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Southwest Asia: Afghanistan #1 in Marijuana Production Now, Not Just Opium

In a report released this week, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) announced that Afghanistan is now the world's largest cannabis producer, surpassing Morocco. Afghanistan is already well entrenched as the world's largest opium poppy producer as well, supplying more than 90% of the illicit global market for opium and heroin.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
In the report, the Afghanistan Cannabis Survey 2009, the UNODC estimated the extent of Afghan cannabis production at between 25,000 and 60,000 acres. While the number of acres under production is lower than in Morocco, the robust yields from Afghan cannabis -- about 90 kilograms of cannabis resin (hashish) per acre versus about 25 kilograms per acre in Morocco -- make Afghanistan the world leader in cannabis production, the UNODC said. Afghanistan is producing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 tons of hash a year, the report estimated.

"This report shows that Afghanistan's drug problem is even more complex than just the opium trade," said Antonio Maria Costa, head of UNODC in the report. "Reducing Afghanistan's cannabis supply should be dealt with more seriously, as part of the national drug control strategy."

Cannabis production is occurring in exactly half of Afghanistan's 34 provinces, the report found. It noted that production was shifting from the north -- the traditional locus of cannabis planting in the country -- to the south and east, the areas where the Taliban insurgency is strongest and the government presence weakest.

As with opium, some of the profits from the hash trade are ending up in the pockets of the Taliban. The insurgents typically siphon off millions of dollars by imposing taxes on farmers and smugglers to ensure safe passage of their goods.

"Like opium, cannabis cultivation, production and trafficking are taxed by those who control the territory, providing an additional source of revenue for insurgents," the report said.

The report estimates annual farm gate income from cannabis at between $39 million and $94 million a year, a fraction of the size of the opium trade, but still not an insignificant sum. Some 40,000 farm families generate income from cannabis growing, including families that are also growing opium. The UNODC said that farmers can earn a net income of $3,300 per year growing cannabis, compared to $2,000 growing opium.

For the UNODC, rising cannabis production should be responded to in the same way the West has responded to Afghan opium production. "As with opium, the bottom line is to improve security and development in drug-producing regions in order to wean farmers off illicit crops and into sustainable, licit livelihoods, and to deny insurgents another source of illicit income," Costa said.

But Afghanistan is arguably the home of cannabis, with strains like "Afghani" still highly valued by connoisseurs. It is difficult to imagine that there will ever be a time when there is no Afghani being grown in Afghanistan.

Feature: Washington Marijuana Legalization Initiative Aims for November Ballot

There is a chance, albeit an outside one, that the entire West Coast could go green in November. Last week we noted that the California tax and regulate initiative had made the ballot, and reported on the Oregon Cannabis Tax Act initiative's ongoing effort to make the ballot. This week, we turn our attention to Washington state, where yet another marijuana legalization initiative campaign is underway.

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Seattle Hempfest, 2009
Sponsored by Seattle Hempfest head Vivian McPeak, marijuana defense attorneys Douglass Hiatt and Jeffrey Steinborn, and journalist-turned-activist Philip Dawdy and organized under the rubric of Sensible Washington, initiative I-1068 would legalize marijuana by removing marijuana offenses from the state's controlled substances act.

As the official ballot summary puts it:

"This measure would remove state civil and criminal penalties for persons eighteen years or older who cultivate, possess, transport, sell, or use marijuana. Marijuana would no longer be defined as a 'controlled substance.' Civil and criminal penalties relating to drug paraphernalia and provisions authorizing seizure or forfeiture of property would not apply to marijuana-related offenses committed by persons eighteen years or older. The measure would retain current restrictions and penalties applicable to persons under eighteen."

"We've had to go this route because the legislature isn't getting the job done," said Dawdy. "We had a decriminalization bill and a tax and regulate bill, and neither one could even get through committee. We've basically hit a brick wall in Olympia, and as activists, we're tired of waiting. The state is spending way too much on arresting, prosecuting, and sometimes jailing people for marijuana crimes. We have 12,000 people arrested for marijuana offenses every year. It's got to stop. If the legislature can't get it done, we have the initiative process."

