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Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans

Chronicle Book Review: Opium's Orphans: The 200-Year History of the War on Drugs by P.E. Caquet (2022, Reaktion Books, 400 pp., $35.00 HB)

The history of drug prohibition is increasingly well-trodden territory, but with Opium's Orphans, British historian P.E. Caquet brings a fascinating new perspective embedded in a sweeping narrative and fortified with an erudite grasp of the broad global historical context. Although Asian bans on opium pre-dated 19th Century China (the Thai monarchy announced a ban in the 1400s), for Caquet, the critical moment in what became a linear trajectory toward global drug prohibition a century later came when the Qing emperor banned opium in 1813 and imposed severe penalties on anything to do with it, including possessing it. Precisely 100 years later, after two Opium Wars imposed opium on the empire followed by decades of diplomatic wrangling over how to suppress the trade (and for moralizing Americans, how to win favor with China), the 1913 Hague Opium Convention ushered in the modern war on drugs with its targeting not just of opium (and coca) producers or sellers but also of mere users for criminal prosecution. It urged countries to enact such laws, and they did.

What began at the Hague would eventually grow into an international anti-drug bureaucracy, first in the League of Nations and then in United Nations bodies such as the Commission on Narcotic Drugs and the International Narcotics Control Board. But it is a global prohibition regime that has, Caquet writes, straight-jacketed itself with an opium-based perspective that has proven unable or unwilling to recognize the differences among the substances over which it seeks dominion, reflexively resorting to opium and its addiction model. Drugs such as amphetamines, psychedelics, and marijuana don't really fit that model -- they are the orphans of the book's title -- and in a different world would be differently regulated.

But Opium's Orphans isn't just dry diplomatic history. Caquet delves deep into the social, cultural, and political forces driving drug use and drug policies. His description of the spread of opium smoking among Chinese elites before it spread into the masses and became declasse is both finely detailed and strangely evocative of the trajectory of cocaine use in the United States in the 1970s, when it was the stuff of rock musicians and Hollywood stars before going middle class and then spreading among the urban poor in the form of crack.

Along the way, we encounter opium merchants and colonial opium monopolies, crusading missionary moralists, and early Western proponents of recreational drug use, such as Confessions of an English Opium Eater author Thomas De Quincey and the French habitues of mid-19th Century hashish clubs. More contemporaneously, we also meet the men who achieved international notoriety in the trade in prohibited drugs, "drug lords" such as Khun Sa in the Golden Triangle, Pablo Escobar in Colombia and El Chapo Guzman in Mexico, as well as the people whose job it is to hunt them down. Caquet notes that no matter how often a drug lord is removed -- jailed or killed, in most cases -- the impact on the trade is negligible.

For Caquet, drug prohibition as a global phenomenon peaked with the adoption of the 1961 Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs. Coming as it did amidst a post-World War II decline in drug use around the world, the treaty criminalizing coca, cocaine, opium and opioids, and marijuana seemed to ratify a successful global prohibitionist effort. (In the US, in the 1950s, when domestic drug use was at low ebb, Congress passed tough new drug laws.) But before the decade was over, drug prohibition was under flamboyant challenge from the likes of LSD guru Timothy Leary and a horde of hippie pot smokers. The prohibitionist consensus was seeing its first cracks.

And the prohibitionist response was to crack down even harder, which in turn begat its own backlash. Drug use of all sorts began rising around the world in the 1960s and hasn't let up yet, and the increasingly omnivorous drug war machine grew right along with it, as did the wealth and power of the illicit groups that provided the drugs the world demanded. As the negative impacts of the global drug war -- from the current opioid overdose crisis in the US to the prisons filled with drug offenders to the bloody killing fields of Colombia and Mexico -- grew ever more undeniable, the critiques grew ever sharper.

In recent years, the UN anti-drug bureaucrats have been forced to grudgingly accept the notion of harm reduction, although they protest bitterly over such interventions as safe injection sites. For them, harm reduction is less of an erosion of the drug war consensus than all that talk of drug legalization. As Caquet notes, perhaps a tad unfairly, harm reduction doesn't seek to confront drug prohibition head-on, but to mitigate its harms.

The man is a historian, not a policymaker, and his response to questions about what to do now is "I wouldn't start from here." Still, at the end of it all, he has a trio of observations: First, supply reduction ("suppression" is his word) does not work. Sure, you can successfully wipe out poppies in Thailand or Turkey, but they just pop up somewhere else, like the Golden Triangle or Afghanistan. That's the infamous balloon effect. Second, "criminalization of the drug user has been a huge historical blunder." It has no impact on drug use levels, is cruel and inhumane, and it didn't have to be that way. A century ago, countries could have agreed to regulate the drug trade; instead, they tried to eradicate it in an ever-escalating, never-ending crusade. Third, illicit drugs as a group should be seen "as a historical category, not a scientific one." Different substances demand different approaches.

Opium's Orphans is a fascinating, provocative, and nuanced account of the mess we've gotten ourselves into. Now, we continue the work of trying to get out of that mess.

NE MedMJ Initiative Signature Deadline Looms, Swiss Ease Medical Marijuana Access, More... (6/23/22)

North Carolina House Republicans are blocking a medical marijuana bill that has already passed the Senate, opium sales continue at an Afghanistan opium market despite a Taliban ban, and more.

