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Sentencing: House Subcommittee Approves Reducing Federal Crack Cocaine Penalties

An end to the notorious sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine may be in sight. After more than a decade of congressional dawdling since the US Sentencing Commission called for the disparity to be ended because of its racially disproportionate impact, a bill that would do so is finally moving in the Congress.
DEA crack cocaine photo
Under current federal law, it takes 500 grams of powder cocaine to garner a five-year mandatory minimum prison sentence, but only five grams of crack to earn the same time. The 100:1 sentencing disparity has been widely criticized for years, especially because about nine out of 10 federal crack prosecutions are aimed at African-Americans. (Most crack users are white, despite popular belief.)

On Wednesday, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security passed H.R. 3245, the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. They did so unanimously, making the vote a striking moment of bipartisanship on a once controversial issue. The bill removes all references to "cocaine base" -- federalese for crack -- from the US criminal code, effectively treating all forms of cocaine the same for sentencing purposes.

The bill is sponsored by Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) and has 20 cosponsors, including every Democrat on the subcommittee. It now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee, which is headed by Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), also an ardent supporter of ending the sentencing disparity.

Sentencing reform advocates cheered the bill's progress. "I knew it was coming," said Julie Stewart, president of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. " There has been so much attention paid to sentencing policies in the past six months that it was only a matter of time before one of the half-dozen sentencing bills in Congress would start moving. Today it did."

Repealing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity is a much needed step in restoring trust and enacting smarter policies , said Stewart. "If Congress eliminates the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, it would not only restore some faith in the justice system among the communities most affected by the law, it would reduce prison overcrowding and free up funding for more effective rehabilitation efforts. A minimum of $26 million would be saved in the first year of the reforms and nearly $530 million over the next 15 years," she said. "FAMM strongly urges Congress to make the changes retroactive so that people currently serving unjust sentences for crack cocaine can benefit and taxpayers will see even greater savings."

Afghanistan: Coalition Death Toll Mounts as Fight for Opium Center Helmand Province Ratchets Up

US and NATO casualties in Afghanistan jumped sharply this week as some 4,000 US Marines and 650 Afghan army troops poured into Helmand province, Afghanistan's largest producer, which supplies more than half of the world's opium by itself. According to the war monitoring site least 23 US and NATO soldiers were killed in fighting this week, although not all the casualties came from Helmand.
war-torn Afghanistan (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2005)
The pace of casualties this month, with 26 already, is set to easily surpass last year's June toll of 30. Every month this year, the US and NATO death toll has eclipsed last year's figures. The only exception was April, which saw 14 NATO and US deaths in both years.

NATO and US military commanders have warned that this year's offensives against a Taliban insurgency flush with opium and heroin funds would be bloody, and they've been right. So far this year, 179 coalition troops have been killed, a pace that will easily eclipse last year's record 254 coalition deaths. In fact, each year since 2003 has seen a new record number of US and NATO troops killed.

Some 1,224 coalition troops have been killed in Afghanistan since the US invaded in late 2001. The US leads the casualty count with 728 killed, followed by Great Britain with 176, and Canada with 124. Several other NATO countries, including France, Germany, and Spain, have had dozens of troops killed.

As the center of opium production in Afghanistan and a stronghold of the Taliban, Helmand is a key battleground in the Afghan war. Unlike previous years, when the Western presence in Helmand was light and fleeting, this time the Marines are there to stay in a bid to woo the local population, provide security, and allow for the establishment of effective government
Key to winning popular support in Helmand is the new US strategy of ignoring poppy cultivation. Instead of alienating farmers by destroying their crops, the West will concentrate on traffickers and traders linked to the Taliban. It is a smarter strategy than eradication, but whether it is a smart strategy -- whether it will work -- remains to be seen.

Feature: US Gives Up on Eradicating Afghan Opium Poppies, Will Target Traffickers Instead

Thousands of US Marines poured into Afghanistan's southern Helmand province this week to take the battle against the Taliban to the foe's stronghold. But in a startling departure from decades of US anti-drug policy, eradicating Helmand's massive opium poppy crop will not be part of their larger mission.

US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke told members of the G-8 group of industrialized nations Saturday that attempting to quash the opium and heroin trade through eradication was counterproductive and bad policy. Instead, the US would concentrate on alternative development, security, and targeting drug labs and traffickers.
Afghan anti-drug artwork, Nejat Center, Kabul
"Eradication is a waste of money," Holbrooke told the Associated Press during a break in the G-8 foreign ministers meeting on Afghanistan. "The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. It might destroy some acreage, but it didn't reduce the amount of money the Taliban got by one dollar. It just helped the Taliban, so we're going to phase out eradication," he said.

