The ticking bong scenario by mattsteinglass
May 26, 2009, 9:29 pm
Filed under: Drugs, Human Rights and Torture, Terrorism

Josh Marshall writes:

Question of the Day: If a government informant gives a would-be jihadist bags and bags of weed to entice him to join his jihad, where does he get the weed?

But he’s wrong; that’s not the question of the day.

The question of the day is: if by giving a terrorist bags and bags of weed, you could save the lives of hundreds or even trillions of Americans, wouldn’t you choose to give him the weed? And given this sobering moral dilemma, do we really have the luxury of outlawing weed? Isn’t that just naive? What if your son or daughter was killed by a terrorist who an FBI agent had failed to entrap in a sting operation because of an inability to offer him sufficiently copious bags of weed? We are a nation at war, people.


Let’s tax the alcoholics! What’re they gonna do, stop drinking? by mattsteinglass
May 22, 2009, 6:27 pm
Filed under: Drugs, Economics

Matthew Yglesias has spent a few days blogging approvingly about raising alcohol taxes, which overall is probably a good idea. But one of the things he’s citing as a selling point, referencing Igor Volsky, is that much of the incidence of the tax would fall narrowly on a small number of very heavy drinkers. This, to me, seems like a very clear problem with the tax, not a merit. People who are drinking vastly more than the median aren’t doing it because they can afford to; they’re doing it because they have a medical and psychosocial problem. Trying to dissuade alcoholics from drinking by raising the price isn’t equitable or just, and it’s not smart policy. It’s exploitative.

More broadly, taxing behaviors we’d like to see less of is generally a good idea. But it runs into some very serious ethical issues when those behaviors are physically addictive, like gambling and drinking. One problem you can get yourself into is that the state, rather than really trying to get people to do less of the problem behavior, ends up dependent on the revenue from that behavior, and finds it’d just as soon continue bleeding that small group of disadvantaged people dry. This was to some extent the situation with alcohol taxes in the old USSR, before Yeltsin-era reforms restored equitability by ensuring that everyone was an alcoholic.

Jeff Sessions’s wonderful legacy of false convictions by mattsteinglass
May 8, 2009, 5:20 pm
Filed under: Crime, Drugs, Human Rights and Torture, United States

A little while ago, thinking about torture, I was rereading the section of David Chandler’s “Voices from S-21” in which he talks about how Khmer Rouge interrogations, purges and torture, like those of Stalin’s NKVD before them, had driven people who’d never done anything wrong to invent testimony incriminating themselves, relatives, and anyone else they knew of imaginary crimes, leading to an ever-expanding witchhunt that threw more and more people in jail (or worse) for crimes that never happened. And then a bit after that I chanced upon a review of the new movie “American Violet”, about a false drug dealing conviction in Texas in 2000.

And the two things together reminded me of a fantastic Frontline documentary I saw almost a decade ago, Ofra Bikel’s “Snitch”, on how harsh mandatory federal drug sentences in the US and prosecutorial discretion to grant reduced charges in exchange for cooperative testimony in fingering other “conspirators” were leading to cases in which drug dealers were fingering their innocent friends and cousins, who in turn fingered their innocent friends and cousins, getting ever-expanding circles of acquaintances sentenced to decades or life for drug offenses they hadn’t committed or that never took place at all.

One thing that was extremely powerful about the documentary was the witless performance of the Southern Alabama federal law enforcement officials Bikel interviewed. One egregious case she looked at involved Clarence Aaron, a college student who’d never been involved in a crime before but was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences because his cousins, facing long sentences for buying small amounts of cocaine from dealers who were never apprehended, “cooperated” with prosecutors by claiming Aaron had sold 9 kilos (!) of cocaine for $200,000 — although neither police nor anyone else could produce, nor had they ever seen, the 9 kilos, nor, for that matter, a single gram of the alleged cocaine, nor the alleged $200,000. The US District Attorney for Southern Alabama, one J. Don Foster, insisted Aaron was “guilty as sin” but was unable to provide any evidence other than the self-interested testimony of the two cousins; he seemed completely blindsided by the suggestion that if you’ve sentenced someone to 3 consecutive life sentences you ought perhaps to have some concrete evidence that a crime had taken place. And then he adduced, as justification for the life sentences, the fact that Aaron had refused to cooperate by confessing or naming more names! Unbelievable.

But here’s the thing that jumped out at me, rereading the transcript of Bikel’s interview with Foster.

What is your position?

I’m the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, [which] includes 13 counties from Mobile on the Gulf Coast to around Tuscaloosa on the north end.

Why are there so many federal drug cases in this district?

Well, the drug policy in the past has been very aggressive. I mean, we have been after drug users and drug distributors, and the big fish primarily, for a long time. It’s been traditional in this office, it’s been historical in this office. …

Who started it?