The initiative campaign needs to gather 241,000 valid signatures by July 2. According to the campaign, they are shooting for 350,000 signatures and are about 20% of the way toward their goal. So far, it's an all-volunteer effort.

"We've been battling the weather, which has been horrible, and that makes it really difficult to work outdoor events," said Dawdy. "You can't gather very many signatures when it's raining. But we are starting to get inundated with signature petitions, and we remain confident we can get enough to make the ballot."

The campaign is finding support in some unusual places, Dawdy said. "The issue is really popular here, and one of our best hits was at a gun show. Libertarians and conservative Democrats go to those things. We're probably going to have a gun show coordinator for western Washington, and try to target those events. And we can use retired police officers instead of stinky hippies."

There are no signs yet of any organized opposition, but Dawdy said that was no surprise. "I would have been surprised if any popped up this early. I wouldn't expect it until we make the ballot, and then there will probably be some law enforcement group showing up to float the gateway theory and all that stuff."

"We're doing this on a shoestring," Dawdy explained. "We're getting online donations, a few in-kind donations, a few thousand-dollar checks, but funding from the national organizations hasn't really gelled yet. But the medical marijuana campaign in 1998 didn't get any big money until May, and they got on the ballot and one. I think we can do the same thing."

Unlike California and, to a lesser degree, Oregon, there is little money to be had from the Washington medical marijuana community, Dawdy said. "It isn't like California here," he said. "There are no $70 eighths, it's very much a nonprofit kind of system. What profits there are are small and underground, and they're underground for a reason."

National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) executive director Allen St. Pierre said that the national NORML board of directors had endorsed the initiative and that local chapters were involved in the effort, but that NORML wouldn't do much more than that until -- and unless -- the initiative makes the ballot, something St. Pierre suggested he doubted would happen.

"I'm very skeptical about their prospects," he said. "These guys said from the beginning they didn't have any money, and no initiatives not funded by billionaires have actually made it, yet they still decided to move forward. I told them NORML can't do much until they get on the ballot -- it's not worth the time and effort to point people towards initiatives that haven't made the ballot."

"We're getting sick and tired of being written off by people 3,000 miles away," retorted Dawdy. "That's just not fair, and it suggests that they don't really know Washington state despite coming out for three days each summer for Hempfest. People here are sick and tired of the situation, and legalization and reform are issues that poll strongly. People back East don't appreciate this and they don't understand this is one of the few issues where you can actually make the ballot with an all-volunteer effort."

That's not the only flak the initiative campaign is getting. One of the leading drug reform groups in the state, the ACLU of Washington has refused to endorse the initiative on the grounds that it does not include a regulatory system for marijuana. In a February statement, the Washington ACLU's lead person on drug policy, Allison Holcomb, laid out its arguments:

"The ACLU supports marijuana legalization and will continue to work toward that goal. However, we will not be supporting I-1068 because it does not provide a responsible regulatory system."

"We believe that full marijuana legalization will be accomplished only through implementation of a controlled regulatory system. Marijuana should be placed under controls that not only remove criminal penalties for adult marijuana use but also address the public's concerns about health and safety. It is unrealistic to regulate it less than tobacco or alcohol."

"We're aware that some believe that I-1068's passage would force the legislature to adopt such regulations in 2011."

"However, the ACLU isn't willing to support an incomplete initiative in hopes that the Legislature will fix it. We believe that when seeking support of such an important and complicated issue, the public should be presented with a carefully considered and well-vetted proposal."

But the initiative campaign argues that Washington's stringent single-issue rule for initiatives blocks it from concocting an elaborate regulatory scheme. Passage of the initiative would force the legislature to then enact regulations, they said.

"All our initiative does is remove criminal penalties for adult use, possession, and cultivation," Dawdy explained. "That will put it back in the hands of the legislature to come up with sensible civil regulations. We would have loved to do regulations in the initiative, but the single issue rule on initiatives in our state is very strict."

The Washington ACLU also argued that support for legalization is less than solid and that a defeat at the polls would be "a significant setback" for the drug reform movement.

And so things stand as April begins. Initiative campaigners have about 90 days to gather the requisite signatures and make the ballot. Maybe then they'll begin to get some respect. And maybe then they can join California, and hopefully, Oregon, in turning the West Coast green.

Public Opinion: Poll Finds Support for Marijuana Legalization Still Rising, Medical Marijuana Overwhelming

A new poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has found that nearly three out of four Americans (73%) support legalizing the medicinal use of marijuana, while fewer than one out of four (23%) oppose it. Support is broad and solid, spanning all major political and demographic groups, and is equally high in states that do and do not already have medical marijuana laws.

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The poll comes with 14 states and the District of Colombia, representing about one-fourth of the US population, already having approved medical marijuana. Several other states, including New York, South Dakota, and Wisconsin could join the list this year, and medical marijuana has been an active issue in another dozen or so state legislatures this year.

The poll identified concerns about medical marijuana. Nearly half (45%) of respondents said they would be "somewhat concerned" or "very concerned" if a medical marijuana dispensary opened in a local retail district, and about the same number (46%) said that allowing medical marijuana made it easier for people to obtain marijuana even if they didn't have a legitimate need. But only 26% said that bothered them. Not surprisingly, opponents of medical marijuana legalization were most likely to cite such concerns.

When it comes to general marijuana legalization, support is much lower than for medical marijuana and is still a minority position. The Pew poll found that 41% or respondents supported legalization, while 52% opposed it. The good news is that figure is the highest since Pew started polling on the question in 1969 and it continues a steady upward climb in the past two decades.

After support for legalization peaked at 30% in 1978, then bottomed out at 16% in 1990, support grew steadily, surpassing the 1978 level in 2000 (31%), and reaching 38% in 2008. It has grown by three percentage points in the last two years. The Pew numbers are similar to a Gallup Survey conducted last October that showed 44% support for legalization.

Unfortunately, the Pew poll does not contain a regional breakdown of support. In California, an initiative has already made the ballot; in Oregon and Washington initiatives are still in the signature-gathering stage.

The polling reveals significant demographic divides. A majority of under-30s (58%) support legalization, while support declining steadily with age. For those 30 to 49, support was at 42%, for 50 to 64, 40%, and for those 65 and older, support dropped dramatically to 22%.

There are differences between the sexes. Men are almost evenly divided on the question (45% yes, 47% no), while 57% of women oppose legalization.

An even higher percentage of Republicans (71%) oppose legalization, while Democrats are evenly divided, and liberal Democrats show majority support (57%) for legalization. Among independents, 49% support legalization. Among both Democrats and independents, support has increased dramatically in the past decade. Ten years ago, only 29% of Democrats and 35% of independents supported legalization.

The poll found that 40% of respondents had tried marijuana, and that people who had tried marijuana were much more likely (64%) to support legalization, than those who had not (25%).

Bottom line: We're not quite there yet nationally, but the trend line points to national majority support for general marijuana legalization within a decade.

Legalization: Drug Czar Avoids Answering Question on Fed Response to California Initiative

Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) head Gil Kerlikowske declined to directly answer a question about how the federal government would respond if California voters passed the Tax, Regulate and Control Cannabis Act, the marijuana legalization initiative sponsored by Oaksterdam entrepreneur Richard Lee. Kerlikowske's no comment came in a Thursday webcast on ABC News' Top Line program.

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Gil Kerlikowske in his Seattle days
Kerlikowske said he wouldn't speculate on how the Obama administration would respond to a legalization victory in November. "Since it hasn't passed -- right now it would be improper to speculate on what the federal government's role is," he said.

The Obama administration has made it clear it would respect the rights of medical marijuana patients and providers in states where it is legal, but it is not at all clear that it would respond in the same way to legalization for personal use.

When prodded, Kerlikowske said the federal government could respond in a variety of ways, including filing lawsuits to litigate differences between state and federal drug laws. "You can envision a lot of different things," he said.

Let's hope that come November, the question is no longer hypothetical and the administration will be forced to grapple with the question of how to deal with Californians having voted to free the weed. Then things could get really interesting.

ASA's roadmap to win

 

ASA will build the federal framework that will bring safe and legal access to all Americans by 2013.

For too long the medical marijuana movement has been forced into a reactionary and defensive position, constantly having to push back against outrageously unjust legislation our movement has been so busy fighting for what we don't want, we lost sight of how to fight for what we need. That ends today.

Our movement has come to a crossroads, for the first time we have a political climate that is ripe for this victory but without your support we'll miss this historic opportunity and will be forced back to treading water, back to spending our time and resources fighting diminutive, petty legislators state-by-state, case-by-case. This is our chance to end all of that; this is our chance to win.

ASA needs to raise $20,000 in April to begin immediate work towards our 2013 goal. The reality is fighting offensively is more expensive than fighting defensively and our adversaries are counting on our inability to raise the money we need to win. We hope you'll prove them wrong.

Think of your contribution today not as a chartable donation but as an investment. When you contribute you're insuring that you will be able to access the medicine you need free of persecution. Your contribution says that you're done living in fear, done just barely pushing back and ready to finish this fight once and for all.

ASA, in partnership with our lobbyists in DC and some of the sharpest legal minds in the country has developed an extensive roadmap to a 2013 victory. Our opposition knows that we're well within the sight of meeting this goal and they have become more strategic and better funded than ever, we must do the same. ASA has created an air-tight strategy; we need you to create the funding.

Over the next four weeks, we'll be unveiling our strategy to win. Each Thursday, for the month of April, you'll receive an e-mail update from us letting you know how close we are to our goal and giving you more information about our strategy and a detailed outline of our work plan. There will be ways to plug-in to the work and we'll look to you for help implementing the plan but today, today we need to raise that $20,000 and we need your contribution to get there. Because as soon as we reach $20,000-we'll begin this necessary and important work and get us one step closer to a 2013 victory. Help us begin that work today!

More than ever, thank you for your support,

Steph Sherer
Executive Director

PS
We're inviting members who contribute today to a special conference call with me, Steph Sherer. I'll outline our strategy to win in 2013 and your questions on the call. 

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Medical Marijuana on South Park Tonight

Oh no, something tells me this is going to boil my blood. Or maybe not. From one episode to the next, South Park either speaks directly to my soul, or makes me wanna puke.

In any case, I'll be tuning in tonight to see where they're going with this:

Feel free to come back and discuss the episode in comments.

Drug Cartels Are Terrified of Marijuana Legalization

The laws against their products just make them rich. The threat of being killed or imprisoned just gives them a rush. Their reputation for ruthlessness just gets them laid. The cartels truly have only one thing to fear and that is the day when their monopoly is destroyed:

Legalizing marijuana wouldn't end the criminal drug trade and its violence. Addicts still would crave heroin, cocaine and other hard narcotics. But decriminalizing [he must mean legalizing] marijuana would be a body blow to drug cartels. Half the annual income for Mexico's violent drug smugglers comes from marijuana, one Mexican official told the Wall Street Journal last year. Imagine how many smugglers and street-corner reefer hustlers would be put out of business. [Chicago Sun-Times]

See, this is the mental exercise everyone needs to perform. If you're undecided about legalization, then try to put the politics aside for a moment and just think for yourself about what legalization would mean for the cartels. They have to lose something don't they? Let's please stop acting like this is an all-or-nothing proposition. If we can take some money from the cartels, that's awesome. We don't have to destroy them to make it worthwhile; we need only save a few lives from the cartels' brutal violence to achieve a massive victory.

Anyone who hates drug cartels owes it to themselves to muster the courage and curiosity to give this a chance.

Illegal Growers Are Terrified of Marijuana Legalization

This fascinating AP story really nails a dimension of the legalization discussion that is rarely understood or acknowledged in the press:

If California legalizes marijuana, they say, it will drive down the price of their crop and damage not just their livelihoods but the entire economy along the state's rugged northern coast.

Local residents are so worried that pot farmers came together with officials in Humboldt County for a standing-room-only meeting Tuesday night where civic leaders, activists and growers brainstormed ideas for dealing with the threat.

Funny how the "threat of legalization" means such different things to different people. If anyone still doesn't understand how legalization will impact the black market, well, try asking the black market what it thinks. These people are freaking out and you really shouldn’t need an advanced degree in economics to understand why that is.

