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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.

White House Drug Strategy Embraces Harm Reduction, But Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Strong [FEATURE]

The Biden White House sent its first National Drug Control Strategy to Congress on April 21. It breaks positive new ground by explicitly acknowledging harm reduction measures to prevent overdose and blood-borne diseases among drug users. At at the same time, though, it also relies heavily on the destructive and counterproductive pursuit of failed prohibitionist drug policies -- and funds more law enforcement much more heavily than harm reduction.

The strategy comes out just weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that drug overdose deaths hit an all-time high of 106,000 in the year ending last November. The administration is responding with what it calls a "whole of government" approach to the crisis.

"The strategy focuses on two critical drivers of the epidemic: untreated addiction and drug trafficking," the White House said. "It instructs federal agencies to prioritize actions that will save lives, get people the care they need, go after drug traffickers' profits, and make better use of data to guide all these efforts. Saving lives is our North Star, and the 2022 National Drug Control Strategy calls for immediate actions that will save lives in the short term and outlines long-term solutions to reduce drug use and its associated harms, including overdose."

While the strategy includes long-familiar categories such as drug treatment, prevention, supply reduction, and criminal justice and public safety, it also emphasizes an evidence-based approach, "building a recovery-ready nation," and for the first time, harm reduction.

"The Biden-Harris Administration's efforts focus on meeting people where they are and building trust and engagement with them to provide care and services," the White House said. "Specifically, the strategy calls for greater access to harm reduction interventions including naloxone, drug test strips, and syringe services programs. It directs federal agencies to integrate harm reduction into the US system of care to save lives and increase access to treatment. It also calls for collaboration on harm reduction between public health and public safety officials, and changes in state laws and policies to support the expansion of harm reduction efforts across the country."

The strategy calls for "the coordinated use of federal grant funds for harm reduction," and the administration last year broke new ground with a $30 million grant program for harm reduction providers. But in a sign of continued reliance on traditional law enforcement priorities, the strategy also envisions a $300 million increase for Customs and Border Patrol and another $300 million increase for the DEA. Those figures were released as part of the White House's FY 2023 budget released last month.

"Responding effectively to the illicit production, trafficking, and distribution methods of domestic criminal organizations and Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) is a significant challenge and remains a Biden-Harris Administration priority," the White House said.

That kind of talk suited mainstream Democrats just fine.

"Illicit drugs cause immeasurable pain and loss in our communities. As the Chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, I've pressed for an updated federal plan to tackle them," said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). I've been clear that the plan must include a more coordinated approach to cracking down on drug trafficking and transnational criminal organizations, especially the ways in which they launder and protect their ill-gotten gains using US rule of law and financial networks; and more and better cooperation with our international partners to reduce the supply of precursor chemicals used to manufacture illicit drugs and to levy tougher sanctions against transnational drug syndicates. I'm pleased to see my priorities reflected in this new strategy, and I look forward to working with the Biden administration to deliver on those priorities."

Whitehouse also lauded the strategy's "tearing down barriers to treatment, including expanding access to life-saving naloxone and medication-assisted treatment; improving our data collection systems to better understand the effects of our intervention efforts."

Reform advocates offered praise -- sometimes lukewarm -- for the administration's tentative embrace of harm reduction, but blasted its reliance on tired, failed drug war paradigms.

In its analysis of the strategy, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) called it "a major step forward" and lauded the administration for "focusing on ensuring access to treatment for substance use disorders and highlighting the crucial role of harm reduction services." But WOLA also noted that, "when measured against the scale of the nation's overdose problems and the urgency of the needs, Biden's new plan appears quite timid."

WOLA also warned that the strategy's "positive innovations regarding investment in treatment and harm reduction strategies risk being undermined by a continued commitment to the kinds of policies that have exacerbated the present crisis and that continue to absorb the lion's share of resources, namely, drug criminalization at home and wildly exaggerated expectations for what can be achieved through supply control efforts abroad."

Similarly, the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute called the attention to harm reduction a "positive," but noted steps that it did not take, such as making the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone available over-the-counter and repealing the so-called Crack House Statute that stands in the way of federal approval of safe injection sites.

