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Latin America: INCB Calls on Peru, Bolivia to Ban Coca Chewing

In its 2007 Annual Report, released Wednesday, the International Narcotics Control Board called on the governments of Bolivia and Peru to ban coca chewing, as well as its sale or export. The indigenous people of the Andes have chewed coca for thousands of years, and the call is likely to fall on deaf ears in the Andes.

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coca leaves drying by highway, Chapare region of Bolivia
The INCB is a 23-member independent commission that works with the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), its Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) and other international organizations to monitor implementation of the series of international treaties that form the legal backbone of the global prohibition regime. While its remit includes ensuring adequate supplies of drugs are available for medical and scientific uses (see related story here), it spends much of its resources trying to prevent any deviations from the global prohibitionist drug policy status quo. For instance, this year, the INCB once again criticized Canada for allowing harm reduction measures such as the Vancouver safe injection site and the distribution of "safe crack use kits."

In its review of coca and cocaine production in South America, the board noted that despite multi-billion dollar eradication efforts in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia -- responsible for 50%, 33%, and 17% of coca production, respectively -- cocaine production had remained stable at between 800 and 1,000 tons a year for the past decade. The way to get at cocaine production is to eliminate coca production, the board suggested.

"The Board requests the Government of Bolivia and Peru to take measures to prohibit the sale, use and attempts to export coca leaf for purposes which are not in line with the international drug control treaties," the group said. "The Board is concerned by the negative impact of increased coca leaf production and cocaine manufacture in the region."

It urged governments "to establish as a criminal offense" using coca leaf to make tea, flour, or other products. That would undercut efforts in all three countries to develop and expand markets for coca products.

Reaction from Bolivia, where former coca leader President Evo Morales has called for the removal of the coca plant from the list of substances banned by the international drug treaties, was swift and negative. "In Bolivia, there will never be a policy of zero coca,'' said Hilder Sejas, spokesman for the vice ministry of social defense. "To do so would walk over the rights of millions of Bolivians for whom coca is a symbol of our cultural identity," he told Bloomberg News Service Wednesday.

Treating coca as if it were a dangerous drug was "absurd," said Wade Davis, an author and botanist who studied coca in Colombia. "Coca is as vital to the Andes as the Eucharist is to Catholics," he told the news service. "There is no evidence of toxicity or addiction in 4,000 years of use."

The INCB call to ban coca use was also met by a sharp attack from the Transnational Institute, whose Drugs and Democracy Project seeks to develop and implement pragmatic, harm reduction approaches to global drug issues. "The Board is displaying both arrogance and blindness by demanding that countries impose criminal sanctions on distribution and possession for traditional uses of the coca leaf, which is a key feature of Andean-Amazon indigenous cultures," said Pien Metaal, a TNI researcher specializing in coca issues. "Isn't it time for this UN treaty body to get in touch with reality and show some more cultural sensitivity?"

Not only does the INCB proposal violate the UN Declaration on Indigenous Rights, it "would mean the prosecution of several million people in the Andean-Amazon region," TNI said. "It targets not just consumers, but also peasants who grow coca."

"The Board's position makes no sense," said Metaal. "It would criminalize entire peoples for a popular tradition and custom that has no harm and is even beneficial."

Latin America: Colombian Peasants Battle Police Over Coca Crops

Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's plan to manually eradicate 250,000 acres of coca plants this year ran into violent opposition last week as some 2,000 peasants blocked a highway outside Medellin, smashed a toll booth, and fought with police in protest of Uribe's campaign. The peasant farmers are demanding two years to shift to legal crops.

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coca seedlings
A few days later, the violence over coca cultivation spread to the Venezuelan border, where two soldiers and three leftist rebels were killed in clashes over coca fields. The soldiers and rebels died in a Monday clash in Santander province.

The US and Colombian governments have spent billions of dollars in recent years in efforts to eradicate coca crops there, but the country remains the world's leading coca and cocaine producer. The protests by peasants and shoot-outs between soldiers and rebels illustrate the obstacles faced by Uribe and his allies in Washington.

