs?" resident Judy Pratt told the newspaper. "They break into our houses and they break into our cars. All... the... time."
Her complaint was typical. Resident after resident complained to the council of thefts, robberies, drug dealing, discarded syringes and similar quality of life issues. The council listened, overriding testimony from public health experts that the measure could have disastrous consequences on the city's ability to contain HIV and Hepatitis C.
Even some program supporters acknowledged that neighborhood concerns needed to be dealt with. Dr. Steve Jenison of the infectious diseases bureau of the New Mexico Department of Health told the council neighborhood "issues need to be worked out."
Dr. Bruce Trigg, who runs a Department of Health clinic nearby, pointed to a solution. "The state Health Department would like to have many sites all over the city so that people don't congregate at one place," Trigg told the Tribune. "None of the other places has ever had a complaint from anyone anywhere."
While Albuquerque experiments with "harm reduction free zones," Chicago officials awarded the Chicago Recovery Alliance (http://www.anypositivechange.org) the city's Excellence in HIV Prevention Award. Mayor Richard Daley is presenting CRA with the award in a ceremony at the Garfield Park Conservatory on November 30, and the award includes a $25,000 grant to be used for CRA's mission as they see fit.
The Chicago Recovery Alliance provides NEPs and other harm reduction services throughout Chicago and into the northern, southern and western suburbs. Last year, according to its annual report, it distributed more than 2.1 million syringes to more than 27,000 program participants.
The European Union's drug agency, the European Monitoring Center for Drugs and Drug Addiction, released its annual overview of continental drug use trends and issues last week. While the report offered no stop-the-presses findings, it does provide an overview of drug use patterns and responses across the European Union. It is perhaps most notable for its recognition of "socially integrated drug users," a concept alien to US drug warriors, and for its calm and thoughtful tone, a marked contrast with the hysterical edge that too often seeps into official US drug policy pronouncements.
Among the review's findings:
DRCNet reported in June on the revival of hashish production in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley a decade after the Lebanese government suppressed the traditional crop in 1992 (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/191.html#bekaavalley). Driven by poverty and the lack of viable alternatives, farmers in the valley this year turned by the thousands back to their most reliable cash crop, cannabis, which is typically processed in hashish. As the Lebanese government became aware of the scope of renewed production last summer, it threatened to destroy any such crops and jail their owners for up to life. It didn't happen.
By September, brazen farmers had turned the valley, long a stronghold of smugglers and the Hezbollah militia, into an emerald sea of flowering cannabis. According to Middle East Online, by fall cannabis plants were easily visible from main roads and about 150 of the region's 2000 villages had turned back to the herb. By October, it had all been harvested. And the government stayed away. Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, caught between the need for international aid partially dependent on drug eradication on one hand and threats of violent resistance from farmers on the other, quietly chose to maintain domestic tranquility over foreign favor. The government made no formal announcement, but its lack of action spoke louder than words.
As had been the case in the past, especially during the period of civil war and lawlessness in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, the government's failure to move against the cannabis crop has now inspired farmers to plant even more profitable opium poppies, the British newspaper the Guardian reported this week. As a result, the Lebanese government has once again resorted to threats -- but no action -- against poppy farmers. "The armed forces and security bureaus have been ordered -- on finding any patch of land planted with opium -- to destroy it and go after its owners, its farmers, and anyone who proves to be involved in spreading this poisonous substance," interior minister Elias al-Murr told Reuters.
But the government faces severe economic, political and military obstacles if it moves to enforce its edicts against cannabis and opium. The Bekaa Valley is the military headquarters for some 35,000 Syrian troops who have been in Lebanon since the civil war years, as well as the powerful and popular Shiite militia Hezbollah. Hezbollah, which also controls a bloc in the Lebanese parliament, accused the government of picking on the impoverished population of the Bekaa by threatening to destroy their cannabis crops.
