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Hemp: DEA Has Spent $175 Million Eradicating "Ditch Weed" Plants That Don't Get You High

In the past two decades, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has spent at least $175 million in direct spending and grants to the states to eradicate feral hemp plants, popularly known as "ditch weed." The plants, the hardy descendants of hemp plants grown by farmers at the federal government's request during World War II, do not contain enough THC, the primary psychoactive ingredient in marijuana, to get people high.
chart by Jon Gettman for Vote Hemp
According to figures from the DEA's Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program, it has seized or destroyed 4.7 billion feral hemp plants since 1984. That's in contrast to the 4.2 million marijuana plants it has seized or destroyed during the same period. In other words, 98.1% of all plants eradicated under the program were ditch weed, of which it is popularly remarked that "you could smoke a joint the size of a telephone pole and all you would get is a headache and a sore throat."

While the DEA is spending millions of tax payer dollars, including $11 million in 2005, to wipe out hemp plants, farmers in Canada and European countries are making millions growing hemp for use in a wide variety of food, clothing, and other products. Manufacturers of hemp products in the United States must import their hemp from countries with more enlightened policies.
chart by Jon Gettman for Vote Hemp
"It's Orwellian that the biggest target of the DEA's Eradication Program is actually not a drug but instead a useful plant for everything from food, clothing and even auto parts and currently must be imported to supply a $270 million industry," said Eric Steenstra, president of Vote Hemp, a group lobbying for increased acceptance of the versatile plant. "While Vote Hemp has urged the DEA to recognize the difference between hemp and marijuana so farmers could grow it here, the federal agency is spending millions of dollars to destroy hundreds of millions of harmless hemp plants."

DEA officials regularly argue that there is no difference between hemp and marijuana, but their own statistics belie that claim. In its reports on the domestic eradication program, the agency clearly differentiates between ditch weed and "cultivated marijuana."

Not only is the ditch weed eradication program a waste of money, it may even be counterproductive, said Vote Hemp national outreach coordinator Tom Murphy. "Much of the ditch weed eradicated is believed to be burned, turning a carbon consuming plant into a contributor of Greenhouse gasses," said Murphy in a post-Christmas press release. "For all the effort to find and destroy these harmless wild hemp plants they are coming back year after year. It is likely that the eradication programs help re-seed the locations were ditch weed is found. The late summer timing and removal method causes countless ripe seeds to fall to the ground where they will sprout again the following year."

Your tax dollars at work.

Medical Marijuana: California's Booming Market Offers Substantial Tax Revenues, Report Finds

Medical marijuana is a billion dollar a year business in California, according to a new report, and the state's bottom line could improve dramatically if it were taxed like other herbal medicines. The report, "Revenue and Taxes from Oakland's Cannabis Economy," was prepared for that city's Measure Z Oversight Committee by California NORML head Dale Gieringer and and Oakland Civil Liberties Alliance board member Richard Lee.

While the report focused on Oakland, which has seen medical marijuana revenues and the taxes derived from them decline dramatically since the city tightened regulations on dispensaries in recent years, it also looked at state and federal data to attempt to draw a state-wide picture of the size of the therapeutic cannabis industry. According to the data, the state's medical marijuana patients are currently consuming somewhere between $870 million and $2 billion worth of weed a year. That would translate to somewhere between $70 million and $120 million in state sales tax revenues, the authors estimated.

But currently, the state treasury is receiving nowhere near that because many dispensaries do not pay sales taxes or keep financial records that could be used against them in a federal investigation. Other dispensaries and patient groups argue that nonprofit collectives and co-ops should be exempt from taxes.

The study estimated the number of California medical marijuana patients at between 150,000 and 350,000. There is no firm figure, because unlike many other medical marijuana states, there is no comprehensive, statewide registry of patients. Those patients each smoke about a pound of pot a year.

Medical marijuana patients account for about 10% of California marijuana users, the study found, suggesting that tax revenues from a legal recreational marijuana market would skyrocket into the low billions of dollars each year. The state is currently spending about $160 million a year to arrest, prosecute, and imprison marijuana offenders, and not collecting any tax revenue from recreational sales.

State officials have a fiduciary responsibility to the citizens they represent. This report makes clear just how miserably California officials are shirking that responsibility.

