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Feature: ONDCP Kicks Off Annual Summer Marijuana Scare Campaign With Report Linking Drugs to Gangs, Violence

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ONDCP TV ad ''flat''
Drug czar John Walters and his minions at the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) have kicked off the summer season with a report on teens, drugs, gangs, and violence. The report, part of ONDCP's widely criticized National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, links marijuana use to gang membership and links teen drug use to higher rates of violence and other anti-social activities. But the ONDCP report is raising a storm of disapproval from critics who charge it is misleading and intentionally obfuscatory.

"Teens who use drugs are more likely to engage in violent and delinquent behavior and join gangs," the report declared. "Research shows that early use of marijuana -- the most commonly used drug among teens -- is a warning sign for later gang involvement." After next warning that summer is a risky time and that "teens who use drugs are twice as likely to commit violent acts," the report got to a series of bullet points including the following:

  • Teens who use drugs, particularly marijuana, are more likely to steal and experiment with other drugs and alcohol, compared to teens who don't;
  • One in four teens (27%) who used illicit drugs in the past year report attacking others with the intent to harm;
  • Nearly one in six teens (17%) who got into serious fights at school or work in the past year report using drugs;
  • Teens who use marijuana regularly are nine times more likely than teens who don't to experiment with other illicit drugs or alcohol, and five times more likely to steal.

"This is such transparent nonsense that I'm almost speechless," said Bruce Mirken, the usually loquacious communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "Marijuana doesn't cause violence and it doesn't cause criminality. Prohibition, however, does. That's the connection and that's exactly what they don't want to talk about. In that sense, this report is even more egregiously dishonest than most of what ONDCP puts out."

"It is incredibly ironic to see ONDCP simultaneously advancing the idea that marijuana causes laziness, which it has been doing for years, and then turn around and try to tell us that marijuana causes violence," said Scott Morgan, blogger for DRCNet. "It is also pretty shoddy to suggest a link between marijuana and gang membership. To whatever extent marijuana users are likely to join gangs, these relationships are facilitated by drug prohibition, which creates the black market in which these gangs thrive."

"That some kids join gangs has nothing to do with marijuana at all," agreed Mirken. "Our drug laws have handed the marijuana market to the gangs, and the association is a direct result of stupid laws. If we regulated marijuana like alcohol, those associations would disappear overnight."

In fact, the data linking marijuana use to gang membership is quite limited. ONDCP relied on one 2001 study of Seattle students to arrive at the conclusion that the two are linked.

"Walters and Murray seem to have their usual array of components at work here: an ad hominem attack against the 1960s, a bunch of supposedly pro-family pablum, an attack against those who take a different approach, and their typical twisting of data for the uninformed," groaned Allen St. Pierre, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

"What ONDCP is in effect telling us is that its billions of dollars worth of propaganda does not stop young people from using marijuana, and secondly, that a very small percentage of them go on to experiment with other drugs," said St. Pierre.

Pete Guither at the Drug WarRant blog took issue with the claim that drug users were involved in 17% of fights. "It all sounds scary, unless you actually look at it," he wrote. "If you look at the 2007 Monitoring the Future report, you see that the percentages of any teens who used drugs in the past year are: 8th grade (14.8%), 10th grade (28.7%), and 12th grade (36.5%). So to say that 17% of teens who got into serious fights report using drugs is not a particularly alarming thing. In fact, it appears by these numbers that teens who use drugs are actually less likely to get into serious fights."

ONDCP also seems to have trouble with the notion of cause and effect, said MPP's Mirken. "If you look at the studies of kids, the ones who are smoking marijuana or using drugs or alcohol at a young age are the ones that are already having problems, already not doing well in school," said Mirken. "It is not surprising that this troubled group of young people is doing all sorts of bad behaviors, but trying to pin that on marijuana is just absolute nonsense."

The report's release may have more to do with ONDCP worries about budget cuts for programs proven not to be effective, like the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, than with actual cause and effect relationships between youth drug use and anti-social behavior, suggested Tom Angell, government relations director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).

"It would appear that ONDCP has nervously pushed this out because they are terrified that congressional leaders are moving to cut the funding for many of their so-called anti-drug programs," said Angell. "They're grasping at straws, trying to get as much ammo as possible to defend their much-loved big budget items."