"The farmers are not our enemy; they're just growing a crop to make a living. It's the drug system," Holbrooke continued. "So the US policy was driving people into the hands of the Taliban."

The Taliban insurgents are estimated to earn tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars a year from the opium and heroin trade, which generates multiple streams of income for them. Taliban commanders tax poppy farmers in areas under their control, provide security for drug convoys, and sell opium and heroin through smuggling networks that reach around the globe.

As late as last year, US policymakers supported intensifying eradication efforts, with some even arguing for the aerial spraying of herbicides, as has been done with limited success, but severe political and environmental consequences in Colombia. That notion was opposed by the Afghan government of President Hamid Karzai, as well as by the US's NATO partners, particularly Britain, which supports expanded manual eradication of the poppy fields.

On Sunday, Afghan counternarcotics minister General Khodaidad disputed Holbrooke's claims that eradication was a failure, telling the Canadian Press that Afghanistan had achieved "lots of success" with its anti-drug strategy, which relies heavily on manual eradication of poppy fields. Still, he said he was open to the new American strategy. "Whatever program or strategy would be to the benefit of Afghanistan, we welcome it," Khodaidad said. "We are happy with our policy... so I'm not seeing any pause or what do you call it, deficiency, in our strategy. Our strategy's perfect. Our strategy's good."

Britain and US are at odds over opium field eradication plans. According to the London newspaper The Independent, British officials said Sunday they would continue to fund manual eradication in areas under their control. Those officials downplayed any dispute, however, saying details remained to be worked out.

But eradication has met with extremely limited success. According to the UN Office on Crime and Drugs, eradication peaked in 2003, while the Taliban were in retreat, with more than 51,000 acres destroyed. By 2007, that figure had declined to 47,000 acres, and last year, it was a measly 13,500 acres. Similarly, a survey of villages that had participated in eradication last year found that nearly half of them were growing poppy again this year.

The shift in US policy drew praise from observers across the ideological spectrum. It also aroused speculation that it could be emulated elsewhere, particularly in Latin America.

"The new counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan which scales down eradication and emphasizes rural development and interdiction is exactly right," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a drugs, development, and security expert with the Brookings Institution. "Under the prevailing conditions in Afghanistan, eradication has been not only ineffective; it has been counterproductive because it strengthens the bond between the rural population dependent on the illicit economy and the Taliban. Backing away from counterproductive eradication is not only a right analysis, it is also a courageous break on the part of the Obama administration with decades of failed counternarcotics strategy worldwide that centers on premature and unsustainable eradication," she added.

"This is clearly a positive, pragmatic step," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It seems that the Obama administration is so deeply invested in succeeding in Afghanistan that they're actually willing to pursue a pragmatic drug policy. This is an intelligent move," he added. "It is an implicit recognition that you are not going to eradicate opium production in this world so long as there is a market for it. Given that Afghanistan is the dominant opium producer right now, the pragmatic strategy is to figure out how to manage that production rather than to pursue a politically destructive and ineffective crop eradication strategy."

"This administration is finally showing some pragmatism," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst for the libertarian-leaning Cato Institute. "We are beginning to understand that our policies are affecting the policy outcomes we want. We didn't see this under the previous administration, so this is definitely very promising," she added.

But it doesn't necessarily mean there is light at the end of the tunnel, she was quick to add. "Sadly, this doesn't make me more optimistic about our prospects," she said. "This will win us more hearts and minds on the ground, but it also has to be linked to fewer targeted killings, fewer airstrikes that generate civilian casualties, or any good will is likely to be canceled out," she said.

Similarly, Felbab-Brown cautioned that the Obama administration must be prepared to defend the shift at home. "It is imperative that the administration lay down the political groundwork and inform Congress, the public, and the international community that it is unlikely that the new policy will result in a substantial reduction of cultivation or of the dependence on the illegal economy any time soon since rural development is a long-term process dependent on security," she said. "Setting the right expectations now is necessary so that accomplishments of the new strategy in two or three years are not interpreted as failures since the numbers of hectares cultivated with poppy has not dramatically decreased."

Nadelmann suggested that the new strategy is not likely to significantly impact the drug trade. "With the alternative measures they're proposing, such as the focus on traffickers, there's not much reason to think it will have any significant impact on Afghan opium and heroin exports, but it will enable the US, NATO, and the Afghan government to pursue a more discriminating and productive strategy, at least at the political level," he said.