Drug Prohibition: Vermont Prosecutor Calls for "Peace Talks" in War on Drugs, Consideration of Public Health Approach

In an opinion piece published Thursday in the Rutland Herald and at least one other newspaper, Vermont's Windsor County States Attorney Robert Sand has called for "peace talks" in the war on drugs. Rather than declaring victory or defeat, "it's time to devise an intelligent exit strategy, one that includes consideration of a regulated public health approach to drugs instead of our current criminal justice model."

The current approach to drug policy, with its heavy reliance on law enforcement "may actually be counterproductive to public and personal safety," Sand wrote. Drug prohibition spawns three forms of violence, he noted -- structural violence (i.e. gun battles to resolve business disputes), acquisitive violence (i.e. drug addicts resorting to robbery to pay inflated black market prices for drugs), and to a much lesser extent, biopharmaceutical violence (i.e. people who get high and attack others).

According to Sand, any inquiry into drug policy must answer five critical questions:

  • If we are serious about addressing substance abuse, why do we treat addicts as criminals?
  • Given the addictive and dangerous nature of certain drugs, why do we allow criminals to control their distribution (criminals with a financial interest in finding new customers and keeping others addicted)?
  • Why reject a regulatory approach to drugs yet regulate alcohol and tobacco, two highly addictive and dangerous substances?
  • If a regulatory approach would increase health care costs, would those costs be more than offset by savings in the criminal justice system?
  • If our current approach is working, why have drug use, potency, arrest, and incarceration rates increased and not decreased as enforcement expenditures have gone up?

    Sand also suggested that a regulatory approach to currently illegal drugs could result in less drug use by adolescents, citing young people who say it is easier to obtain marijuana than alcohol. By moving away from prohibition to regulation, the "forbidden fruit" effect would also be reduced, Sand argued.

    Interest in changing drug policies should cross party lines, Sand suggested. "Drug policy reform should appeal to a broad political spectrum. Reform would allow us to treat addicts more compassionately and effectively. It would remove government from the private choices of adults. And it could result in substantial savings by reducing criminal justice and correctional expenditures. To suggest that proposing reform is tantamount to 'being soft on drugs' is to reduce a highly complex issue into a one-dimensional catch phrase. We can, and must, be more thoughtful than that."

    Lastly, Sand argued that change needs to occur at both the state and federal levels. Noting that the state, represented in Washington by Sens. Patrick Leahy (D) and Bernard Sanders (I), and Rep. Peter Welch (D), has some pull in the new Congress, Sand urged the delegation to influence change in drug policy. "Even if Vermonters sought a bold and courageous new approach to drug policy," he noted, "the federal government might seek to stifle innovation. The states and the federal government must try to work in partnership on these issues."

    Local prosecutors are a stalwart of the war on drugs. Only a handful have ever spoken out against it. Let's hope Sand's stand unleashes a deluge of them.

  • Latin America: Mexican Soldiers Occupy Tijuana in Fight Against Drug Trade

    More than 3,000 Mexican soldiers and federal police were dispatched to the border city of Tijuana this week to fight the drug trade, Mexican officials announced Tuesday. That same day, convoys containing several hundred police clad in body armor rolled into the city, the headquarters of one of Mexico's most powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations, the Arrellano Felix cartel.

    The move into Tijuana, where more than 300 people were killed in drug prohibition-related violence last year, is the second tough strike against the cartels by new Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Last month, he sent more than 7,000 troops into the state of Michoacan to eradicate marijuana and opium poppy crops and move against traffickers located there.

    "The operations will allow us to reestablish the minimal security conditions in different points of Mexico so we can recover little by little our streets, our parks and our schools," President Calderon told the country in a New Year's message on Tuesday.

    "We will carry out all the necessary actions to retake every region of national territory," Mexican Interior Secretary Francisco Ramirez Acuna said in a news conference the same day. "We will not allow any state to be a hostage of drug traffickers or organized crime."

    Ramirez Acuna added that the Tijuana force would include 2,620 soldiers, 162 marines, and 510 federal police. They will be equipped with 28 boats, 21 planes, and nine helicopters to attempt to squelch the booming cross-border trade in cocaine, marijuana, and methamphetamines. The soldiers and police will patrol the coast, man checkpoints, and hunt down wanted traffickers in teeming Tijuana, just across the US-Mexico border from San Diego.