For the peasant farmers outside Medellin, protecting their coca crops is a matter of survival, said local officials. "They are asking for solutions to their food security and sustenance," the mayor of the town of Tarazá, Miguel Ángel Gómez, told Reuters.

"We're protesting because if they finish off the illegal crops, which we all know are illegal and damaging, then they finish off our way of sustaining our families," one farmer told local television.

The Colombian government has blamed the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country's largest guerrilla group, with fomenting the protests. Like many other actors in the Colombian conflict, the FARC profits from the coca and cocaine trade.

Latin America: Colombian Soldiers Convicted of Killing Colombian Narcotics Police

In one of the most depraved cases of corruption in the Colombian armed forces in recent years, a Colombian court Monday convicted an army colonel and 14 soldiers of massacring 10 members of an elite, US-trained anti-drug police unit and an informant at the behest of drug traffickers. A judge in Cali found Col. Bayron Carvajal and his soldiers guilty of aggravated homicide for the May 2006 ambush outside a rural nursing home near Cali. The men will be sentenced in two weeks.

The soldiers bushwhacked the police unit as it was about to seize 220 pounds of cocaine that the informant had told them was stashed inside a psychiatric facility in the town of Jamundí. The soldiers fired hundreds of rounds at the police and attacked them with hand grenades. Six of the police officers were found to have been shot at close range. No drugs were recovered.

During the trial, more than a hundred witnesses testified. Some of them linked Carvajal to both leftist guerrillas and drug traffickers. Carvajal claimed his troops were attacking leftist rebels working with drug traffickers, but that didn't fly. Neither did the military's original explanation that the deaths were accidental. The military later conceded that its inquiries suggested links between the soldiers and drug gangs operating in the region.

Under Plan Colombia, the US has sent an average of $650 million a year in recent years to fight the drug trade and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC. Most of that money has gone to expand, equip, and train the Colombian military and police. Part of the rationale for that aid was that it would reduce corruption and human rights abuses in the Colombian armed forces.

The Carvajal case is not the only one to tarnish the image of the Colombian military lately. In the last two years, high-ranking military officers have been accused of selling secrets to drug traffickers to help them escape capture and planting fake bombs to advance their careers. Killings of noncombatants by the military are also reportedly on the increase after decreasing during the early years of Plan Colombia.

Meanwhile, for all the billions spent, that Colombian cocaine just keeps on coming.

Editorial: Politicians Are Too Scared to Talk About Drug Prohibition, So We Must Talk

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
Each week, as many of you know, our editor Phil Smith compiles a list of the latest reports on police corruption relating to the drug laws: "This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories." Phil has been writing these for more than five years -- I won't let him stop -- and in all that time I can only remember a single week in which he was unable to find any relevant news articles. Whatever one thinks of the police, the bottom line is that the drug laws corrupt some of them, and so long as we have these drug laws they always will.

To the south, a court in the nation of Colombia dealt with the perpetrators of a particularly troubling incident of government corruption at a level I hope we never see here. In May 2006, a judge found, an Army colonel and 14 of his troops massacred 10 Colombian narcotics police, ambushing them outside the city of Cali as they prepared to seize 220 pounds of cocaine to which they had been pointed (rightly or wrongly) by an informant. Mexico may even have it worse right now. In 2006 and 2007 roughly 4,000 people have been murdered in drug trade violence, and police are among the many suspects. While police corruption and drug trade violence have certainly taken their toll on our country here in the north, we should by no means rule out the possibility that things could get even worse.

And so the US government should take a lesson from the experience of Colombia, both for their sakes and for ours. Colombia is fighting the drug war in the way it does, in part because they have been pushed into it by US diplomatic pressure. Colombian cognoscenti in significant number understand that it is prohibition which causes drug trade violence, and that Colombia would be better off with some form of drug legalization -- The understanding may fall short of an outright consensus, but it is an understanding that is widely held nonetheless. Many US policymakers privately understand this too, but for reasons both political and ideological they not only refuse to deal with it, but in many cases continue to actively push other countries in the wrong direction. To be fair, drug warrior politicians in Colombia presumably find the drug laws useful for political purposes as well.