"The really potentially interesting implication of this is for Latin America," said Nadelmann. "It makes one wonder if the Obama administration might come to realize that the same strategy they are pursuing for opium in Afghanistan makes sense in Latin America for coca cultivation in the Andes."

That may be premature. With analysts predicting no decrease in the poppy crop and little impact on the drug trade, in the medium term, the only political selling point for the move away from eradication will be success in defeating or significantly weakening the Taliban insurgency. That will be a difficult task, one whose success is by no means guaranteed.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Seeds of Terror: How Heroin is Bankrolling the Taliban and Al Qaeda," by Gretchen Peters (2009, Thomas Dunne Press, 300 pp., $25.95 HB)

Gretchen Peters certainly has a sense of timing. She spent the last decade covering Afghanistan and Pakistan, first for the Associated Press and later for ABC News, and managed to bring "Seeds of Terror" to press just as the US and its NATO allies in Afghanistan begin lurching toward a new approach to drug policy there. Just this past weekend, the US announced it was giving up on trying to eradicate its way to victory over the poppy crop, and for the past few weeks, news accounts of US and NATO attacks on traffickers, opium stockpiles, and heroin labs have been coming at a steady, if not escalating, pace.
Afghan opium
Peters' thesis -- that the immensely lucrative opium and heroin trade is funding the Taliban and Al Qaeda to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, which they use to wage their insurgency against the West and allies in Afghanistan -- while portrayed as stunning and shocking, is nothing new to readers of the Chronicle, or anyone else who has been following events in Afghanistan since before the 2001 US invasion.

But where "Seeds of Terror" shines is in its unparalleled detail and depth of knowledge of the drug trade, the Taliban/Al Qaeda insurgency, the Pakistan connection, and the intricate and complicated linkages between the actors. With access to government and security officials from the US, as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan, and through interviews with everyone from simple famers to fighters to opium traders and even some amazingly high-up people in the international heroin trade, Peters is able to navigate and share with readers the murky, ever shifting nature of the beast.

She is especially useful in unraveling the various groupings that are simplistically referred to as "the Taliban." There is no single Taliban, Peters explains; there are rival warlords (Hekmatyar, Haqqani, Mullah Omar) running their drug empires and fighting to drive out the Westerners, their jihadist convictions clouded more each year in a haze of opium smoke and illicit profits. And then there are what are in essence criminal drug trafficking organizations. They, too, will identify themselves as Taliban for pragmatic reasons -- the intimidation factor, mainly -- but have little interest in holy war, except as it provides the chaotic cover for their underground trade.

Actually, as Peters details, the story goes back a generation further, to the last great American intervention into this Fourth World country on the other side of the planet. Then, during the Reagan-era sponsorship of the Afghan mujahedeen fighting to drive out the Soviet Red Army, millions of Afghans fled into refugee camps in Pakistan, and would-be warlords and foreign jihadis (including a young Osama bin Laden), tussled for the billions of dollars coming from Washington and doled out by Pakistani intelligence, or, alternately, from funding sources in Saudi Arabia.

Those warlords turned Pakistan, particularly the refugee-ridden Northwest Frontier territories into a leading opium producer during the 1980s, to ensure sources of funding for their armies, and secondarily, to turn as many Russian soldiers into junkies as they could. The Pakistani drug trafficking networks, including some very highly placed army and other officials, set up then are still the main conduits for the opium and heroin leaving Afghanistan today. Man, talk about your blowback.

Peters has a keen grasp of local affairs, knows how to write, and has constructed a gripping and informative narrative. But, faced with a counterinsurgency effort that has floundered, in good part because of profits from the illicit drug trade keeping the Taliban well-supplied with shiny new weapons, she cannot resist the temptation to try her own hand at recommending more effective policies. Here, unfortunately, she is decidedly conventional and unquestioning of the prohibitionist paradigm.

For example, the proposal floated by The Senlis Council in 2005 to simply buy up the poppy crop and divert it into the legitimate medical market gets remarkably short shrift. Peters devotes a mere paragraph to the plan, dismissing it as not pragmatic -- a position not universally held by experts.

Similarly, her policy prescriptions, while including such progressive developmentalist planks as alternative livelihood programs, strengthening institutions, and opening new markets for new crops, also include a call to "arrest or kill" drug kingpins, heroin lab chemists, and even mid-level traffickers. She also advocates air strikes against smuggling convoys, "smarter" counterinsurgency, and beefed up law enforcement against the "bad guys."