    The federal intervention was welcomed by Tijuana Mayor Jorge Hank Rhon, who, under attack from city business interests, late last year announced that he was placing the entire municipal police force under investigation for drug-related corruption. Rhon told reporters in Tijuana this week he hoped the soldiers and federal police would work with city police -- presumably ones who have already been vetted -- who are establishing random checkpoints.

    "I hope this will make Tijuana a safer place," he said, while denying that the deployment means the city is being militarized.

    Like his predecessor, Vicente Fox, President Calderon is making a big show of going after the so-called cartels, whose internecine battles left around 2,000 people dead last year. But Fox's blows against the cartels, which eliminated part of their previous leadership, are what led to the bloody violence as the cartels jostled with each to readjust. Given the lucrative nature of the business and the insatiable appetite for illicit drugs north of the border, there is little evidence to suggest the outcome will be any different this time.

    Latin America: Colombian Senator Calls for Drug Legalization Debate

    A Colombian senator is calling for an urgent debate on alternatives to drug prohibition, and he isn't just any senator. Sen. Juan Manuel Galán, of the opposition Liberal Party, is the son of Luis Carlos Galán, who was weeks away from winning the Colombian presidency when he was gunned down by assassins from Pablo Escobar's Medellin Cartel in 1990.
    Juan Manuel Galán
    It is time for a congressional debate on drug legalization, Galán told the Associated Press in an interview December 28. "The current repressive approach against drug trafficking hasn't worked despite the huge amounts of blood we Colombians have shed," said Galán. "It's time to look at different options, together with other drug-production nations, as a way to break the back of the drug traffickers."

    Drug possession is already legal in Colombia under a Colombian Supreme Court ruling, but the growing of drug crops -- coca, opium poppies, and marijuana -- is illegal, as is the drug trade. The country has received more than $4 billion is US aid -- most of it military -- to defeat the drug trade, without making a significant impact on it. Despite a massive aerial herbicide spraying campaign aimed at eradicating the crop, the US government admits that the amount of land dedicated to the coca crop grew 26% this year.

    While other Colombian politicians have broached the topic before, Galán possesses a particular stature on the issue because of the high esteem in which Colombians hold his father. A foe of the cartels, Luis Carlos Galán was killed as part of a campaign by Escobar to terrorize the Colombian political establishment into blocking his extradition to the US. Escobar himself was killed in 1993, but by then, dozens of political figures, judges, police, and journalists had been killed by cartel assassins.

    Galán senior would approve of his son's position, Juan Manuel Galán said. "I think after two decades, seeing the violent impact of drug trafficking, he would not be closed to new ideas about how to deliver a final deathblow to the drug traffickers." While the United States is likely to oppose the discussion, Galán said, "Colombia has the moral authority to lead this debate at the international level. Two decades into the drug war we continue having illegal mafias that spread violence across the country, we continue having guerrillas, we continue having paramilitaries," said Galán. "And despite it all there's no real solution in sight to the problem."

    But President Alvaro Uribe's Conservative government is unalterably opposed to legalization, and Galán's own Liberal Party has so far failed to back his call for a congressional debate.

    Marijuana: Judge Throws Out Religious Defense in Arizona Marijuana Case, Says Defendants Lack "Sincere" Belief

    A federal judge ruled December 22 that the founders of an Arizona church that uses marijuana as a sacrament, and worships it as a deity, must stand trial on marijuana trafficking charges despite their claim that they are protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That means Dan and Mary Quaintance, founders of the Church of Cognizance, face a January 16 trial on charges related to a 172-pound marijuana seizure in New Mexico. They face up to 40 years in prison each.

    Ten months ago, in a case pitting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act against the Controlled Substances Act, the Supreme Court upheld the right of a New Mexico church to use a controlled substance as a sacrament. The Quaintances cited that case in seeking to have their charges thrown out. But US District Judge Judith Herrera in Albuquerque refused to dismiss the charges against the couple, saying their religious beliefs were not "sincere" and they had "adopted their religious belief in cannabis as a sacrament and deity in order to justify their lifestyle choice to use marijuana."