The situation is a wrongful one, and should be changed. Colombia doesn't deserve to be torn apart by flawed drug policies that it didn't invent, and it is our users here who buy most of their product anyway and thereby make it possible. There are viable options for reducing the harms of substance that don't involve prohibition, and which therefore don't cause drug trade violence, don't cause corruption, don't place addicts into the hell we've all seen, and that could actually work. Just because we talk about making drugs legal doesn't mean we won't still offer treatment, that the addicted won't organize for self-help, that we can no longer seek to discourage drug use or do harm reduction for those who don't listen. The exact best regulation system or set of programs is hard to tell, and every possible scenario has both pros and cons. But they all have in common that they are preferable to prohibition for almost every important measure one can construct.

The victims of the drug laws -- in Colombia, here, everywhere -- don't deserve what is being done to them. Since our politicians are mostly too scared to talk about this, it is therefore up to us to press the case. Bit by bit, the public will hear our ideas, and eventually turn our way. It is only an unfortunate matter of how many lives get ruined in the meanwhile.

No Relief in Sight: Reynosa, Mexico, Military Occupation Yields No Let-Up in Drug War Violence

In the latest move in his ongoing war against Mexico's powerful and violent drug trafficking organizations -- the so-called cartels -- President Felipe Calderón last month sent some 6,000 Mexican soldiers and federal police into the cities on his side of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, from Nuevo Laredo down to Matamoros. They disarmed the municipal police forces, who are widely suspected of being in the pay of the traffickers, established checkpoints between and within cities, and are conducting regular patrols in Reynosa and elsewhere.

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Reynosa/Hidalgo border crossing (courtesy portland.indymedia.org)
The crackdown on the Tamaulipas border towns came after a bloody year last year. According to the Reynosa-based Center for Border Studies and the Protection of Human Rights (CEFPRODHAC), drug prohibition-related violence claimed 67 lives in Tamaulipas border towns last year. But it was only after a violent shootout in Rio Bravo (between Reynosa and Matamoros) last month that resulted in several traffickers killed and nearly a dozen soldiers wounded, and the cartel's retaliatory attacks on army patrols in the center of Reynosa the next day that Calderón sent in the soldiers.

Since then, the military occupation has put a damper on the economy -- and especially the nightlife -- of Reynosa and other valley border towns, but it hasn't stopped the killing. According to CEFPRODHAC, as of Tuesday, 18 more people have been killed in the Tamaulipas drug wars so far this year, accounting for the vast majority of the 25 killings overall. In Reynosa, a whopping 12 of the city's 14 homicides this year were related to the drug war, including one Sunday night.

If the army hasn't stopped the killing, it has brought the city's tourist economy to a near halt. Several bar and club owners in the Zona Rosa, the tourist zone near the international bridge said they had been ordered to close at 10:00pm by soldiers or police. They also said it barely mattered, because they weren't getting any business anyway.

"We used to have the Texans coming across to party," said one club owner who asked not to be named. "Now they don't come. They don't want to be harassed by the soldiers."

Workers in some of Reynosa's seedier industries -- prostitutes, strip joint workers, pirate taxi drivers -- even led a protest march two weeks ago, complaining that the occupation was making it impossible for them to earn a living. (A pair of Reynosa businessmen who absolutely declined to go on the record claimed that the march was backed by the narcos, but that is a charge that is yet unproven.)

While Calderón's resort to sending in the army -- more than 20,000 troops have been deployed to hotspots in the past year -- has won praise in Washington and even some support among Reynosans tired of the violence, it is also leading to a spike in human rights abuses, according to CEFPRODHAC. "We have had 11 complaints of abuse filed with us since the soldiers came," said Juan Manuel Cantú, head of the group's documentation office. "One in Rio Bravo and 10 here. People are complaining that the soldiers enter their homes illegally, that they torture them, that they steal things from their homes -- electronic equipment, jewelry, even food. The soldiers think they're at war, and everyone here on the border is a narco," Cantú complained.