Peters' thinking on drug policy may be decidedly inside the box, but her contribution to our understanding of the complex nexus between the illicit drug trade in Afghanistan, local insurgencies, and global jihadi ambitions is important and chilling. This is the best layperson's guide to that nexus out there.

Drug Raids: Maryland Sheriff Clears Department in SWAT Assault on Mayor's Home -- Mayor Sues Sheriff, Seeks Restrictions on SWAT

The Prince Georges County, Maryland, Sheriff's Department has finished its investigation into a drug raid last summer in which deputies charged into the home of the mayor of Berwyn Heights and killed two family dogs. Not surprisingly, the department cleared itself of any wrongdoing.
PolitickerMD cartoon about the raid on the Calvo home
Equally unsurprisingly, Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo, one of the victims of the raid, disagrees. He said in a Monday press conference he was would file a lawsuit in Prince Georges County Circuit Court against officials in the sheriff's office and police department. Calvo said he will seek to force the county to change its policies for deploying SWAT teams, adding that he believes there are problems with how the force serves search warrants, treats animals, and detains people.

PG Sheriff Michael Jackson doesn't see it that way. The departmental review of the raid was "consistent with what I've felt all along: My deputies did their job to the fullest extent of their abilities," he said at a news conference last Friday as he announced the whitewash.

The raid drew national attention when SWAT team members tracking a package of marijuana delivered to the Calvo home without the residents' knowledge burst into the house, shot and killed the family's two Labrador retrievers, and detained Calvo and his mother-in-law for several hours. One dog was shot four times by the front door. The other was shot twice as it ran from officers. The sheriff's office later admitted that the Calvos had nothing to do with the drug delivery, which was a ruse by traffickers to avoid shipping to their own locations (and avoiding SWAT raids like the one the Calvos endured).

"I'm sorry for the loss of their family pets," Jackson said. "But this is the unfortunate result of the scourge of drugs in our community. Lost in this whole incident was the criminal element... In the sense that we kept these drugs from reaching our streets, this operation was a success."

Again, Calvo disagreed. "It's outrageous," he said. "Not only is he not admitting any wrongdoing, but he's saying this went down the way it was supposed to and he's actually commending his police officers for what they did."

The botched raid has already led to a new Maryland law imposing strict reporting requirements on SWAT teams. Now, given the instransigence of the sheriff's office, it may result in even more changes in gung-ho policing, at least in Prince Georges County.

[Ed: Sheriff Jackson was not entirely straightforward with the public during his press conference last week. First, when he said they were successful in the sense that they "kept these drugs from reaching our streets," that was flat out not true. The package was intercepted by police in Arizona. It was disguised members of Sheriff Jackson's force who delivered the package to the home, before they staked it out waiting for someone to come back and bring it inside. Maybe they just couldn't think of any of the obvious alternatives to doing a SWAT raid in this situation, but Sheriff Jackson at a minimum should be able to distinguish between his police officers and the drug agents in Arizona -- not the same people.

Secondly, Jackson claimed that they were justified in storming the home, rather than doing a standard knock and announce, because Mayor Calvo's mother-in-law had seen them and screamed -- the officers were "compromised," he said, because their presence was already known to the people inside the house. But that makes no sense at all, because knock and announce raids inform the people inside that the police are calling, by definition. By Jackson's line of reasoning, any knock and announce raid automatically compromises the police officers carrying it out -- but knock and announce is the standard way of serving a warrant.

No doubt Jackson's lies and distortions will come back to haunt him in court as the mayor's lawsuit moves forward. -DB]

Feature: America's War in Afghanistan Becomes America's Drug War in Afghanistan

As summer arrives in Afghanistan, it's not just the temperature that is heating up. Nearly 20,000 additional US troops are joining American and NATO forces on the ground, bringing foreign troop totals to nearly 90,000, and an insurgency grown wealthy off the opium and heroin trade is engaging them with dozens of attacks a day across the country. But this year, something different is going on: For the first time, the West is taking direct aim at the drug trafficking networks that deliver hundreds of millions of dollars a year to the insurgents.
the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Last week, hundreds of British and Afghan troops backed by US and Canadian helicopters and US jets engaged in a series of raids in southern Helmand province, the country's largest opium producing and heroin refining region, seizing 5,500 kilograms of opium paste, 220 kilos of morphine, more than 100 kilos of heroin, and 148 kilos of hashish. They also uncovered and destroyed heroin labs and weapons caches, fending off Taliban machine gun and rocket-propelled grenade attacks as they did so.