Despite an announced Taliban ban on opium, sales are continuing at the market in Helmand. (UNODC)
Medical Marijuana

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign Has Only Two Weeks to Come Up With 50,000 Signatures. Things are looking grim for Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, the group trying to qualify an initiative for the November ballot. The campaign needs 50,000 more valid voter signatures in the next two weeks to qualify but has only gathered 35,000 signatures in months of signature-gathering. The campaign has been plagued this year by the loss of significant donors who had funded past efforts. "The reality is we need 50,000 Nebraskans to sign the petition in the next two weeks. Now it's on Nebraskans. The volunteers and patients have carried the water this far. It's on Nebraskans to go out and find a place to sign it," said state Sen. Anna Wishart, co-chair of the initiative. The same group qualified an initiative for the 2020 ballot, only to have it thrown out by the state Supreme Court.

North Carolina House Republicans Block Medical Marijuana Bill. The state Senate has passed a medical marijuana bill, the Compassionate Use Act (Senate Bill 711), but it now appears doomed in the House even though the legislative session still has more than a week to run. During a closed-door meeting Wednesday, House Republicans voted internally not to advance the bill. But the bill is not dead until the session ends, and it is theoretically possible that the bill could advance because budget negotiations are still ongoing.

International

Afghanistan Opium Markets Still Operating in Helmand Province Despite Taliban Ban. The Taliban may have issued an edict banning opium production and the opium trade, but it has yet to take effect in the poppy-growing heartland of Helmand province. Opium farmers there are still selling their harvests to smugglers, and they say they are doing it out of economic necessity in the now poverty-wracked nation. "People will sell it as long as they have it at home, it is not food. By selling it, people can make some money to feed their families," one farmer explained.

Switzerland to Ease Medical Marijuana Access. The Swiss government announced Wednesday that it will lift the ban on medical marijuana, in line with a March 2021 amendment to the Swiss Narcotics Act. As of August 1, patients will no longer have to obtain permission from the Federal Office of Public Health, but instead can get a recommendation from a doctor. "The decision to use a cannabis-based medicine for therapeutic purposes will rest with the doctor, in consultation with the patient," the government said. The government had allowed some 3,000 people to use medical marijuana, but the public health office itself described the process as "tedious administrative procedures" and said "Sick people must be able to access these medicines without excessive bureaucracy."

Taliban Launch Opium Poppy Eradication Campaign, NY Safe Injection Site Bill Dies, More... (6/6/22)

Five Texas cities will vote on non-binding marijuana reform measures this fall, the New York legislative session ends without passing a safe injection site bill, and more.

Afghan opium poppies (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

New York Bill to Crack Down on Illicit Marijuana Possession and Sales Dies. The Senate last week approved Senate Bill 9452, which would expand the state Office of Cannabis Management's authority to seize illicit marijuana and the Department of Taxation and Finance's authority to civilly penalize people for selling marijuana illegally. But the bill died without action in the Assembly as the legislative session came to an end. The bill aimed at "grey market" operators -- retail outlets that are selling weed without being licensed. No licenses for pot shops have been issued yet. The bill would have made it a Class A misdemeanor for distributors and retailers to sell weed without a license. Fines for possession of illicit marijuana would have doubled to $400 per ounce of flower and $1,000 for each illicit plant.

Five Texas Cities Will Vote on Marijuana Reforms. Ground Game Texas, which is pushing for marijuana reform across the state, announced last Friday that it had gathered enough signatures to qualify a non-binding decriminalization initiative in the Central Texas town of Harker Heights, bringing to five the number of towns in the state that will have a chance to vote on marijuana reform this year. The other cities are Elgin, Killeen, and San Marcos in Central Texas and Denton in North Texas.

Harm Reduction

New York Safe Injection Site Bill Dies as Session Ends. A bill that would have paved the way for safe injection sites in the state, Assembly Bill 224, had died as the legislative session ends. The bill managed to win an Assembly committee vote, but went no further. Other harm reduction bills also died, including one that would require treatment providers to offer clients access to buprenorphine (Senate Bill 6746) and another that would have decriminalized buprenorphine (Assembly Bill 646). On the other hand, a bill that would eliminate copays at methadone clinics for people with private insurance (Senate Bill 5690) passed.

International

Afghan Taliban Launch Campaign to Eradicate Poppy Crop. Two months after issuing an edict banning opium poppy cultivation in the country, the Taliban has announced it has begun a campaign to eradicate poppy production, with the goal of wiping out the country's massive yield of opium and heroin. For all of this century, Afghanistan has been the world's leading opium and heroin producer, accounting for more than 80 percent of global output. People violating the ban "will be arrested and tried according to Sharia laws in relevant courts," said Taliban deputy interior minister for counternarcotics, Mullah Abdul Haq Akhund. But with the country in profound economic crisis after the departure of Western troops and economic aid last summer, the ban threatens one of the country's most vibrant economic sectors and the livelihoods of millions of poor farm and day laborer families. "If we are not allowed to cultivate this crop, we will not earn anything," one farmer told the Associated Press. Nonetheless, "We are committed to bringing poppy cultivation to zero," said Interior Ministry spokesman Abdul Nafi Takor.

