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Feature: Latest Teen Drug Use Numbers Out -- White House Claims Success, Critics Say Not So Fast

The latest annual Monitoring the Future survey of teen drug use was released Tuesday. It showed a continuing gradual decline in overall teen drug use, thanks largely to reduced marijuana and methamphetamine use rates, but a rebound in ecstasy use and increasing popularity of prescription pain relievers. While the White House and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) lauded the findings as validating their anti-drug strategy, that position had plenty of critics.

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George Bush with drug czar Walters and NIDA chief Nora Volkow
The MTF survey, now in its 33rd year, is conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. It surveys 50,000 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders nationwide.

According to the survey, the proportion of 8th graders using any illicit drug at least once in the past year was 13.2%, down from 14.8% in 2006. Tenth- and 12th-graders reported annual prevalence rates of 28.1% and 35.9%, respectively, both down less than one percentage point from the previous year. Only the reported decrease among 8th-graders was statistically significant.

Among the drugs whose use decreased in the past year were marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamines, Ritalin, and what MTF referred to as "crystal methamphetamine," or smokable meth, or ice. Pot remains the most popular of all illicit drugs, used within the past year by 10% of 8th-graders, 25% of 10th-graders, and 32% of 12th-graders, but its use among 8th-graders declined a statistically significant 1.4% compared to 2006. Tenth-graders showed a tiny decline, while use remained steady among 12th-graders.

According to MTF, amphetamine use peaked in the mid-1990s and has declined steadily ever since, while crystal meth reached its lowest use levels since 1992 this year. Eight percent of seniors reported using amphetamines in 2007, while 1.6% reported using crystal. Ritalin, a prescription amphetamine used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, has seen its use decline gradually since first being measured in 2001. This year, between 2% and 4% of students surveyed reported using it outside medical supervision. Methamphetamine use also continues a slow decline, dropping by about two-thirds in all grades since it was first measured in 1999. Less than 2% of students reported using meth in the past year.

"Because this drug has such great potential for abuse and dependence, we are encouraged to see its popularity wane among teenagers," Johnston said.

But while pot and amphetamine use were down, a number of other drugs held steady, including cocaine, crack cocaine, LSD, other hallucinogens, heroin, other narcotics, Oxycontin specifically, Vicodin specifically, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Fewer than 5% of seniors reported using cocaine or psychedelics, fewer than 2% reported using crack or LSD, and fewer than 1% reported using heroin.

Some 6% of seniors reported using sedatives, and the same number reported using tranquilizers, while 9% reported using narcotics other than heroin. Five percent used Oxycontin, a slight, but statistically insignificant increase since it was first measured in 2002, and 10% of seniors reported using Vicodin. For most of these drugs, use levels are hovering at or near recent peaks.

The one drug showing an increase in use is ecstasy, with 4.5% of seniors reporting using it this year, up from 4.1% last year. But that is still only half the use level reported in 2001, the highest year since reporting started on the drug in 1995.

"These prevalence rates are not very high yet but there is evidence here of this drug beginning to make a comeback," Johnston said. "Young people are coming to see its use as less dangerous than did their predecessors as recently as 2004, and that is a warning signal that the increase in use may continue."

MTF and the Bush administration repeatedly compared this year's figures to those in 1996, when teen drug use was at a recent peak. That made for some impressive claims, such as MTF's that annual prevalence among 8th-graders "was 24% in 1996 but has fallen to 13% by 2007, a drop of nearly half." But the figures are much less impressive when compared to 1991, the first year listed in the MTF survey tables. For all three grades, drug use levels were higher this year than then.

Still, MTF, the president, and his drug czar all saw the glass half full. "The cumulative declines since recent peak levels of drug involvement in the mid-1990s are quite substantial, especially among the youngest students," said University of Michigan Distinguished Research Scientist Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the MTF study.

"The most encouraging statistic relates to the use of methamphetamine, which has plummeted by an impressive 64 percent since 2001," President Bush said. "One exception to this trend is a rise in the abuse of certain prescription painkillers," he added. "This is troubling, and we're going to continue to confront the challenge, and the overall direction is hopeful."

Walters and ONDCP also put the best face possible on the numbers. The agency's web site now boasts a web page touting the findings as vindicating the anti-drug strategy and featuring a series of charts showing drug use declines.

But there were plenty of skeptics. "While it is certainly good news that teen use of illegal drugs appears to be falling, almost this entire decline is because fewer teens are using marijuana," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Teen use of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin has remained steady, and illegal use of many prescription drugs is increasing. The Bush Administration needs to look at the whole picture of students' behaviors and advance pragmatic strategies that hold the health, safety and well being of young people as the bottom line."

While drug use can be problematic, said Piper, responding to it with arrests is not the answer. "Drug abuse and the problems associated with drug addiction can be difficult to recover from but students may never recover from arrest and imprisonment for drug law violations, which generally mean the permanent loss of eligibility for federal student financial aid and serious impediments to employment. The number of people who use illegal drugs fluctuates from year to year, regardless of what the government does. What doesn't change is many Americans' lack of access to effective drug treatment."

The latest numbers reveal "disturbing trends," said the Marijuana Policy Project."This new survey documents the complete, utter failure of current government policies on marijuana," said Aaron Houston, the group's director of government relations, citing higher use levels for most drugs compared to 15 years ago.