"On a negative note," Cato observed, "the remainder of the new report calls for doubling down on interdiction, border control, and other law enforcement measures aimed at curtailing the supply of illicit drugs -- as if repeating the same failed strategies of the past half century, only with more gusto, will somehow work."

So there it is: The Biden administration's first crack at a national drug strategy deserves kudos for its embrace of harm reduction and evidence-based approaches, but beyond that, it is pretty much more of the same old same old.

White House Releases 2022 National Drug Control Strategy, NH Marijuana Legalization Bill Nixed, More... (4/21/22)

A pair of companion marijuana legalization initiatives are cleared for singature-gathering in Oklahoma, SAMSHA mantains a firm line on drug testing rules, and more.

A needle exchange. The White House is emphasizing harm reduction measures to take on the overdose crisis. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

New Hampshire Senate Committee Votes to Kill Marijuana Legalization Bill. The Senate Ways and Means Committee voted unanimously Wednesday to kill a bill that would have legalized marijuana and had it sold at state-owned retail outlets, House Bill 1598. The bill could still come up for a Senate floor vote, but the committee vote likely signals the end of the road for this legislative session. The House has repeatedly passed marijuana legalization bills in recent years, only to see them die in the Senate. And even if something were to make it to the desk of Gov. Chris Sununu (R), he remains opposed to legalization. At least one senator indicated he was stuck in a time warp: "Why would we want to join the herd of introducing to our culture legalization of a substance that is unquestionably a gateway drug?" asked Sen. Bob Giuda (R-Warren).

Ohio Lawmakers File Marijuana Legalization Bill That Mirrors Ongoing Legalization Initiative. Two Democratic lawmakers, Reps. Casey Weinstein and Terrance Upchurch, have filed a marijuana legalization bill with the same language as the legalization initiative from the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol (CRMTA). CRMTA's initiative passed an initial signature threshold, starting a process where the legislature has four months to either pass legalization or let it go to the voters in November (provided CRMTA succeeds in another round of signature-gathering), but there is little indication that the Republican-controlled legislature is going to act on it.

Oklahoma Marijuana Legalization Initiatives Okayed for Signature-Gathering. The state Supreme Court has cleared the way for two companion marijuana legalization initiative campaigns to begin signature-gathering. State Question 819 and the companion State Question 818, would amend the state constitution to protect the right of residents age 21 and older to use marijuana. Because they amend the constitution, they face a higher signature-gathering hurdle than State Question 820, which has already been cleared for signature-gathering. It needs about 90,000 signatures within 90 days to qualify for the ballot, while State Questions 819 and 820 will need about 178,000 valid voter signatures.

Drug Policy

Biden Administration Releases 2022 National Drug Control Strategy. The White House released the 2022 National Drug Control StrategyThursday, focusing on treating drug addiction and fighting drug trafficking. The strategy calls for expanded harm reduction interventions, such as drug test strips, needle exchanges, and access to the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. The new strategy is “the first-ever to champion harm reduction to meet people where they are and engage them in care and service,” the White House said. But the strategy also envisions a $300 million increase for Customs and Border Patrol and another $300 million increase for the DEA, maintaining a law enforcement emphasis. Those figures were released as part of the FY 2023 budget released last month.

Drug Testing

SAMSHA Cuts No Slack for Medical Marijuana, Accidental Exposures in Updated Federal Drug Testing Rules. In a pair of notices published in the Federal Register earlier this month, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) published a pair of notices about proposed changes to drug testing policies. One new notice clarifies that having a doctor's recommendation for medical marijuana is not a valid excuse for a positive drug test. The secondnew notice states that passive exposure to secondhand marijuana smoke or accidental ingestion of foods containing marijuana are not a legitimate medical explanation for a positive drug test. These are proposed rules, and  there is a 60-day public comment period on the proposals is open until June 6.

Senate Legal Pot Bill Filing Bumped Back; Cops Begin to Move Away from Prextextual Traffic Stops, More... (4/15/22)

Bad behavior by the dope squad in Springfield, MA, leads to a consent decree with the Justice Department, the Senate pot legalization bill won't be filed this month after all, and more.