The Taliban Announces a Ban on Opium. Really? [FEATURE]

On April 3, the Taliban announced a ban on drug cultivation in Afghanistan, for years the world's dominant opium producer, accounting for more than 80 percent of the global supply of the substance, from which heroin is derived, throughout this century. But the ban announcement raised as many questions as it answered and has been met with a degree of skepticism, not only around the motives of the Taliban but also because opium plays such a key role in an Afghan economy that is now in especially dire straits.

The opium poppy is an economic mainstay in Afghanistan. Can the Taliban really suppress it? (UNODC)
"As per the decree of the supreme leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, all Afghans are informed that from now on, cultivation of poppy has been strictly prohibited across the country," said an order from the Taliban's supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. "If anyone violates the decree, the crop will be destroyed immediately and the violator will be treated according to the Sharia law," the order said.

The order also banned the cultivation, manufacture, transportation, or use of other drugs. (Afghanistan is also one of the world's leading cannabis producers and is seeing rapidly increasing methamphetamine production.)

The Taliban presided over the only other opium ban in modern Afghan history back in 2000, but that effort faltered amidst a popular backlash against repressing a crop that provided incomes for hundreds of thousands of families, and eventually withered away before the Taliban were overthrown by the invading Americans late in 2001.

During two decades of foreign occupation, repressing the opium trade largely played second fiddle to the war on terror, and the Afghan opium economy prospered. By the end of 2021, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated that the opium trade was worth between $1.8 and $2.7 billion, constituting as much as 11 percent of the country's Gross National Product (GNP). UNODC also noted that the departure of Western development assistance after the Taliban takeover in August, which accounted for 22 percent of GNP, will only make drug markets a larger share of the economy.

So, is the ban for real? And if the Taliban are serious, can they actually do it, given the crucial role the crop plays in the devasted national economy? The Chronicle consulted with a couple of experts on the topic, and opinions were divided.

Sher Jan Ahmadzai is director of the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. He is skeptical.

"If you look at the Taliban's historical approach to opium, they only banned it when prices went down to increase demand," said Ahmadzai. "A second goal has been to respond to international pressure that opium should be banned. But looking strategically at opium, where their funding comes from, it doesn't seem to me that they will really pursue this."

"There are a couple of reasons for that," Ahmadzai continued. "One, they have been dependent on the income from opium. Although opium production is haram, they didn't ban it for religious reasons. Instead, they taxed it, and many of their leaders have been involved in drug trafficking and depend on this. To me, it seems very difficult to accept the ban as a fact.

"Second, most of rural Afghanistan, especially the southwest, has traditionally been dependent on opium production, and it will really hurt them economically, which will create political problems among the Taliban. Their support base is opium-growing farmers, and a ban will attract their anger," he argued.

Vanda Felbab-Brown is a senior fellow in the Center for Security, Strategy, and Technology in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institute. She thinks the ban is for real but will come with a high price.

"For several years, Taliban interlocutors were saying they were moving toward the ban," said Felbab-Brown. "It didn't work out for them in 2000, and later they were deeply engaged in poppy cultivation, but the leadership now is very conservative, very inward-looking, very doctrinaire, and is trying to restore 1990 policies. The more internationalist factions within the Taliban are much weaker and have not been successful in implementing policies.

"There is good reason to believe they will try to implement the ban, but that will have significant impacts on the implementers, including fighters, who have not gotten paid," she continued. "This will impact relations among the various factions and the ability of commanders to pay their fighters, which will be negatively affected by the ban.

"The question is how long will they maintain it, how long are they willing to squeeze the people and deal with compounding rifts within the Taliban. They don't want to alienate various factions, but in this case, we see a very conservative policy that will compound those rifts," she predicted.

Ahmadzai was not convinced that the ban reflected factional differences between conservatives and internationalists within the Taliban.

"I don't see any big differences in their policies," he said. "I haven't seen any breakups, so it's hard to say it's a power struggle between the factions. No one has spoken out against it; even those who were stationed in Doha have not spoken out against anything the conservatives have done. If there is a power struggle, it is not around differences over banning."

For Ahmadzai, the ban is little less than a publicity stunt, especially given harsh economic conditions and Afghanistan's desperate need to mollify the international community in order to get sanctions removed and assistance flowing again.

"The urban economy was already seeing its own share of destruction in the last eight months, and the rural economy is more or less based on opium," he said, "so more than anything this looks like another cosmetic step to let the international community know they are doing something. They want to make Iran or Russia happy. Russia is a huge market for Afghan drugs, and the Russians want them to come down hard on opium production."

Felbab-Brown disagreed.

"There is also a possible international dimension to this; the Taliban may be trying to curry favor with Iran or Russia, but that is not the principal reason," said Felbab-Brown.

Whatever the reason for the ban announcement, if it actually happens, it is going to make tough times in Afghanistan -- the UN last month reported that the country is facing a food insecurity and malnutrition crisis of "unparalleled proportions" -- even tougher.

"The Taliban are not promising help or advising people what to do; their attitude is just cope with it. But the country is already in a drastic humanitarian situation, and this will not just hurt farmers, there will be significant knock-on effects," said Felbab-Brown. "The economy has dried up since the Taliban took power, and heroin has been one of the sources of liquidity. As problematic as the bans and eradication were in 2000, eventually they were not enforced and eradication was not funded, and now the economy is so much worse. The economic impact of the Western withdrawal is already awful; this will make it just tragic."