CEFPRODHAC dutifully compiles and files the complaints, Cantú said, but has little expectation that the military will act to address them. The military opened a human rights office last month, but it has so far made little difference, he said. "Until now, there is no justice. When the complaints go to SEDENA [the office of the secretary of defense], they always say there are no human rights violations."

When the abuses come at the hands of the police or the military, victims or relatives will at least file complaints, even if they don't have much expectation of results. But when it comes to abuses by the narcos, the fear of retaliation is too great for the victims or their families to complain. "People don't want to talk about those crimes," said Cantú. "They won't talk to us or the official human rights organizations, they won't talk to the military, they won't talk to the federal police. They feel threatened by the narcos."

Paired with Brownsville and McAllen on the Texas side, Reynosa, Matamoros, and the other cities on the Mexican side are part of a bi-national conurbation with a combined population somewhere around three million. (Roughly 700,000 people in the McAllen area, 400,000 in the Brownsville area, 700,000 in Matamoros, another 500,000 in Reynosa, and a few tens of thousands scattered in between). Spanish is the most commonly heard tongue on both sides of the border. While the military occupation and the drug war violence (for the most part) is restricted to the Mexican side, the drug trade and the drug war are felt on both sides, albeit in different ways.

Mike Allen is vice-chair of the Texas Border Commission, a non-governmental entity that seeks to represent the interest of elected officials on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. Among the commission's primary concerns are facilitating cross-border trade and fending off what it sees as bone-headed responses to concerns about security on the border.

Number one on the commission's list of complaints is the planned border wall, which is set to cut across South Texas, forcing landowners to go through distant gates to get to portions of their property beyond the fence and, according to unhappy local officials, damaging the environment without serving its stated purpose of controlling the border. Local officials and landowners are now engaged in legal battles with the Department of Homeland Security as the department threatens to exercise eminent domain to seize property for the wall.

"The wall is a huge waste of money," said Allen. "Those of us living here know that. The Mexicans will go over, under, or around it. But you have to remember that 99% of the people coming across that border are trying to get jobs. They're not criminals or terrorists or drug traffickers."

But some of them are, he conceded, pointing a finger at his own compatriots. "The reason we have so much drug trafficking here is that we have so many American citizens taking drugs," said Allen. "It doesn't matter what we do -- the drug trafficking will continue one way or another because there is such a demand for it in the US."

The drug trade has not adversely affected local economies, said Allen. That is perhaps an understatement. While the Lower Rio Grande Valley has high indices of poverty, it also has gleaming office towers, numerous banks, high-end specialty stores, thrumming traffic, and gigantic shopping centers like La Plaza in McAllen, where the JC Penney's store stays open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and everyone -- customers and employees alike -- seems to be speaking Spanish.

"We have more banks here than we have 7-11s," former DEA agent and valley resident Celerino Castillo chuckled ruefully. "This is supposed to be a poor area, but everybody's driving Escalades."

But while the drug trade may not have hurt business along the border, the drug prohibition-related violence associated with it has -- on both sides of the border. "People hear about those shootings, and they don't want to cross the bridge into Mexico," said Allen. "A lot of Americans don't want to cross into Mexico, and that means some of them won't be coming here on their way," he said.

And while there is much noise about corruption in Mexico, that door swings both ways, said Castillo, who first came to public attention when he exposed US-linked drug-running out of El Salvador's Ilopango Air Base during the Central American wars of the 1980s in his book Powderburns.

"There is corruption on both sides of the border," said Castillo. "The drug war isn't about stopping drugs; it's about lining pockets. That's why this billion dollar aid package is just bullshit. We've been fighting this war for 30 years, and we're worse off than when we started."

Castillo regularly works gun shows in the area selling Vietnam-era memorabilia, and he said he regularly encounters cartel members there. "They're always showing up looking for weaponry," he said, "along with members of the Mexican military. It's very, very busy."

Some handguns are in high demand by cartel members, said Castillo. "They really like the Belgian FN Herstal P90 because they can easily remove the serial number," he explained. "These things retail for $1,000, but cartel buyers will turn around and pay $2,500 for them, and whoever takes them across the border gets $4,000 a weapon," he said.