Perhaps most disturbing, Houston noted, are misunderstandings regarding the dangers of drugs shown in this survey, particularly among the youngest teens surveyed. For example, 50.2% of 8th-graders saw "great risk" in smoking marijuana occasionally -- more than saw great risk in trying crack or powder cocaine, trying LSD, or in drinking nearly every day. Twelfth graders were more likely to disapprove of occasional marijuana use than of binge drinking (having five or more drinks at one sitting) once or twice every weekend.

"Drug czar John Walters touts minor, short-term improvements, but deliberately ignores the big picture," Houston said. "Over the long haul, teen drug use is up, not down. As a parent, I don't want any kids smoking marijuana. It's truly scary that the White House has convinced millions of teens that drugs that can literally kill them are safer than marijuana. We're pursuing policies whose costs will be paid in lives."

Appalachian State University criminal justice and criminology professor Matthew Robinson, coauthor of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics," a work highly critical of ONDCP's manipulation of data, also had some choice words for the drug czar. "The recent claims by ONDCP with regard to the 2007 MTF study are misleading and do not tell the whole story about youth drug use in America," he said.

"First, ONDCP's online summary of the MTF features a very short-term focus from 2001 to 2007," Robinson noted. "As in its annual strategy reports, ONDCP downplays long-term drug use trends. In fact, the ONDCP website depicts only four figures, all showing declines. ONDCP does acknowledge increases in some drugs (e.g. Oxycontin), but it does not depict these increases in figures. Instead, as in its Strategy reports, ONDCP highlights drugs like meth and steroids," he said.

"Second, some of ONDCP's claims are misleading. For example, it says Ecstasy use is down 54% since 2001, when in reality it is essentially unchanged since 1996. Since Ecstasy use increased from 1998 to 2001, the long term trend is unchanged."

Even ONDCP's own materials show it is failing to accomplish its mission, Robinson noted. "ONDCP offers a slideshow on its website which summarizes some of the main findings from MTF. The slideshow proves that the drug war has not been effective at reducing drug use among young people over the long term. This is important because ONDCP's Performance Measures of Effectiveness demonstrate that ONDCP intends to consistently reduce drug use, something it has simply not done," he pointed out.

And while some drugs, such as LSD and marijuana showed decreases, Robinson said, more potentially harmful drug use is increasing. "The use of prescription drugs is consistently up among 12th-graders since 1991. While other drugs are down (e.g., LSD), this raises the possibility that young people have not stopped using drugs but rather have just switched to drugs that are lying around in their parents' homes. Ironically, these prescription drugs are more addictive and potentially dangerous to young people. "

Robinson also scolded ONDCP for taking credit even for reductions in alcohol and tobacco use, noting that the office claims its fight against illicit drugs causes such decreases. "Of course, ONDCP offers no evidence that reductions in alcohol use and tobacco use among young people have anything to do with the drug war, and that is because they don't have any," Robinson said. "In fact, the most consistent declines in drug use of all drugs depicted in the slideshow are for tobacco, a drug against which we are not waging a war; instead we are using honest educational campaigns combined with efforts to restrict legitimate businesses from selling tobacco products to kids. It is dishonest and wrong for ONDCP to take credit for these declines. "

The bottom line, said Robinson, is that after forty years of modern drug war, illicit drug use trends are virtually unchanged. "Drugs are just as available now as they were in 1992, in spite of increasing spending every year on the supply side portion of the drug war. In other words, this is just further proof that ONDCP is failing to meet its drug war goals of reducing use and availability of drugs," Robinson charged. "The president of the United States says the war on drugs is fought against an 'unrelenting evil that ruins families, endangers neighborhoods, and stalks our children.' If this is true, ONDCP's drug war is failing to keep this evil at bay. In spite of the spin, its own data prove it."

Come back the same time next year for the next episode of "Spinning MTF."

Feature: Higher Education Act Drug Conviction Penalty Repeal Stymied As Democrats Choke -- Again

A step toward victory turned to ashes for the broad coalition pushing for repeal of the Higher Education Act's (HEA) drug provision (also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty") last week as, for the second time this year, key Democratic politicians refused to push it ahead. Now, the only chance to achieve repeal this session will come in conference committee, thanks to a possible tactical error by the bill's author.

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Bobby Scott offers his short-lived HEA amendment this month
Earlier this year, language that would have removed the drug question from the federal financial aid form, but without repealing the underlying law, made it as far as the Senate floor as part of language approved by the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions (HELP) Committee for the years-delayed HEA reauthorization bill. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), however, offered a successful amendment to strip the language, which HELP Chairman Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) as floor manager allowed to go through without a fight. Last week, House Democrats led by Rep. George Miller (D-CA), chair of the House Committee on Education & Labor and a supporter of repeal, declined to hear an amendment to their HEA bill that would have enacted repeal.

The Aid Elimination Penalty bars students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for specified periods of time from their conviction dates. As originally written by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), it punished students for any infraction in their past. But last year, under pressure from a broad range of educational, religious, civil rights, and other groups organized into the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), Souder amended his own law so that it now applies only to offenses committed while a student is in school and receiving aid.

Under the provision, more than 200,000 students have been denied financial aid. An unknown number have been deterred from even applying because they believed -- rightly or often wrongly -- that their drug convictions would bar them from receiving aid.