MA Senate Passes Marijuana Equity Bill, Taliban Poppy Ban Sends Opium Prices Soaring, More... (4/8/22)

A South Carolina medical marijuana bill advances, the Senate is poised to vote soon on a bill to finally eliminate the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and more.

Singapore is the object of international condemnation over its resumption of the death penalty for drug offenses. (Pixabay)
Marijuana Policy

Massachusetts Senate Passes Marijuana Equity Bill. The Senate on Thursday approved a bill aimed at helping minority entrepreneurs and people adversely impacted by previous drug law enforcement gain a foothold in the legal marijuana industry. Senate Bill 2801 has numerous provisions, including creating a new Cannabis Social Equity Trust Fund, redirecting tax revenue equivalent to 1 percent of a social equity business’s sales from the state to the city or town where the business is located; directing the Cannabis Control Commission to make rules for localities to "to promote and encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry" by individuals from communities disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition. The bill now heads to the House.

Medical Marijuana

California Bill to Require Communities Allow Medical Marijuana Sales Wins Committee Vote. Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)’s Senate Bill 1186, which restores voter-created access to medical cannabis across the state by requiring cities to provide consumers access to purchase medicinal cannabis, passed the Senate Business and Professions Committee by a vote of 8-3 on Thursday. It now heads to the Senate Governance and Finance Committee. Under current California law — which arguably allows cities to ban any and all cannabis sales — 62% of cities have banned all cannabis sales, including medical cannabis sales. As a result, residents of those cities, including people living with HIV, cancer, arthritis, insomnia, and other conditions, frequently have no option other than to buy on the illicit market. California’s thriving and growing illicit cannabis market both undermines the legal, regulated market and risks people obtaining contaminated cannabis. SB 1186 requires cities to allow some form of medical cannabis access. Cities can choose how to provide that access, either by authorizing medical cannabis delivery, storefront, or both. However, under SB 1186, cities will no longer be able to ban all medical cannabis access.

South Carolina House Committee Approves Medical Marijuana Legalization Bill, Sending It to House Floor. The House Medical, Military, Public and Municipal Affairs Committee passed the South Carolina Compassionate Care Act (Senate Bill 150) Thursday after making minor changes. The bill now heads for a House floor vote. The bill would allow patients with one of 12 qualifying conditions to access a two-week supply of medical cannabis in the form of oils, vaporizers, salves, topicals and patches with a doctor's recommendation from their doctor. The committee amended the bill to add criminal background checks for medical marijuana distributors and security plans for their businesses.

Sentencing Policy

Congress on Verge on Passing Bill to End Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. This week, Sen. Roy Blunt (R-MO) became the 11th Republican to sign onto the EQUAL Act (S. 59), which would eliminate the sentencing disparity in crack and powder cocaine offenses. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) also met Tuesday with advocates and formerly incarcerated leaders, where he described the legislation as "a priority." He also said he plans to bring the bill to the Senate floor, though he did not say when. The bill would apply retroactively and would allow thousands of crack offenders—mainly Black men—to have their sentences reduced and get out of prison. The 100:1 disparity was created by the 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, but reduced to an 18:1 disparity by the 2010 Fair Sentencing Act, and that reform was made retroactive by the 2018 First Step Act.

International

Taliban Poppy Ban Sends Opium Prices Soaring. As this year's opium harvest gets underway, the price of opium has hit an all-time high after the Taliban banned poppy cultivation across the country. Farmers in Kandahar reported harvesting their crops without interference and were happy with high prices, but said they might stop growing opium because of the decree. The price of a kilogram of raw opium jumped to a record high of around $330, but has now declined slightly to about $300.

Singapore Drug Executions Spark International Condemnation, Rare Public Protest. Singapore resumed executions of drug offenders on March 30, with others in line to be hung shortly, and that is sparking both condemnation abroad and rare public protests at home. The UN Human Rights office expressed concern about what it feared would be "a surge in execution notices," Amnesty International charged that "the use of the death penalty in Singapore violates international human rights law and standards,"  and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, now the chair of the Global Commission on Drug Policy, wrote that Singapore’s 1973 Misuse of Drugs Act, which imposes a mandatory death sentence for 20 different drug offenses, "has not fulfilled its intention of preventing and combatting illicit drug trafficking and drug use." She added that the country’s "use of the death penalty for drug-related offences does not meet the [international law] threshold of ‘most serious crimes’ … and thus clearly violates international human rights law." And on Sunday, hundreds of people gathered to demonstrate against the resumption of the death penalty in a rare public protest.

Taliban Bans Opium Production, NH House Approves Marijuana Legalization Bill, More... (4/4/22)

Marylanders could get to vote on legalizing marijuana, the Taliban announce an opium ban, and more.

Will these Afghan opium fields become a thing of the past? The Taliban says it is banning opium production. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

Maryland Lawmakers Approve Marijuana Legalization Referendum. The House voted last Friday to approve a measure that would ask state voters to approve marijuana legalization, House Bill 1. The Senate had already passed it, and because it is a constitutional amendment, it does not require approval from Gov. Larry Hogan (R). The House also passed a bill to implement marijuana legalization if voters approve it by a veto-proof majority of 94-39. The constitutional amendment would legalize marijuana in July 2023, and the companion bill would legalize the possession of up to 1.5 ounces.

Missouri House Committee Passes Bill to Legalize Adult-Use Marijuana. A marijuana legalization bill, House Bill 2704, is moving in the House. Last Thursday, the House Public Safety Committee approved it on a 5-4 vote, with some amendments. The bill would legalize marijuana use and possession for people 21 and over and allow for up to 12 plants for personal use. It would also set up a system of taxed and regulated sales, create a path to expungement of past offenses, and bar the use of civil asset forfeiture for marijuana offenses. One amendment, however, is being described as a "poison pill." The bill contained language to create a loan program to support women and minority-owned businesses, but Rep. Nick Schroer (R) included language that revised the equity provisions to specify that only women who are "biologically" female would be eligible for the benefit. This conservative culture war import will make it difficult for some Democrats to support the legislation. The bill now goes to the House Rules Committee.

New Hampshire House Passes Marijuana Legalization Bill. The House last Thursday voted 169-156 to approve House Bill 1598, which would legalize marijuana and have it be sold in up to 10 stores operated by the state Liquor Commission. Earlier this year, the House also approved a bill legalizing the possession of up to three-quarters of an ounce of weed and allowing for home grows of up to six plants, the harvest from which could traded or gifted but not sold. The House has passed legalization bills numerous times in recent years only to see them die in the Senate, which has yet to act on these bills. And even if the Senate were to approve them, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) remains opposed.

International

Taliban Says It is Banning Opium Production. Even as this years poppy harvest gets underway, the Taliban announced on Sunday that it was banning the cultivation of narcotics in the country, including opium. Afghanistan is far and away the world's largest opium producer and has been throughout this century. But no, more, the Taliban says. "As per the decree of the supreme leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, all Afghans are informed that from now on, cultivation of poppy has been strictly prohibited across the country," according to an order from the Taliban's supreme leader Haibatullah Akhundzada. "If anyone violates the decree, the crop will be destroyed immediately and the violator will be treated according to the Sharia law," the order, announced at a news conference by the Ministry of Interior in Kabul, said. The Taliban is seeking formal international recognition in order to undo sanctions that are crippling its economy, and drug control has been a major demand of the international community. Opium production has increased in recent months amidst economic collapse, and enforcement of the ban could prove problematic. 

CO Psilocybin Legalization Initiative Campaign Getting Underway; US, Russia Clash at CND, More... (3/16/22)

Georgia cops will pay for a misbegotten massive pot bust, the US and Russia criticize each other in remarks at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, and more.

Psychedelics

Colorado Activists Finalize Decision on Psychedelic Reform Initiative. New Approach PAC and state-level activists have decided which of four psychedelic reform initiatives they filed will actually be the subject of a 2022 signature gathering campaign. They have requested permission from the state to begin signature gathering for Initiative 58, the Natural Medicine Health Act. The measure would legalize psilocybin, as well as creating "healing centers" where people could use the drug for therapeutic forces. The campaign will need 124,632 valid voter signatures by August 8 to qualify for the November ballot.

Law Enforcement

"Cartersville 64," All Busted for Less Than an Ounce of Weed, Win Settlement with Cops. Police in Cartersville, Georgia, went to a house on a report of gunshots on New Year's Eve 2017, claimed they smelled marijuana, entered the house without consent or a warrant, found less than an ounce of marijuana, then arrested all 64 people in the house, most of them people of color, for marijuana possession because it within "everyone’s reach or control." Prosecutors dropped the charges within days, but that wasn't the end of it. The Southern Center for Human Rights and a local law firm filed a lawsuit over the bust, and it has now been settled. The defendants — the Cartersville Police Department, Bartow County Sheriff’s Office and the Bartow-Cartersville Drug Task Force — will pay $900,000 as part of the settlement.

International

US Uses CND Session to Blast Russia, Reiterate Drug Policy Stance. In remarks delivered Monday by Todd D. Robinson, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs ("drugs and thugs") at the 65th meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, the US criticized Russia over its invasion of Ukraine, as well as reiterating the US position combining public health and law enforcement approaches to the drug issue.

"For decades," said Robinson, "the UN Charter has stood as a bulwark to the worst impulses of empires and autocrats. Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified attack on Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is an attack on Ukraine as a UN Member State, on our Charter, and on the UN itself, including the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Russia’s choice for premeditated war is bringing catastrophic loss of life and human suffering. These actions contravene our commitments to protect the health and welfare of mankind, our single greatest purpose in the CND.

"Here, we speak together against those who believe they can violate the law for their own benefit – criminals, corrupt actors, and drug traffickers. How can we continue to speak against these bad actors when one among us is operating with similar lawlessness? We have lost trust in Russia as a UN Member State and CND member, and we will approach its participation in this and other UN bodies with serious skepticism. We must hold Russia accountable. In so doing though we cannot allow our critical work in the CND to be deterred."