No-knock raids come under scrutiny in a new Washington Post report. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Senate Marijuana Legalization Bill Filing Delayed. The Senate marijuana legalization bill championed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR), the Cannabis Administration and Opportunity Act, will not be filed later this month as the trio originally planned, Schumer said Thursday. Instead, he said, the senators are now on track to file the bill before the August recess. The House has already passed its version of a legalization bill, the MORE Act (HR 3617). The House has also repeatedly passed an interim measure aimed at providing access to financial services to state-legal marijuana businesses, the SAFE Act (HR 1996), but Schumer and his allies in the Senate have blocked action on that, saying they want the legalization bill passed first.

Medical Marijuana

Oklahoma Bills to Rein in Medical Marijuana Industry Advance. The Senate Business, Commerce and Tourism Committee advanced a number of bills to regulate the state's booming medical marijuana industry Thursday. House Bill 3813 would give Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority investigators the power to seize illegal medical marijuana products and to make arrests, as well as referring evidence, reports, and charges to law enforcement and prosecutors. It passed 11-0. The panel also passed House Bill 3208, which would enact a two-year moratorium on new medical marijuana business licenses, on a vote of 9-2. House Bill 4055 would require public utilities to provide the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority with reports concerning how much water and electricity a grow facility uses. It passed on a vote of 8-3. House Bill 4411 would remove a limit of two facility inspections a year on medical marijuana operations and require at least one inspection annually. It passed on a vote of 11-0. And House Bill 3971 would let the Oklahoma Medical Marijuana Authority employ "secret shoppers" to verify that retail outlets are complying with laws. It passed 10-1.

Law Enforcement

Some Cops Are Moving Away from Pretextual Traffic Stops. For decades, police have relied on pretextual traffic stops—stopping a driver, frequently a Black driver, for a trivial infraction, such as no license plate light or an expired inspection sticker—as a tool for looking for drug and gun law violations, but the New York Times reports that some departments are now moving from the practice as evidence mounts that they "not only disproportionately snare Black drivers but also do little to combat serious crime or improve public safety, and some escalate into avoidable violence, even killing officers or drivers." The newspaper cited the death in Grand Rapids, Michigan, of Patrick Lyoya, an unarmed 26-year-old Black man who was pulled over for a mismatched license plate and, after a brief struggle, was apparently shot in the head from behind, but he was only the latest of at least 400 unarmed people killed by police in traffic stops in the last five years. Big cities such as Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Seattle have or are enacting policies restricting stops for minor violations, so has the state of Virginia, and smaller cities such as Berkeley, California, Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, and Lansing, Michigan.

No-Knock Raids Increasingly Common, Judges Act as Rubber Stamps. As part of a series of reports on how no-knock search warrants are obtained and executed, the Washington Post finds that "the dangerous police tactic has grown in use as judges routinely authorize requests for the surprise raids with little apparent scrutiny of claims by officers." It cited recent cases of raids turned deadly, including the killing of an unarmed Black man in a West Baton Rouge, Louisiana, motel room in a raid that turned up 22 grams of drugs, the killing of a 63-year-old Black man in his home in a raid that netted nine grams of drugs, and the notorious Houston raid that led to a gun-battle in which two innocent White homeowners were killed. The no-knock warrants are supposed to be carefully evaluated by judges, but “judges generally rely on the word of police officers and rarely question the merits of the requests, offering little resistance when they seek authorization for no-knocks,” a Washington Post investigation has found. The searches, which were meant to be used sparingly, have become commonplace for drug squads and SWAT teams." The Post found that at least 22 people have been killed in no-knock raids since 2015, 13 of whom were Black or Hispanic. In at least five raids, police killed someone who was not their target. There were also at least 24 other searches that ended in killings, but the newspaper was unable to determine what sort of warrant was involved.

Springfield, Massachusetts, Police Agree to Consent Decree Over Out of Control Narcotics Unit. The Justice Department in July2020 issued a report accusing the Springfield police narcotics unit of using excessive violence with impunity, and now, the police and the Justice Department have announced they have agreed on terms for a consent decree enacting a series of policing reforms. "Officers will report all uses of force, including punches and kicks, something which was not previously required in the Springfield Police Department," said Kristen Clarke, assistant attorney general for the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. "In addition, officers have a duty to intervene to prevent excessive force." The decree also calls for the city's new civilian police commission to have a budget and subpoena power. The police department's dope squad was disbanded in 2021 after the criticism, but the consent decree will apply to the entire police force. Police union leaders had no comment.