Instead of going for repeal, as key Democrats had promised, the committee heard and adopted two amendments to the provision by its author, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), which are actually seen by advocates as likely to be positive steps. One would require schools to inform enrolling students in writing about the existence of the penalty. Another would loosen a clause in the law that currently allows students to regain their eligibility for financial aid by completing a drug treatment program, by allowing them to just pass two randomly-scheduled drug tests administered by a treatment program.

The dispute over the Aid Elimination Penalty wasn't limited to Capitol Hill committee hearings. In a move to the blunt the efforts of the penalty's foes, Souder sent out a Dear Colleague letter where he accused the 500 groups that belong to CHEAR of being "drug legalizers," an attack that did not go unnoticed.

"I wanted to make you aware of an important provision in the current law that is facing assault by a small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups," Souder wrote in the November 1 letter. "Before you are bombarded by the talking points of such groups, I wanted to make sure everyone has the facts straight," he wrote.

Taking umbrage at Souder's characterization of their organizations, 16 groups responded with their own letter to Souder, asking him to retract his statement and requesting a meeting with him to explain directly why they oppose his law. "We, the undersigned organizations, would like to assure you that the coalition supporting repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty ranges far beyond 'drug-legalization groups,' said the letter. "Last week, over 160 organizations signed a letter to Education & Labor Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon calling for full repeal, bringing the total number of groups in opposition to the penalty to more than 500. These organizations represent a broad range of interests, including the areas of addiction treatment and recovery, civil rights, college administration and admissions, criminal justice, legal reform and faith leaders. The overwhelming majority of signatories of the letter to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon do not endorse drug legalization. As just a small sampling of such organizations, we, the undersigned, want to make clear that opposition to the [anti-drug provision] is not in any way dependent on support for broad drug legalization."

The signatories to the letter were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Coalition of Essential Schools, College Parents of America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Friends Committee on National Legislation, International Nurses Society on Addictions, the National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, National Education Association, National Women's Health Network, National Youth Rights Association, Therapeutic Communities of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the United Methodist Church-General Board of Church and Society, and the United States Student Association."

Souder didn't respond to that letter, but he did lash out again, this time at the Capitol Hill newspaper The Politico, whose Ryan Grim had been writing about the conflict. In a letter published in the The Politico complaining about the coverage of him calling people drug legalizers, Souder resorted to the very same tactic. "Your readers ought to know that Grim was previously employed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a drug legalization group," Souder wrote. "Grim is hardly an objective reporter." However, he did not contest any of the facts Grim reported. Grim's biography, including his past employment, is available at The Politico's web site.

Souder has clearly shown himself to be a dogged defender of his creation. If only the Democrats had shown the same fortitude in fighting to repeal it, advocates complained. "It's disheartening that a huge chorus of experts in substance abuse and education, as well as tens of thousands of students are calling for repeal, and Congress still hasn't listened," said Tom Angell, director of government relations for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the point groups in the campaign.

Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, was less diplomatic. "By not changing this counterproductive policy, Democrats are saying that tens of thousands of students should be kicked out of college and denied an education," he said. "The American people have moved beyond the drug war hysteria of the 1980s, but many Democrats still don't realize this," said Piper. "They're afraid reforming draconian drug laws will make them look soft on crime, even though polling shows that voters are tired of punitive policies and want change." Democrats had "chickened out," he said.

In the House committee last week, Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) spoke eloquently about the injustice of the HEA drug provision, but then withdrew his amendment to kill it, noting that the Chair was not prepared to hear amendments that would have financial implications.

"Denying students aid for drug-related charges is simply bad policy," said Scott. "It increases long-term costs to society. It unfairly targets poor and minority students -- minority students because they are traditionally profiled for drug offenses, and poor students because those are the ones that need financial aid to attend school. It only does drug offenses. It doesn't do anything against armed robbery, rape or arson. And so it's somewhat bizarre in its application and it creates a double jeopardy for students who have already paid their debt to society."

Scott then asked that a list of the more than 500 organizations supporting repeal be entered into the congressional record, and then he withdrew his motion. "Unfortunately, Mr. Chairman, as you've indicated, you're not considering amendments that would have to be scored financially and because of that, Mr. Chairman, I will withdraw this amendment at the end of the debate, because we do not have an offset."

Then, after Chairman Miller -- to advocates' consternation -- congratulated Souder for his persistence in scaling back the law, Souder introduced the pair of amendments mentioned above. "Without objection, both of these amendments will be accepted," Miller said, accepting them without having written copies before the members. "It's just a testimony to the extent to which we trust Mr. Souder's word here."

While activists are disheartened -- to put it mildly -- by the performance of the Democrats, they still see some faint hope for action later this session, and it could come because Souder, by introducing his amendments, will open the bill to discussion in conference committee. "Souder may have screwed up here," said SSDP's Angell. "Because the House version now has language modifying the penalty, that automatically makes it a topic for the conference committee."

While activists want outright repeal, they are pleased with this year's Souder amendments. "If Congressman Souder keeps working year after year to keep chipping away at his aid elimination penalty, he will end up doing our work for us," said Angell. "We encourage Souder in his continuing effort to scale back his own creation."

Mark Souder Can't Stop Accusing People of Being Drug Legalizers

Remember when Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) went crazy and started accusing all his enemies of being communist spies? I don't because I wasn't alive yet, but I hear it was hilarious. McCarthy was eventually discredited and spent the remainder of his days in a drunken stupor.