Robinson added that the Biden administration's approach to drug policy "includes a focus on primary prevention, harm reduction, evidence-based treatment, and recovery support, and calls for public-private collaboration to remove barriers to high quality care, reduce stigma, and invest in evidence-based public health and public safety approaches," but added that " public health-focused efforts must also be complemented by effective international cooperation and law enforcement measures to reduce illicit manufacture and trafficking of drugs."

Russia Uses CND to Criticize West for Marijuana Legalization, Afghan Heroin, and Complain of Political Attacks. In remarks delivered Monday by Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Oleg Syromolotov at the 65th meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, Russia criticized its critic for criticizing its invasion of Ukraine and lambasted Western countries that have embraced marijuana legalization.

Referring to criticism from the US, Syromolotov said, "We are bewildered at the insistent attempts of some Member States to politicize the work of the current session. We are adamantly opposed to such black PR campaigns, which are not related to the mandate of the Commission. This approach damages the reputation of this important international body and could erode the trust of the world community in it. Russia is always committed to a constructive, substantive discussion in the Commission."

On marijuana: "It is unfortunate that today we see attempts to shatter this foundation and distort its essence, "said Syromolotov. "Legalization of free distribution of cannabis in such countries as the United States of America and Canada is a matter of serious concern for us. It is worrisome that several Member States of the European Union are currently considering violating their drug control obligations. Such approach is unacceptable. Strict compliance of all State Parties with their obligations under the conventions is the precondition for the smooth functioning of the global drug control regime. Russia is consistently advocating that only those States that are implementing the provisions of the conventions in good faith have the moral right to participate in the activities of the Commission. By applying a different approach, we risk undermining the authority of the Commission which is the policy-making body of the United Nations with prime responsibility for drug control matters."

On Afghanistan, whose opium production supplies a massive wave of heroin addiction in Russia: "Another matter of serious concern to us is the situation in Afghanistan," Syromolotov said. "Freeze on the national financial resources of Afghanistan made illicit opium poppy cultivation and production practically the only viable income source for the population."

RI Drug Decrim Bill Filed, Myanmar Drug Trade Ramping Up Amidst Civil War, More... (3/8/22)

Oklahoma Republicans move to take on what they see as an out of control medical marijuana system, Afghan farmers are planting more opium poppies this year, and more.

Opium production is surging in Afghanistan's poppy heartlands of Helmand and Kandahar. (UNODC)
Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma GOP Lawmakers Move to Rein in "Wild West" Medical Marijuana System. The House's Republican Caucus on Monday rolled out a package of bills aimed at reining in the state's free-wheeling medical marijuana program. The move comes after state agents seized more than 150,000 marijuana plants in a bust last month. "We have seen black market elements competing with legitimate Oklahoma businesses. They are putting our citizens at risk. They're doing things in an illegal, unethical manner," said Rep. Jon Echols (R-Oklahoma City). The package of 12 bills includes full implementation of a seed to sale system, grants to county sheriffs to fund law enforcement, making the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority a stand-alone agency, provisional licensing with pre-licensing inspections, separate licensing for wholesalers, tough electrical and water data reporting by growers, annual inspection, and more. "If you're an illegal operator of the state of Oklahoma, your time is up," warned Rep. Scott Fetgatter (R-District 16).

Drug Policy

Rhode Island Drug Decriminalization, Therapeutic Psilocybin Bills Filed. Lawmakers filed a pair of drug reform bills last week, one of which, House Bill 7896, would decriminalize the possession of up to an ounce of all drugs except fentanyl, while the second bill, House Bill 7715, would allow doctors to prescribe psilocybin and would decriminalize psilocybin and buprenorphine. Buprenorphine is an opioid often used as a harm reduction tool to help people transition away from more addictive compounds. The broader decriminalization bill, would make possession of up to an ounce of any drug other than fentanyl a civil violation punishable by a $100 fine for a first offense and up to $300 for subsequent offenses.

Psychedelics

Missouri GOP Lawmaker Files Therapeutic Psychedelics Bill. State Rep. Tony Lovasco (R) on Tuesday filed House Bill 2850, which would legalize a range of natural psychedelics for therapeutic use and decriminalize small-time possession. Under the bill, patients with specified conditions such as treatment-resistant depression, PTSD, and terminal illnesses access to substances such as psilocybin, DMT, mescaline, and ibogaine at designated care facilities or the patients' or caregiver's residence. Patients would be allowed to possess and use up to four grams of the substances. The bill decriminalizes the possession of less than four grams outside the medical model but makes possession of more than four grams a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail.

International

Afghan Opium Production Surges in Kandahar and Helmand. Opium and other drugs are being sold in open markets, and farmers in the country's opium heartland of southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces are sowing more poppies this year amidst the country's economic collapse after the Taliban's seizure of power last summer and the subsequent withdrawal of all Western assistance to the country. "There is nothing else to cultivate. We were growing wheat before. This year -- we want to cultivate poppy. Previously they were asking for bribes every day but we don't have that problem this year," one farmer said. "If we don't cultivate poppy, we don't get a good return, the wheat doesn't provide a good income," farmer Mohammed Kareem said. "There are no restrictions this year. If the Taliban wanted to ban it, they must let us grow it this year at least," added farmer Peer Mohammad.