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.

Colombia After the Peace Accords: A Conversation with Vanda Felbab-Brown [FEATURE]

Four years ago, Colombia's decades-long civil war officially came to an end when the leftist rebels of the FARC signed a peace agreement with then-President Juan Manuel Santos. The accord envisioned the demobilization of the FARC as a military force and the use of alternative development to wean peasant farmers from their coca crops and end the country's reputation as a cocaine capital.

Colombian peasant harvesting the coca crop. (DEA.gov)
Four years on, it is probably unfair to call the peace deal a failure, but it hasn't exactly produced the hoped-for results. President Santos completed his term and was replaced by rightist Ivan Duque, who is much less enthusiastic about the accords and whose administration has lagged at implementing the alternative development provisions of the peace deal.

The FARC did demobilize, but last year, after at least 139 FARC members who had laid down their guns were murdered, dissident FARC leaders announced they were rejoining the path of armed struggle, taking several thousand fighters with them. In taking up arms once again, the FARC dissidents rejoined a vicious, multi-sided fight for control of the cocaine trade that never went away. That fight includes gangs from across the border in Venezuela, rightist paramilitary bandas, two different factions of the leftist National Liberation Army (ELN), the Colombian military, and at least two major Mexican drug cartels, Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation.

Efforts under Duque to cut coca and cocaine production have not worked. With Duque's government only grudgingly supporting crop substitution and rural development programs that are broadly considered more effective, instead promoting forced eradication, Colombian cocaine production hit a record high last year.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration now views Colombia less as a principal ally in the region and more as a chess piece to be used against the Venezuelan regime of Nicholas Maduro. When it comes to the issue of coca and cocaine, the administration has taken a hard line that harkens back to the days of Plan Colombia. This year, Trump has demanded that Columbia resume spraying of coca crops, proposed an assistance package that slashes economic development aid while nearly doubling anti-drug funding, and deployed a US army brigade to Colombia on a drug-fighting mission.

This week, Drug War Chronicle got on the phone with Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow in the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She is the co-director of the Brookings series on opioids: "The Opioid Crisis in America: Domestic and International Dimensions." Previously, she was the co-director of the Brookings project, "Improving Global Drug Policy: Comparative Perspectives Beyond UNGASS 2016," as well as of another Brookings project, "Reconstituting Local Orders." Felbab-Brown is an expert on international and internal conflicts and nontraditional security threats, including insurgency, organized crime, urban violence, and illicit economies. Her fieldwork and research have covered, among others, Afghanistan, South Asia, Burma, Indonesia, the Andean region, Mexico, Morocco, Somalia, and eastern Africa. She is a senior advisor to the congressionally mandated Afghanistan Peace Process Study Group.

Here's what she had to say:

On the disappointing results of the 2016 accord:

"The peace deal was significant, but produced incomplete results," said Felbab-Brown. "One reason is that non-state actors persisted. The other reason is that the Duque government doesn't like that deal, so it has a policy of death by a thousand cuts, doing the minimum necessary to appear to comply with the law produced by the peace deal while really doing very little."

"The deal was extremely optimistic both in process and in implementation," she argued, pointing to the example of Thailand, where some 30,000 acres of opium poppies were being grown in the 1960s and even with a highly sustained commitment from the Thai monarchy, it took 30 years to end the practice.

"That's only one-tenth of the issue Colombia struggles with," she noted. "The idea that peace would eliminate coca production was unrealistic, but it was necessary to sell the peace plan to the public. People thought that if there was coca, the fighting would persist. And the need to sell it to the United Nations meant people had to emphasize it as part of alternative development."

"Development was the right policy stress, but it was unhampered by a realistic assessment of how long it would take, how much coca would persist untampered by a realistic assessment of how long it would take and how much coca would persist. A fundamental difficulty for Colombia, among others, is that the resources of the state to do rural development and create alternative livelihoods are quite limited."

"The notion that everyone would be asked to get rid of their coca to go through the compensation process created the mess we are seeing now," she said. "Even if it was not possible to bring in enough resources to accomplish this at the national level, it was worsened by Duque's dislike of the policy and his slowing down of rural development efforts. But it still wasn't going to happen in three years of payments and then no more coca. They've tried that about 20 times before, and it always crashed. There's no reason to believe this would be any different."

