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SSDP: Meet Our New Executive Director!

Help Welcome SSDP's New Executive Director!
Make a donation today to help SSDP continue our
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Dear friends,

After an exhaustive three-month search, I'm thrilled to announce that Aaron Houston will be SSDP's next executive director.  Aaron has worked for the Marijuana Policy Project for the past seven years, serving as their national field director and director of government relations. He led the way to numerous victories, including the Department of Justice's memo on medical marijuana last year.  His notoriety in DC can be measured by his many television appearances, including a universally coveted guest spot on The Colbert Report.

In addition to his work in drug policy, Aaron has experience in student organizing, serving as the executive director for the Colorado Student Association in Denver.  Next week Aaron begins what we hope will be the longest ED tenure in SSDP history.

It's thanks to SSDP's explosive growth over the past years and its many local successes that a veteran like Aaron has decided to take the helm.  But despite our growth in numbers, our budget has remained relatively unchanged.

We can't take SSDP to the next level without your help.

Ensure SSDP's continued growth and efficacy by making a donation online RIGHT NOW!

Sincerely, 

Matthew Palevsky

Acting Executive Director

Students for Sensible Drug Policy 

http://www.ssdp.org/donate

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Feature: Obama's First National Drug Strategy -- The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

A leaked draft of the overdue 2010 National Drug Strategy was published by Newsweek over the weekend, and it reveals some positive shifts away from Bush-era drug policy paradigms and toward more progressive and pragmatic approaches. But there is a lot of continuity as well, and despite the Obama administration's rhetorical shift away from the "war on drugs," the drug war juggernaut is still rolling along.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/wasitwalters.jpg
sign of the leaker?
That doesn't quite jibe with Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) director Gil Kerlikowske's words when he announced in April 2009 that the phrase "war on drugs" was no longer in favor. "Regardless of how you try to explain to people it's a 'war on drugs' or a 'war on a product,' people see a war as a war on them. We're not at war with people in this country."

The leak was reported by long-time Washington insider and Newsweek columnist Michael Isikoff, who mentioned it almost off-handedly in a piece asserting "The White House Drug Czar's Diminished Status." Isikoff asserted in the piece that the unveiling of the strategy had been delayed because Kerlikowske didn't have the clout to get President Obama to schedule a joint appearance to release it. His office had been downgraded from cabinet level, Isikoff noted.

That sparked an angry retort from UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, a burr under the saddle to prohibitionists and anti-prohibitionists alike for his heterodox views on drug policy. In a blog post, Kleiman seemed personally offended at the leak, twice referring to the leaker as "a jerk," defending the new drug strategy as innovative if bound by interagency politics, and deriding Isikoff's article as "gossipy."

Kleiman also suggested strongly that the leaker was none other than former John Walters on the basis of an editing mark on the document that had his name on it. But Walters has not confirmed that, and others have point out it could have been a current staffer who is using the same computer Walters used while in office.

On the plus side, the draft strategy embraces some harm reduction programs, such as needle exchanges and the use of naloxone to prevent overdoses, although without ever uttering the words "harm reduction." There is also a renewed emphasis on prevention and treatment, with slight spending increases. But again reality fails to live up to rhetoric, with overall federal drug control spending maintaining the long-lived 2:1 ration in spending for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction versus that for treatment and prevention.

The strategy also promotes alternatives to incarceration, such drug courts, community courts and the like and for the first time hints that it recognizes the harms that can be caused by the punitive approach to drug policy. And it explicitly calls for reform of the sentencing disparity for crack and powder cocaine offenses.

It sets a number of measurable goals related to reducing drug use. By 2015, ONDCP vows to cut last month drug use by young adults by 10% and cut last month use by teens, lifetime use by 8th graders, and the number of chronic drug users by 15%.

The 2010 goals of a 15% reduction reflect diminishing expectations after years of more ambitious drug use reduction goals followed by the drug policy establishment's inability to achieve them. That could inoculate the Obama administration from the kind of criticism faced by the Clinton administration back in the 1990s when it did set much more ambitious goals.

The Clinton administration's 1998 National Drug Control Strategy called for a "ten-year conceptual framework to reduce drug use and drug availability by 50%." That didn't happen. That strategy put the number of drug users at 13.5 million, but instead of decreasing, according to the 2008 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse and Health, by 2007 the number of drug users was at 20.1 million.

While Clinton took criticism from Republicans that his goals were not ambitious enough -- Newt Gingrich said we should just wipe out drugs -- the Bush administration set similar goals, and achieved similarly modest results. The Bush administration's 2002 National Drug Control Strategy sought a 25% reduction in drug use by both teenagers and adults within five years. While teen drug use declined from 11.6% in 2002 to 9.3% in 2007, then drug czar Walters missed his goal. He did less well with adult use almost unchanged, at 6.3% in 2000 and 5.9% in 2007.