Myanmar Militias, Rebel Armies Ramp Up Drug Dealing Amidst Civil War. Armed groups on both sides of Myanmar's civil war are ramping up drug production amidst the turmoil, with much of the methamphetamine and heroin supply going to Asian countries through the porous Laotian border, a UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) official said this week. The $60 billion trade based largely in Shan state is now going into overdrive, he said. "Seizures in Laos and Thailand are off the charts and it is not because of suddenly improved law enforcement -- some other countries' seizures are up too, but in Thailand and Laos the connection to trafficking patterns and locations in Shan is very clear," said Jeremy Douglas, UNODC representative for Southeast Asia and the Pacific.

Drug ODs Top 100,000 in One Year, GOP Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill Filed, More... (11/17/21)

A Czech marijuana magazine editor gets convicted of promoting "toxicomania," the DEA has to return money it stole from Americans in two separate cases, New Yorkers rally for sentencing reform, and more.

Another bumper crop of Afghan opium this year. (UNODC)
Marijuana Policy

GOP House Member Files Federal Marijuana Legalization Bill. Rep. Nancy Mace (R-SC) introduced the States Reform Act, which would legalize marijuana at the federal level. It would do so by removing marijuana from Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act, leaving it up to the states to set their own marijuana policies. The bill would also set a 3 percent federal excise tax and release and expunge the records of those convicted of federal marijuana offenses. Mace said her bill represented a compromise that could gain support from both Republicans and Democrats.

Wisconsin Bipartisan Bill Would Lighten (Most) Marijuana Penalties. Rep. Sylvia Ortiz-Velez (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Shae Sortwell (R-Two Rivers) have filed a bill that would lessen penalties for marijuana possession in most of the state, but increase fines in some of the state's largest cities, including Madison and Milwaukee, where the fine for pot possession is $1 in the former and $0 in the latter. Under current state law, pot possession is punishable by up to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Under the new bill, the maximum penalty would be a $100 fine with no possibility of jail time. Marijuana reforms have so far gone nowhere in the Republican dominated legislature, which has refused to pass even medical marijuana.

Asset Forfeiture

DEA Forced to Return $100,000 Stolen from Two Victims. Twice in the past week, the DEA has been forced to return money it seized from travelers as they tried to board flights at domestic airports. Although it is not illegal to carry large sums of cash, in both cases, the DEA decided the cash had to have been illegally obtained and seized it. In one case, New Orleans resident Kermit Warren had $30,000 he was carrying to buy a tow truck seized by agents in Cincinnati. Only afte Warren's lawyers presented corroborating evidence to prosecutors back down, agree to return his seized money, and dismiss the case "with prejudice," being they cannot go after the money later. In the second case, with the same elements -- a US airport, a domestic flight, the presence of cash, and unsubstantiated claims about drug trafficking -- the DEA seized $69,000 from New York filmmaker Kedding Etienne. But Etienne, too, fought back and prevailed, but only after rejecting an offer to drop the case after the DEA skimmed 10% off the top.

Harm Reduction

US Overdose Deaths Topped 100,000 in One Year, CDC Says. An estimated 100,300 Americans died of drug overdoses in the period from May 2020 to April 2021, the highest one-year death toll ever, according to provisional estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That's a jump of 30 percent over the previous year. Experts point to the prevalence of fentanyl in the unregulated drug supply and the social isolation of the coronavirus pandemic as major drivers of the increasing toll. "This is unacceptable and it requites an unprecedented response," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office). Fentanyl was implicated in nearly two-thirds of overdose deaths, other opioids in about 12 percent, and non-opioid drugs were implicated in about a quarter of the deaths.

Sentencing

New York Activists Rally for Sentencing Reforms. Activists rallied all across the state on Wednesday to demand sentencing reforms under the rubric Communities Not Cages. Arguing that current laws are unfair and disproportionately target communities of color. The campaign is also calling for the passage of a trio of reform bills, the Eliminate Mandatory Minimums Act, the Second Look Act, and the Earned Time Act. The first would eliminate mandatory minimums and the state's three-strikes law, the second would allow imprisoned people to seek resentencing after serving either half of their sentence or 10 years, and the third would increase "good time" laws to allow prisoners to earn more time off their sentences.

International

Afghanistan's Opium Production Continues to Rise, UN Report Says. Even as the country's Western-backed government was crumbling in the face of a Taliban advance this past summer, Afghan opium production was on the increase, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday. The 2021 harvest was some 6,800 tons of opium, up 8 percent over 2020. That generated between $1.8 and $2.7 billion for the Afghan economy, but "much larger sums are accrued along illicit drug supply chains outside Afghanistan," it added. The Taliban has threatened to ban the crop, but faces the reality that opium -- which accounts for 10 percent of the national economy -- is a mainstay for thousands of families. "There is no work, all the families are in debt, and everyone's hope is opium," farmer Mohammad Wali explained.

Czech Marijuana Magazine Editor Convicting of Promoting "Toxicomania." Robert Veverka, the editor of the magazine Legalizace, and the magazine itself have been convicted in a district court in the town of Bruntal of inciting and promoting "toxicomania." Veverka was sentenced to 2 ½ years of probation, with a one-year jail sentence hanging over his head. Judge Marek Stach conceded that the magazine provided comprehensive information and expert opinion, as well as insight into medical marijuana, but ruled that some articles could "incite" readers to acquire the means to grow marijuana themselves.