Today his spirit lives on in the body of Congressman Mark Souder (R-Ind.), whose virulent compulsion to expose "drug legalizers" is equally troublesome and distracting. I discussed Souder last week, but the story of his festering paranoia just grows more compelling all the time.

As I reported last week, Souder recently attacked a large coalition of mainstream public health, education, legal, and policy organizations because they opposed his law denying financial aid to students with drug convictions. The incident provoked amusement and unfavorable coverage from the Washington press, due to the absurdity of accusing groups like the National Education Association and the United Methodist Church of trying to legalize drugs.

Today, The Politico published the following letter from Souder questioning the integrity of their coverage of the incident:
POLITICO = IDEOLOGICAL PRISM?

Out of fairness, it is incumbent on your newspaper to disclose when a potential conflict of interest occurs with one of your reporters.

IN the Nov. 13 article "Drugs and Money," Ryan Grim stated that the facts in a "Dear Colleague" letter I wrote were incorrect. Your readers ought to know that Grim was previously employed by the Marijuana Policy Project, a drug legalization group. Grim is hardly an objective reporter.

Given his past employment, I fail to see why you would assign him a story on an issue that he had advocated for as recently as 2005.

You newspaper's mission statement includes the following: "There is a difference between voice and advocacy. That's one traditional journalism ideal we fully embrace. There is more need than ever for reporting that presents the news fairly, not through an ideological prism." It's time to ask yourself whether you're meeting that objective.

Rep. Mark E. Souder (R-Ind.)

Editor's note: Politico reporter Ryan Grim's previous work for the Marijuana Policy Project is disclosed in his professional biography at Politico.com.
In short, The Politico published an article about how Mark Souder loves accusing people of supporting drug legalization, so he sent them a letter accusing their staff of supporting drug legalization.

There is just nothing else he could have done to better illustrate the validity of their claim that calling people "drug legalizers" is something he loves to do. Even in a case like this, in which his letter would inevitably be perceived as hilariously ironic, Souder still could not stop himself from writing and sending it.

Even more revealing is the fact that Souder's letter makes no attempt to challenge the facts of the story. It seems that the prior affiliations of The Politico's Ryan Grim are the only noteworthy point Souder could think of in response to story covered in three major Capitol Hill newspapers. So if Souder doesn't dispute the facts of the story, and Ryan Grim's employment history was already detailed on The Politico's website, why did Souder bother writing this letter in the first place?

Easy. Because Mark Souder loves writing letters accusing people of supporting drug legalization.

Full of It: Rep. Mark Souder Souder Gets Called on His Characterization of HEA Reform Supporters

In an effort to build support for retaining his pet project, the Higher Education Act's drug provision, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) sent a Dear Colleague letter around Capitol Hill. In that letter he accused the more than 500 academic, professional, religious, civil rights, addiction and recovery, and other organizations supporting the call to repeal the provision of all being drug legalizers.

While there's nothing wrong with being a "legalizer," the vast majority of those organizations do not fall into that category. Now, Souder is being called on it.

The drug provision, also known as the "Aid Elimination Penalty," denies financial aid for specified periods to students with drug convictions. It originally applied to any drug conviction in the student's past, but with Souder's support -- perhaps in order to save it from a growing chorus of critics -- it was amended last year to apply only to offenses committed while a student enrolled in school.

With consideration of repealing the law pending in the House Education & Labor Committee, Souder sent a "Dear Colleague" letter reading:

"I wanted to make you aware of an important provision in the current law that is facing assault by a small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups," Souder wrote in the November 1 letter. "Before you are bombarded by the talking points of such groups, I wanted to make sure everyone has the facts straight," he wrote.

But some of the groups Souder called drug legalizers wanted to get the facts straight themselves. In their own letter to Souder, 16 of those organizations asked him to retract his statement and requested a meeting to explain to him directly why they oppose his law.

"We, the undersigned organizations, would like to assure you that the coalition supporting repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty ranges far beyond 'drug-legalization groups,' said the letter. "Last week, over 160 organizations signed a letter to Education & Labor Committee Chairman George Miller and Ranking Member Buck McKeon calling for full repeal, bringing the total number of groups in opposition to the penalty to more than 500. These organizations represent a broad range of interests, including the areas of addiction treatment and recovery, civil rights, college administration and admissions, criminal justice, legal reform and faith leaders. The overwhelming majority of signatories of the letter to Chairman Miller and Ranking Member McKeon do not endorse drug legalization. As just a small sampling of such organizations, we, the undersigned, want to make clear that opposition to the [anti-drug provision] is not in any way dependent on support for broad drug legalization."

The signatories to the letter were the American Federation of Teachers, the American Friends Service Committee, the Coalition of Essential Schools, College Parents of America, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the Friends Committee on National Legislation, the International Nurses Society on Addictions, the National Association of Social Workers, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, National Education Association, the National Women's Health Network, the National Youth Rights Association, Therapeutic Communities of America, the Union for Reform Judaism, the United Church of Christ Justice and Witness Ministries, the United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society, and the United States Student Association."

While some signatories and key organizers of the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform might be called "legalizers," as the above list makes clear, you don't have to be a legalizer to understand the counterproductive impact of Souder's law.

News will be posted on DRCNet shortly about the outcome of amendments offered in the Ed/Labor Committee late Wednesday night.