The draft strategy, however, remains wedded to law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction, calls for strong federal support for local drug task forces, and explicitly rejects marijuana legalization. It also seeks to make drugged driving a top priority, which would be especially problematic if the administration adopts per se zero tolerance measures (meaning the presence of any metabolites of a controlled substance could result in a driver's arrest whether he was actually impaired or not).

Still, while the draft strategy is definitely a mixed bag, a pair of keen observers of ONDCP and federal drug policy pronounced themselves fairly pleased overall. While still heavy on the law enforcement side, the first Obama national drug strategy is a far cry from the propaganda-driven documents of Bush era drug czar John Walters.

The Good

"This is somewhat of a surprise, because for the first time they have included reducing the funds associated with the drug war in their strategy, although not in a big way, they're calling for reform of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity, and they are calling for the reform of laws that penalize people," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This is the first time they've included anything recognizing that some of our policies are creating harm," he added.

"The stuff about syringe exchange and naloxone for overdose prevention is pretty good. It's the first time they've embraced any part of harm reduction, even though they don't use that name," Piper noted.

"I'm also impressed with the section on alternatives to incarceration," said Piper. "They basically said most drug users don't belong in jail, and a lot of dealers don't, either. It's still wedded to the criminal justice system, but it's good that they looked at so many different things -- drug courts, community courts, Operation Highpoint (warning dealers to desist instead of just arresting them as a means of breaking up open-air drug markets), programs for veterans. They seem interested in finding out what works, which is an evidence-based approach that had been lacking in previous strategies."

The Status Quo

"Drug war reformers have eagerly been waiting the release of President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy," noted Matthew Robinson, professor of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University and coauthor (with Renee Scherlen) of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics: A Critical Analysis of Claims Made by the ONDCP." "Would it put Obama's and Kerlikowske's words into action, or would it be more of the same in terms of federal drug control policy? The answer is yes. And no. There is real, meaningful, exciting change proposed in the 2010 Strategy. But there's a lot of the status quo, too," he said.

"The first sentence of the Strategy hints at status quo approaches to federal drug control policy; it announces 'a blueprint for reducing illicit drug use and its harmful consequences in America,'" Robinson said. "That ONDCP will still focus on drug use (as opposed to abuse) is unfortunate, for the fact remains that most drug use is normal, recreational, pro-social, and even beneficial to users; it does not usually lead to bad outcomes for users, including abuse or addiction," he said.

"Just like under the leadership of Director John Walters, Kerlikowske's ONDCP characterizes its drug control approaches as 'balanced,' yet FY 2011 federal drug control spending is still imbalanced in favor of supply side measures (64%), while the demand side measures of treatment and prevention will only receive 36% of the budget," Robinson pointed out. "In FY 2010, the percentages were 65% and 35%, respectively. Perhaps when Barack Obama said 'Change we can believe in,' what he really meant was 'Change you can believe in, one percentage point at a time.'"

There is also much of the status quo in funding levels, Robinson said. "There will also be plenty of drug war funding left in this 'non-war on drugs.' For example, FY 2011 federal drug control spending includes $3.8 billion for the Department of Homeland Security (which includes Customs and Border Protection spending), more than $3.4 billion for the Department of Justice (which includes Drug Enforcement Agency spending), and nearly $1.6 billion for the Department of Defense (which includes military spending). Thus, the drug war will continue on under President Obama even if White House officials do not refer to federal drug control policy as a 'war on drugs,'" he noted.

The Bad

"ONDCP repeatedly stresses the importance of reducing supply of drugs into the United States through crop eradication and interdiction efforts, international collaboration, disruption of drug smuggling organizations, and so forth," Robinson noted. "It still promotes efforts like Plan Colombia, the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, and many other similar programs aimed at eradicating drugs in foreign countries and preventing them from entering the United States. The bottom line here is that the 'non war on drugs' will still look and feel like a war on drugs under President Obama, especially to citizens of the foreign nations where the United States does the bulk of its drug war fighting."

"They are still wedded to interdiction and eradication," said Piper. "There is no recognition that they aren't very effective and do more harm than good. Coming only a couple of weeks after the drug czar testified under oath that eradication in Colombia and Afghanistan and elsewhere had no impact on the availability of drugs in the US, to then put out a strategy embracing what he said was least effective is quite disturbing."

"The ringing endorsement of per se standards for drugged driving is potentially troubling," said Piper. "It looks a lot like zero tolerance. We have to look at this also in the context of new performance measures, which are missing from the draft. In the introduction, they talk about setting goals for reducing drug use and that they went to set other performance measures, such as for reducing drug overdoses and drugged driving. If they actually say they're going to reduce drugged driving by such and such an amount with a certain number of years, that will be more important. We'll have to see what makes it into the final draft."

"They took a gratuitous shot at marijuana reform," Piper noted. "It was unfortunate they felt the need to bash something that half of Americans support and to do it in the way they did, listing a litany of Reefer Madness allegations and connecting marijuana to virtually every problem in America. That was really unfortunate."

More Good

There are some changes in spending priorities. "Spending on prevention will grow 13.4% from FY 2010 to FY 2011, while spending on treatment will grow 3.7%," Robinson noted. "The growth in treatment is surprisingly small given that ONDCP notes that 90% of people who need treatment do not receive it. Increases are much smaller for spending on interdiction (an increase of 2.4%), domestic law enforcement (an increase of 1.9%), and international spending (an increase of 0.9%). This is evidence of a shift in federal drug control strategy under President Obama; there will be a greater effort to prevent drug use in the first place as well as treat those that become addicted to drugs than there ever was under President Bush."

Robinson also lauded the Obama administration for more clarity in the strategy than was evident under either Clinton or Bush. "Obama's first Strategy clearly states its guiding principles, each of which is followed by a specific set of actions to be initiated and implemented over time to achieve goals and objectives related to its principles. Of course, this is Obama's first Strategy, so in subsequent years, there will be more data presented for evaluation purposes, and it should become easier to decipher the ideology that will drive the 'non war on drugs' under President Obama," he said.

But he suggested that ideology still plays too big a role. "ONDCP hints at its ideology when it claims that programs such as 'interdiction, anti-trafficking initiatives, drug crop reduction, intelligence sharing and partner nation capacity building... have proven effective in the past.' It offers almost no evidence that this is the case other than some very limited, short-term data on potential cocaine production in Colombia. ONDCP claims it is declining, yet only offers data from 2007 to 2008. Kerlikowske's ONDCP seems ready to accept the dominant drug war ideology of Walters that supply side measures work -- even when long-term data show they do not."

Robinson also lauded ONDCP's apparent revelation that drug addiction is a disease. "Obama's first strategy embraces a new approach to achieving federal drug control goals of 'reducing illicit drug consumption' and 'reducing the consequences of illicit drug use in the United States,' one that is evidence-based and public health oriented," Robinson said. "ONDCP recognizes that drug addiction is a disease and it specifies that federal drug control policy should be assisted by parties in all of the systems that relate to drug use and abuse, including families, schools, communities, faith-based organizations, the medical profession, and so forth. This is certainly a change from the Bush Administration, which repeatedly characterized drug use as a moral or personal failing."

While the Obama drug strategy may have its faults, said Robinson, it is a qualitative improvement over Bush era drug strategies. "Under the Bush Administration, ONDCP came across as downright dismissive of data, evidence, and science, unless it was used to generate fear and increased punitive responses to drug-related behaviors. Honestly, there is very little of this in Obama's first strategy, aside from the usual drugs produce crime, disorder, family disruption, illness, addiction, death, and terrorism argument that has for so long been employed by ONDCP," he said. "Instead, the Strategy is hopeful in tone and lays out dozens of concrete programs and policies that aim to prevent drug use among young people (through public education programs, mentoring initiatives, increasing collaboration between public health and safety organizations); treat adults who have developed drug abuse and addiction problems (though screening and intervention by medical personnel, increased investments in addiction treatment, new treatment medications); and, for the first time, invest heavily in recovery efforts that are restorative in nature and aimed at giving addicts a new lease on life," he noted.

"ONDCP also seems to suddenly have a better grasp on why the vast majority of people who need treatment do not get it," said Robinson. "Under Walters, ONDCP claimed that drug users were in denial and needed to be compassionately coerced to seek treatment. In the 2010 Strategy, ONDCP outlines numerous problems with delivery of treatment services including problems with the nation's health care systems generally. The 2010 Strategy seems so much better informed about the realities of drug treatment than previous Strategy reports," he added.

"The strategy also repeatedly calls for meaningful change in areas such as alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level drug offenders; drug testing in courts (and schools, unfortunately, in spite of data showing it is ineffective); and reentry programs for inmates who need help finding jobs and places to live upon release from prison or jail. ONDCP also implicitly acknowledges that that federal drug control policy imposes costs on families (including the break-up of families), and shows with real data that costs are greater economically for imprisonment of mothers and foster care for their children than family-based treatment," Robinson noted.

"ONDCP makes the case that we are wasting a lot of money dealing with the consequences of drug use and abuse when this money would be better spent preventing use and abuse in the first place. Drug policy reformers will embrace this claim," Robinson predicted.

"The strategy also calls for a renewed emphasis on prescription drug abuse, which it calls 'the fastest growing drug problem in the United States,'" Robinson pointed out. "Here, as in the past, ONDCP suggests regulation is the answer because prescription drugs have legitimate uses that should not be restricted merely because some people use them illegally. And, as in the past, ONDCP does not consider this approach for marijuana, which also has legitimate medicinal users in spite of the fact that some people use it illegally," he said.

The Verdict

"President Obama's first National Drug Control Strategy offers real, meaningful, exciting change," Robinson summed up. "Whether this change amounts to 'change we can believe in' will be debated by drug policy reformers. For those who support demand side measures, many will embrace the 2010 Strategy and call for even greater funding for prevention and treatment. For those who support harm reduction measures such as needled exchange, methadone maintenance and so forth, there will be celebration. Yet, for those who support real alternatives to federal drug control policy such as legalization or decriminalization, all will be disappointed. And even if Obama officials will not refer to its drug control policies as a 'war on drugs,' they still amount to just that."

Seventh Grader Suspended For Touching Pill

No real need to provide commentary here- this truly speaks for itself! http://www.care2.com/causes/education/blog/seventh-grader-suspended-for-...

Angry Man Says Potheads Should be Kicked in the Nuts

Via DrugWarRant, here's a video that I'm sure all of you will find entertaining. I didn't think it was possible to hate marijuana more than Michael Savage does, but of course it is:

As the debate over marijuana policy becomes increasingly mainstream, our opponents sound increasingly violent, reckless and insane.

Feature: Obama Nominates Drug Warrior Michele Leonhart to Head DEA -- Reformers Gird for Battle

The Obama administration announced this week that it is nominating acting DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart to head the agency. Drug reformers responded with a collective groan and are preparing to challenge -- or at least question -- her nomination when it goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee for confirmation.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/micheleleonhart.jpg
Michele Leonhart
From a law enforcement perspective, Leonhart's career trajectory has been inspiring and exemplary. Growing up black in St. Paul, she developed an interest in law enforcement when someone stole her bicycle as a young girl. After graduating from college with a degree in criminal justice, she worked as a police officer in Baltimore before joining the DEA in 1980. She put in stints as a field agent in Minneapolis and St. Louis before being promoting to DEA's supervisory ranks in San Diego in 1988. She became the agency's first female Special Agent in Charge (SAC) there and later became SAC for the DEA's Los Angeles field division, the third largest in the country. She was confirmed as DEA deputy administrator in 2003 and named acting administrator upon the resignation of agency head Karen Tandy in 2007, a position she has held ever since.

But Leonhart's career has also coincided with scandal and controversy. (A tip of the hat here to Pete Guither at Drug War Rant, who profiled her peccadillos in an August 2003 piece). Her time in St. Louis coincided with a perjuring informant scandal, her time in Los Angeles coincided with the beginning of the federal war against California's medical marijuana law, and as acting administrator, she blocked researchers from being able to grow their own marijuana for medical research, effectively blocking the research. As head of the DEA last year, Leonhart (or her staff) spent more than $123,000 of taxpayer money to charter a private plane for a trip to Colombia, rather than using one of the 106 airplanes the DEA already owned.

While Leonhart's role in the persecution of California medical marijuana patients and providers is drawing the most heat, it is her association with one-time DEA supersnitch Andrew Chambers that is raising the most eyebrows. Chambers earned an astounding $2.2 million for his work as a DEA informant between 1984 and 2000. The problem was that he was caught perjuring himself repeatedly. The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals called him a liar in 1993, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals echoed that verdict two years later.

But instead of terminating its relationship with Chambers, the DEA protected him, failing to notify prosecutors and defense attorneys about his record. At one point, DEA and the Justice Department for 17 months stalled a public defender seeking to examine the results of DEA's background check on Chambers. Even after the agency knew its snitch was rotten, it refused to stop using Chambers, and it took the intervention of then Attorney General Janet Reno to force the agency to quit using him.

Michele Leonhart defended Chambers. When asked if, given his credibility problems, the agency should quit using him, she said, "That would be a sad day for DEA, and a sad day for anybody in the law enforcement world... He's one in a million. In my career, I'll probably never come across another Andrew."

Another Leonhart statement on Chambers is even more shocking, as much for what it says about Leonhart as for what Leonhart says about Chambers. "The only criticism (of Chambers) I've ever heard is what defense attorneys will characterize as perjury or a lie on the stand," she said, adding that once prosecutors check him out, they will agree with his DEA admirers that he is "an outstanding testifier."

While Chambers snitched for the DEA in St. Louis while Leonhart was there and snitched for the DEA in Los Angeles while Leonhart was there, the exact nature of any relationship between them is murky. Reformers suggest that perhaps the Judiciary Committee might be able to clear it up.

Leonhart was also there at the beginning of the federal assault on California's medical marijuana law. She stood beside US Attorney Michael Yamaguchi when he announced in a January 1998 press conference that the government would take action against medical marijuana clubs. And as SAC in Los Angeles up until 2004, she was the ranking DEA agent responsible for the numerous Bush administration raids against patients and providers.

Her apparent distaste for marijuana extended to researchers. In January 2009, she overruled a DEA administrative law judge and denied UMass Professor Lyle Craker the ability to grow marijuana for medical research.

And it wasn't just marijuana. She was in full drug warrior mode when she attacked ecstasy use at raves in 2001, telling the New York Times that "some of the dances in the desert are no longer just dances, they're like violent crack houses set to music."

Drug reformers responded to Leonhart's nomination with one word: disappointing.

"It's disappointing that we didn't see anyone other than a career narcotics officer and DEA employee get the nomination," said Allen St. Pierre of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML). "But considering that his choice is a groundbreaker at DEA, perhaps there is a certain degree of political correctness for Obama. Leonhart is acceptable to conservatives because she comes from the DEA ranks, and at the same time, as a black woman who has risen from street officer to head of the DEA, she is certainly heralded by many in the Congressional Black Caucus."

"What a disappointment that was," said Dale Gieringer, head of California NORML. "We've been waiting for change ever since Obama got elected, we're still sitting here with the same Bush-appointed US Attorneys, we were hoping at least he would appoint a new DEA administrator, but no. That really shows political cowardice at the top level, I think."

"We're obviously very disappointed about this," said Aaron Houston, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project. "She presided over the worst abuses of the Bush administration raids against patients and providers, she presided over some of the worst periods of activity in Los Angeles as Special Agent in Charge, she rejected the Craker application, she doesn't have a clue about the fact that the Mexicans are begging us to change our drug laws."

"The Leonhart nomination is very disappointing, but not surprising," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Allliance. "We need to use her confirmation hearing to get her on record as promising to abide by the Obama administration guidelines on medical marijuana enforcement. She may just be someone who goes along to get along, but it would be good to get her on record on whether the DEA is going to continue to waste law enforcement resources going after low-level offenders."

Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) was more than disappointed by the nomination. "This nomination is disconcerting, to say the least," said LEAP media relations director Tom Angell. "It's hard to see how giving the DEA directorship to someone who went out of her way to block medical marijuana research aligns with President Obama's pledge to set policies based on science and facts."

One question for reformers is how much Leonhart was following her own lead during her career and how much she was just following orders. "Now that she will be a permanent agency head, maybe she can establish a clearer doctrine under this administration," said St. Pierre. "When she made her Craker ruling, she was operating under Bush doctrine. The hope is that now perhaps she will get in line with Obama and Holder's articulation of criminal justice and drug war priorities."

Reining in the raids on medical marijuana providers is one of those, St. Pierre noted. "Since last May's executive order on preemption and the October Justice Department memo on medical marijuana, it doesn't look like the DEA has really interfered very much with these dispensaries, especially in places like Montana and Colorado, where there were none and now there are hundreds," he said. "It looks like Leonhart has abated a bit compared to the marching orders she was under when she was first named acting administrator."

"It's possible she will change her tune on getting orders from above," said Gieringer. "I don't know to what extent she was taking orders from above on indefensible things like deciding to disallow the research at UMass."

Another question facing reformers is how to respond to the nomination. "We are contemplating how we are going to approach this," Houston said. "A lot of our members want us to ask senators to hold her nomination."

"People should try to stop it, but we shouldn't get our hopes up," said Piper. "Democrats are going to rally around the president, and stopping one of Obama's nominees may be too much for Democrats to do. But we can still campaign against her, and one of the great things about that is that you can use the campaign to box them in, to get them to promise to do -- or not do -- a range of things. For instance, when we had the campaign to stop Asa Hutchinson from being nominated DEA head, we got him to go on record in favor of eliminating the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity and diverting more people to treatment. Even if we fail to stop the nomination, it can still lead to good things. It's certainly worth launching an all-out effort. "

"Reformers should take the approach that a thorough hearing is called for," said Eric Sterling, director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. "I don't know that they should argue she should be blocked, but that her role in these matters needs to be examined. That's a politically smarter way for us to approach her nomination."

Sterling expressed real concern about Leonhart's role in the Chambers scandal. "I hope that the Judiciary Committee looks aggressively at her career, and what role she may have played in promoting the career of this informant who seems to be a career perjurer," he said. "If her practice was to knowingly tolerate perjury and encourage the use of an informant who is a perjurer, she is not qualified to be head of DEA by any stretch. The danger of perjury and the overzealousness of being willing to tolerate it is one of the greatest dangers any law enforcement agency faces. Given the enormously long sentences that exist in federal cases, the risks of injustice are monumental," he noted.

"To the extent that she has a reputation on the street that she promoted or used a perjuring informant, that is a terrible signal within the agency -- if that is really the case," Sterling continued. "I think it is extremely important that the Judiciary Committee inquire into this before they vote on her nomination. I can only hope that the Obama administration has vetted her more scrupulously than some of their earlier nominees whose tax problems were either undiscovered or ignored. This is a much more sensitive position, and both good judgment regarding truth telling and punishing those who violate that trust by tolerating perjury are essential features of this job."

Another area for senatorial scrutiny is medical marijuana, said Sterling. "With respect to medical marijuana, I don't know that I would fault her given the position of the agency and the Bush administration," he said. "It would be an extraordinary DEA manager who is going to fight for medical marijuana within the agency and block raids recommended by Special Agents in Charge or US Attorneys or the Justice Department. Yes, there were some really egregious cases during her time in Los Angeles, but I'm not sure those got handled at the level she was at. This is another area senators would be justified in inquiring about. If the committee just rubber stamps this nomination, that's a mistake."

Sterling even had some questions ready for the senators. "One question to ask is what scientific evidence she would need to reschedule marijuana," Sterling suggested. "Another is what state actions would her agency honor and not carry out raids. And she could be asked why the DEA needs to be involved with medical marijuana in California, the largest state in the nation and one with a functioning medical marijuana law. Has the DEA so completely eliminated the state's heroin and methamphetamine problems that the DEA can now turn its attention to medical marijuana purveyors?"

Chances are that Michele Leonhart is going to be the next head of DEA. But she is going to be under intense scrutiny between now and then, and reformers intend to make the most of it.

Ruining Young Lives for Marijuana Possession

Marijuana undermines academic performance, they claim, so the punishment for marijuana is that you're not allowed to go to school anymore:

Three Liberty High School students were expelled for possession of what police and district officials say they suspect is marijuana on Jan. 13, 20 and 21.School employees found a 15-year-old student in possession of a small amount of marijuana on campus Jan. 13.

School officials proceeded to ask questions about other students who might have marijuana on campus as well… [Issaquah Press]

Yeah! Get the kids to rat on their friends so you can expel as many of them as possible. Teach them responsibility by taking away the one responsibility they have. Make them be normal by separating them from their peers and leaving them with no one to turn to.

And if these kids grow up to be total losers, we'll blame it on the marijuana.

Latest Drug War Lie: Debating Medical Marijuana Causes More Kids to Smoke Pot

New data on youth drug use was released today and, as we've come to expect, the drug warriors would rather lie about it than learn from it. Instead of focusing on the fact that more high school seniors are smoking marijuana than cigarettes (proving what a perfect failure our marijuana laws truly are), the drug czar and his minions tried to claim that debating drug policies causes more young people to do drugs:

The increase of teens smoking pot is partly because the national debate over medical use of marijuana can make the drug's use seem safer to teenagers, researchers said. In addition to marijuana, fewer teens also view prescription drugs and Ecstasy as dangerous, which often means more could use those drugs in the future, said White House drug czar Gil Kerlikowske.

The "continued erosion in youth attitudes and behavior toward substance abuse should give pause to all parents and policy-makers," Kerlikowske said. [AP]

Wait, what was that about the medical marijuana debate causing an increase in teen pot-smoking? According to The Associated Press, that's what the "researchers said," but the only reference to medical marijuana in the whole study tells a more interesting story:

Marijuana use began to decline in 1997 among 8th graders and then did the same in 1998 among 10th and 12th graders. The rate of decline was rather modest, however, perhaps due in part to effects of the public debates over medical use of marijuana during that period.

So they never said marijuana use "increased" because of the medical marijuana debate. Not even close. All they did was speculate that a decrease -- which took place 12 years ago – would "perhaps" have been steeper if it weren't for the debate over medical marijuana. I'll give you one guess where I'm about to go with this…

Teen marijuana use declined following the emergence of a national debate over medical marijuana. That's what actually happened and the suggestion that such declines would have been greater if it weren't for marijuana activism is about as logical as arguing that Sgt. Pepper would have been an even better record if The Beatles weren't on acid.

Rates of high school marijuana use had been climbing rapidly until 1996, when California voters legalized medical marijuana, after which point they declined for 10 years straight. Now I'm not saying that the debate over medical marijuana caused a reduction in teen marijuana use, but even if I did, it would still make a lot more sense than what we read yesterday from The Associated Press.

Of course, I completely understand that journalists can’t possibly read and digest a 700+ page report. That's understandable, as is some reliance on press releases when piecing a story together. But if you're getting all your information from the drug czar, you should be awfully careful not to get taken advantage of. A really good sign that you've been completely worked over is if you end up reporting that the legalization debate causes kids to do drugs.

Why Legalizing Marijuana Protects Young People

Jann Gumbiner, Ph.D. has a post at Psychology Today pondering how young people will be affected by marijuana legalization. She has more questions than answers, but it's interesting to see what concerns come up for a parent who's undecided on the issue.

Her conclusion strikes me as quite sensible:

As a parent, I ask myself, "what are the dangers to teens?" And, what are the likely scenarios? If pot is still illegal to anyone under 21, how will teens get it? I think the most likely scenario is the same as beer and cigarettes. Older brothers and sisters, with IDs, will legally buy packaged marijuana cigarettes at gas stations and share them with younger ones on Friday night parties. As a parent, I ask myself, "how do I feel about this?" And... after a little thought, I actually feel better knowing my child is with trusted friends, ingesting measured substances than on a corner at night buying an illegal substance from a stranger.

Bingo. It's a pretty rational conclusion, but one that can only be reached by accepting the reality that marijuana will be available with or without legalization. Too often, opponents of regulating marijuana sales appear to believe that it only becomes available once it's legal. I'm afraid it's not nearly that simple.

As a teenager, I witnessed firsthand a world in which it was easier to get marijuana than alcohol. I don't just say this now because it suits my agenda; it's the truth. If my friends wanted booze for a party, they planned days ahead. If they wanted pot, they just made a phone call. The difference was that old, but very true, cliché that drug dealers don’t check ID. That's why research has repeatedly shown that teenagers have easier access to marijuana than beer. What can never be quantified, however, are all the other harms that go along with this vast underground, underage drug economy that continues to thrive thanks to marijuana prohibition.

To be clear, I doubt this is the argument that's going to turn things around. If that were true it would have happened already. People don’t seem to get this, maybe because those darn kids have a nasty habit of not telling the grown-ups about their pot hook-ups. Instead, I would simply add this to the long list of reasons that legalization will work even better than most people expect.

That's right parents. Prepare to be pleasantly surprised.

Dr. Drew & The Drug Czar Join Forces to Scare Parents About Marijuana Legalization

As a teenager I used to listen to Dr. Drew's Loveline radio show every night. I learned a lot about sex and drugs that I was better off hearing on the radio than finding out the hard way and I'll always be grateful for that. But I gotta say, I liked Dr. Drew a lot better when he was co-hosting with Adam Carolla, as opposed to the, um, drug czar.

This live web chat is so painfully boring and redundant you can guess where I found the link. But at least they had the guts to sort of vaguely pretend to respond to a marijuana legalization question:

shortpumppreppy: There is so much public buzz in favor of the legalization of marijuana, how can I keep my teens from being swayed?

Director Kerlikowske: I think that the biggest influence on young people is often the parents or the caregiver in the house. If they stress the risks and dangers of drugs, regardless of what the discussion in the media might be about marijuana being legalized, they will have more influence than what happens on a news report that night. The marijuana today has a very high content of THC, which is the psychoactive component in marijuana, and it can have very serious effects on adolescents. The research on this is very clear.

Dr. Drew: Once again the Director and I agree. Not only that, but addiction to cannabis is probably the most common one I deal with today. Make no mistake about it. In addition, I would urge parents to ask their children to move away from the idea that there are "good" drugs and "bad" drugs; let the legal process do that.

Let the what? Yeah, who needs doctors anyway when we can let lawyers tell us what drugs we need. I agree that it's dumb for parents to lump all drugs into one of two extreme categories. But it's even dumber when the government does that.

Maybe Dr. Drew is hinting at the idea that the harms of drugs are circumstantial rather than purely pharmacological, which would be a valid observation. If he'd actually said that, it would've been his most interesting and helpful contribution to the entire conversation. But it also would have confused the living hell out of the drug czar, whose appalling cluelessness about drugs is probably the reason Dr. Drew was brought in to begin with.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review Essay: "Righteous Dopefiend" and "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang"

Drug War Chronicle Review Essay: "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha: Inside the MS-13, America's Most Violent Gang," by Samuel Logan (2009, Hyperion Press, 245 pp., $24.99 HB) and "Righteous Dopefiend," by Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg (2009, University of California Press, 392 pp., $24.95 PB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

These two books have little in common except that they focus on two deviant subcultures of interest to people curious about various facets of drug policy: Central American immigrant gang-bangers in the former and, less obviously, middle-aged, homeless San Francisco heroin addicts in the latter. Neither group has much to do with the other, except that perhaps some of the gang members could have peddled some of the heroin that went into those addicts' arms. What makes both groups -- and both books -- of interest to the Chronicle is that neither group would exist as presently constituted absent the regime of drug prohibition.

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"This is for the Mara Salvatrucha" is described as journalist Samuel Logan's effort to peek behind the curtain of one of America's largest street gangs, but with the exception of a few passages scattered through its pages, the book concentrates almost exclusively on the fate of Brenda Paz, a Honduran teenager who got caught up in the gang in Dallas and was quickly brought into local inner circles because she was the girlfriend of a local leader. When Paz's gang-leader boyfriend killed another Dallas area teenager in Paz's presence to steal his car, Paz fled to northern Virginia to avoid prosecution. There, she hooked up with another murderous local Mara leader, got arrested, and turned informant.

Thanks to Paz's extensive interviews with local, state, and federal law enforcement officials, police got their best insights yet into the group's murky inner workings, its origins, and its breadth. Unfortunately, Logan devotes little attention to such things, preferring instead to craft a police procedural, which, while a page-turner in its own right, leaves this reader at least hungry for more solid information.

While Logan asserts that the Mara Salvatrucha is into extortion, dope dealing, and human smuggling, he doesn't really demonstrate it, nor does he demonstrate that the Mara is indeed "America's most violent gang." Logan shows us localized incidents of thuggery, some of them truly mindless and savage, but doesn't describe how the gang actually works, nor compare it in size and scope to other criminal gangs. Nor is there much material about Mara's presence in Central America -- it is particularly strong in El Salvador and Honduras -- a strange omission given Logan's acknowledgement of the gang's origin among Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

"This is for the Mara Salvatrucha" is an entrancing read in its own right, it does open some windows on the much feared organization -- although not nearly enough -- and it makes the reader develop an interest in Brenda Paz and her trip from innocent if troubled teenager to hardened gang-banger to the federal witness protection program. And that's sort of a shame, given how she ends up. I'll say no more; I don't want to spoil it for you.

Logan left me wishing that anthropologists Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg had written "This is for the Mara Salvatrucha," but that is a bit unfair. The urban ethnographers were able to spend a decade with the subjects of "Righteous Dopefiend," and those subjects, while constantly engaged in petty criminality, were not hardened, violent tough guys. Instead, they were middle-aged long-term heroin addicts, most definitely nowhere near as scary as a face-tattooed Mara killer. Still, whether it was differences in approach -- journalistic vs. anthropological -- or access to subjects -- limited and fraught with danger vs. long-term and fraught with being asked for spare change -- "Righteous Dopefiend" left me much more fulfilled.

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Bourgois and Schonberg came to be on intimate terms with a group of homeless heroin addicts camped in obscure spaces under freeway exchanges in San Francisco. Some were black, some white, a few Hispanic, a few were women. Good anthropologists that they are, there is plenty of theory mainly of interest to grad students, but it is nicely mixed in with real world observation, field notes, striking photographs (and the theory of the photographic gaze), and numerous transcripts of interviews with the aging junkies. (Before some reader jumps up to object to the term, let me just say I prefer the self-selecting "junkie" to the therapeutically-imposed and disempowering "addict.")

The junkie/addict distinction has a parallel in one of the distinctions Bourgois and Schonberg discovered among their homeless chronic heroin users. The white guys were much more likely to be alienated from their families than the black ones. The white guys sometimes didn't even know where their parents lived anymore, but the black guys would go home for birthdays, weddings, funerals, and other important occasions. They were more likely to be accepted as errant but still loved family members, while their white counterparts were more likely to be shunned. The junkies' own self-images reflected these contrasting familial responses, with the white ones adopting a hang-dog "outcast" persona compared to the black guys' graying Superfly "outlaw" persona.

The world of the "Righteous Dopefiend" isn't pretty. There are ugly abcesses and necrotizing fasciitis, there is the violence among the users and directed at them, they live in filth and squalor (although some try harder than others to rise above it), they are constantly driven by the need for the next fix and the fear of getting dopesick if they can't come up with the money to buy it.

But, like any of the rest of us, they are capable of acts of kindness and generosity. In the group Bourgois and Schonberg hung with, there was always at least a heroin-soaked bit of cotton for the person going without. There was romance, too, and a friendship and intimacy among "running partners" probably as genuine as any best friendship among non-homeless non-junkies.

By the way, that kindness and generosity often means sharing needles and cooking equipment. If three of you are going in on a $20 bag of Mexican tar, there is going to be some bodily fluid-swapping going on. Bourgois and Schonberg devote some attention to harm reduction practices, and amid all the talk about knowledge/power relations, one gets the general message that some harm reductionists need to do a better job of listening to their clients. Encouraging them moralistically to not share needles or cooking equipment when their circumstances make it inevitable that they will may not be the best approach, they suggest. Still, despite the critique, it is clear the author and the junkies appreciate the efforts at public health and harm reduction interventions. They are certainly preferable to interventions by police or Caltrans, which result in arrest or the trashing of the homeless camps and the loss of all possessions, and certainly more well-intentioned than the city's public hospitals, which insist that the junkies be literally on death's door before they admit them or the doctors who operate on abscesses without anesthetics and needlessly remove large chunks of flesh, leaving gaping wounds before pushing them back out onto the streets.

"Righteous Dopefiend" is most excellent. Even the theorizing is intelligible to the interested layperson (and will doubtless be grist for many a graduate seminar), and the theorizing is the basis for a well-informed critique of the social forces that create and impact the lives of their subjects. I feel like I got to know these people and gained some insight to how they live and think, and I deepened my understanding of why they live the way they do. What more can you ask of anthropology?

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