If all of that wasn't enough, the valley is also home to thousands of armed and desperate farmers who would rather confront the Lebanese state than endure more poverty. Last month, reporters for Middle East Online interviewed cannabis and opium farmers who made their intentions clear. According to a farmer identified only as Mehdi, the only way to stop the trade was for the Lebanese government to supply long-promised but never delivered alternative development assistance. "When we get the long-promised money for alternative crops, we will start discussing. Turkey and Morocco got a lot of money for the eradication of drugs, while we accepted to stop it at once for peanuts," he said. "We will never accept hunger like we were forced to do in 1992. We will use arms if we have to," warned Mehdi, who like most members of the tribal clans of the region owns a multitude of weapons.
Farmer Mehdi also had some economic advice for the Lebanese government. "Lebanon suffers from a debt of more than 25 billion dollars. Cash from drugs is the best way to help pay it back," he suggested.
The drug trade was big business in Lebanon during the civil war, with local experts valuing the trade at around $4 billion -- more than 20% of the country's Gross Domestic Product -- at its peak in 1989. This year's 100,000 planted and harvested acres of cannabis, while a huge increase from recent years, is estimated by Lebanese law enforcement to be only 10% of production at its peak in the late 1980s.
While farmer Mehdi was talking macroeconomics, other farmers who spoke to the Middle East Online had microeconomic concerns. "After the eradication of illegal growing in 1993, I had switched to sugar beets. But the state has lifted its subsidies, so I have returned to good old hashish," said farmer Adnan. He said while he could make only $2,000 for an acre of potatoes, he could double that with an acre of cannabis. "Draw your own conclusion," he said. He added that he and his fellows would continue to ignore the government edicts. "Because the peasants suffer from hunger, they dare to brave the official ban," he said.
Besides, argued another farmer, what's the big deal? "Hashish is not harmful," said farmer Salim. "It is allowed in many western and advanced states, even for medical and healing purposes."
DRCNet would really prefer not to keep writing about Indiana congressman Mark Souder (R-4th District), but he keeps opening his mouth. Last week, we reported on the drug fightin' Fort Wayne rep's comments upon returning from a "fact-finding" junket in Amsterdam (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/212.html#moralbase). Apparently suffering a contact high and assiduously avoiding unpalatable facts, Souder reported that those wacky Dutch have "free pot and free prostitution" and that the Dutch has "no moral base" because they don't attend church as often as Americans.
But never a man to rest on his laurels, Souder quickly moved on to one of his new favorite themes: the drug-terrorism connection. In an op-ed piece published in one of his local papers, the Noble & LaGrange News-Sun, he attempted to tie the two phenomena together in a call for tighter border controls, but somehow along the way he slipped through the looking glass into a topsy-turvy world where marijuana is as dangerous as cocaine.
Well, not all marijuana. No, Souder was targeting Canadian homegrown, the high-powered boutique weed that is a major industry in British Columbia and goes by such sobriquets as BC Bud and Quebec Gold. Jaws must have dropped from DeKalb to Steuben as Sunday morning newspaper readers in northeast Indiana pondered Souder's dire warning:
"In many places, Quebec Gold and BC Bud are selling for more than cocaine," wrote Souder. "Don't be fooled by its name: it is not marijuana. It is far more potent than traditional marijuana, and is as dangerous as cocaine." Furthermore, he continued, the US has not allocated sufficient resources to stop "this deadly flow."
Shocked by Souder's discovery, DRCNet attempted to verify his claims. We contacted California cannabis expert Chris Conrad (http://www.chrisconrad.com), author of two books on the subject, designer and former curator of the Marijuana-Hemp-Hashish Museum in Amsterdam, and court-certified expert witness on cannabis matters in numerous California counties and at least one federal district. Conrad has testified in at least 40 criminal cases regarding all aspects of cannabis cultivation.