On the Trump administration's Colombia policy:

Brookings scholar Vanda Felbab-Brown (Brookings.edu)
"The Trump administration has been back to the 1980s with a rigid, doctrinaire view centered on supply-side policies," she observed. "That said, it has come up with some surprising mutations that you wouldn't expect from a regular Republican administration, as when in 2017 it threatened to decertify Colombia as not living up to US-imposed drug fighting objectives. Republicans were consternated, and so were the Colombians, who expected that Trump would be close to Duque. Trump likes rightist governments and a heavy military emphasis. The administration has been weak dealing with the opioid crisis at home and focused on heavy eradication in Colombia. And Trump has really degraded Colombia. Previous administrations saw it as a principle ally and partner in South America, but Trump views Colombia principally as a platform against Venezuela."

"Trump has two objectives in Colombia: Venezuela and drugs," Felbab-Brown said. "On the drug side, he wants aerial spraying with US contractors. It depends on the day or the month whether drugs or Venezuela is first on the agenda, but Venezuela tends to dominate."

Whether the Trump administration can bend the Colombian government to a deeper role in its anti-Maduro machinations remains to be seen, but that may be a dead end now, anyway, Felbab-Brown said.

"Coca kind of competes with Trump's focus on Colombia as a source of policies against Venezuela, and while Duque is more forward leading in that regard than former president Santos, he realizes he can't risk war or meltdown in Venezuela," she said. "So they've been trying to satisfy Trump without causing a real blowup without any real strategy. After that Guaido stunt with the food aid, both the US and Colombia have been left without any kind of way forward."

On best policies moving forward:

If she were advising the Colombian and US governments, Felbab-Brown said, she would emphasize consolidating the zonas de futuro, where the Duque government is trying to introduce a government presence in five abandoned regions where armed groups and drug trafficking flourish, making up less than three percent of the national territory, instead of worrying about coca eradication.

The "future zones" are Colombia's bid to exert sovereign control over ungoverned parts of its territory. (fupad.org)
"A key line of effort would be to think through how the zonas could be made viable, how best to maximize the policy engagement in the zonas and how to expand them. A key problem with earlier versions of this strategy is that if you succeed, you end up with patches of government presence unconnected to anything else. They need to be made contiguous and connected," she argued.

"I would not care about eradication that much," Felbab-Brown said. "Although it would be unrealistic for a US administration to say that, it could strongly suggest it is not our metric. While Congress can put on pressure for more eradication, I would try to think about where it doesn't cause too much harm to the objective of stabilization. Much of the thinking in both governments is that eradication enhances stability, but it actually hampers it," she said.

"Instead, think about progress in reducing violence in strategic areas. How can we minimize the presence of the bandas, the Venezuelan groups, the Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation cartels, both of whom are active in Colombia? How can we neuter them or push them out? This is what I would be thinking."

"At a broader strategic level, I would try to persuade Duque to make a much greater effort in rural development and equity, all that. We'll never make Duque into Santos, but perhaps a better version of himself.

On legalization as a solution:

Felbab-Brown was leery of legalization as a solution.

"It's a fantasy in terms of feasibility," she said. "Who is going to legalize cocaine? Not even Switzerland or the Netherlands would go there. And I'm not persuaded it would address the reasons why Colombia is so violent. If you legalized the coca crop, what is the guarantee that these same actors wouldn't be able to get their hands on the coca fields?" she asked.

"There is also a big fallacy in believing that violent actors have control because the commodities are illegal," she argued. "If anything, the conflict isn't just about coca, but timber, gold, and rare minerals -- all legal commodities. These non-state actors are deeply involved in those economies, the dissident groups are interested in the diversification of their portfolios. In Choco, for instance, where there is some of the most intense fighting, some of it is about coca, but more of it is about control of timber and the port. The FARC dissidents, the bandas, the ELN, Sinaloa and Jalisco, they're all there."

"The issue is not fundamentally about whether the commodity is legal or not. Look at the fighting over avocados in Mexico. You can argue for legalizing marijuana or poppies, but legality or illegality is not the crux of the issue. If Mexico wants to legalize poppies, it needs to fix its collapsed law enforcement first."

