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June 2009



A conversation with a true believer-liar.

A contradiction in terms? Normally. But if anyone can accomplish both at the same time, it’s John Walters. Marijuana Policy Project’s Steve Fox ran into the former drug czar on the subway. Here’s his report.

This will end badly


The Obama administration is developing plans to seek up to 1,500 National Guard volunteers to step up the military’s counter-drug efforts along the Mexican border, senior administration officials said Monday. […] Senior administration officials said the Guard program will last no longer than a year and would build on an existing counter-drug operation. They […]

We’re making progress

This is Your War on Drugs is a Mother Jones editorial by Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, that makes it appear that some of the things we’ve been talking about are getting traction.

AMONG OUR LEADERS in Washington, who’s been the biggest liar? […] This liar didn’t end-run Congress, or bully it, or have its surreptitious blessing at the time only to face its indignation later. No, this liar was ordered by Congress to lieÖas a prerequisite for holding the job.
Give up? It’s the head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), a.k.a. the drug czar, who in 1998 was mandated by Congress to oppose legislation that would legalize, decriminalize, or medicalize marijuana, or redirect anti-trafficking funding into treatment. And the drug czar has alsoÖhere’s where the lying comes inÖbeen prohibited from funding research that might give credence to any of the above. […]
But then, the drug war has never been about factsÖabout, dare we say, soberly weighing which policies might alleviate suffering, save taxpayers money, rob the cartels of revenue. Instead, we’ve been stuck in a cycle of prohibition, failure, and counterfactual claims of success.

Not bad. Mother Jones, which has been out on the edge on some progressive issues, has not really been there when it comes to drug policy. And now they are admitting it…

So why don’t we have a rational drug policy? Simple. Forget the Social Security “third rail.” The quickest way to get yourself sidelined in serious policy discussion is to stray from drug war orthodoxy. Even MoJo has skirted the topic for fear of looking like a bunch of hot-tubbing stoners. Such is the power of the culture wars, 50 years on.

I think the biggest progress we’ve made (and most of it, in my opinion, has happened in the past 5 or 6 years) is empowering people (and media) to “stray from drug war orthodoxy.” Mother Jones’ editors are, in this article, way behind, but finally getting the courage.
Even yet, their analytical skills are weak…

What would a fact-based drug policy look like? It would put considerably more money into treatment, the method proven to best reduce use. It would likely leave in place the prohibition on “hard” drugs, but make enforcement fair (no more traffickers rolling on hapless girlfriends to cut a deal. No more Tulias). And it would likely decriminalize but tightly regulate marijuana, which study after study shows is less dangerous or addictive than cigarettes or alcohol, has undeniable medicinal properties, and isn’t a gateway drug to anything harder than Doritos.

I’m not sure how leaving prohibition in place is “fact-based,” or why they’re afraid to use the “L” word for marijuana, but at least it’s more fact-based than today’s policies.
Over at The American Prospect, Eli Sanders has The Last Drug Czar – a fascinating article about Kerlikowske and the drug war in general.
He starts out talking about Kerlikowske’s statement that he’s going to stop using the rhetoric of the war on drugs (whether true or not, even the willingness to use the rhetoric of stopping the rhetoric is, oddly, still significant).

As far as statements from high government officials go, it was a radical declaration. Kerlikowske, and by extension Barack Obama, was rejecting four decades of federal government marching orders — a bold departure that would have been unthinkable in previous administrations. But even more striking than his announcement was the reaction: crickets.

Recognition of the futility of the war and the reality of economic laws…

To the dismay of decades of drug warriors, it turns out that the threat of arrest and, in some cases, harsh mandatory sentences has done nothing to halt the public’s demand for illegal substances. Nor has it lessened the eagerness of street dealers and drug cartels to deliver those illegal substances to markets large and small. Close to half of all Americans report they have tried illegal drugs. Given this kind of persistent demand, it’s no surprise that the targeting of suppliers hasn’t succeeded.