I would say probably it goes back to the Sessions tenure, who’s now a United States senator. He was in the office for 12 years. …

Oh, great. Jeff Sessions. And this is the guy who’s now the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The line that stuck with me most in the documentary, but which doesn’t seem to be captured in the online transcripts, was when Bikel asked Aaron why he hadn’t dreamt up a false accusation against somebody else to get his own sentence reduced. Aaron’s response as I recall it: “Miss Ofra, who was I gonna turn in? Everybody I could have snitched on was already in jail.”

The international dimensions of legalizing pot by mattsteinglass
April 4, 2009, 8:53 pm
Filed under: Drugs

The usual people on my blog reading list (Klein, Klein, Yglesias, Will Wilkinson, Sullivan) note recently that marijuana should either be decriminalized or actually legalized, and I agree. But if the US legalizes possession and sale of marijuana, how does it affect our relationship with countries that still consider it illegal, attempt strenuously to prevent its importation, and hand out hefty criminal penalties for it? At one level, you have the problem of Americans who will grow used to personal marijuana use and, for reasons of negligence or “they-can’t-be-serious”-ness, carry some of it on trips abroad. In Vietnam, criminal sanctions (i.e. prison terms) for hash possession start at 100 grams, and Vietnam is among the more lenient states in SE Asia. In Singapore and the Philippines the death penalty is mandatory for 17 ounces or more of marijuana.

But the problem of drug-using tourists is actually relatively minor. What’s likely to be far more complicated is the problem that the US will become, from these countries’ point of view, a country that harbors and even encourages criminal narcotics gangsters, in much the same way the US today regards Bolivia or Burma. The law enforcement relations between the US and many other countries will likely suffer whiplash: the US has been sending DEA officers to Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia for many years now to “train” them (i.e., often, prod them) to be more effective at eradicating trade in drugs, including marijuana.

Asian countries’ hostility to drug use isn’t solely an outgrowth of American or other Western puritanism: the heroin trade was for over a century a key source of gangsterism and government weakness in Asia, and was promoted by Western colonial powers for exactly that reason. (Viz. the Opium Wars.) So in much of Asia the fight against narcotics is bound up with the fight for national self-determination. This makes Asian governments wary of following Western governments’ lead in decriminalizing drug use; the US has been trying for many years to encourage Vietnam to treat heroin addicts with methadone rather than mandatory detention and rehabilitation, but so far only a pilot program or two have been adopted. Addiction is associated for Vietnamese with passivity, disunity, weakness, and exploitation by foreign powers, and the idea of accepting and managing addiction rather than eradicating it through discipline is a very tough sell.

This is to say nothing of how US decriminalization of marijuana would play in Mexico or the rest of Latin America, where the US’s war on drugs has completely deformed our relationships for decades now and visited a tremendous amount of misery on other states. It’s hard enough for the Netherlands to manage French and German complaints about its drug policies, and Holland hasn’t been sending troops into the Loire Valley to spray defoliants on cannabis fields.

So how would the US manage the international dimension of decriminalizing marijuana? I don’t really know. But I think it’s an issue that people should take up.

It’s more a lift than a shove by mattsteinglass
July 31, 2008, 11:02 pm
Filed under: Drugs, United States, Vietnam

The US Embassy was gracious enough to invite me to check out the training program a

A Vietnamese counter-narcotics officer handcuffs an American playing the role of a drug offender during DEA training exercises. Hanoi, July 30, 2008.

A Vietnamese counter-narcotics officer handcuffs an American playing the role of a drug offender during DEA training exercises. Hanoi, July 30, 2008.

team of American Drug Enforcement Agency officers have been conducting for 80 Vietnamese counter-narcotics police, border guards and customs officers in Vietnam for the past week. Most of it seemed to be pretty physical: planning and executing raids, getting into and out of the building, arresting suspects. There were some entertaining sessions involving paint-pellet pistols. (US firearms and tactics instructor Joe Boix to the Vietnamese officers whose performance he was reviewing: “In the first incident, we had two misses at close proximity. We have got to be careful with our shooting and make every shot count, so we can all get home safely.”)

There were a couple of things I found interesting. The first was that the training seemed so far removed from the intricate questions of the drug trade; it didn’t seem much different from what an Israeli Army friend of mine once showed me about how he’d been trained to “take a room”. Well, no, that’s not true — his training involved spraying the room with automatic weapons fire, so I guess that’s different. But still, it was just surprisingly physical; one instructor was showing the police how to put a man on the ground, handcuff his hands behind his back, move him to a sitting position, and then hoist him to his feet. (“It’s more a lift than a shove.”) Almost like a very hostile yoga session or something.

The second point was how seamlessly, for a law enforcement officer, thinking about your own safety translates into thinking about effective use of force against the person you’re arresting. (See that above statement by Boix.) And that in turn just reinforced, for me, the reasons why the introduction of weapons into a situation always heightens everyone’s risk. One person’s safety is another person’s threat. I realize the gun-control issue is off the table in American politics for the foreseeable future, but I still can’t really understand how someone can think that a world where everyone is armed is a safe world.