[Ed: Our organization's view is that global drug prohibition drives up the value and prices for coca and its derivatives, generating tremendous profits for criminal organizations, which get reinvested in other areas of crime and which contribute to their ability to influence political systems. If it would be impossible to secure licit coca grows in Colombia from being taken over by bad actors, another option would be to establish competing operations in other countries with stronger legal systems, providing coca and its derivatives for less than the crime organizations do. We do recognize that transitions between systems have the potential to go wrong, and we don't expect legalization to solve every problem that's become intertwined with prohbition.]

US Deploys Air Force Planes to Curacao in Anti-Drug Effort, Israel Moves Closer to Pot Legalization, More... (6/22/20)

Georgia Senate Democrats have filed a police reform bill that includes marijuana decriminalization, the US is ramping up anti-drug operations near Venezuela, Israel takes a step toward marijuana legalization, and more.

With a Knesset committee vote, Israel takes another step toward marijuana legalization. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Georgia Police Reform Bill Includes Marijuana Decriminalization. Georgia Senate Democrats have filed the Georgia Justice Act, which covers a wide range of issues such as police body cameras, no-knock warrants, racial profiling, demilitarizing law enforcement and cannabis policy reform. It also includes a plank calling for marijuana decriminalization, under which possession of up to a half ounce would be a misdemeanor punishable by only a $300 fine. Under current state law, possession is punishable by up to a year in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Medical Marijuana

Pennsylvania Bill Would Require Police to Prove Actual Impairment Before Charging Medical Marijuana Patients With DUI. A Republican state senator, Camera Bartolotta, has filed a bill aimed at protecting medical marijuana patients from being prosecuted for driving under the influence. The bill does so by exempting patients from the state's DUI law, which requires only the presence of marijuana metabolites to garner a DUI ticket. Instead, police would have to prove that the patient driver is actually impaired.

Foreign Policy

US Air Force Deploying Planes to Curacao in Ramped Up Anti-Drug Operation. The US Southern Command announced last Friday that four US Air Force planes will be deployed to Curacao, a Caribbean island nation just 40 miles off the coast of Venezuela, for counter-narcotics operations. An E-3 Sentry surveillance plane and an E-8C Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System plane, supported by two KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling aircraft, will fly detection and monitoring missions in international airspace, Pentagon officials said. The move is meant to "help U.S. and international law enforcement authorities disrupt and defeat transnational criminal organizations trafficking illegal narcotics in the region," the Southern Command said. The deployment will involve about 200 US personnel at the Cooperative Security Location, a complex used for regional training in counterterrorism and drug interdiction, in Williamstad, Curacao. The move comes several weeks after the Trump administration accused the Venezuelan government of being involved in drug trafficking.

International

Israel Knesset Committee Approves Marijuana Legalization Bills. The Ministerial Committee on Legislation on Sunday approved a pair of marijuana legalization bills that would legalize marijuana possession and consumption by adults 21 and over. This is only the first step on a process in which the bills must be discussed in committee and then approved at least three times by the full Knesset.

Mexican President Says He Ordered Freeing of El Chapo's Son to Prevent Bloodshed. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador acknowledged last Friday that he personally ordered the release of one of imprisoned Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman's sons after he was captured by the military last fall in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa. "I ordered that this operation be stopped and that this presumed criminal be freed," he said, adding that he acted to prevent a slaughter. The capture of Ovidio Guzman Lopez resulted in hours-long gun battles and cartel roadblocks in Culiacan, leaving at least 14 people dead. The violence didn't end until the son was released. “If we hadn’t suspended [the operation] more than 200 innocent people … would have lost their lives,” the president said.

Trump Authorizes Reserves to Fight Cartels, Murder Spike in Ciudad Juarez, More... (5/4/20)

President Trump has authorized the Defense Department to call up military reserves as he ramps up a campaign against the cartels, a Nebraska medical marijuana initiative plans to continue signature-gathering, the legal pot industry is still hiring, and more.