Of course, nobody really thinks Obama’s administration is going to dismantle the war on drugs. At best, there will be rhetoric with no action. At worst, there will be a running away from the discussion. But that opens the door for us… and the states… to take the lead on drug policy. I think that’s why Sanho Tree says “He’s the best drug czar we’ve ever had, which isn’t saying a lot.”
The article goes on to talk to reformers about what we might expect. Nadelmann says that, despite the “giant wave” we’re riding: “I don’t see the drug-war infrastructure crumbling quickly, if only because the old mind-sets have been there for a long time and there are powerful interests vested in the status quo.”
Tree follows up with a hilarious quote:

Sanho Tree, of the Center for Policy Studies, agrees. “It’s very difficult to predict tipping points, and when it happens it’s going to happen quickly,” he says. “We are already at the tipping point societally in terms of ending the drug war. But the people who have to act on this are in Congress, and they won’t do so because they have to face re-election. A lot of these politicians have fairly reptilian brains — you know, fire, burn, bad. … They think that because something was toxic a few years ago, it’s still toxic today.”

[Thanks, Tom!!]

Richard Holbrooke still gets it, mostly

In a recent interview with Reuters, U.S. special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan:

The Western policies against the opium crop, the poppy crop, have been a failure. They did not result in any damage to the Taliban, but they put farmers out of work and they alienated people and drove people into the arms of […]

Open Thread

“bullet” A Misguided ‘War on Drugs by Manfred Nowak and Anand Grove in the New York Times.

Anything goes in the ‹war on drugs,Š or so it seems. Governments around the world have used it as an excuse for unchecked human rights abuse and irrational policies based on knee-jerk reactions rather than scientific evidence. This has caused tremendous human suffering. It also undermines drug control efforts. […]
Too many lives are at stake for the current head-in-the-sand politics, and if the United Nations and member states continue to bury their heads, they will be complicit in the abuses.

“bullet” What if the President Smoked Pot? by Derek Thompson, The Atlantic.

The government’s effort to manage tobacco rather than make it illegal is exactly what belongs in the debate over pot and other illegal substances that could, at the very least, provide significant boons to medical pharmacology. The FDA has rejected the possibility of making cigarettes illegal by saying the underground product would be “even more dangerous than those currently marketed.” So when you make popular products illegal, it has the potential to make those products more dangerous. Gee, ya think?
I know that Gee, ya think is about as far as you can get from a comprehensive plan for the controlled legalization of marijuana and other substances. But let’s be adults here. Obama understands the limits of cigarette law because he understands the market for cigarettes. Maybe what the drug debate really needs is a joint in the West Wing.

“bullet” “drcnet”

You’re going to need some pretty tall boots to wade through this

Acting DEA Head Michele Leonhart on the UNODC World Drug Report:

“Today’s newly-released United Nation’s World Drug Report confirms DEA’s global enforcement strategy successes targeting the major drug trafficking organizations, particularly their leadership, financial infrastructure and transportation facilitators ,” said DEA Acting Administrator Michele M. Leonhart. “Working closely with our domestic and international counterparts , […]

Supreme Court rules strip search violated teen’s Constitutional rights


The Supreme Court ruled today that school officials’ strip search of a then-13-year-old Arizona teen suspected of possessing a painkiller violated the girl’s constitutional rights, despite the school district’s zero-tolerance policy for drugs. The court said, however, that school officials are protected from personal liability in the case. The ruling is a partial victory […]

Some reactions to the UNODC World Drug Report 2009

I’ve been interested to see what how the media will characterize this report, and what they notice within it, since this one has some significantly differences (the attack on legalizers and the acknowledgement of certain prohibition flaws). A lot of early reports merely parrot back the drug use/seizure data contained about their particular country as if it really meant something without the larger context, but there have been some other approaches.
“bullet” Time Magazine’s Skimmer picked up on some of the more interesting shifts:

This year’s report from the U.N.’s Office on Drugs and Crime did something that last year’s did not: it addressed the “growing chorus” of people in favor of abolishing drug laws altogether. And though its authors maintain that legalizing narcotics would be an “epic mistake,” the office’s executive director, Antonio Maria Costa, does agree that loosening regulations might not be such a bad idea: “You can’t have effective control under prohibition, as we should have learned from our failed experiment with alcohol in the U.S. between 1920 and 1933.” […]

[Update: Turns out that quote was from LEAP’s Jack Cole, not Costa. Thought that sounded a little too good for Costa.]