This is the reality that legalization's opponents are incapable of addressing. The marijuana economy already exists and the debate over taxation and regulation is merely a question of how the industry will be structured. This is not a matter of whether or not California should have marijuana. California already has more marijuana than it knows what to do with.

A vote against legalization is a vote for illegal growers and dealers. And they thank you for your support, as always.

Medical Marijuana: New Jersey MS Patient Gets Five Years for Growing His Medicine

New Jersey Multiple Sclerosis patient John Ray Wilson was sentenced last Friday to five years in prison for growing marijuana plants to ease his symptoms. Wilson, whose case we profiled in December, originally faced up to 20 years in prison, but a jury failed to convict him of the most serious charge, maintaining a habitation where marijuana is manufactured. He was convicted of manufacturing marijuana (17 plants) and possession of psychedelic mushrooms.

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courthouse demo supporting John Ray Wilson, 2009
Wilson was convicted in December, before New Jersey recognized medical marijuana. Ironically, it became the 14th state to do so between the time Wilson was convicted and his sentencing. But the new New Jersey law would not have protected Wilson's marijuana growing because it only allows for patients to obtain it at state-monitored dispensaries.

State Superior Court Judge Robert Reed banned any references to Wilson's medical condition during his trial, finding that personal use was not a defense and that New Jersey had no law protecting medical marijuana use. Wilson was ultimately able to make a brief, one-sentence mention of his medical reasons for growing marijuana, but that wasn't enough to sway the jury.

Wilson's attorney, James Wronko, told the Associated Press that the outcome might have been different had the jury been allowed to hear more about his illness. "We're disappointed that he's in state prison for smoking marijuana to treat his multiple sclerosis," Wronko . "I think anytime someone using marijuana for their own medical use goes to state prison, it's clearly a harsh sentence."

Wilson's case became a cause célèbre for regional medical marijuana advocates, and also drew attention from the state legislature. Two state senators, Nicholas Scutari, sponsor of the medical marijuana bill, and Ray Lesniak, called in October for Gov. Jon Corzine (D) to pardon Wilson. But Corzine punted, saying he preferred to wait until after Wilson's trial had finished. Now, Wilson has been sentenced to prison, Corzine's term has ended, and new Republican Gov. Chris Christie is not nearly as medical marijuana-friendly.

Wronko said an appeal of the sentence was in the works.

Canada: Half Support Marijuana Decriminalization, Poll Finds

An EKOS Research Associates poll has found that half of all Canadians support marijuana decriminalization, while only 30% oppose it, with 20% apparently uncertain or without strong views on the matter. That's a 5% increase in support since EKSOS last polled on the issue a decade ago.

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The numbers are lower than those reported in recent Angus Reid polls on marijuana legalization. In those polls, support for legalization was 55% in July 2007, 51% in October 2007, and 53% in May 2008.

A notable aspect of the EKOS poll is the high number of undecideds. While opposition to decriminalization has been declining (down from 37% in 2000), uncertainty has also been increasing, up from 16% in 2000. Optimistically one hopes the new undecideds are former opponents.

Also notable about the EKOS poll is the political context. Canada is six years into Conservative rule, and Prime Minister Stephen Harper last week released a Youtube video in which he said he rejected marijuana legalization.

In the EKOS poll, the Conservatives were the only party with less than majority support for decriminalization at 39%. Some 63% of left-leaning New Democratic Party voters supported decrim, as did 59% of Green Party members, 58% of the Bloc Quebecois, and 53% of the main opposition party, the Liberals.

Regionally, support for decrim was strongest in British Columbia (54%), Ontario (53%), and Quebec (51%). Support was lowest in the prairie provinces of Alberta (45%) and Saskatchewan and Manitoba (45%).

Support for decriminalization was also strong among young people (58% for under-25s), and, while declining with age, was still above 50% for every age group except the over-65s. Among seniors, support declined to only 38%.

Harper and the Conservatives have been pushing a harder line on crime, drug offenses, and marijuana offenses in particular. This poll is only the latest indicator that the Conservative push may not be in line with public opinion.

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