President Trump has authorized calling up 200 military reserves to help in the fight against cartels. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Pot Job Seekers Surge as Sector Is Still Hiring. Laid off workers from the retail and hospitality industries are flocking to the marijuana industry in pursuit of jobs. The marijuana business is one that is still hiring, but the number of jobs available is dwindling. There are layoffs in the industry and some of the positions on offer are only temporary, but at least they're jobs to go after.

Medical Marijuana

Nebraska Medical Marijuana Initiative Campaign Unveils New Signature-Gathering Strategy. Nebraskans for Medical Marijuana, the folks behind the Nebraska Medical Marijuana Initiative, have announced plans to go ahead with signature-gathering despite the coronavirus pandemic once social distancing measures in the state are lifted. The campaign is not going the electronic signature-gathering route but instead is "preparing masks, tables, disposable pens, hand sanitizer to be able to get back out and collect safely in a socially distant way once these direct health measures expire."

Interdiction

Trump Authorizes Pentagon to Activate Reserves for Cartel Fight. President Trump last Thursday issued an executive order authorizing the Defense Department to activate up to 200 additional military personal as part of a recently announced counternarcotics operation in the Caribbean. "Effective today, pursuant to section 12304 of title 10, United States Code, I am authorizing the Secretary of Defense to order units and individual members of the Selected Reserve to active duty to augment active component forces for the effective conduct of 'Enhanced Department of Defense Counternarcotic Operation in the Western Hemisphere,'" he wrote. "This authority is necessary to ensure the Department of Defense can properly conduct operations required to meet our evolving security challenges. As governments and nations focus on the coronavirus, there's a growing threat that cartels, criminals, terrorists, and other malign actors will try to exploit the situation for their own gain. And we must not let that happen," he said.

International

Mexico's Ciudad Juarez Sees Big Spike in Killing Despite Quarantine. Homicides in the metropolis just across the Rio Grande from El Paso have increased 42% since March 1 despite stay-at-home orders issued in early March. The month ended with 174 murders, including victims chopped into pieces, burned to death, hanged from bridges, stuffed into storm drains and gunned down in broad daylight. Police said most of the killings are drug-related and that the March spike may be related to the arrest, jail transfer, and death of gang leaders.

245 Caves Camp Road
Williams, OR 97544
United States

Peru Coca Prices Plunge Amid Pandemic, Louisiana Pot Poll Shows State Not There Yet, More... (4/27/20)

A Navy destroyer on an anti-drug mission is forced to return to port, Peruvian coca growers are taking a financial hit during the pandemic, Montana GOP elected officials are opposing an effort to get electronic signature-gathering for a marijuana legalization campaign, and more.

It's hard times in the coca fields, as pandemic lockdowns bring price plunges. (DEA.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Louisiana Poll Finds State Not There Yet on Marijuana Legalization. A new poll from Louisiana Public Opinion LLC shows that a majority of registered voters still oppose legalization -- but that number has decreased slightly. When respondents were asked if they favored legalization, only 37% said yes, compared to 54% opposed. That's up three points from the same survey conducted three years ago, but still well short of a majority.

Montana Republican State Officials Oppose Electronic Signature Gathering for Initiatives. Replying to a lawsuit from New Approach Montana, the sponsor of a constitutional initiative (Ballot Issue 11) that would set 21 as the legal age when people can use marijuana and a statutory initiative (Ballot Issue 14) that would set up a system of taxed and regulated marijuana commerce, the Republican secretary of state and attorney general officially responded that they oppose the electronic gathering of signatures for initiative campaigns impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. Secretary of State Corey Stapleton, the state's top election official, and the state of Montana, represented by Attorney General Tim Fox, have asked the court to throw out the lawsuits, arguing that the circumstances arise out of a "health emergency," not unfair election laws.

Interdiction

US Naval Destroyer on Counternarcotics Mission Forced to Return to Port After Being Hit by Coronavirus Outbreak. The USS Kidd, a guided missile destroyer doing counternarcotic missions in the eastern Pacific Ocean, has been forced to return to port after at least 18 sailors aboard the ship tested positive for the novel coronavirus. The Navy said the number of those infected with the virus on the vessel was expected to rise. The Kidd is part of the Trump administration's deployment of more warships and aircraft to the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific to fight drug cartels.