Other, heavier, weapons and munitions are not available in the civilian gun market, but that just means the cartels use other networks, Castillo said. "The heavy weapons, the grenade launchers, the mass quantities of ammo are only available in military armories, here or in Central America. We sell tons of weapons to the Salvadoran Army, and it's my belief they're turning around and selling them to the cartels."

The drug trade thrives off poverty of both sides of the border, said one local observer. "In reality, you can put a lot of money into policing, but people have to eat, people have to survive," said Marco Davila, a professor of criminology at the University of Texas-Brownsville. "If there are no jobs, you have to do something. It's not just the drug trade, there is also prostitution, theft, and other forms of deviance."

What is needed on both sides of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is real assistance, not massive anti-drug programs for law enforcement, said Davila. "You can put that money wherever, but if the people are still hurting, it will be a toss-up whether it will work. The people who need money are not the cops and soldiers," he said.

CEFPRODHAC's Cantú agreed with that assessment. "That money isn't going to make us safe," he said. "It won't do anything good. If the soldiers get that US aid, it will only mean more violence. They are prepared for war, not policing. What we need are programs for drug education and prevention, even here in Mexico, but especially in the United States," he said. When asked about drug legalization, Cantú was willing to ponder it. "It might stop the violence," he mused.

On the Texas side, said Davila, a culture of poverty traps whole generations of poor Latinos. "Look at these kids in Brownsville," he said. "They have no hope. They've given up. They're not talking about trying hard. They're saying 'We're gangsters, we're gonna sell drugs.' People used to have tattoos of the Virgin of Guadelupe, but now she's been replaced by Scarface."

On the other side of the river, poverty drives the drug trade, too -- as well as illegal immigration. "The Mexicans are just broke, scared, and hungry. They have nothing else," said Davila. "If they don't want to go into an illegal trade, like drug trafficking, they come across the border any way they can. People are putting their lives on the line to cross that river," he said.

And many of them are paying the ultimate price. According to reports from Reynosa human rights watchers, 75 would-be immigrants drowned in the Rio Grande between Nuevo Laredo and Matamoros last year. Another five have drowned already this year.

And so it goes on the Mexican border. Just as it has for the past 20 years, when in yet another stark example of the law of unintended consequences, then President Reagan appointed Vice President George Bush to head a task force designed to block Caribbean cocaine smuggling routes. From that moment, what had previously been relatively small, local, family smuggling operations carrying loads of marijuana into the US began morphing into the Frankenstein monster known as the cartels.

Mexico and the United States are inextricably intertwined. A solution to the problems of drug abuse and the violent black market drug trade is going to have to be a joint solution. But few observers on the ground think throwing more money at Mexico's drug war is the answer.

WOLA & IPS Brown Bag Discussion: Conceptions of Coca

Please join us for this important discussion! For Bolivia’s indigenous majority, the coca leaf has deep historical, religious and cultural value. Coca leaves are chewed or consumed as a tea – mate de coca – served widely throughout Bolivia and Peru. The Coca-Cola Company purchases Peruvian coca leaves, which are used as a flavoring agent in the world’s most popular soft drink. More recently developed coca-based products include baking flour, toothpaste, shampoo, wine and various medicinal products. Yet the coca leaf has often been vilified in international debates and treaties. Presently, there is an international campaign to remove the coca leaf from Schedule 1 of the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs, where coca is listed as a dangerous drug along with cocaine and heroin. Bolivia and Peru have long protested the lack of differentiation between the coca leaf and cocaine in the 1961 Convention and Bolivia’s election of President Evo Morales has given new impetus to efforts to change the convention. An internationally known activist and academic, Silvia Rivera is one of Bolivia’s most effective advocates for promoting the coca leaf and its importance to indigenous cultures in the Andes. A sociologist by training, Ms. Rivera graduated from the Universidad Mayor de San Andrés in La Paz, Bolivia, and is the author of many books, including Las Fronteras de la Coca. Presently, she is serving as an advisor to the Bolivian Government on coca and coca-related issues. Ms. Rivera will make her remarks in English. Please RSVP to Rachel Robb at rrobb@wola.org or call (202) 797-2171. For additional information, contact Ms. Robb at WOLA or Sanho Tree at IPS at stree@igc.org or (202) 787-5266.
Date: 
Fri, 02/15/2008 - 12:30pm - 2:00pm
Location: 
1112 16th Street, NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20036
United States

