Top Ten Drug War Stories of 2003
With the American public's attention firmly directed toward the daily events of the Bush Administration's "War on Terror," the US-led and exported "War on Drugs" continues to exact crippling costs to taxpayers, minority groups, the environment, civil liberties and struggling democracies around the world.
While terror alerts rise and fall and states struggle to fund their law enforcement budgets, the total number of marijuana arrests far exceed the total number of arrests for all violent crimes combined, including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
As the Drug War enters its 90th year, it continues to be characterized by contradictory laws, arbitrary enforcement, massive wealth and racial disparities, questionable covert operations and general media timidity.
Here are 10 of the top stories from Drug War 2003:
1) Afghanistan is now the world's leading supplier of opium for the heroin trade. Under the Taliban regime, which banned opium, annual production bottomed out at 77 tons in 2001, produced only in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance. American military, as part of its "War on Terror," allied with Northern Alliance warlords to overthrow the Taliban regime and keep Al Qaeda at bay. Afghan opium production has since skyrocketed to about 3,600 tons of opium this year, or 75 percent of global production.
Early in December 2003, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld traveled to Afghanistan and publicly embraced warlords Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ustad Attas Mohammed, for calling off armed struggle with the fragile government in Kabul headed by Hamid Karzai. Abdul Rashid Dostum was rewarded by being named Deputy Secretary of Defense for the Karzai government.
Dostum has been described as a "war criminal" by groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, for killing thousands of civilians in the Afghan civil wars of the 1990s and for his merciless treatment of prisoners and, occasionally, his own soldiers.
2) While the United States declared war on Iraq for supposedly harboring biological weapons, the US-funded War on Drugs in Colombia plans to use an untested pathogenic fungus -- fusarium oxysporum -- to wipe out coca. Critics say the plan proposes illegal acts of biological warfare, poses major ecological risks to Colombia -- one of the world's most bio-diverse countries -- and will increase suffering, by wreaking havoc with human health, water quality and food crops.
3) On February 12, a federal jury in Philadelphia awarded $1.5 million in compensation to two narcotics agents -- John McLaughlin and Charles Micewski -- who claimed their boss -- the Pennsylvania attorney general -- retaliated against them because they uncovered a drug-trafficking ring that diverted profits to a CIA-backed Dominican presidential candidate.
Pittsburgh's Tribune Review reports: McLaughlin and Micewski said they had uncovered a Dominican drug-trafficking ring operating in Philadelphia, New York and other Eastern cities that funneled drug profits to the Dominican Revolutionary Party, which they claimed was supported by the Central Intelligence Agency and State Department.
4) Switzerland's Addiction Research Institute calls tobacco the number one killer addiction, responsible for 71 percent, or 4.9 million of the world's 7 million annual drug-related deaths. About 1.8 million deaths, or 26 percent, were attributed to the use of alcohol, while illicit drugs caused about 223,000, or 3 percent, of all worldwide drug-related deaths.
5) The FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report reveals that police arrested an estimated 697,082 persons for marijuana violations in 2002, or nearly half of all drug arrests in the United States. This amounts to one marijuana-related arrest every 45 seconds.
The total number of marijuana arrests far exceeded the total number of arrests for all violent crimes combined, including murder, manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault.
Of those charged with marijuana violations, 88 percent were charged with possession only. The remaining 12 percent were charged with "sale/manufacture," a category that includes cultivation for personal and medical use.
6) With America incarcerating the highest percentage of its own citizens of any nation in history, Former Reagan Attorney General Ed Meese suggests tapping prison labor as a way to slow the exodus of jobs overseas.
September's issue of Fortune Magazine reports: Prominent conservatives have been encouraging prisons to put inmates to work for years. The benefits are difficult to ignore: Businesses get cheap, reliable workers; inmates receive valuable job training and earn more than they would in traditional prison jobs; and the government offsets the cost of incarceration and keeps jobs and tax dollars in the US.
7) Two of America's leading conservative moralist pundits, William Bennett and Rush Limbaugh, are chastened by the exposure of their secret habits. Former chain-smoking Drug "Czar" and puritanical author of The Book of Virtues, Bennett was exposed for gambling away millions of dollars of his family's fortune in Las Vegas casinos in the past decade.
Limbaugh, America's Number One conservative radio talk show host, has rarely missed an opportunity to vilify drug addicts, even calling for an increase in the incarceration of white drug users to offset the nation's massive racial disparity in prison. He is currently under investigation for illegally obtaining up to 30,000 narcotic painkillers from his housekeeper and from doctor shopping. In his defense, (Ultra-Conservative) Limbaugh has retained the services of (Ultra-Liberal) defense attorney Roy Black.
8) Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, Washington's most stalwart ally in South America, is living in exile in the United States after being toppled in mid-October by a popular uprising, a potentially crippling blow to US anti-drug policy in the Andean region.
Last year, Lozada asked President Bush for more money to ease the impact on displaced coca farmers. Otherwise, Lozada explained, "I may be back here in a year, this time seeking political asylum."
The coca problem is intimately tied to issues of poverty and disenfranchisement. In Bolivia the backlash has strengthened the hand of the political figure regarded by Washington as its main enemy: Evo Morales, head of the coca growers' federation, who finished second in the presidential election last year.
9) Attorney General John Ashcroft limits judicial sentencing discretion and the freedom of prosecutors to strike plea bargains in criminal cases. He insists that US attorneys must seek the toughest punishment possible in nearly all cases, using plea bargains only in special situations.
10) RAID! On May 16, New York City police tossed a stun grenade into the home of 57-year-old Alberta Spruill, city worker and church volunteer, who died from a heart attack during the mistaken drug raid. On May 23, NYC police accidentally raid the home of teacher Joe Celcis. Police smashed open the door, handcuffed several people, pointed a gun in the face of a 12-year old girl and ransacked the house for 90 minutes before realizing they had the wrong address. On Nov. 5, cops in a Charleston, SC, suburb burst into the mostly white Stratford High School at 6:45 a.m. with guns drawn and ordered mostly black students to get down on the floor while cops searched lockers and book bags for marijuana; students who didn't move fast enough were handcuffed. No drugs were found in the 45-minute raid. Seventeen of the students are suing the school district.
Kevin Nelson is the editor of AlterNet's weekly column Drug War Briefs.