International

Peru Sees Big Drop in Black Market Coca Prices as Pandemic Bites into Drug Trade. Prices for coca leaf sold to illicit economy drug gangs have plunged 70% since the country went on lockdown last month, according to a local growers' organization. While the country has a legal coca market, an estimated 90% of the crop is destined for the black market. Now, the growers are calling on the government to buy up excess coca inventory for use in licit coca industries.

Trump's Latest Drug Budget: Pretty Much More of the Same [FEATURE]

The Trump administration rolled out its proposed Fiscal Year (FY) 2021 National Drug Control Budget Tuesday, and it's pretty much more of the same -- $35.7 billion more, to be precise. That's a proposed $94 million increase over what was actually allocated in the current fiscal year.

cocaine seized by US Customs at the Mexican border (dhs.gov)
To be fair, only about half of that money would be destined for the fruitless and endless battle to enforce drug prohibition. The request includes $18.6 billion for prevention and treatment efforts and $17.1 billion for "domestic law enforcement, interdiction, and international drug control efforts," the drug war side of the federal drug budget.

"The FY 2021 budget request sends a strong message that, although we've seen signs of real progress, the Trump administration will not let up in our efforts to save American lives," Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Director Jim Carroll said in a statement accompanying the budget release. "Whether it is going after drug traffickers, getting people struggling with addiction the help they need, or stopping drug misuse before it starts, this budget request ensures our partners will have the resources needed to create safer and healthier communities across the nation."

But big talk notwithstanding, there's not really much of a bump for much-needed treatment. The budget would provide more than $14 billion to the Department of Health and Human Services for drug treatment funding, a 3% increase for the department and a 2.9% increase for treatment funding across the federal government. That includes $3.9 billion in drug treatment funding for the DEA for something outside its purview and for which it has not been previously funded.

There's another $2.135 billion for prevention, which we tend to think of mainly as educational efforts, but which the administration notes includes coercive and punitive "drug-free workplace programs" and "drug testing in various settings, including athletic activities, schools, and the workplace."

Ironically given ONDCP's role in rolling out the drug budget, the budget once again takes aim directly at ONDCP. Since the Bush administration, there have been efforts to eliminate or sideline ONDCP, and the Trump administration is back at it. This budget, if enacted, would slash the drug czar's office funding from the $261 million allocated this year to a measly $4.3 million next year, a whopping 98.4% reduction. Congress has so far always rejected such moves. The major part of that reduction results from the transfer of control over High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) funds from ONDCP to the DEA.

And speaking of the DEA and the prohibition enforcement fraction of the overall drug budget, DEA would see its budget increase to $3.1 billion, an increase of 15.8% over this year. More than half of that increase, though, comes from the transfer of those HIDTA funds from ONDCP.

Overall, domestic drug law enforcement spending would increase to $9.95 billion dollars, a jump of 0.9% over this year. That would include $3.4 billion to pay for housing federal drug war prisoners, $931 million for the US Marshals Service to catch more drug war fugitives, and more than half a billion dollars for the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force program, among other line items.

There's also $3.4 billion for the Department of Homeland Security's Customs and Border Protection to "protect America's land, sea, and air borders from drug trafficking-related security threats." At the same time, though, the budget would reduce the Defense Department's drug interdiction activities -- think Coast Guard ships loaded with seized cocaine -- from $225 million to $109 million, a reduction of more than half.

But there's also international drug enforcement spending, and the Pentagon would get another $200 million for interdiction and counterdrug activities. That would be a dramatic 43% reduction from the $354 million appropriated this year.

The Justice Department, though, would see a 31% increase in its overseas spending, to just over half a billion dollars. The vast bulk of that funding -- $499.7 million -- would be destined for DEA overseas activities.

But the department with the biggest chunk of foreign drug war funding is State, which would see its Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement ("drugs and thugs") funded at $441 million, up 15% over this year. That includes things like trying to suppress the Afghan opium crop or the Colombian coca crop, tasks which have proven remarkably futile.

This is the Trump administration's drug war wish list. It is only a budget proposal and is unlikely to remain unchanged, and with keeping ONDCP active a long-running congressional priority, the radical reduction in its funding is one item that's likely to be amended. Still, the Congress has for years passed largely similar drug budgets, and this one will probably pass, too, without many substantial changes.

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