On the Border in the Lower Rio Grande Valley

I'm now down in the Lower Rio Grande Valley on the border between the US and Mexico. I've been staying in a hotel on the US side in McAllen, Texas, because, somewhat surprisingly, a hotel with an internet connection in the room is cheaper on this side. But I've been crossing the river every day to scout out Reynosa, the city of about half a million, on the other side, and to talk to informed observers, as well as common folks, there, about the recent wave of drug prohibtion-related violence and what can or should be done to reduce the toll. One thing I'm finding is that people are very nervous, whether its the man in the street, human rights observers, businessmen, or even the US enforcers on the north side of the river. The human rights advocate I spoke with didn't want his picture taken ("there are several narco families on my block"), the Reynosa businessmen absolutely refuse to say anything on the record (although they complain bitterly of local corruption), people on the street look around nervously when I ask about the drug trade and the violence, and when I tried to take photos of the border crossing here, ICE agents ran up and demanded I stop. While the violence here has subsided from the violent spasms of a few weeks ago, it continues, with my human rights observer reporting that another narco killing had occurred in the city Sunday night. That makes 14 so far this year in Reynosa, out of 23 total homicides. I'll be getting into some more of the numbers in a feature article on the situation here that will appear on Friday. The poverty in Reynosa is striking. There are guys trying to sell calendars on the streets, there are guys quite eager to show me the way to "Boys Town," and there are other guys quite eager to peddle whatever drug I desire. I haven't taken them up on that, though. Meanwhile, my schedule in Mexico City next week appears to be filling nicely. I'm set to meet with Congresswoman Elsa Conde, the author of the marijuana decriminalization bill, early in the week, as well as with a bunch of Mexican reform activists. I'll also be talking to various Mexican academic experts and people working with drug users in the city. And I take advantage of being in Mexico. Yesterday, I stuck my head in the door of one of the numerous dental clinics just across from the bridge in Reynosa that cater mainly to American visitors. Before I knew it, I was in the chair and getting that crown I had long needed but could never afford. It cost $125, no appointment necessary, in and out quickly, and now I can drink cold drinks again. I'll be trying to talk to as many people as possible here between now and Friday, so stay tuned.
Location: 
United States

Latin America: Chávez Endorses Coca -- Again

For the second time in as many weeks, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has used a public forum to come out as a regular coca chewer. Last week, we reported on Chávez' declaration during a recent televised speech that he chewed coca. He was at it again last Saturday.

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Coca leaves drying in warehouse outside Shinahota, Bolivia. The sign reads ''Coca Power and Territory, Dignity and Sovereignty, Regional Congress 2006-08'' (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith, 2007)
During another televised speech, this time at a summit of Latin American leftist leaders in Caracas, Chávez popped a coca leaf into his mouth and chewed it while defending the plant. According to a Reuters account, Chávez thanked Bolivian President Evo Morales, a former coca grower union leader and defender of the plant, for bringing him more.

"I knew you wouldn't let me down, my friend, I was running out," Chávez said as he received the leaves from Morales during the televised summit. Chávez then broke one leaf in half and chewed it to the applause of attendees. "Capitalism and international mafias have converted it into cocaine, but coca is not cocaine," he said.

John Walters, the US drug czar, last week accused the Chávez government of "colluding" in the cocaine traffic from neighboring Colombia. Venezuela denied that charge, accusing the US of a smear campaign and unwarranted interference in Venezuela's internal affairs.

Opposition politicians in Venezuela this week said Chávez should take a drug test. But given that Chávez has openly admitted -- twice--that he is a regular coca leaf chewer, one has to ask what the point would be. And once again, Washington's bête noire in Latin America pokes Washington -- and the 1961 UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs -- in the eye.