"Where do I begin?" groaned Conrad. "All three of his assertions are completely untrue. First, of course, BC Bud is marijuana. I have observed, I have analyzed it, I know for a fact that it is marijuana. Please. Souder is only parading his ignorance," said Conrad. "To have someone so obviously ignorant in a position to make drug laws is how we got the bad drug policies we have today."
"As for this stuff being 'far more potent' than traditional marijuana, again he doesn't know what he is talking about," said Conrad. "The marijuana he is talking about is probably 10-12% THC, which has probably increased since the 1960s, but remember, we also had hashish back in the 1960s, and that runs about 40% THC. I would argue that the real difference between pot now and pot then is the difference between cannabis sativa and cannabis indica. If Souder wanted to sponsor a return to the days of sativa, I could get behind that," Conrad added. "It's a much more up high."
The federal government, for its part, contends that potency has increased over the past two decades. According to the University of Mississippi's 2000 Marijuana Potency Monitoring Project (MPMP), sinsemilla potency increased from about 6% THC in the late 1970s and 1980s to 13% last year. But unlike Souder, the feds recognize that it is still marijuana.
As for marijuana being as dangerous as cocaine, Conrad was flabbergasted. "You're kidding, right? There is no way marijuana is as dangerous as cocaine; in fact, there is substantial evidence that pot could help people who have cocaine problems," he said. "That Souder would say something like that is outrageous. The marijuana reform community makes a careful distinction between pot and hard drugs, and for Souder to make that claim will only encourage young people to use cocaine. Every parent in the country should be after his head for that. He has to take personal responsibility for these lies."
As for comparative prices, it appears highly unlikely that BC Bud is selling for more than cocaine "in many places," as Souder asserted. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), cocaine prices were "low and stable" and ranged from $13,000 to $25,000 per kilogram in most major cities. ONDCP puts the price of BC Bud at at least $5,000 in major markets, with an upper limit of $8,000. Thus, according to federal government figures, some of the most expensive BC Bud may sell for more than some of the least expensive cocaine.
Seeking less tendentious sources, DRCNet also contacted High Times magazine, which runs a regular column on drug prices. According to High Times' Trans High Market Quotations, BC Bud prices ranged from $340 an ounce in Kansas City to $500 an ounce in Pennsylvania. High Times editor Steve Wishnia told DRCNet that in the New York City area, retail kind bud and cocaine prices are roughly similar, but he added that cocaine prices have been declining and marijuana prices increasing since the inauguration of the Reaganite drug war in the 1980s. "In the '70s, pot was $40 an ounce and coke $100 a gram and $1,500 an ounce; in the last 10 years, pot's been $300-350 an ounce and coke $40-50 a gram and $500 an ounce," said Wishnia.
That may be progress in the eyes of recalcitrant drug warriors, but it still does not validate Souder's assertion that BC Bud goes for more than cocaine "in many places."
Mark Souder is a man who may occasionally stumble across the truth, but when he does, he quickly picks himself up, brushes himself off and continues down his merrily mendacious path.
The campaign to repeal the Higher Education Act drug provision scored two more student government endorsements this week -- Loyola University in Chicago and De Anza College in California's Silicon Valley -- bringing the number of new student government endorsements this semester to nine and the total number to 81.
Please visit http://www.raiseyourvoice.com to write to Congress and find out how to get involved with the campaign. Congress needs to hear from you so they know that people care about this issue; that is what will keep supportive members focused on keeping it on the Congressional agenda.
Please also call your US Representative to speak your mind with even greater impact. You can use the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121, or visit http://www.house.gov to look up their contact info yourself.
National Review Online, the web site of the preeminent conservative magazine, has published a piece by David Kopel and Mike Krause on medical marijuana and the DEA:
Click on the links below for information on these issues and web forms to help you contact Congress:
Repeal the Higher Education Act Drug Provision
(Please submit listings of events concerning drug policy and related topics to [email protected].)