On moving beyond “reactive law enforcement”: “Those who take the “drug war” metaphor literally may feel this effort is best advanced by people in uniform with guns [but] in the end, the criminal justice system is a very blunt instrument for dealing with drug markets … the arrest, prosecution, and incarceration of individuals is an extremely slow, expensive and labor intensive process.”

“bullet” On the other hand, the Associated Press really screwed the pooch with their article. It’s like they didn’t even read the damn thing and just asked somebody to give them some talking points.

Marijuana, or cannabis, remained the most widely used and cultivated drug in the world and it is more harmful than commonly believed, the report said.
As a result, the number of people seeking treatment is rising. Roughly 167 million people use marijuana at least occasionally.

Wow. What a mess.
“bullet” Ryan Grim has some great coverage at Huffington Post: UN Backs Drug Decriminalization In World Drug Report

In an about face, the United Nations on Wednesday lavishly praised drug decriminalization in its annual report on the state of global drug policy. In previous years, the UN drug czar had expressed skepticism about Portugal’s decriminalization, which removed criminal penalties in 2001 for personal drug possession and emphasized treatment over incarceration. The UN had suggested the policy was in violation of international drug treaties and would encourage “drug tourism.”
But in its 2009 World Drug Report, the UN had little but kind words for Portugal’s radical (by U.S. standards) approach.

“bullet” Jacob Sullum has The U.N.’s 10-Year Plan to Eradicate Drugs: How’d That Go?

The shocking (and encouraging) thing is that Costa, an economist with a Ph.D. from U.C.-Berkeley, is a pretty smart guy (though not quite as smart as he thinks he is). The fact that he ends up mouthing the same sort of non sequiturs, unsupported generalizations, obvious falsehoods, Orwellian redefinitions, and empty platitudes that you hear from the average ex-DEA bureaucrat is yet another sign that drug warriors are intellectually bankrupt.
But reformers shouldn’t get cocky….

“bullet” Over at Transform: UN Office on Drugs and Crime admits it is at war with itself

Danny Kushlick, Head of Policy at Transform said:

‹UNODC is officially at war with itself. The Executive Director has admitted repeatedly that the UNODC oversees the very system that gifts the vast illegal drug market to violent criminal profiteers, with disastrous consequences. The UNODC is effectively creating the problem it is claiming to eliminate. Mr Costa has identified five major ‘unintended consequences‰ of the drug control system. Is there a time limit on how long a consequence remains ‘unintended‰? Aren‰t they now just ‘consequences‰?Š

Also at Transform: World Drug Report Preface majors on legalisation

it is the same confused mix of misrepresentations, straw man arguments, and logical fallacies that we are used to hearing from the UNODC’s drug warriors. The particularly strange thing here though is that some of the analysis of the problem, the critique at least, is actually fairly good – it’s where it leads that is so extraordinary…. […]
it might be useful to view this preface as a barometer of the debate globally, and of Transform and other reform NGOs having a real impact on the international debate at the highest levels, including the UNODC. It is a reflection of the progress the reform movement has made that the legalization/regulation issue takes up so much of the space in the preface, and that the UNODC feels the need to go on the defensive this prominently.
Secondly, we would suggest that it is indicative of an institutional problem at UNODC, that something as internally inconsistent as this passes muster and is allowed into the public domain. They fully acknowledge that prohibition, under the auspices of the UN drug agencies and international drug control infrastructure, has been a generational disaster on multiple fronts – and yet then call for more of the same, brushing off those who call for a debate on alternatives with the offensive and childish smear of being ‘pro-drugs’.