"This has been an important operation against the illegal narcotics industry and represents a significant setback for the insurgency in Helmand Province," said Lt. Col. Stephen Cartwright, commanding officer of some of the British troops. "The link between the insurgents and the narcotics industry is proven as militants use the money derived from the drug trade as a principle source of funding to arm themselves with weapons and conduct their campaign of intimidation and violence. By destroying this opium and the drug making facilities we are directly target their fighting capability. The operation has been well received by the Afghan people."

It wasn't the first Western attack on the Afghan drug trade this year, and it certainly won't be the last. Operating since last fall on new marching orders, Western troops and their Afghan allies are for the first time engaging in serious drug war as part of their seemingly endless counterinsurgency. And they are drawing a sharp response from the Taliban, which must be seen not so much as a monolithic Islamic fundamentalist movement, but as an ever-shifting amalgam of jihadis, home-grown and foreign, competing warlords, including the titular head of the movement, Mullah Omar, disenchanted tribesmen, and purely criminal drug trafficking organizations collectively called "the Taliban."

So far this year, 142 NATO and US troops have been killed in the fighting, putting 2009 on a pace to be the bloodiest year yet for the West in the now nearly eight-year-old invasion, occupation, and counterinsurgency aimed at uprooting the Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies. Also dead are hundreds, if not more, Taliban fighters, and an unknown number of Afghan civilians, victims of Western air strikes, twitchy trigger fingers, and unending Taliban attacks on security forces and public places.

There will be "tough fighting" this summer and beyond in Afghanistan, top US commander Gen. David Petraeus said Wednesday in remarks to reporters in Tampa. As US and NATO troops go on the offensive "to take back from the Taliban areas that they have been able to control, there will be tough fighting," he said. "Certainly that tough fighting will not be concluded just this year. Certainly there will be tough periods beyond this year," he added, noting that the Taliban insurgency is at its bloodiest levels since 2001.

That rising insurgency, financed in large part by drug trade profits, has sparked a rethinking of Western anti-drug strategy, as well as the deployment of nearly 20,000 additional troops, with some 7,000 of them headed for Helmand, which, if it were a country, would be the world's largest opium producer.

Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out the new thinking in testimony to the Senate last month. The West is losing the battle against opium production, he said, so instead of merely going after Taliban militants it is time to "go after" the powerful drug lords who control the trafficking and smuggling networks in Afghanistan.

"With respect to the narcotics -- the threat that is there -- it is very clearly funding the insurgency. We know that, and strategically, my view is that it has to be eliminated," Mullen said. "We have had almost no success in the last seven or eight years doing that, including this year's efforts, because we are unable to put viable livelihood in behind any kind of eradication."

While the new approach -- de-emphasized eradication of farmers' fields and targeting the drug trade, especially when linked to the insurgency -- is better than the approach of the Bush years, it is still rife with problems, obstacles, and uncertainties, said a trio of experts consulted by the Chronicle.

"We are seeing a clear shift away from eradication being the dominant focus and a clear emphasis on rural development as a way to proceed, and that is a major positive development," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a scholar of drugs and insurgency at the Brookings Institution. "Interdiction was always nominally part of the package, but there is now a new mandate. Since October, NATO countries can participate in the interdiction of Taliban-linked traffickers. Certainly, the US and the UK are planning to vastly engage in this mission."

"The whole policy has changed," agreed Raheem Yaseer, assistant director of the Afghanistan Studies Center at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. "There was lots of criticism about the troops not going after the drug leaders and the trafficking. They were concentrating on the terrorists, but now they realize the opium traffic has actually been used to finance their activities, so now they are trying to eliminate the traffickers and promoters of the trade," he explained.

"There is more emphasis on reconstruction," said Yaseer. "There will be some compensation for people who are giving up the poppy, and shifting from poppy to saffron, things like that. Still, security is key, and there are some problems with security," he added in a masterful use of understatement.

"The administration appears at least to understand that eradication should target cartels rather than poor local farmers," said Malou Innocent, a foreign policy analyst with the libertarian leaning Cato Institute. "I hope they continue down that path; it's the best of many horrible options. The best policy would be legalization," she said, adding wistfully that she would prefer a more sensible drug policy.

"I have a feeling this is going to be a very bloody summer," said Malou. "There will be more violence because of the Afghan elections this August, as well as the Taliban's annual spring and summer offensive, which this year is going to be a sort of counteroffensive to the Western surge."

What the new emphasis on going after traffickers will accomplish remains to be seen, said Felbab-Brown. "Interdiction could provide a good reason for the Taliban to insert itself more deeply into the drug trade, or it could encourage traffickers to join the Karzai government," she said.

The effect of the new campaign on security in the countryside also remains to be seen, Felbab-Brown said. "Our reconstruction capacity is so weak after decades of neglect and a systematic effort to destroy those projects," she noted. "At bottom, though, the effectiveness of rural development programs depends on security. Without security, there is no effective program."

Western military forces also have some image-building to do, said Yaseer. "Because of wrong policies of the past and high civilian casualties, the original favorable perception of the foreign troops has changed from favorable to antagonistic. It will take some time to get back the good image."

Yaseer also had doubts about the utility of the massive foreign, mainly US, troop increase now underway. "Unless the sources of the problem, which lie in Pakistan, are attacked, adding more troops will not be very useful," he said. "They will just make the region more volatile and create more resentment, and they will provide the insurgents with a larger target than before," he said.

"The new administration's desire to change the policy makes one a bit optimistic, but again, time will tell whether the West is serious about them," Yaseer continued. Progress will depend on the nature of the operations and whether the new policies are actually implemented, whether this is real."

For Malou, the clock is ticking, and Western soldiers have no good reason to be remaining in Afghanistan for much longer. "We haven't found bin Laden in eight years, and most of the high-level Al Qaeda we've captured have been the result of police detective work, not military force. The foreign military presence in Afghanistan is perceived as a foreign occupation by many people in the region on both sides of the border, and that's poisoning the well even further," she said.

The US needs to be planning an exit strategy, said Malou. "When you look strategically and economically, the US just doesn't have a vital interest impelling us to stay in the region indefinitely," she said. "We need a timeframe for withdrawal within the next several years. We need to narrow our objectives to training security forces. I don't see any reason why we need to stay in this region any longer."

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Andean Cocaine: The Making of a Global Drug," by Paul Gootenberg (2008, University of North Carolina Press, 442 pp, $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

Regardless of what you may think about cocaine -- party favor or demon drug -- one thing is clear: Cocaine is big business. These days, the illicit cocaine industry generates dozens of billions of dollars in profits annually and, in addition to the millions of peasant families earning a living growing coca, employs hundreds of thousands of people in its Andean homeland and across Latin America, and hundreds of thousands more in trafficking and distribution networks across the globe.
There is a flip-side: The cocaine industry has also resulted in the creation of an anti-cocaine enterprise, also global in scope, but centered in the United States. It, too, employs tens of thousands of people -- from UN anti-drug bureaucrats to DEA agents to prison guards hired to watch over America's imprisoned street-level crack dealers -- and generates billions of dollars of governmental spending.

It wasn't always this way, and, with "Andean Cocaine," commodity historian Paul Gootenberg of SUNY Stony Brook has made a magnificent contribution in explaining how in just under a century and a half cocaine went from unknown (discovered in 1860) to licit global commodity (1880s-1920s), to illicit but dormant commodity (1920s-1950s) to the multi-billion dollar illicit commodity of today.

In a work the author himself describes as "glocal," Gootenberg used previously untapped archival sources, primarily from Peru and the US, to combine finely-detailed analysis of key personages and events in the evolution of the trade in its Peruvian hearth with a global narrative of "commodity chains," a sociological concept that ties together all elements in a commodity, from local producers and processors to national and international distribution networks and, ultimately, consumers.

The "commodity chain" concept works remarkably well in illuminating the murky story that is modern cocaine. How else do you explain the connection between a Peruvian peasant in the remote Upper Huallaga and a street-corner crack peddler in the Bronx or between entrepreneurial Colombian cocaine traffickers, weak governments in West Africa, and coke-sniffing bankers in the city of London?

Still, Gootenburg is a historian, and his story ends -- not begins -- with the arrival of the modern illicit cocaine trade. He applies the commodity chain concept to cocaine from the beginning, the 1860 isolation of the cocaine alkaloid by a Francophile Peruvian pharmacist, who, Gootenburg notes, worked within an international milieu of late 19th Century European scientific thought and exchange.

Within a few short years, cocaine had become a medical miracle (the first step on the now all-too-familiar path of currently demonized drugs) and a nascent international trade in cocaine sulphate (basically what we now refer to as cocaine paste), primarily to German and Dutch pharmaceutical houses. At the same time, just before the dawn of the 20th Century, the dangers of cocaine were becoming apparent, and moves to restrict its use got underway.