"This is just another shock report that ONDCP feels it needs to put out to get any press at all," said St. Pierre. "Everything ONDCP has done for the last five years is about whipping up fear, anxiety, and emotional contagion among parents to try to maintain the status quo and keep some part of the media reporting on this ridiculous report."

Even there, ONDCP had limited success. Aside from reports in several Philadelphia media outlets, where drug czar Walters held a press conference to announce the report, a lone Associated Press story was picked up by 65 media outlets, most of them TV news stations in small to medium markets. Only a handful of print media ran the story, and that includes one outlet in marijuana-phobic Australia and one in Great Britain.

But that won't stop ONDCP from producing more sensational but misleading reports, said NORML's St. Pierre. "We can set our calendars and know that about a week before school starts in the fall, we'll get the next big scare effort from ONDCP," he predicted.

Marijuana Doesn't Cause Gang Membership, But the Drug War Does

ONDCP's effort to link marijuana with violence and gang membership is ironic for another important reason I failed to address in my previous post.

If there is one thing that overwhelmingly creates and sustains gang activity in the U.S. and around the world, it is the massive black market created by drug prohibition. Indeed, so long as recreational drugs are available exclusively from criminals, these organizations will continue to be empowered and sustained.

Interestingly, the study from which ONDCP draws its misleading link between early marijuana use and gang membership notes that it isn't just the use of marijuana, but also the availability of marijuana that indicates a heightened risk of gang activity.

In other words, the neighborhoods which are overrun with black market drug activity inevitably become recruitment camps for young people to become involved in the drug trade. Drug prohibition facilitates youth access to marijuana and other drugs by creating an economy in which they are welcome participants.

The idea that marijuana's pharmacological effects cause violence is patently absurd, but the revelation that many young people in America are sucked into a cycle of violence, drug use, and other crime should come as no surprise to any of us.

ONDCP has often pointed out that young people who reach adulthood without experimenting with drugs are less likely to develop problems with drug abuse. Yet nothing could better facilitate youth access and participation in the drug market than the anarchic system our communities must endure at their continued peril and which ONDCP so vigorously defends.

More than anything else, ONDCP's new report paints a vivid picture of how drug prohibition has failed us at every level, up to and including the corruption of the precious young lives this fraudulent war supposedly protects. If you don't believe me, just pull up a chair, wave your Drug War Flag, and gaze in horror as your worst fears about youth, drugs, and violence are reborn again and again before your eyes.

Location: 
United States

Response from former ONDCP official to my China/death penalty post

On Friday I posted a piece on China's use of the death penalty for drug offenses, criticizing the UN, and secondarily the US, for programs that I believe are inadvertently feeding into this. My criticism of the US related to a drug enforcement cooperation agreement with China that was put in place in 2000 by then-Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) Barry McCaffrey. I got an email over the weekend from Bob Weiner, who served as ONDCP's Director of Public Affairs from 1995-2001, submitting these comments for the blog:
David, Saw your piece… The arrangement with China never was intended to mandate or magnify their death penalty -- they are choosing their own enforcement tools, which as so many human rights abuses in China are excessive. The arrangement—and I was there and organized the news conference with US (including Gen. McCaffrey) and Chinese officials—was simply to get them to agree with us in enforcing international drug laws and treaties. What we saw there, including thousands of people in treatment factories but not getting real treatment, and the unbridled flow of methamphetamine and opium, was unconscionable.
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China

Pot, Aliens, and ONDCP

Seth Stevenson at Slate is in love with the new ONDCP ad in which a pot-smoker's girlfriend dumps him for a non-smoking alien:
Grade: A. This is very possibly the most effective, and least offensive, anti-marijuana campaign ever created. I know that ONDCP, and the Partnership for a Drug Free America, are cautiously thrilled with it. I expect it will be the model for years to come.

I'm not going to beat Stevenson up over this. He shares my belief that these ads shouldn't be offensive, and I agree that this is obviously tame by ONDCP standards. But what on earth does it mean to say that ONDCP is "cautiously thrilled" with this?

When has ONDCP ever been less than thrilled with their advertisements? They've vigorously defended their media campaign throughout its numerous incarnations, never once finding fault, even as a growing mountain of evidence depicts their public outreach efforts as an undeniable failure. Could it be that they were more candid with Seth Stevenson than the U.S. Congress?

Stevenson's analysis is fair enough, at least insofar as this ad is concerned. But, dude, before you go gushing anymore about truth in advertising at ONDCP, you might wanna check out "Stoners in the Mist."

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United States

New ONDCP Video Demonstrates Exactly Why Their Ads Don't Work

"Stoners in the Mist" is a fake documentary from AboveTheInfluence.com in which "Dr. Barnard Puck," clad in safari clothes, observes stoners and performs various experiments on them.

This is worth discussing only because it perfectly illustrates the lack of seriousness that still dominates the marijuana debate. I don’t know how anyone could watch this and conclude that the people who made it are a credible source of information about the effects of marijuana.

Among the highlights:


* A practically comatose stoner fails to notice when a tracking collar is placed around his neck

* Unable to move, two stoners sit on the same couch for 72 hours

* A stoned girl forgets her friend's name and has brownies in her hair

* Despite repeated attempts, a stoner is unable to grasp objects tossed to him at close range

* Categorical statements such as "we have learned through our intensive research that both male and female stoners tend to lack the motivation to maintain proper hygiene" are made.
 

At the risk of increasing their traffic, you have to watch it to appreciate how far-fetched and derogatory this video really is. It reminded me immediately of D.W. Griffith's racist classic The Birth of a Nation, which glorifies the Ku Klux Klan and depicts African Americans as incoherent slobbering rapists.

So yesterday, when an ONDCP staffer called SSDP and basically threatened to increase the childishness of his office's activities, we just laughed because there's really no lower level of discourse available to them. Two weeks ago, I witnessed ONDCP's David Murray indignantly challenge the seriousness of his critics, yet it is Murray himself who lobbies for more funding to produce utterly banal and sophomoric nonsense like "Stoners in the Mist."

So if the Responsible and Serious Youth Advocates at ONDCP can't figure out why they've alienated everyone, let me spell it out: it's because you're having your own made-up conversation about marijuana that no one else can participate in because it is completely fictitious and insane.

No, this is not a video about the effects of marijuana. It is a parting shot from an entrenched clan of spiteful, sniveling spin-doctors who continue to sling mud in desperation even as their puddle dries up.
 

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ONDCP Staffer Makes Threatening Phone Call to SSDP Office

Mere hours after SSDP's Tom Angell posted this amusing letter from ONDCP noting that the agency will respond to his FOIA request in 200 years, ONDCP's Assistant General Counsel Daniel R. Peterson called SSDP's office to voice his objections.

Peterson, the author of this ironic typo, accused Tom of being childish and threatened to respond with similar tactics. Incredulous, Tom replied "so does that mean you guys are going to start mentioning us in your blog?" Peterson declined.

Now I've got to admit to some sympathy for the other side here. This was a simple mistake, the severity of which pales in comparison to numerous things ONDCP does deliberately. Tom has previously humiliated the federal government with FOIA requests, so the idea of scrupulously drafting responses to perceived harassment from him must surely frustrate and distract these busy bureaucrats from their book-cooking.

Unfortunately for ONDCP, the unintentional irony of the error makes for good fun in the blogosphere. Stalling, you see, has become a trademark of the federal drug war; a necessary tactic whenever facts come in conflict with the status quo. We've seen this with regards to ASA's Data Quality Act lawsuit, MAPS's marijuana research lawsuit, sentencing reform, needle exchange and marijuana rescheduling. Heck the entire federal drug war is really just a few agencies constantly stalling in the hopes that we'll eventually stop asking so many questions and learn to live with false promises and fake progress.

So when Daniel Peterson tells SSDP that he'll respond to their FOIA appeal in 200 years, it's a perfect Freudian slip. Once again, ONDCP's most truthful and candid remarks occur entirely by accident.
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United States

Just a typo, presumably...

... or could ONDCP really intend to take two centuries to respond to SSDP's Freedom of Information Act request? You decide.
Location: 
United States

Latin America: Colombia Coca Production Up Again Despite Massive Eradication Efforts

The US government reported Monday that the amount of land under coca cultivation in Colombia had increased for the third straight year. According to the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), cultivation increased 9% last year to some 388,500 acres despite a massive aerial herbicide spraying campaign.

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coca seedlings
While ONDCP did not report on the 2006 figures until Monday, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe announced the findings at the end of a long speech last Friday, in an apparent bid to inoculate both governments from criticism that US drug policy in the region is ineffective and counterproductive. Uribe arrived in Washington Wednesday, primarily to urge the passage of a bilateral trade agreement, but also to press for continued US assistance.

"Yesterday [last Thursday] they told me they were worried about revealing this number because of my upcoming trip to the United States, that the Americans should reveal it," he said. "But that's why I'm revealing it. We're not trying to put makeup on what is a serious matter. We've unleashed a battle with all our will and all our determination," Uribe said. "Could it be we've worked in vain? That all our work hasn't produced the desired results?"

The US has spent more than $5 billion and sprayed more than 2.1 million acres of Colombian farmland since 2000 in a failed effort to eradicate Colombian cocaine production. More precisely, Plan Colombia called for coca production to be halved within five years, but according to the latest estimates, Colombia is producing 27% more coca than in 1999, the year before the plan went into effect. The long-term trends toward decreasing cocaine price and increasing purity also suggest that all the billions have little impact on cocaine availability.

In its Monday press release, ONDCP did its best to spin the disappointing results. "Statistically, there was no change" in coca production, ONDCP claimed two sentences before noting a 33,000-acre increase in the area under cultivation. Coca growers' creative responses to eradication efforts -- moving to smaller plots, moving to areas off limits to the spraying program, rapidly reconstituting sprayed crops -- created "major challenges" for arriving at a reliable estimate, ONDCP explained.

"Rather than weaken farmers' reliance on coca, fumigation serves to reinforce it," said Washington Office on Latin America Senior Associate John Walsh. "To insist at this point that more spraying will somehow deter farmers from replanting is not just unrealistic, it's delusional."

That's a sentiment that is also being heard in the halls of Congress these days. On Tuesday, the House subcommittee that oversees foreign aid proposed major changes in US anti-drug policy in Colombia. Under that proposal, funding to the Colombian military would be cut by $150 million and an additional $100 million would be redirected to boost economic development and boost the judicial system.

If the proposal championed by Rep. Nita Lowey (D-NY) succeeds, the military's share of US assistance would drop from 80% to 55%. But Colombia would still remain the third largest recipient of US foreign aid behind the Middle East and Afghanistan.

"I have long felt that our policies in Colombia were ineffective and misguided," Lowey told the Associated Press Wednesday. "My proposal would realign the funding to more of an even split."

Feature: Fireworks at Book Forum in Washington as "Lies, Damn Lies, and Drug War Statistics" Authors Confront ONDCP Official

(DRCNet continues to offer this book as a membership premium -- read more here.)

The libertarian Cato Institute was the scene of drug policy confrontation last Thursday, as a leading Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) official and two of ONDCP's harshest academic critics traded barbs and flung statistics over ONDCP's goals, whether it achieves them, and how it handles -- or mishandles -- the data.

Dr. David Murray, chief scientist for ONDCP, was on the hot seat as Appalachian State University professors Matthew Robinson (criminal justice) and Renee Scherlen (political science), the authors of "Lies, Damned, Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the Office of National Drug Control Policy," subjected his agency to a sustained attack over what they called the misuse and manipulation of data used to evaluate whether ONDCP is doing its job.

Explaining that he and Scherlen had analyzed consecutive annual National Drug Control Strategies, the document where ONDCP sets its goals and measures its success at attaining them, Robinson went immediately on the offensive. "Our analysis suggests that the drug strategy is not an honest document, but really little more than a political document that does little more than reinforce the dominant ideology of the drug war and maintain the status quo," he said.

He and Scherlen then spent the next 30 or 40 minutes showing just how ONDCP manipulated data, changed goals, conflated statistics, and otherwise jimmied the numbers on drug use, on the cost of the drug war, and on the success of US drug policy in Latin America. "ONDCP shifts targets in its budgets and national strategies, making it impossible to evaluate how well it is meeting its drug war goals," said Robinson. "It focuses on good news such as short term declines and ignores the bad news, it selectively presents statistics favorable to its case, and sometimes makes claims that are just plain false."

"When it comes to statistics, they cook the books," Scherlen summarized.

"This is not Cato's finest hour," retorted Murray, after sitting through the sustained attack. "We've seen an attack on the integrity of me, my boss, and ONDCP. Wow," he exclaimed. "This is a devastating indictment... if it were true, but it's not. Instead, it's a series of confusions, misunderstandings, and ignorance on the part of the researchers, which they project onto us as our perfidy and willful deception."

Murray attacked Robinson and Scherlen for including drug use data from the 1990s and suggested that ONDCP and its current chief, John Walters, should not be blamed for what he described as the failures of the Clinton administration. "It wasn't this administration setting goals and being accountable then. We have seen progress since Walters took over in 2001," he said, citing recent downward trends in youth drug use.

Murray also made the unusual claim that rising emergency room mentions and drug-related deaths are "not current measures of drug use going up or down," but instead reflect decisions years earlier to commence drug use.

He also attacked the notion that ending drug prohibition would reduce harm, saying the idea that drug laws, not drugs, were the problem was "a delusion that grows out of late night dorm room discussions in college." But again, he used some unusual arguments. "Look at Mexico, the death and destruction of the drug trade," he argued, "is it the laws that made this happen or that these substances are profoundly dangerous?" A few breaths later, Murray sneered, "Do you think people wouldn't beat up their wives when they're stoned?" if drugs were legal.

Rhetorical excess aside, Murray also made the strongest prohibitionist argument: "We're saving lives and reducing social pathologies; when we diminish substance abuse, we make a difference. We have to try to reduce supply and demand."

It was a good event, said Timothy Lynch, director of Cato's Criminal Justice Project, who hosted the discussion. "Normally, you get turned down by ONDCP, so we were pleased they decided to send a representative," said Lynch. "This was the first time I've seen this guy. He came in and his presentation started out strong, but as it went on he started turning people off and became condescending and patronizing. I don't think he was winning anyone over to his position."

Listening to the discussion should prove useful for others, too. "This will be a good resource for people preparing for drug czar Walters or Murray coming to their areas," said Lynch. "They can hear the arguments and prepare their rebuttals."

"The authors did a pretty good job outlining a number of problems with how data is presented by ONDCP," said Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "Murray's response was not really very direct, and he engaged in ad hominem attacks. Still, he's a very effective PR person, he has a great voice and good presence, and he sounds very authoritative."

One thing that struck Sterling, he said, was Murray's change of title. "He used to be a senior policy analyst, but now he has the title of chief scientist. That's sounds very credible and authoritative, but for someone who is essentially a spokesperson and propagandist to take that title is a PR move," Sterling said.

"I respect Dr. Murray a lot for coming to these events and putting himself in situation where he is totally outnumbered," said Tom Angell, government relations director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "Of course, I disagree with 99% of what he says, but it's good that he is coming out to talk."

As Mahatma Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win." From Murray's presence and response to the critique, it appears we are now somewhere between stages two and three.

Watch or listen to the forum in the Cato web site archive, here.

(DRCNet continues to offer this book as a membership premium -- read more here.)

ONDCP: We Don't Care What You Dorks on YouTube Think

A Seattle Post-Intelligencer story about political messages on YouTube.com contains this delightful quote from ONDCP:
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said it expects its YouTube messages to be ridiculed, laughed at, remade and spoofed. And they are.

The irony here is that, predictable as it may have been, ONDCP had no clue that this was going to happen. They deliberately generated media coverage of their YouTube page, only to find their videos marred by harsh comments and dismal viewer ratings. ONDCP quickly disabled these options, but the damage was done.

If they had genuinely anticipated this level of hostility from viewers, they would have optimized their page before sending out press releases about it. Because they did not, most ONDCP videos are now permanently stamped with the lowest-possible rating of one star.

This is to say nothing of the countless parodies that are now drowning out ONDCP’s unpopular propaganda. Since YouTube automatically recommends similar videos anytime you watch something, viewers of ONDCP’s materials are unavoidably connected to these abundant counter-messages. It is almost certainly for this reason that ONDCP has not uploaded a single new video since the page was first launched back in September 2006.

In a case like this, the mature decision would be to ignore them. But I find it amusing that even something as perfectly logical as expecting ridicule on YouTube turns out to be a lie when it comes from ONDCP.

Location: 
United States

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