    "She doesn't fully understand our doctrine," Dan Quaintance told the Associated Press after the ruling. "This is very upsetting to members of our church. It was quite a holiday present. Normally on Christmas we would have shared the herb with our friends and church members," Quaintance said. "Instead we had presents. We were a little empty... What's happening to us is a clear violation of the US Constitution. It's clear we are sincere."

    The Church of Cognizance was founded in 1991 and filed a statement of "religious sentiment" with local authorities in 1994. According to the Quaintances, the church has 40 or 50 members in Arizona and an unknown number across the country. The church's motto is: "With good thoughts, good words and good deeds, we honor marijuana; as the teacher, the provider, the protector."

    The couple remains free on bond at their home near Pima, Arizona, while awaiting trial. They have stepped down as leaders of the church.

    Europe: Support for Marijuana Legalization Low

    Only about one quarter of adults in Europe believe marijuana should be legal for personal use, according to a Eurobarometer poll conducted by the European Commission. In the survey of some 29,000 European Union residents, pollsters found 26% of adults EU-wide were ready to legalize the weed. The figure was highest in the Netherlands, where the sale of marijuana in coffeeshops is winked at by authorities, but even there, support for legalization was not a majority position, coming in at 49%.

    In a second tier of countries, support for legalization ranged between 30% and 40%, with approval hitting 40% in Spain, 32% in Britain and the Czech Republic, and 30% in Ireland. At the other end of the scale, in Romania, Sweden and Finland, less than 10% of respondents agreed that marijuana should be legalized. Among other European countries, support for legalization was 28% in Austria, France, and Italy, 27% in Portugal, 26% in Belgium, and 19% in Germany.

    Somewhat surprisingly, support for marijuana legalization is lower in Europe than in the United States. According to a year-old Gallup poll, 36% of American adults favored legalization, with that figure reaching 47% on the West Coast.

    According to the authors of the Eurobarometer, which included more than 40 questions on support for the European Union and attitudes toward various social issues, "The high level of opposition to the idea that the personal consumption of cannabis should be legalized throughout Europe provides further evidence that Europeans feel there is too much tolerance these days."

    South Pacific: Australia Wants to Ban the Bong

    Australia's Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Health, Christopher Pyne, said over the weekend that the government of Prime Minister John Howard wants to ban bongs. The water pipes widely used for smoking marijuana are sold all across Australia, and not just in "head shops," but also at tobacconists and even gas stations.
    bong with pot leaf emblem
    The comment came as the country staggers through a fit of Reefer Madness related to fears that marijuana causes mental health problems. Those fears were heightened last week by the release of a Mental Health Council of Australia report linking pot smoking to increased risk of mental illness and the worsening of existing mental problems. While the report itself was careful to note that such problems occurred in only a tiny number of users, Australian press coverage has not been so careful.

    In remarks reported by the Sydney Herald-Sun, Pyne said that allowing bongs to remain legal signaled that the government approved of their use and that the display of such items in shops reduced public concern about the impact of drug use. "I'm certainly concerned about the proliferation of apparatus for the use of illicit substances," Mr. Pyne said.

    In addition to playing to rising hysteria over the marijuana-mental illness connection, Pyne is following the lead of the National Cannabis Strategy Group, which last May called for "closer and more appropriate regulation of drug paraphernalia."

    A national bong ban may prove impractical, however. The state government in Victoria banned "cocaine kits" earlier this year, but found that too many ethnic groups used bongs to smoke tobacco and other legal substances to allow it to impose a blanket ban.

    It would also be unpopular, at least among shoppers consulted by the Sun-Herald at one Sydney store that sells bongs and pipes. "No, I don't like smoking through plastic bottles," one shopper said.

    "It's not going to stop anyone from smoking anyway," another said. "They will find a more unhealthy way to smoke it."

    Latin America: Peruvian President Lauds Coca Leaf in Salad, Blasts Guerrillas

    Peruvian President Alan Garcia had coca on his mind this week. In response to an attack Saturday by presumed Shining Path guerrillas working with drug traffickers that killed five police officers and two government coca control workers, Garcia called for the imposition of the death penalty. Just a day later, perhaps to indicate he is not anti-coca, he told a foreign press news gathering that coca would be wonderful consumed in salads.
    coca seedlings
    Peru is the world's second largest coca producer, after Colombia, and indigenous Peruvians have been growing the leafy bush for thousands of years for its sacramental, nutritional and mild stimulative properties. The plant is grown legally in some parts of the country under arrangement with ENACO, the National Coca Company, which holds a monopoly on legal sales and purchases.