The key player in last century's cocaine panic was the United States -- ironically, the world's number one consumer of cocaine's precursor, coca. US patent medicines of the ear featured numerous coca-based tonics and concoctions, the granddaddy of them all being Coca-Cola, whose monopoly on legal (if denatured) coca leaf imports played a shadowy role in US coca and cocaine policies well into the 1950s. But some of those patent medicines also contained cocaine, and more was leaking out of medicinal markets. By the first decade of the last century, cocaine was under attack in the US.

Cocaine was banned in the US before World War I, and by the 1920s, blues singers were singing sad songs about its absence. With use levels dropping close to absolute zero, cocaine use was largely a non-issue for the US for the next 50 years. But, Gootenburg strongly suggests that the US obsession with stifling cocaine production and use sowed the seeds of the drug's stupendous expansion in the decades since the 1970s.

A particularly fascinating section revolves around the social construction of the "illicit" cocaine trade in Peru during World War II. At that point, cocaine was still a legal and treasured, if slightly over-the-hill, commodity in Peru. But some of cocaine's most lucrative customers were in Germany and Japan, the Axis foes of the US and its Latin American allies. Peruvian producers, desperate to retain their markets, sold to their traditional clientele regardless of US wishes, becoming the first "illicit" Peruvian cocaine traffickers and paving the way for the reemergence of cocaine as a black market commodity.

For someone like me, who has more than a passing familiarity with the Andean coca and cocaine trades, "Andean Cocaine" is especially fruitful for deepening my historical understanding. Peruvian family surnames prominent in coca and/or cocaine decades ago -- Durand, Malpartida, Soberon -- continue to play prominent roles in Peruvian coca politics today.

There is much, much more to this book -- suffice it to say it could be the basis of a post-graduate seminar or two -- but one lasting lesson Gootenburg seems to draw from his research is the futility, if not downright counterproductiveness, of the efforts to suppress cocaine and the cocaine trade. From the original "illicit" cocaine sales during World War II, which generated nascent trafficking networks to the crop eradications in the 1970s and 1980s in Peru and Bolivia, which turned Colombia, where indigenous coca production was almost nonexistent, into the world's leading coca and cocaine producer, every effort to stifle the trade has perversely only strengthened it. Perhaps someday we will learn a lesson here.

"Andean Cocaine" is an academic work written by an historian. It's not light reading, and, by the author's own admission, it concentrates on the Peruvian producer end of the commodity chain, not the US -- and increasingly, global -- consumer end of the chain. Nonetheless, it is a sterling contribution to the literature of cocaine, and should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand cocaine in context.

Honoring Good Cops Doesn’t Mean Ignoring Bad Ones

I recently mentioned the controversy surrounding some drug cops in Philadelphia who've been stealing cash and merchandise from convenience stores under the guise of enforcing paraphernalia laws.

Via Radley Balko, it looks like the story is getting more interesting. The Philadelphia Daily News obtained surveillance video from one of the stores, which shows officers sabotaging security cameras. While the video doesn’t catch officers actually stealing anything, it certainly doesn't look good that they're cutting wires on security cameras right before the alleged theft took place. The video also shows that the paraphernalia purchase cited on the search warrant never actually took place. Uh-oh.

The bottom line is that these cops are more than just a little bit dirty. They are insanely corrupt. And yet, the last time I wrote about this, someone actually complained about it in the comment section:

The majority of the criminals out there are bad mouthing the police organization because they are upset they got busted. Documented are thousands of cases where police acted as heroes and law enforcers; no one seems to want to report or testify on their behalf, so I am. I respect the law enforcement organizations for what their true goals are and strongly suggest that people such as your selves find a new line of work.

Yeah, I'll stop complaining about police misconduct when police stop committing outrageous crimes. I appreciate good police work as much as anyone, but I won't ignore or forgive horrible misconduct just because other cops are doing their job. Most bus drivers aren't alcoholics, but that doesn't mean every incident of drunk bus driving should become a celebration of all the heroic bus drivers who don't go to work wasted.

One crooked cop is one too many. And if the good cops can’t get rid of the bad ones, then they're not exactly perfect either.