Middle East: The Poppies Blossom in Iraq

British journalist Patrick Cockburn, writing in The Independent reports that opium poppy cultivation is rapidly spreading across Iraq. While Cockburn reported in May that poppies had appeared near Diwaniyah in southern Iraq, he now reports that poppies are growing in restive Diyala province, where Al Qaeda in Iraq is making what could be a last stand.

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the opium trader's wares (photo by Chronicle editor Phil Smith during September 2005 visit to Afghanistan)
Diyala, deeply divided between Kurds, Sunni, and Shia, is so violent that local security forces have little time to deal with drug cultivation. The Iraqi news agency al-Malaf Press reported that farmers have turned to poppy cultivation around Khalis, Sa'adiya, Dain'ya, and Baladruz, while Cockburn added the town of Buhriz to the list. But cultivation is even more extensive in southern Iraq, especially around Amara and Majar al-Kabir.

The news agency quoted a local engineer as saying local farmers got no support from the government and could not compete with cheap imported fruits and vegetables. They also face rising fuel and fertilizer prices. "The cultivation of opium is the likely solution to these problems," said the engineer.

The poppy growing and trafficking is linked to Sunni and Shia militias, Cockburn wrote. US military strategy has relied on developing a 70,000-member Sunni militia, many of whose members dabble in protection rackets, crime, and smuggling. Similarly, Muqtada al-Sadr, head of the powerful Shia Mehdi Army militia, has complained that criminals have infiltrated its ranks. According to Cockburn, it is the local warlords and the militias that have sponsored the opium planting, not the farmers.

Feature: The 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference -- Mr. Costa Meets the Opposition

The 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in New Orleans kicked off with a bang Thursday as Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, told a boisterous and sometimes combative audience of drug reformers that while a drug-free world is probably not attainable, it is almost certainly desirable, and that he would continue to work toward that goal.

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Antonio Maria Costa (courtesy DrugWarRant.com
Costa, who as head of the UNODC is the leading cheerleader for the global drug prohibition regime and chief chider of governments UNODC believes are not making sufficient efforts in the war on drugs, is the highest placed drug war figure to ever address a drug reform conference. But while his attendance could mark the beginning of a broader dialog on global drug policy, at various points Thursday it seemed more like a dialog of the deaf.

His remarks came on the opening morning of the three-day conference hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, and co-hosted by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Harm Reduction Coalition, and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. With more than a thousand attendees, the joint 2007 conference is the largest drug reform conference ever.

"A drug-free world is not a slogan I use," Costa told the opening morning crowd. "It is an aspiration, not an operational target, much as one aspires to eliminate poverty or hunger or disease."

While Costa flatly rejected drug legalization, he also suggested that drug law enforcement was not the ultimate "solution" to drug use and the drug trade. Even if all the drugs produced around the world this year could be eradicated, he said, they would be planted again next year -- and if farmers in Colombia or Afghanistan didn't want to plant them, farmers somewhere else would. "While law enforcement is necessary, it is not sufficient," he told the crowd.

The answer, Costa argued, is not on the supply side but the demand side. "Lowering demand is the necessary condition to make drug policy realistic and sustainable," he said, adding that that could be achieved by "prevention, harm reduction, and treatment, combined with comprehensive health programs."

Then the top global anti-drug bureaucrat took on the topic of legalization. "Some people say drug use is a personal choice and nobody else's business," he said, as the room erupted with sustained applause. The room quickly quieted, however, as Costa continued: "I have some problems with this. First, this is a health issue. Drug abuse is a disease affecting the brain, triggered by individual vulnerability," he suggested, as scattered hissing and booing broke out.

"Drugs are not dangerous because they are illegal, they are illegal because they are dangerous," Costa bravely soldiered on, only to be met with a crescendo of boos.

Costa also addressed the argument that drug prohibition creates violence, if only obliquely. "You say prohibition creates violence and crime by creating a lucrative black market, so legalize drugs to defeat organized crime. I agree with you, but this is not only an economic argument," he maintained. "Legalization will increase the damage done to individuals and society."

For Costa, there are no drug users, only "addicts" who need help. "Why do we have these ideological debates about drug addiction?" he complained. "People aren't divided about treating tuberculosis or AIDS."

