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From Obama to Bloomberg

The Real Purpose of the Drug War

by ALEXANDER COCKBURN and JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

A heart in love will decipher every squiggle in a letter as a kiss. In the final days of the 2008 campaign and in the opening ones of his administration, Obama and his top legal aides seemed to the eager ears of marijuana legalizers on the West Coast to be opening the door to a new, sensible era.

Here was the basic line as dispensed by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 18, 2009:

“The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law. To the extent that people do that and try to use medical marijuana laws [such as California’s Prop 215] as a shield for activity that is not designed to comport with what the intention was of the state law, those are the organizations, the people, that we will target. And that is consistent with what the president said during the campaign.”

The next day drug activists exulted in a big win. “Today’s comments clearly represent a change in policy out of Washington,” Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance told the LA Times. Holder, Nadelmann added in the New York Times, had sent a clear message to the DEA that the feds now recognize state medical marijuana laws as “kosher.”

Striking a different sort of exultant note, the US Attorney’s spokesman in Los Angeles, Thom Mrozek, told the LA Times: “In every single case we have prosecuted, the defendants violated state as well as federal law.” On January 22 (two days after Obama’s inauguration) DEA agents conducted a raid on a South Lake Tahoe cannabis dispensary run by a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur named Ken Estes. They seized about five pounds of herbal medicine and a few thousand dollars. No arrests were made. “It was a typical rip-and-run,” Estes said. On February 3, the DEA raided four cannabis dispensaries in the LA area. Eight days later DEA agents busted the MendoHealing Co-operative farm in Fort Bragg, California.

The love-flushed Obamians had forgotten how to read political declarations with a close and realistic eye, and to bear in mind the eternal power struggles between federal prosecutors and enforcers—e.g., the DEA and equivalent state bodies. The feds wanted to make it completely clear that, whatever Obama might hint at, they weren’t going to be hog-tied by wussy state  laws. Bust a guy in a wheelchair, bust a dispensary, make your point: I’m the man.

Meanwhile, what has been happening out in the fields, dells, plastic greenhouses, indoor grows in the counties of Mendocino and Humboldt? The timeless rhythms of agriculture: overproduction, plummeting prices, the remorseless toll of costly inputs like soil and fertilizers.

Back in the early 1990s the price to grower per pound was around $5,000. A couple of years ago, the average had dropped to about $2,000, more for really skilled growers, who “black box” their greenhouses, darkening them earlier each day to trick the plants into putting out an early crop. Right now, it’s down to maybe $1,000 a pound in the fall, dropping to $600 in the Christmas rush. Do these prices bear any relation to the prices in the fancy dispensaries in southern California? Guess.

Bruce Anderson, editor of the Boonville-based Anderson Valley Advertiser, describes the realities:

“Do a Google Earth on your Mendo neighborhood. Now knowing what to expect, we did one on Boonville. As the satellite camera zeroes in, the grows look like lemon groves, neatly arrayed in the backyards on both sides of Highway 128 from one end of Boonville to the other. Of course the in-door grows can’t be googled, but they are just as numerous throughout the Anderson Valley and every other area of vast Mendocino County. When you hear statements like “Everyone in this county is in the pot business” it’s not that far short of the reality. In an imploding economy does anyone seriously expect an enterprise that pays lots of off-the-books, tax-free cash can be stopped short of full-on legalization? In just the last week, raids were conducted on two homes, one in Eureka, one in Redwood Valley, where better than $400,000 cash was confiscated by the forces of law and order. Every time the cops make big cash hauls more people are convinced that they, too, should get into the pot business. A smaller number of people, of course, are convinced to try to find dope houses to rip off, hence X-number of annual home invasions, most of them unreported. Looked at objectively, and all things considered, the nebulous legal status of marijuana is perfect for Mendocino County’s financial well-being: Every year the cops take off just enough dope to keep pot prices to at least a thou a pound, with prices falling around Christmas to five or six hundred a pound as surpluses are unloaded for spending cash. Legalization would further depress the Mendocino County economy, and depress it big time.

But legalization is not a realistic prospect and so the status of the herb will inevitably remain cloudy. For its part the DEA is announcing big impending raids in Mendocino county, some targeting the vast stretches of the (federally) controlled Mendocino National Forest, and the growers drawing on the waters of the middle Eel. There are serious environmental and criminal issues here. Obama said at the start of his administration, “I can’t ask the Justice Department to ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books. What I can say is, “Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage.”

As Mark Scaramela, also of the AVA, ticks off the list, “there are growers, many of them violent, using public lands. Who wants to go hiking and run into a criminal operation? These same growers are responsible for associated illegal water diversions and serious environmental degradation. In one recent raid they took a mile of black plastic irrigation pipe out of the Mendocino National Forest.”

Fine for the Feds to go into action here. What’s not fine is a far-reaching national campaign against medical growers right across the US. All the usual arsenal of harassments have been brought into play by multiple agencies, starting with the IRS, bankrupting dispensaries by simply denying elementary
colossalbusiness expenses.

Has the drug war – as a war on the poor – slowed down? In 2010 some 850,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana related offenses of which the vast majority was for possession. That means since Obama took office it is likely well over 2.5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana. This under the aegis of a President who cosily discloses his marijuana habit as a young man. One bust, Mr Obama, and you’d be still on the South Side. But then, your sense of self-righteousness is too distended to be deflated by any sense of hypocrisy.

Take a look at New York City.

In the Bloomberg years in New York City “stop and frisks” have gone through the roof. In 2002, when Bloomberg had only just stepped into the Mayor’s office, 97,296 New Yorkers were stopped by the police under Stop and Frisk. 
80,176 were totally innocent (82 percent).

By  2009, 581,168 New Yorkers were stopped by the police.
510,742 were totally innocent (88 percent).
310,611 were black (55 percent).
180,055 were Latino (32 percent).
53,601 were white (10 percent).
289,602 were aged 14-24 (50 percent). (For reference, according to the Census Bureau, there were about only 300,000 black men between the ages of 13 and 34 living in the city that year.)

In 2011, 685,724 New Yorkers were stopped by the police.
605,328 were totally innocent (88 percent).
350,743 were black (53 percent).
223,740 were Latino (34 percent).
61,805 were white (9 percent).
341,581 were aged 14-24 (51 percent).

What happens after the initiation of Stop and Frisk when the person “complies” with an NYPD officer’s directive to “empty their pockets”?  If up to 25 grams of marijuana stays out of view, that constitutes only a violation. If the cop forces the weed into public view we’re looking at a misdemeanor, with potentially devastating career consequences for the target. Low level arrests for possession of marijuana in New York have gone up from about 2,000 in 1990 to 50,684 arrests in 2011 for possession of a small amount of marijuana, more than for any other offense, according to an analysis of state data by Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College.

From 2002 to 2011, New York City recorded 400,000 low-level marijuana arrests, according to Levine’s analysis. That represented more arrests than under Bloomberg’s three predecessors put together — a period of 24 years. Most of those arrested have been young black and Hispanic men, and most had no prior criminal convictions.

Don’t forget: Drug policy in the US is about social control.

That’s the name of the game.

Alexander Cockburn’s memoir, A Colossal Wreck, is now available from CounterPunch. 

Jeffrey St. Clair is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of NatureGrand Theft Pentagon and Born Under a Bad Sky. His latest book is Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net

This article originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of CounterPunch magazine.