Chronicle Book Review: The Afghanistan Papers

Chronicle Book Review: The Afghanistan Papers: The Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock (2021, Simon & Schuster, 346 pp., $30 HB)

Well, this is a book that could hardly be more timely. Coming out in the immediate wake of the chaotic debacle that was the final American withdrawal from Afghanistan, The Afghanistan Papers takes advantage of voluminous troves of heretofore unseen accounts of the war to paint an unflattering portrayal of two decades of our seemingly interminable occupation of the country in the name first of fighting Al Qaeda and then of vanquishing the Taliban.

While the book is about the war effort as a whole, for devotees of drug policy, it has two chapters specifically to opium production, its role in the war, and American and allied efforts to suppress it. More on that below.

The author, Craig Whitlock, is an investigative journalist with The Washington Post who spent the last two decades covering the global war on terror and has won prestigious journalistic awards for his efforts. In 2016, he learned of the existence of hundreds of interviews with war participants -- civilian and military alike -- conducted by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) under the rubric Lessons Learned.

For reasons that would become obvious upon their release, SIGAR did not want to release them, but the Post sued under the FOIA Act, eventually prevailing and producing a series of stories based on them in 2019. Here, Whitlock supplements those Lessons Learned interviews with oral history interviews of officials who served at the US embassy in Kabul conducted by the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, interviews with more than 600 Afghanistan war veterans conducted by the Army's Operational Leadership Experience project, as well as hundreds of previously classified memos Pentagon head Donald Rumsfeld drafted between 2001 and 2006.

Woven together in Whitlock's narrative, the interviews and documents present a devastating indictment of American hubris, cluelessness, and fecklessness as general after commanding general came and went, all proclaiming "progress" even as the war effort slipped deeper and deeper into the Afghan morass and the body count -- both allied and Afghan civilians -- grew ever higher.

"We didn't have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking," said Army Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, war czar under Bush and Obama.

"We did not know what we were doing," said Richard Boucher, the Bush administration's top diplomat for South and Central Asia.

"There was no coherent long-term strategy," said British Gen. David Richards, who led US and NATO forces in 2006 and 2007.

Yet officials like these, and many, many more, spent the war years playing up illusory successes, minimizing real defeats, and always proclaiming "progress" was being made. But after about 2005, the only progress really being made was by the Taliban, which had returned from defeat to begin an insurgency that would slowly, year by year, envelop ever more of the country until in August it swept into Kabul and once again took control of the country.

The American project to do nation-building in Afghanistan, always half-baked and half-hearted project failed despite the billions upon billions of dollars poured into the country. Or perhaps because of it. As one interviewee noted, the only thing the US managed to build in Afghanistan was "massive corruption."

Enter the opium economy. Not only were leading members of the American-backed Afghan government stacking up personal fortunes out of the US largesse, they were also deeply implicated in the illicit, but economically dominant, opium economy. Even when the Afghan or Americans developed solid cases of drug trafficking, connections inside the government ensured that traffickers remained protected. The Taliban profited from the trade, but so did everybody else.

And even when the Americans managed to snag one of the traffickers, things tended to go screwy. In 2008, they lured an alleged Afghan trafficker named Haji Juma Khan to Jakarta, where Indonesian authorities extradited him to New York to face trafficking charges brought by a federal grand jury. But when he got to court, his defense attorney mentioned in open court that he was an informant for the CIA and DEA, the judge cut her off and later sealed the legal proceedings. His legal proceedings then vanished into a black hole. He was never convicted of any charges but still spent 10 years in US custody before being released in 2018. That tale ought to raise some Orwellian fears.

Whitlock provides a concise history of our efforts to suppress the opium economy as well as the profound contradiction at the heart of the effort: Any attempt to suppress the opium economy undermined the counterinsurgency project. In other words, you could have your war on terror or you could have your war on drugs, but you couldn't have both.

Not that the US and its allies didn't try. In 2003, the British offered to pay farmers to eradicate their crop in one province, but the farmers just took the money and harvested the crops anyway. In 2006, the Bush administration launched Operation River Dance, siccing tractors and weed whackers on the poppy fields of Helmand province. The tractors broke down, the hand eradicators quit and worked harvesting poppies whey they got better pay, and corrupt local officials ensured that only disfavored farmers got raided. Not only was the operation a flop -- despite the de rigueur press releases announcing "progress" -- it was severely counterproductive to the war effort because it enraged the opium economy-dependent population of the province, already a Taliban hotbed, and turned them decisively against the Americans and their Afghan allies in Kabul.

The Obama administration tried a different tack: Alternative development, along with crackdowns on smuggling and trafficking. That didn't work either; between 2002 and 2017, Afghan acreage devoted to opium production quadrupled, even as the US spent $9 billion to stop it. The Trump administration reverted to Bush-style tactics, although in 2017 instead of going after poor peasants, it unleashed high-tech bombers and fighter aircraft on "heroin laboratories" that turned out to be mostly easily replaceable mud huts. The destruction of those mud huts was yet another sign of "progress" that was soon forgotten.

If the American withdrawal from Afghanistan this fall was a debacle, it has many fathers. Joe Biden just got to clean up the mess left by his predecessors, and as Whitlock makes achingly clear, there is plenty of blame to go around.

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