Afghanistan, Vietnam, Heroin by mattsteinglass
July 29, 2008, 3:25 pm
Filed under: Drugs

As anyone who’s seen American Gangster “knows”, US troops in Vietnam all started shooting heroin, thereby creating the Golden Triangle — then the world’s largest opium-poppy cultivation zone, in Laos, Thailand and Burma. After the war the Golden Triangle spread to include parts of Vietnam itself, which had about 18,000 hectares of opium poppies under cultivation in 1991, which would make it the third-largest cultivator in the world today. (There are no more opium poppies cultivated in Vietnam; an increasingly efficient government has stamped the practice out.) Today, as we all know from reading the NY Times Magazine, the world’s biggest opium poppy and heroin producer is Afghanistan, with Burma coming in a distant second. According to the UN Office of Drug Control’s 2007 report, Afghanistan produced 8200 metric tons of opium in 2007, Burma 460 tons. The summary of production increases in 2007 reads like some bizarre parody of a glowing World Bank development report:

Opium production reaches a new record high Global opium production reached record levels in 2007: led by production in Afghanistan, it increased for a second year in a row to 8,870 mt. This is by far the highest annual level of production recorded in the last two decades and roughly double the annual average for that period. This is related to the shift in cultivation from Myanmar to Afghanistan which has taken place over the same period. In the latter country, opium farmers achieve more than two and a half times the per hectare yield. In 2007, Afghanistan alone accounted for 92% of global production, producing 8,200 mt of opium at an average yield of 42.5 kg/ha. In Myanmar, opium production increased by 46% from 315 mt to 460 mt due to the combined effects of cultivation increases and higher yields. However, opium production in Myanmar represented only 5% of global production in 2007. The total farmgate value of opium production in Afghanistan rose 32% to US$1 billion dollars in 2007 on the strength of the enormous increase in production.

So, who’s buying all this heroin? The report says that in the US in 2007, heroin cost $87.70 a gram wholesale, $172 a gram retail. (That’s a huge drop in the wholesale/retail spread from 2006. What’s going on there? Just-in-time delivery practices by big-box heroin retailers?) In Europe, meanwhile, heroin was going for just $67.10 a gram retail or $30.70 a gram wholesale. Prices have been low and steady in Europe and the US for years after hitting highs in the early ’90s.

What does that price differential portend for drug user populations? In North America users are stable at 0.4% of the population. And…ah! In Europe, user are 0.7% of the population. And so we see that tolerant European drug policies allow low prices, which means more drug abuse…oh, no, wait. Actually, opiate use rates in Western Europe, which includes drug-tolerant Switzerland, the Netherlands, etc., are just 0.5%, not much different from the US, especially considering how much cheaper the drug is. So where are all those drug users?

In the (non-tolerant) East. Opiate users in Eastern Europe, including Russia, average 1% of the population. In Russia it’s about 1.4% of the population. So that’s who’s buying Afghanistan’s dope. Russia, of course, has a drug policy that’s based entirely on interdiction and on getting addicts to “kick”; little harm reduction (some clean needles), no methadone. Oh well. In a piquante fashion, of course, one could write a lyrical drug-trade movie (“Russian Gangster”, say) illustrating how Russia’s heroin injection problem got started when…it invaded Afghanistan, and its troops started shooting up. And so it all comes around in circles again.

Except that as Afghanistan’s drug production has shot up over the past few years, Russia’s drug use population has remained largely stable. So who’s buying all the extra heroin? According to UNODC, it’s new heroin users in Pakistan, India, Iran and the rest of South and Southwest Asia. It’s actually being consumed locally. The large country with the single biggest opiate abuse problem in the world? Iran, where 2.4% of the population uses opium in one form or another each year — six times the rate in the US.

Karzai implicated in heroin trade by mattsteinglass
July 28, 2008, 10:44 am
Filed under: Afghanistan, Drugs

An extremely convincing NY Times Magazine article by Thomas Schweich, former Assistant Deputy Sec. of State for international narcotics and law-enforcement affairs, on resistance to opium poppy eradication by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Schweich says Karzai resists poppy eradication because he’s backed by Pashtun bigwigs from the South, especially Helmand Province, who are reaping huge and growing profits from the heroin trade. And he says it’s no longer true that poor, desperate farmers are responsible for poppy cultivation; it’s now mostly big, rich farmers in the South who have switched from wheat and cotton to poppy because of high profits.

The article does inspire some skepticism that Schweich may be insufficiently sensitive to the local political implications of drug eradication, especially aerial eradication. It also provides no evidence that the heroin trade really is a major source of financing for the Taliban, rather than contributions from Al-Qaeda or wealthy Gulf states, and no analysis of the Taliban’s attitudes towards the heroin trade. In the 1990s I understood they were violently opposed to it and had largely eliminated it.

I’m going Wednesday to a joint drug interdiction exercise by Vietnamese counter-narcotics police and US Drug Enforcement Agency trainers. What’s frustrating is that I’ll never get the level of genuine inside information someone like Schweich is privy to. Vietnam has a huge heroin addiction problem, but the stuff is supposedly all grown outside the country. Formerly a lot was grown in Laos; now I’m not sure where it’s coming from, but more likely Burma than Afghanistan I guess.