    But Peru is also the world's second largest producer of cocaine, which is derived from coca either grown legally and diverted from ENACO or grown illegally. For years, the country has embraced a policy of eradication of illicit crops, which has pleased Washington but left Peru's coca growers angry and frustrated. President Garcia in October pledged during a Washington meeting with President Bush to continue the policy of eradication.

    Some coca growing areas have been under a state of emergency for the past two months, and the Garcia government announced this week that it would be continued for another two months after the killings, which took place in Ayacucho province. The attack, described as a carefully-planned ambush, took place during a police crackdown on unsanctioned coca growing in the region. More than 20 police have been killed in similar attacks in the past year.

    Two days after the attack, Garcia told lawmakers they should allow the death penalty for such crimes. Currently, the death penalty in Peru is allowed only in cases of treason during war-time. Congress should "give the necessary tools to the judges and to the executive branch to definitely eliminate these leftover [Shining Path rebels]." They should be dealt with using "the most energetic and harshest sanction that the law... permits," Garcia said.

    But the next day, Garcia defended the coca leaf and his drug policy to foreign reporters. Coca leaf is great in salads, Garcia said. "I insist that it can be consumed directly and elegantly in salad. It has good nutritional value." Garcia added that one of the country's best-known chefs, Gaston Acurio, had recently served several coca-based dishes at the Government Palace. "He offered us some tamales and pies made with coca flour. He offered us a coca liqueur cocktail," Garcia said. "Could eating coca leaf be harmful? No, absolutely not."

    Such talk aligns Garcia with Bolivian President Evo Morales and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Those two leaders are touting the industrial uses of coca and collaborating on a production plant in Bolivia.

    Garcia told reporters that Peru's anti-drug policy is based "fundamentally" on controlling the sale of precursor chemicals used for cocaine production, but that Peruvian police must also do a better job of combating the cocaine traffic. As much as 90% of Peruvian coca goes to the cocaine trade, not the coca industry.

    Harm Reduction: Experts Call for Urgent Action as Fentanyl-Related Overdose Death Toll Climbs

    More than 120 medical experts, public health departments, and drug user health advocates have called on the federal government to take more aggressive steps to deal with a wave of overdose deaths caused by heroin cut with fentanyl, an opioid pain medication 50 to 80 times stronger than heroin. The call came in an open letter to US Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt drawn up by the Harm Reduction Coalition, a national health and human rights advocacy group working to reduce drug-related harm.
    The ongoing epidemic -- Drug War Chronicle reported on it in June -- has killed more than 750 injection drug users this year from Chicago to the East Coast. Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia all have around 200 fatalities.

    The actual number of deaths may be far higher because many jurisdictions near these large cities may lack the resources and expertise to monitor overdose trends. "This wave of overdose deaths poses an acute public health emergency and immediate threat to the lives of opiate users, while highlighting persistent weaknesses in health officials' response to the increasing epidemic of both legal and illegal opiate overdose," said Dr. Sharon Stancliff, medical director for the Harm Reduction Coalition.

    The letter makes five recommendations, calling on Secretary Leavitt to ensure that:

    1. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) create surveillance systems to monitor overdose trends and threats.
    2. The National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) provide emergency funds for research projects to answer urgent questions that will allow jurisdictions to immediately and effectively address the overdose epidemic.
    3. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) rapidly replicate existing overdose prevention programs, and fully fund them.
    4. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) inform CDC of levels of purity and presence of fentanyl and other hazardous contaminants in local drug supplies so CDC can notify the public.
    5. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) prepare an emergency report of the current overdose epidemic for Congress. This report should make emergency recommendations for prevention measures including: Supporting community-based responses to overdose, including the use of naloxone, a legal medication that reverses opioid overdoses, by users and their loved ones; improving police and emergency medical services responses to overdoses; and enhancing the availability of substance abuse treatment.

    "A client told us she watched her friend die in front of her and there was nothing she could do," said Corey Davis, legal services coordinator at Prevention Point Philadelphia. "If she had naloxone and was trained to use it, she could have saved her friend's life. We've lost a lot of our people due to fentanyl. This has to stop."

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