Top Drug War Advocate Publicly Humiliates Himself

On Nov. 1, Congressman Mark Souder (R-Ind.) sent a letter to his colleagues in Congress accusing hundreds of mainstream public health and education organizations of supporting "drug legalization." Now 16 of these organizations are calling on Souder to retract his statement and agree to a sit-down meeting so they can explain what they are actually trying to do. Is Mark Souder insane? Why would he attack mainstream public charities? I'll explain.

In 1998, Mark Souder authored the Aid Elimination Penalty of the Higher Education Act, a law that denies financial aid to students with drug convictions. Since then, a massive coalition of public health, education, legal, and policy organizations has formed to oppose the law. Their arguments include:
1. College education is proven to reduce drug use. Therefore, forcing students out of college obviously and undeniably increases drug use overall.
2. The penalty only affects good students. If you’re getting bad grades you can’t get aid anyway.
3. Students arrested for drugs get punished in court. It’s not like they’re getting away with anything.
4. Taking away opportunities from students sends a message that we don't want them to succeed in life. Students must be encouraged, not pushed down.
5. The penalty disproportionately affects minorities due to disparities in drug arrests and convictions.
6. The penalty only targets low-income students. These are the very people the HEA is supposed to help.
7. Judges already have the authority to revoke financial aid if they think that's a good idea.
Rather than attempting to understand these persuasive arguments, Mark Souder simply attacked and disparaged his critics, calling them a "small but determined coalition of drug-legalization groups." He attempted to mislead his colleagues in Congress about the agenda of his opponents. And he did it because he's embarrassed that so many reputable organizations have condemned his terrible ideas.

It is no surprise that drug reform groups oppose the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty. StoptheDrugWar.org is one of them. But to attribute drug legalization sympathies to groups like the National Education Association and the United Methodist Church just makes Souder look like an idiot. His bizarre attacks have now earned him some unfavorable media attention at The Hill and The Politico. Beyond that, he's alienated all of the top organizations working on education and addiction issues; groups he'll have to work with so long as he continues to saunter around ignorantly fighting the drug problem.

It just tells you everything you need to know about Mark Souder to see him spit on organizations that work to educate America's youth and help people recovering from addiction. And it tells you everything you need to know about the drug war's political leaders that Mark Souder is highly regarded among them.
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What Motivates the Leaders of the Drug War?

Following this week's departure of DEA Administrator Karen Tandy, Pete Guither explores the motivations of the shot-callers in America's brutal war on drugs. Are they serious? Cynical? Smart? Stupid? Insane? Who would want to put their name on something so grotesque, only to walk about each day insisting that it is gorgeous?

Years ago, I interned for Eric Sterling at CJPF and asked him what motivates the proud champions of this great disaster. Eric used to write federal drug laws, and while he did so as an observer rather than a drug warrior, he's been closer to the belly of the beast than most. I don't remember everything he said, but the point that stuck with me was that, as a nation, we've invested so much in the name of destroying drugs.

To wake up and acknowledge this colossal error is to trivialize the incalculable sacrifices we've already made. For all the lies told and lives lost, those responsible have a powerful incentive to maintain that victory awaits atop the hill. This is necessary so they may sleep at night, and also to placate the many Americans who still willfully sacrifice their tax dollars to the war and their neighbors to the gulag.

The actual depth of their convictions notwithstanding, the mighty drug war architects surely feel the pressure of widespread and growing intellectual skepticism that now surrounds them at every turn. For this reason, one can never overstate the extent to which prohibitionist political posturing is now shaped literally by a desire to refute and antagonize their opposition. The more outrageous their positions become, the more evident this is. That is why, when discussing simple commonsense issues like medical marijuana and hemp, the drug warriors are quick to dismiss their critics as instruments and/or representatives of the "pro-drug lobby."

They are driven, at least in part, by pure animosity towards us; a deep-seated compulsion to reject our philosophy. They believe that associating an idea to our movement is inherently derogatory to that idea, thus they brand as "pro-drug" anyone who opposes them, despite the failure of that label to even vaguely describe our agenda. It is enough to make one wonder what sorts of bizarre things they could be cajoled into saying simply by proposing the opposite.

As Pete stresses, we cannot claim to know what goes on between the ears of the bold and brave bureaucrats that give drug war orders from behind their desks in D.C. We can only guess what they are thinking. But the consequences of the choices they make are very real and very hideous to behold.
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Editorial: The Arrogance of Stupidity

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
As regular readers of this column are aware, I'm a legalizer, and I'm sure about it. I am absolutely convinced that on all counts prohibition does far more harm than good, and that the evidence for this is overwhelming.

For example, I consider the effects of sending hundreds of billions of dollars per year into the criminal underground -- only one of prohibition's many adverse consequences -- to be so serious in its impact on crime and violence and corruption as to be unfathomable. I cannot imagine how any realistically conceivable increase in drug use following legalization -- a hypothetical -- could come close in the harm it might cause to rivaling the incredible, well-demonstrated damage done today by just that one aspect of prohibition. Even if prohibition didn't make the drugs more dangerous themselves (which it does), I just couldn't see that happening. Not surprisingly, since I founded an organization devoted to working for legalization.