Latin America: Mexican Drug War Targets Informal Saints of the Poor and the Narcos

Beware San Malverde! Watch out, Santa Muerte! The enemies of Mexico's violent and thriving illicit drug trade are after you. The San Diego Union-Tribune reported last weekend that Mexican authorities destroyed dozens of religious shrines paying homage to Santa Muerte (Saint Death), an informal Catholic saint favored by the poor as well as by criminals and drug traffickers, and San Malverde, a similar figure based on a peasant highwayman of the late 19th century.
San Malverde picture, with Malverde pot leaf, Malverde keychain and Malverde pot leaf belt buckle (author's personal collection)
Images of both saints have been appropriated by Mexico's drug traffickers and have been found on walls, tattoos, pendants, belt buckles, even engraved into the grips of pistols. For US law enforcement, coming across either saint is strongly indicative of drug trade activity. But the saints are also widely revered by Mexico's Catholic poor. Marches for Santa Muerte have drawn thousands of adherents in Mexico City, and San Malverde branded beer is available in Sinaloa, his home state and home of the Sinaloa cartel.

Four shrines to Santa Muerte and one to San Malverde were destroyed last Saturday in Tijuana and nearby Rosarito Beach. Tijuana Mayor Jorge Ramos said it was a military action, but the military has not confirmed that. Two days later, city and federal officials destroyed 34 more Santa Muerte chapels that had sprung up in recent years along the highway between Monterrey and the border town of Nuevo Laredo.

For officials, the unsanctioned saints are, like the narcocorridos (drug ballads), celebrating the exploits of drug traffickers, evidence of the drug culture seeping into broader civic culture. "This is a subject that must open a great social debate in Tijuana," Ramos said in an interview last week. "Should we permit these spaces where hired assassins who kill children, families, police seek protection? What side are we on? I am on the side of tranquility and security."

Ramos, a member of President Felipe Calderón's National Action Party (PAN), is pushing censorship as a response to the spreading drug culture. He is agitating for a package of bills before the Baja California legislature that would ban the broadcast of narcocorridos, as well as videos and images that would "glorify" drug traffickers.

But such plans have their critics, who argue that destroying shrines will not accomplish anything and that the informal saints are adored by many who have nothing to do with drug trafficking. "Destroying these chapels is not going to do anything to diminish crime," said Jose Manuel Valenzuela, a researcher at the Colegio de la Frontera Norte, a Tijuana think-tank. "Someone who's going to commit a crime could just as easily go to a Catholic church as a Santa Muerte shrine, or go nowhere at all."

The people who came to the Tijuana shrines last week only to find they had been destroyed were not happy. "I feel so angry," said Zaida Romero, 33, a used-clothing vendor and single mother of seven, standing by the pile of rubble and twisted metal on the day the shrines were destroyed March 21. "She has helped me so, so, so much," said Romero, explaining that La Santa Muerte helped her overcome cancer.

Latin America: Peru to Export Coca Beer

A coca trade fair in Lima designed to demonstrate that coca is not cocaine showcased a number of products, but the star of the show was a coca leaf beer whose manufacturer has plans to export it to markets in Latin America, Africa, and Asia. The fair was organized by the National Confederation of Agricultural Producers of the Coca Valleys of Peru (CONPACCP), the country's largest coca growers' union.
Cerveza Apu coca beer (photo from
The coca beer, sold under the brand name Apu by the entrepreneurial Alarcón family of Andahuaylas, is already being sold (and eagerly consumed) in Peru's Andean region, as well as markets in Lima. General manager Manuel Alarcón told Living in Peru the beer was a big hit with tourists at Machu Picchu. But with a production capacity of 180,000 bottles a month, Alarcón is looking outside the domestic market.

Alarcon said the paperwork is already underway to export Apu to China, South Africa, Argentina, and Venezuela. That seems like a breach of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotics, which sought to phase out use of the coca plant, excepting de-cocainized products such as Coca Cola. Some contest that interpretation of international law, however, and given that Venezuela has already inked deals with Bolivia to import coca products, it seems the treaty is sometimes observed only in the breach.

"Thankfully China is a country where coca leaves are accepted and its derivatives can easily enter the country," said Alarcón.

Peru is the world's second largest coca producer, after Colombia and ahead of Bolivia. While some of the country's hundreds of thousands of small producers are registered with the national coca monopoly and deliver their harvests to it, the majority of producers are not legally growing the plant, and much of it is destined for the insatiable international cocaine market.

The situation has led to years of conflict between coca growers and the Peruvian national government. If recent reports are to be believed, it is now leading to a resurgence of the Shining Path and an increasingly violent counterinsurgency operation by the Peruvian military in the Apurímac and Ene River valleys.

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