December 3-4, 9:30am-4:30pm, Albany, NY, "Comprehensive Overview of Harm Reduction." Free workshop by the Harm Reduction Training Institute, at the American Red Cross, 33 Everett Rd. Pre-registration required, contact Emily Winkelstein at (212) 683-2334 x18 or [email protected].
December 10-11, 9:30am-4:30pm, Harlem, New York, NY, "Comprehensive Overview of Harm Reduction." Free workshop by the Harm Reduction Training Institute, at Pathways to Housing, 55 W. 125th St., 10th floor. Pre-registration required, contact Emily Winkelstein at (212) 683-2334 x18 or [email protected].
December 10-12, Cochabamba, Bolivia, "International Conference on Viable Alternative Development in the Andean Region, Including Colombia, Peru and Bolivia." At the Centro Palestra, 578 N. Antezana, between Calle Salamanca and Calle Pacciere, near Plazuela Constitución, $20 registration, includes conference participation, two lunches and refreshments on 10/10-11. The 12th will feature an optional visit to the Chapare region, additional $30 fee, must have documented yellow fever vaccination. For information or to register, contact Georgean Potter at [email protected].
December 12, 9:00am-5:30pm, London, England, "London Ibogaine Conference," raising awareness of ibogaine as an addiction treatment. At the London Voluntary Sector Resource Centre, 356 Holloway Rd., London N7. Visit http://www.ibogaine.co.uk/2001.htm for information or contact Nick Sandberg at 020 7278 4656 or [email protected].
December 14 & 15, 8:00pm, Philadelphia, PA, "Corner Wars," play by Tim Dowlin, hosted by the Kensington Welfare Rights Union. At the Tomlinson Theatre, 13th & Norris, Temple University Main Campus. Visit http://www.kwru.org or call (215) 203-1945 for tickets or for further information.
December 16, 10:30am, Cambridge, MA, "New Perspectives on our Drug War," forum with the Ethical Society of Boston, featuring Jon Holmes discussing the crisis of US drug policy. At the Longy School of Music, 1 Follen St., call (617) 739-9050 for further information.
January 25-27, 2002, New York, NY, "Maternal-State Conflicts: Claims of Fetal Rights & the Well-Being of Women & Families." Conference sponsored by National Advocates for Pregnant Women and the Mt. Sinai Hospital-Based Clinical Education Initiative. For further information, call (212) 475-4218, visit http://www.advocatesforpregnantwomen.org or e-mail [email protected].
February 28-March 1, 2002, New York, NY, "Problem Solving Courts: From Adversarial Litigation to Innovative Jurisprudence." Panelists include former Attorney General Janet Reno, Rev. Al Sharpton and Mary Barr, Exec. Dir. Conextions. At Fordham University Law School, take the A, B, C, D, 1, and 9 subway trains to 59th Street/Columbus Circle and walk one block west. For further information, call (656) 345-5352 or e-mail [email protected].
March 3-7, 2002, Ljubljana, Slovenia, 13th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm and 2nd International Harm Reduction Congress on Women and Drugs. Sponsored by the International Harm Reduction Association, visit http://www.ihrc2002.net or e-mail [email protected] for further information.
April 8-13, 2002, Gainesville, FL, "Drug Education Week," series of presentations on different topics in the drug war, including daily keynote, followed by Saturday free concert. Hosted by University of Florida Students for Sensible Drug Policy, visit http://grove.ufl.edu/~ssdp/ or e-mail [email protected] for further information.
May 3-4, 2002, Portland, OR, Second National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics, focus on Analgesia and Other Indications. Sponsored by Patients Out of Time and Legacy Emmanuel Hospital, for further information visit http://www.medicalcannabis.com or call (804) 263-4484.
December 1-4, 2002, Seattle, WA, Fourth National Harm Reduction Conference. Featuring keynote speaker Dr. Joycelyn Elders, former US Surgeon General, at the Sheraton Seattle. For further information, visit http://www.harmreduction.org or call (212) 213-6376.
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