Careful to repeatedly mention that he supported harm reduction as well as prevention and treatment, Costa called on the audience to join him as an "extremist of the center" in an effort to destroy demand for drugs. "We all want to help the farmers and the drug addicts and reduce the crime and violence," he said. "Let us build on this common ground to build a safer and healthier world."

Costa's positions did not go unchallenged. Immediately following him at the podium was Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, Director of the International Harm Reduction Development program at the Open Society Institute, who went through a litany of repression of drug users: ranging from Russia, where police often block them from gaining access to health care; to China, where police wait outside needle exchanges and arrest people on the way out; to Thailand, where authorities killed thousands of suspected drug users in 2003; to India, where throwing users in cages passes as drug treatment; and Kazakhstan, where female users are subjected to body searches and forced to engage in sex acts to get their seized drugs back.

"When you look at the UNODC report on drug treatment in India," she noted, "those people in the cages are going to be counted. There are no standards for what is drug treatment; the numbers are self-reported."

Costa took even more flak at a lunchtime question and answer session immediately following the presentation. As attendees eager to see the exchange packed the room past capacity, a cavalcade of drug policy reformers and scholars took aim at the UNODC head and his arguments.

"This is a healthy opening," said UC Santa Cruz sociologist Craig Reinarman, who praised Costa for his fortitude in coming to the conference and his charm in making his case. "If you're wrong on most of the arguments, it helps if you're charming." Reinarman challenged Costa on his prescription to deal with drug users by subjecting them to drug treatment. "We agree on making treatment available to all who want it, but the vast majority of people who use illicit drugs do not become addicts who need treatment. The idea that you will treat people who don't have a disease flies in the face of everything I know about medicine," Reinarman said.

He also attacked Costa's claim that reducing supply would reduce demand and the problems attendant with drug use. "The availability of drugs is not correlated with drug problems," he said, citing the case of the Netherlands. "It is surrounded by countries with far more restrictive prohibitionist policies that also have higher figures for use, addiction, overdose deaths, and the like. The notion that there is a correlation between repressive drug policies and use levels is just not borne out by the facts."
Costa did not respond directly to Reinarman, instead diverting the observation by claiming that the Netherlands had "poisoned Europe" with amphetamines produced there, probably an even less apt reference to Dutch production of ecstasy, which in UN-speak is an "amphetamine-type stimulant."

Wealthy San Francisco libertarian John Gilmore reproved Costa for talking treatment while continuing to endorse repression of drug use. "We don't prosecute diabetics," he noted. Costa did not respond.

"Most of what you said flew in the face of reality," chided Pat O'Hare, executive director of the International Harm Reduction Association, who took special umbrage at Costa's repeated call for tackling the problem through reducing demand. "We don't know how to reduce demand," he said bluntly. "I want regulation; right now, we have almost no control. I'm prepared to accept slightly more drug use, but a load less harm."

Again, Costa failed to respond directly, although he grew increasingly testy. In response to a query about medical marijuana, he almost sneered: "I don't believe in buying joints," he said. "You don't need to lick mold to get penicillin," he said, eliciting groans and jeers from the crowd.

To charges that the global prohibition regime he cheerleads is financing terrorism and political violence around the globe, Costa agreed that indeed groups like the FARC in Colombia and the Taliban in Afghanistan were profiting from the black market drug trade. "The best response is to quit buying that stuff," was the solution he proffered, a response that brought laughter and jeers.

And with that, the UN's head drug-fighter was gone, off to catch a plane for New York as the conference attendees collectively took a deep breath and scratched their heads. Whether Costa was persuaded to see the errors of his ways remains to be seen, and, given his performance Thursday, that seems most unlikely. But the fact that the top global drug-fighter felt it necessary to enter the lion's den and take on the pride suggests that the movement is making progress. As that old agitator Mahatma Gandhi once said, "First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win."

[Editor's Note: The New Orleans conference continues through Saturday. Look for more reports in the Chronicle next week and some blog posts in the meantime.]

Visit http://www.drugwarrant.com for extensive blogging from the conference, and check back at http://stopthedrugwar.org too.

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