Tom Angell of LEAP asks the Drug Czar a question, Kerlikowske claims not to know the English language

At today’s Press Conference…

Costa and the UNODC on the defensive

I just finished reading the Executive Summary (pdf) written by Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa, of the UNODC World Drug Report 2009 that is being released today.
For the first time, the UNODC has acknowledged the legalization movement and is pretty defensive about it. Clearly we’re doing our job very well.
[Note: the somewhat random underlining and italics throughout are Costa’s.]

Of late, there has been a limited but
growing chorus among politicians, the press, and even
in public opinion saying: drug control is not working. The
broadcasting volume is still rising and the message
Much of this public debate is characterized by sweeping
generalizations and simplistic solutions. Yet, the very
heart of the discussion underlines the need to evaluate
the effectiveness of the current approach. Having studied
the issue on the basis of our data, UNODC has
concluded that, while changes are needed, they should
be in favour of different means to protect society against
drugs, rather than by pursuing the different goal of
abandoning such protection.

Notice the sweeping generalization of characterizing us as using sweeping generalizations. Note also, that Costa feels so threatened by the our arguments that he can no longer say that things are going just fine — he actually agrees that change is needed. Of course, his approach — finding a “different” version of prohibition — is ridiculous, but it appears we have him on the run.

I. The economic argument for drug legalization says:
legalize drugs, and generate tax income. This argument is
gaining favour, as national administrations seek new
sources of revenue during the current economic crisis.
This legalize and tax argument is un-ethical and uneconomical.
It proposes a perverse tax, generation upon
generation, on marginalized cohorts (lost to addiction)
to stimulate economic recovery. Are the partisans of this
cause also in favour of legalizing and taxing other seemingly
intractable crimes like human trafficking? Modern-
day slaves (and there are millions of them) would
surely generate good tax revenue to rescue failed banks.

Wow! He really is desperate. Equating drug legalization with human trafficking? Legalize and tax is unethical? Perverse tax? He’s provided zero argument, zero fact, but lots of inflammatory language.

The economic argument is also based on poor fiscal
logic: any reduction in the cost of drug control (due to
lower law enforcement expenditure) will be offset by
much higher expenditure on public health (due to the
surge of drug consumption). The moral of the story:
don‰t make wicked transactions legal just because they
are hard to control.

Again, no evidence shown that there will actually be higher public health costs or surges of drug consumption, and again, note the use of the word “wicked.”

Others have argued that, following legalization, a
health threat (in the form of a drug epidemic) could be
avoided by state regulation of the drug market. Again,
this is naive and myopic. […]
Why unleash a drug epidemic in the developing
world for the sake of libertarian arguments made by
a pro-drug lobby that has the luxury of access to drug
treatment? Drugs are not harmful because they are controlled
— they are controlled because they are harmful

What drug epidemic will be unleashed? There is no evidence that one would happen. On the other hand, prohibition is damaging the developing world because they don’t have the resources to deal with all the cartels.
And that last line? What a trite, overused phrase (or at least a variation on it). And totally unsupported by history.

The most serious issue concerns organized crime.
All market activity controlled by the authority generates
parallel, illegal transactions, as stated above. Inevitably,
drug controls have generated a criminal market of macro-
economic dimensions that uses violence and corruption
to mediate between demand and supply. Legalize
drugs, and organized crime will lose its most profitable line
of activity, critics therefore say.
Not so fast. UNODC is well aware of the threats posed
by international drug mafias. […]
Having started this drugs/crime debate, and having
pondered it extensively, we have concluded that these
drug-related, organized crime arguments are valid. They
must be addressed.

Whoa! Costa says our arguments are valid. This is huge, and we should take every opportunity to quote him and the UNODC on it.

The system of international drug control has produced
several unintended consequences, the most formidable
of which is the creation of a lucrative black market for
drugs and the violence and corruption it generates.