Still, I'm not so arrogant as to deny the possibility that people who oppose legalization might have legitimate reasons for holding the views that they hold. Not for marijuana -- support for marijuana prohibition is a truly bizarre aspect of our modern society, one that I believe will ultimately be viewed as such. But some of the other drugs that are illegal now do pose serious dangers for some of their users. Not for most of their users, despite popular belief; and the dangers have been greatly increased beyond what they would otherwise be by the conditions that prohibition has created. But there's enough potential danger connected with drugs like cocaine or heroin for the impulse to prohibit them to be understandable -- misjudged, in my opinion, but understandable -- it's not completely strange that many people agree with prohibition of those drugs, even though I think they're quite wrong.

Those of us who see things this way are in pretty good company -- there are legislators, judges, doctors, editorial columnists, former Cabinet members, even some heads of state, counted within our set of strong and fervent allies. In Britain over the past couple of weeks the set has grown larger. Richard Brunstrom, Chief Constable of North Wales, called drug prohibition "immoral" and recommended legalization in a report he submitted to the national "Home Office." His police force has backed him up on it. And this week the former prison chief added his voice to the supportive mix as well.

They are by no means the first Brits to say these things. For example, the current head of the Conservative Party in the UK, David Cameron, is a legalizer, as was the late Mo Mowlam, Britain's "drug czar" equivalent in her time. The UK-based Economist magazine, a widely-read global publication, used to opine for legalization almost non-stop, and still sometimes does so. So to reads the words of Brunstrom's opposition, the country's Association of Chief Police Officers, I have to wonder at the arrogance; ACPO president Ken Jones released a statement calling legalization "arguably a counsel of despair."

Despair? Really? Despite all the extremely smart people in the country who've expressed pro-legalization viewpoints to date, who have explained why they see it making things better, not worse? I completely recognize ACPO's right to take a prohibitionist position, and despite my views I'm not one to say that it automatically makes them unreasonable. But Jones' particular choice of words make me think he is either not familiar with the ins and outs of the issue, nor of the well known support that exists for legalization, or that he is unwilling to acknowledge them.

On this side of the ocean, upstate New York saw some similar illogic emanate from drug warriors in a District Attorney race. After the Democratic candidate, Jonathan Sennett, called for marijuana decriminalization -- not even legalization, just decriminalization, of marijuana no less, he said it's no more dangerous than alcohol or tobacco -- his two opponents attacked him on it. One of them, a former Manhattan prosecutor named Vincent Bradley, actually said it was "inappropriate" for a DA to say that marijuana is no more dangerous than tobacco.

Well actually, if one judges by the mortality data, tobacco is enormously more dangerous than marijuana. Not that tobacco should be illegal either, of course. But the facts about what the two substances do are the facts about them, and acknowledging them is not irresponsible. I've already explained what I think about marijuana prohibition, and there are a number of blue-ribbon commissions whose findings back me up. So I think that Bradley's and Jones' comments are a clear-cut case of the arrogance of stupidity. Not because I disagree with them, but because they have taken their positions so arrogantly in the face of many impressive people who completely disagree with them.

We in the anti-prohibition movement can take a few insults. Indeed, the more of them get thrown our way, the more successful we know we are growing. Don't be too confident, Ken Jones, more Britons have heard of Richard Brunstrom now than have heard of you; and don't be too confident about your drug strategy, Vince Bradley. Our message is getting out, and it beats your message, hands down.

Feature: In Strategy Shift, US Troops to Join Battle Against Opium in Afghanistan

The United States military is melding counterinsurgency with counternarcotics missions in Afghanistan in what officials called "a basic strategy shift" in its Afghan campaign. Up until now, the US military has shied away from anti-drug operations in Afghanistan, leaving them to the DEA, the British, and Afghan authorities in a bid to avoid alienating Afghan peasant populations dependent on the poppy crop for an income.

But with Afghan opium production at an all-time high last year and predicted to go even higher this year -- Afghanistan accounted for 92% of the global opium supply in 2006 and will account for close to 100% this year--despite nearly a billion dollars in US anti-drug aid, officials in Washington have decided after long discussion that the Afghan drug war must be ratcheted up.

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(source: state.gov/p/inl/rls/rpt/90561.htm)
US officials are increasingly concerned about links between drug traffickers, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda militants, especially in southeastern Afghanistan, where both the insurgency and poppy production are most deeply rooted. Some 70 US soldiers, 69 NATO soldiers, and hundreds of Afghan police and soldiers, Taliban fighters, and Afghan civilians have been killed in fighting so far this year, the third year of the Taliban resurgence.

The new policy was announced in a new report US Counternarcotics Strategy for Afghanistan released last week and rolled out at an August 9 State Department briefing by Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP--the drug czar's office) head John Walters and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Thomas Schweich.

"We know that opium, maybe second only to terror, is a huge threat to the future of Afghanistan," said Walters. "The efforts by the Afghan people to build institutions of justice and rule of law are threatened not only by the terror, but the drug forces that are both economic, addictive and, of course, support in some cases terror, not only through money, but through influence and moving people away from the structures of government toward the structures of drug mafias and violence," he said.

The new strategy is a combination of carrots and sticks, heavily weighted toward the sticks. Out of the $700 million budgeted for anti-drug activities this year, only about $120 million to $150 million will go to alternative development, with the remainder dedicated to eradication, interdiction, building up the Afghan criminal justice system, and going after high-level traffickers.

Some $30 million will go to farming communities that agree to give up poppy production, but this is a pittance compared to the $3.1 billion the trade is estimated to be worth, or even the roughly $700 million estimated to end up in the hands of peasant farmers. While most of the incentive money will go to the north, where production is down, the more Taliban-friendly east and southeast will get forced eradication and increased efforts to go after high-level traffickers. Ambassador Schweicher qualified the tougher approach as "substantially harsher discincentives" for those areas. And the US military will be involved.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
"There is a clear and direct link between the illicit opium trade and insurgent groups in Afghanistan," the State Department report said. The Pentagon "will work with DEA" and other agencies "to develop options for a coordinated strategy that integrates and synchronizes counternarcotics operations, particularly interdiction, into the comprehensive security strategy."

What exactly that means remains unclear. At the August 9 briefing, Walters dodged repeated questions about the exact nature of US military involvement. "We expect a more permissive environment for these operations, given the plans and commitments here," Walters said. "Again, what -- your question was what counter-narcotics operations is the military going to do. That's not what this is doing, is saying the military is going to become the eradication force or the interdiction force. What we're going to do is create -- we've now created, we believe, the structures to allow counter-narcotics operations, whether they're arrests of people by Afghans, whether they're interdiction, whether they're eradication to be integrated into the security effort that's going on."

It might work, but there are gigantic obstacles in the way, said Raheem Yaseer of the Center for Afghan Studies at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. Improving the security situation is critical, said Yaseer.

"The bombers and the Talibans are crossing the border from Pakistan with all these weapons and getting across the checkpoints and getting in among the villagers, where they shoot at the allied forces. Then the allies bomb the villages, and that creates a lot of resentment, and the people won't listen to the allies," he said. "The US can track a bullet crossing the border, but they can't find the Talibans," he said, a note of frustration in his voice.

Alternative development could attract peasant farmers if the security situation were stabilized, he said. "It's the bigger warlords and drug lords who are the problem," Yaseer argued. "And yes, there are some high government officials, big shots, involved in drug trafficking, too. All of them have been nourished by this money for years and don't want to see it go away. But ordinary people would be satisfied with a little money because they know growing poppies is condemned by their tradition and religion."

Endemic corruption is another problem. Even anti-drug aid and alternative development assistance is likely to be siphoned off, said Yaseer. "The corruption is very deep, and a lot of money will vanish into people's pockets. You have to watch the people at the top, too, or it won't be effective," he said. "You'll only be spending money uselessly."

Congressional leaders called the new strategy a "welcome recognition" that new initiatives had to be hatched to address the Afghan opium problem, but worried that it wasn't enough. "What the plan lacks is the recognition that Afghanistan is approaching a crisis point, and that immediate action is required to eliminate the threat of drug kingpins and cartels allied with terrorists so we can reverse the country's steady slide into a potential failed narco-state," said House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA) and ranking minority member Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) in a statement responding to the new strategy.

Lantos and Ros-Lehtinen aren't the only members of Congress concerned. Others have called for an entirely different approach. Following the lead of the French defense and drug policy think tank the Senlis Council, which has been calling since 2005 for licensing the poppy crop, Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-MO) has suggested licensing Afghan farmers to grow the crop for legal pain medications, similar to the way the international community diminished the drug trafficking problem in India and Turkey. Senator John Sununu (R-NH) has suggested the US buy opium crops from the farmers and destroy them. Senator Joe Biden (D-DE) has suggested switching the focus away from poor farmers and toward disrupting the cartels that are moving the drugs.

But the drug czar and the State Department explicitly rejected licensing as an impractical "silver bullet" that would not work and have similarly rejected proposals to buy up the crop. And they will definitely be going after poor farmers as well as high-level traffickers.

But more of the same isn't going to do the trick, said the Drug Policy Alliance. "The so-called 'carrot and stick' approach has failed in every country it has been tried in, including our own," said Bill Piper, the group's director of national affairs. "As long as there is a demand for drugs, there will be a supply to meet it. Drug prohibition makes plants more valuable than gold."

More of the same may even make matters worse, Piper argued. "The US is dangerously close to turning Afghanistan into the next Iraq," said Piper. "Forced eradication of opium crops is driving poor Afghans into the hands of our enemies, strengthening the Taliban, and feeding the insurgency there. The war on drugs is undermining the war on terror and pushing Afghanistan to the brink of civil war."

The Bush administration has belatedly figured out it has a very serious problem in Afghanistan. The question now is whether this vigorous new strategy will calm the situation or only inflame it.

What's a gram of cocaine go for where you live?

Drug czar John Walters is making noise this week about how a decline in cocaine availability is causing price increases. Walters always jumps on these price blips to tout the success of US eradication and interdiction policies...then the prices go down again. We will see what happens this time. In the meantime, I wonder what cocaine prices are in your neighborhood. I lived in Austin in the 1980s, and a gram of cocaine (usually obtained from a Nicaraguan college student...go figure) went for between $120 and $150. Just last night I was on the phone with folks in Austin, and they report that a gram can now be had for $40. Gee, maybe it's up from $35 last month; I don't know. But the long-term trend is undeniable: Down in price by about two-thirds since the '80s. What are cocaine prices like in your neighborhood? Historically and currently. Let's get us a little unscientific survey going.
Location: 
United States

Feature: In Spreading Scandal Over White House Political Operations, House Panel Head Accuses Drug Czar's Office of Electioneering

The ever-broadening scandal over White House political operatives' involvement in what are supposed to be non-partisan activities within the federal government engulfed the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office) this week. On Tuesday, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), the powerful chair of the House Operations and Government Reform Committee, accused ONDCP of electioneering on behalf of vulnerable Republican senators and congressmen in the run-up to last November's elections. Waxman is calling for a former high White House staffer to provide a deposition to the committee next week and to be prepared to appear before the committee as early as July 30.

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John Walters -- BUSTED
According to documents made available in a report on the committee web site, former White House Director of Political Affairs Sara Taylor asked drug czar John Walters and his deputies to attend 31 pre-election events at taxpayer expense where ONDCP's drug-fighting mission commingled with the Republican Party's efforts to retain its hold on Congress. In many cases, the trips were combined with grant announcements or other actions designed to benefit the districts of Republican incumbents. In a post-election memo from Taylor to former ONDCP White House liaison Doug Simon, Taylor recounted how ONDCP had managed to make 20 of the "suggested participation" events on the list.

An email from Doug Simon responding to Taylor's post-election memo only added more ammunition for Waxman and other critics of the White House's politicization of federal agencies and activities. In it, Simon summarized a meeting he had with White House political guru Karl Rove.

"I just wanted to give you all a summary of a post November 7th update I received the other night. Presidential personnel pulled together a meeting of all of the Administration's White House Liaisons and the WH Political Affairs office," Simon wrote. "Karl Rove opened the meeting with a thank you for all of the work that went into the surrogate appearances by Cabinet members and for the 72 Hour deployment. He specifically thanked, for going above and beyond the call of duty, the Dept. of Commerce, Transportation, Agriculture, AND the WH Drug Policy Office. This recognition is not something we hear everyday and we should feel confident that our hard work is noticed. All of this is due to our efforts preparing the Director and the Deputies for their trips and events. Director Walters and the Deputies covered thousands of miles to attend numerous official events all across the country. The Director and the Deputies deserve the most recognition because they actually had to give up time with their families for the god awful places we sent them."

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Henry Waxman
In a Tuesday letter to Taylor asking her to voluntarily appear to be deposed on the politicization of what are supposed to be nonpartisan government agencies, Waxman noted that the ONDCP travel schedule hardly appeared to be nonpartisan.

"The list of Republican officials named in your memo reads like a roster of the most vulnerable Republican members of Congress seeking reelection in 2006," Waxman wrote. "Your memo identifies 29 events with 26 Republican office-holders. Assessments by political analyst Charlie Cook in October and November 2006 considered the re-election races of 23 of the 26 candidates identified in your memo as 'competitive;' 15 of the races were listed as 'toss-ups.' Your list included eleven Republican candidates who lost, ten who won their races with less than 53% of the vote, and two who won by fewer than 1100 votes. You included no Democrats or Independents in your memo of suggested travel by the ONDCP Director."

ONDCP has traditionally been a nonpartisan office. A 1994 law bars agency officials from engaging in political activities even on their own time, and certainly on the taxpayers' dime.

In 2003, thanks to a challenge to the drug czar's campaigning against a Nevada ballot initiative by the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP), the US Office of Special Counsel held that the drug czar is subject to the strictures of the Hatch Act, which prohibits partisan politicking by federal government employees. The ruling did little immediate good for MPP -- the special counsel held the ban did not apply to non-partisan initiatives -- but would appear to be applicable in the present instance.

Critics of the politicization of the drug czar's office were shocked, shocked, they tell you. "This is shocking evidence that the Drug Czar, John Walters, and President Bush were scratching each other's backs," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "Walters used taxpayer money to campaign for Republicans, while President Bush ignored the agency's failures and increased funding for programs his own analysts determined were ineffective."

The recently released memos and e-mails are only the latest evidence that ONDCP uses taxpayer money to influence voters. During a 2000 federal lawsuit, evidence surfaced showing that ONDCP created its billion dollar anti-marijuana TV ad campaign to influence voters to reject state medical marijuana ballot measures. The drug czar and his staff are also routinely accused of using taxpayer money to travel to states in order to convince voters and legislators to reject drug policy reform.

"How long will the drug czar use taxpayer money to influence voters before Congress takes action?," asked Piper.

"ONDCP is charged with developing effective strategies to reduce drug abuse and the problems associated with it," said Kris Krane, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP). "Instead, under the leadership of political appointee John P. Walters, ONDCP has illegally wasted time and resources pursuing ideological agendas and partisan politics."

In light of the latest evidence of ONDCP misconduct, SSDP is calling for Walters's resignation. The group has created a sign-on letter to be sent to Walters and his congressional overseers where people who agree that Walters should resign can get their message out.

The Marijuana Policy Project has long complained about ONDCP's interference in state initiative campaigns, and was little surprised by the latest revelations. "These 2006 campaign trips were nothing new," said MPP director of government relations Aaron Houston. "Walters and his deputies have been using tax dollars to interfere in state election campaigns since at least 2002, which is why we filed a Hatch Act complaint that December."

And so there's lots more to find on the ONDCP front, according to Houston, if investigators care to look for it. "John Walters is a serial lawbreaker," he said. "The Oversight and Government Reform Committee is now investigating some particularly blatant violations, but the only reason Walters has been getting away with it for so long is that until now the White House investigated itself."

What a difference a congressional election makes. With Democrats in charge and more than willing to probe the Bush administration's dealings, ONDCP is now squarely in the sights of congressional investigators.

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