— The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, World Drug Report 2009

Of course, Costa is not about to agree that legalization is the solution. But if prohibition isn’t the solution, and legalization isn’t the solution, what is?

I urge governments to recalibrate the
policy mix, without delay, in the direction of more controls
on crime, without fewer controls on drugs. In other
words, while the crime argument is right, the conclusions
reached by its proponents are flawed.

Note that the UNODC is the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, so they can simply shift it over to their other side. Prohibition doesn’t work and causes crime, so we’ll focus on crime while keeping prohibition. (As if crime focus hadn’t already been happening.)
He then goes on to say that countries should shift to a more supply-side oriented approach to drug policy. Yeah, like that’s worked. Some good statements about shifting focus away from drug users, yet he still won’t budge on any meaningful reform.

To conclude, transnational organized crime will never be
stopped by drug legalization. Mafias coffers are equally
nourished by the trafficking of arms, people and their
organs, by counterfeiting and smuggling, racketeering
and loan-sharking, kidnapping and piracy, and by violence
against the environment (illegal logging, dumping
of toxic waste, etc). The drug/crime trade-off argument,
debated above, is no other than the pursuit of the old
drug legalization agenda, persistently advocated by the
pro-drug-lobby (Note that the partisans of this argument
would not extend it to guns whose control — they
say — should actually be enforced and extended: namely,
no to guns, yes to drugs).

Nonsensical statements. The fact that organized crime can find other means of making money doesn’t mean we should continue to shovel money their way through the black market drug trade. Illegal logging? What does that have to do with drug legalization?
And where did this gun argument come from? Drug legalizers range across the political spectrum — some are in favor of stricter gun control, while some are in favor of looser gun control. He acts like this is some kind of “gotcha” against drug legalizers, but it’s meaningless.

So far the drug legalization agenda has been opposed
fiercely, and successfully, by the majority of our society.

No. It’s been opposed fiercely and unsuccessfully by a powerful minority who benefit from the drug war.

Yet, anti-crime policy must change. It is no longer sufficient
to say: no to drugs. We have to state an equally
vehement: no to crime.

Policy must actually change, not just experience a change of rhetoric.
He concludes with:

There is no alternative to improving both security and
health. The termination of drug control would be an
epic mistake. Equally catastrophic is the current disregard
of the security threat posed by organized crime.

??? Babble speak.
So, the good news is that we’ve got them scared. They’re having to address a whole herd of elephants in the room – the failure of prohibition, the damages of prohibition, increased public education, changing public opinion reaching political significance, and, of course, a vibrant and smart reform community.
They’re not going to give up their turf. Costa’s attempts to address the issues by simply re-framing prohibition are the standard prohibitionist response to failure. It’ll buy him some time with those who want prohibition to remain. But the desperation in his attacks (“wicked,” “perverse,” “human trafficking,” etc.), and the lack of any coherent support for what he has to say, puts some more cracks in the prohibitionist power.
The thing that we have learned so powerfully is that once our opposition is forced to engage us (and now they are), forced to actually address the problems of prohibition, we have the solid upper hand.
One more point from Costa’s introduction:

illicit drugs continue to pose a health
danger to humanity. That‰s why drugs are, and should
remain, controlled.

But no. The fact is that illicit drugs are not controlled. They are prohibited. That is significantly different than controlled. In fact, in many ways it is a dramatic lack of control, by turning control over to the black market.
Government likes to claim that prohibition is control, when it is not. (eg., The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy).
Legalization and regulation provides actual drug control.
Law Enforcement Against Prohibition has made that point in an open letter to Costa they’ve already put together as a response to this report:

I strongly disagree with your claim in the World Drug Report 2009 that people calling for legalization of drugs are somehow endorsing less “control” over drugs than we have now.
Indeed, it is the failed system of prohibition that you endorse which strips society of the ability to regulate and control drugs, including who produces and consumes them, as well as where the profits go.

You can send your own copy of this letter to Costa at their new action page: