Drug War Chronicle #716 - January 12, 2012

1. Michigan Repeal Marijuana Prohibition Initiative Gearing Up [FEATURE]

Michigan medical marijuana patients are tired of getting pushed around by state officials, so they've come up with a novel solution: Just repeal the marijuana laws once and for all. An initiative that would do that is getting underway now.

2. Supreme Court Will Hear Florida Drug Dog Case

The US Supreme Court has agreed to take up the question of having a drug dog sniff the front door of one's home without a warrant is an unconstitutional search.

3. Medical Marijuana Update

Here's the latest medical marijuana news from around the country. There's a whole lot going on.

4. Mexico Drug War Update

The murders, raids, and arrests continue, without making any apparent difference in anything.

5. Poll Finds Washington State Voters Split on Marijuana Legalization

A new poll shows Washington voters almost evenly split on the general question of marijuana legalization, but a November poll that asked about specifics of a pending initiative had more positive results.

6. Time to Rethink Drug Raids, Police Trainers Say

An increase in police deaths by gunfire last year and the bloody Ogden, Utah, drug raid that left one officer dead last week are causing some police to think again about the utility of aggressive drug raids.

7. Tallahassee to Pay in Death of Informant Rachel Hoffman

The city of Tallahassee has agreed to a $2.6 million settlement in the killing of Rachel Hoffman, a collegiate drug scenester whom police sent to snitch on hardened criminals after a small-time drug bust. A similar case has just popped up in Detroit, too.

8. Mississippi Public Benefits Drug Test Bill Proposed

The mania for drug testing people on welfare, unemployment, or Medicaid continues this year. A Mississippi solon wants to drug test anyone receiving public benefits, and other states are moving ahead, too.

9. Florida Medical Marijuana Bills Filed

A pair of bills introduced in Florida ask the legislature to okay a referendum on marijuana in November. Activists are petitioning the governor, too.

10. Dutch to Ban Khat

The Dutch government will ban khat, a plant favored by Somali and Yemeni immigrants for its mild stimulative properties.

11. Peru Fires Reformist Drug Czar

Peru's drug czar has been fired for being insufficiently enthusiastic about eradicating coca crops.

12. Five Utah Police Wounded, One Killed in Drug Raid

A man with "mental difficulties" who was apparently growing marijuana to self-medicate with, opened fire when a police drug task force entered his Ogden, Utah, home Wednesday night. Six police were shot; one is dead.

13. This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Cops continue to have problems keeping their hands off the drugs they come across. And they're developing problems with prescription pills, too.

14. This Week in History

Events and quotes of note from this week's drug policy events of years past.

1. Michigan Repeal Marijuana Prohibition Initiative Gearing Up [FEATURE]

A campaign to repeal marijuana prohibition in Michigan is getting ready to hit the streets with an army of volunteer signature-gatherers in a bid to put the issue before the voters in November. Campaign staffers said Tuesday state approval of final changes in the language of the proposed ballot initiative could come any day, and then petitioners will go to work.

Michigan state flag
"We are waiting for the Board of Canvassers to approve our language, and then we'll begin collecting signatures," said Brandy Zink, volunteer coordinator for the Committee for a Safer Michigan. "We're organizing at this very moment, getting our volunteers lined up."

The campaign will have until July 9 to gather the more than 322,000 valid voter signatures it needs to make the November ballot.

The ballot initiative takes the form of a constitutional amendment that would repeal the state's marijuana laws. The entire text of the amendment is as follows:

"For persons who are at least 21 years of age who are not incarcerated, marihuana acquisition, cultivation, manufacture, sale, delivery, transfer, transportation, possession, ingestion, presence in or on the body, religious, medical, industrial, agricultural, commercial or personal use, or possession or use of paraphernalia shall not be prohibited, abridged or penalized in any manner, nor subject to civil forfeiture; provided that no person shall be permitted to operate an aircraft, motor vehicle, motorboat, ORV, snowmobile, train, or other heavy or dangerous equipment or machinery while impaired by marihuana."

If the initiative were to pass, Michigan's marijuana laws would be rendered unconstitutional, and it would be "immediately incumbent on the legislature to repeal these mentions of marihuana throughout the criminal laws and infractions," the campaign said. The campaign would then ask the legislature to adopt sensible taxes and regulations, but believes "they'll beat us to it."

The campaign also argues that repealing the marijuana laws is within the purview of individual states and would not create a conflict with federal law that could preempt repeal. "The state of Michigan has the sovereign power to adopt and amend a constitution and both pass and repeal laws concerning everything not specifically reserved to the federal government," the campaign argues.

The repeal initiative is largely a response to the intense hostility with which some segments of Michigan law enforcement, led by Attorney General Bill Schuette (R), have reacted to the state's medical marijuana law, approved by 63% of the voters in 2008. Schuette, who sees the medical marijuana law as a cover for drug dealing, used a 2010 appeals court ruling that some sales of medical marijuana at dispensaries were illegal to declare that all dispensaries were illegal, unleashing a round of raids on dispensaries.

Last June, Schuette struck again against medical marijuana, issuing an opinion that: "The possession of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, even if it is possessed for medicinal purposes in accordance with the state law."

That has led to doctors across the state refusing to sign medical marijuana recommendations for fear of prosecution, which in turn has led to a tightening of access for patients. The supply situation has been further aggravated by actions in more than 60 Michigan counties or cities to restrict or ban medical marijuana. Just last month, an Oakland County circuit court judge ruled against a Birmingham couple who, with the help of the ACLU, had sued to overturn bans in several Oakland County communities.

"Our amendment is directed at the abject failure of marijuana prohibition, and also the interference by state officials with implementing our medical marijuana law and their increased aggression against patients and caregivers," said campaign spokesperson Charmie Gholson.

She accused the state law enforcement establishment of plotting to undo the will of the voters by going through the courts.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, whose war on medical marijuana sparked the initiative campaign
"When the people of Michigan overwhelmingly passed that law, the prohibitionists knew they would need a supermajority to amend it because it was voter-initiated," Gholson said. "What we see them doing is arresting people anyway in hostile areas throughout the state, then the judge would rule against them, then the prosecutor would appeal. They're working these cases up to the conservatively-stacked state Supreme Court."

Zink, too, cited the hostile response of law enforcement, the Michigan courts, and Attorney General Schuette to the state's voter approved medical marijuana law as the motive force behind the initiative campaign.

"The medical cannabis community and others here are concerned about this issue in part because of abuse of our law here by law enforcement and our attorney general," said Zink. "We've been holding meetings since October trying to come up with ways to resolve this, and after much debate and deep thought, we decided to just end cannabis prohibition in Michigan."

For the time being, at least, the campaign is relying on volunteers to get the signatures. That's a tough task when you need more than 322,000 valid signatures, but the campaign is undaunted.

"Right now, it's an all-volunteer effort, and it's going well," said Zink. "Our web site has been up for less than two weeks, and we've got volunteers recruited in nearly every county. It's a very dedicated and passionate group of people. "The community is fairly unified," Zink said. "Everyone has fought really hard for what we have, and some are a bit fearful of a backlash from law enforcement and the attorney general. But we're already being attacked by them anyway, and we've decided we have to fight for what is right."

It takes money to run an initiative campaign and pretty big money to run anything other than an all-volunteer campaign in a state the size of Michigan. The campaign is currently engaged in fundraising at the state level and hints that it may seek outside support as well.

"We're working on fundraising and hoping people will make contributions to the Committee for a Safer Michigan," Zink said. "We're doing our best right here in Michigan, and while we would love outside support, we haven't actively sought it… yet."

Using the initiative process, Michigan was the first state in the Midwest to legalize medical marijuana. Now, it could become the first state in the country to repeal pot prohibition, but only if the Committee for a Safer Michigan manages to make the ballot in the first place, and then to convince Michigan voters to pass their initiative.

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2. Supreme Court Will Hear Florida Drug Dog Case

The US Supreme Court said last Friday it would decide whether having a drug dog sniff at the door of a private residence violates the Fourth Amendment's proscription against warrantless searches. The court agreed to hear an appeal from the state of Florida in a case where the Florida Supreme Court ruled that such searches were indeed unconstitutional.

The case is Florida v. Jardines, which began with the arrest and conviction of Joelis Jardines for marijuana trafficking and electricity theft after a Florida police officer's drug dog sniffed at Jardines' front door and alerted to the odor of marijuana, Jardines and his attorney challenged the search, claiming the dog sniff was an unconstitutional intrusion into his home.

The trial judge agreed, throwing out the evidence, but an appeals court reversed the lower court decision. In April, in a split decision, the state Supreme Court reversed the appeals court, siding with the trial judge.

What the high court decides will be watched with great interest by law enforcement, which sees drug-sniffing dogs as an invaluable tool in its fight to suppress drug use and the drug trade. Eighteen states had joined with Florida in urging the court to take up the case. They argued that the state court decision went against legal precedent and threatened a valuable and widely-used tactic.

This will be only the latest legal tussle over whether the use of dogs to find drugs, explosives and other illegal or dangerous substances violates the Fourth Amendment protection against illegal search and seizure. In previous cases, the Supreme Court has upheld the use of drug-sniffing dogs during traffic stops, at airport luggage inspections, and for shipped packages in transit.

This case is different because it involves a private residence. The Supreme Court has repeatedly emphasized that a residence is entitled to greater privacy than cars on a highway, luggage at an airport, or a package in transit. The court used that reasoning in a 2001 case involving the use of thermal imaging to detect heat from a marijuana grow operation in a home, ruling that the scan constituted a search requiring either a search warrant or probable cause.

The Supreme Court is expected to hear oral arguments in April and render a decision by the end of June.

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3. Medical Marijuana Update

Here's the latest medical marijuana news from around the country. There's a whole lot going on.

California

On December 30, a Marin County judge ruled that a Novato dispensary cannot be evicted. The landlord for the Green Door Wellness Education Center had sought to evict it, saying it had violated its lease in various ways, including allowing marijuana smoking on the premises. The judge ruled that the smoke complaints were the most serious violations but "were mitigated and can be further mitigated." But Green Door and the neighboring Green Tiger Collective still face problems with the city, which sent both of them cease-and-desist orders months ago and has a moratorium on dispensaries.

On January 4, the Arcata city council voted for a temporary ban on new dispensaries. The measure does not affect existing dispensaries, but it puts a temporary hold on processing applications for new medical marijuana cooperatives and collectives. Staff will return to the council with a draft moratorium. Also in Arcata, the Humboldt Medical Supply dispensary closed its doors after its landlord received a threat letter from federal prosecutors. Another dispensary, the Sai Center, also received a letter, according to owner Stephen Gasparas, who spoke before the council.

On January 4, outgoing Marin County Supervisor Susan Adams sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder opposing the federal intervention in California's medical marijuana program.

Last Thursday, a Humboldt County supervisor met with US Attorney Melinda Haag to discuss the federal crackdown on dispensaries. Third District Supervisor Mark Lovelace said he expressed his disappointment with the crackdown and urged Haag to respect local governments, who decide what is appropriate safe access to medical marijuana.

On Monday, dozens of people protested in San Francisco over the closing of the Market Street Cooperative, which has been operating since 1997. The dispensary shut down after its landlord received a letter from federal prosecutors threatening seizure of the property.

On Tuesday, Marin County supervisors sent a smoking ban back for a rewrite to make clear it does not include marijuana. The ordinance would largely ban smoking in apartments in unincorporated areas of the county.

On Tuesday, the Anaheim city council extended the city's moratorium on new medical marijuana dispensaries for another year. The unanimous vote came after council members said they needed more time to study the "legal complexities" around the issue. The city has had a ban in place since 2007. Anaheim's law was challenged in court by medical-marijuana patients who said it unfairly limited their rights guaranteed by state law. He lost in Orange County Superior Court, but the case is on appeal. Dozens of dispensaries that opened before 2007, when the city began its moratorium, are still open.
 

On Wednesday, in late breaking news, the DEA raided three San Diego-area dispensaries. No reports yet on arrests.



Colorado

On January 3, the Boulder city council voted to enact an emergency moratorium on new applications for medical marijuana business licenses. The move came after a surprise request by City Attorney Tom Carr, who wants to review unintended consequences of rules the city adopted and who wants to see how a recent court case against the city by a dispensary operator shakes out. The moratorium will be in place pending a public hearing on February 7 in which the council will discuss a longer-term moratorium.

This week, two state legislators said they would propose a bill that would allow the medical marijuana industry to form a "financial cooperative" to provide banking services to medical marijuana businesses. The cooperative would work like a credit union, with membership limited to industry members. But it would be free of the kinds of federal insurance requirements that exist with banks and credit unions and that have made those institutions reluctant to work with medical-marijuana businesses. The bill is in response to federal pressure on banks that have led them to drop medical marijuana businesses. The two solons, Sen. Pat Steadman (D-Denver) and Rep. Tom Massey (R-Poncha Springs), said they would introduce the bill next week.

Florida

This week, medical marijuana bills were filed in the Florida House and Senate. This marks the second year in a row a bill has been filed in the House and the first time a bill has been filed in both chambers. (See our newsbrief on it here.)

Maryland

On Tuesday, a medical marijuana bill was introduced in the state House of Delegates. Introduced by Delegate Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore),  HB 15, the Maryland Medical Marijuana Act, would create clear rules for qualified patients and law enforcement, and put in place a strictly regulated production and distribution system. HB 15 would also protect patients from housing and workplace discrimination, something that the workgroup failed to address.

Michigan

On Wednesday, a Lansing medical marijuana dispensary owner was acquitted of charges he violated Michigan's election laws. Shekina Pena, 34, the owner of Your Healthy Choice Clinic, was charged by Attorney General Bill Schuette's office with trying to influence voters after he offered free marijuana to patients who registered to vote. A jury found him not guilty.

This week, an initiative campaign to repeal marijuana prohibition in Michigan, largely inspired by Schuette's antics and obstructionism, is gearing up for its signature-gathering phase. Read our feature article about it this week here.

Montana

Last week, two members of a family of medical marijuana providers were negotiating a plea deal with prosecutors, making it unlikely that a Montana court will ever have the chance to determine if federal drug laws preempt the state's medical marijuana law. Richard and Justin Flor face pot possession, distribution, and conspiracy charges after Montana Cannabis was raided last spring along with dozens of other providers. They had said they would challenge the charges, but now it looks like that won't happen.

New Jersey

On December 28, the town of Plumsted temporarily banned medical marijuana cultivation farms. The township wants time to plan where such a facility might be appropriately located. Plumsted is the third local government to ban medical marijuana cultivation, following Upper Freehold and Howell Township.

On January 4, the Westampton Land Development Board denied a permit for a medical marijuana grow and dispensary. The Compassionate Care Foundation, which had sought to locate the facility there, said it would appeal to state Superior Court. Only one of six care centers allowed under the New Jersey medical marijuana program has so far found a location.

Oregon

On Monday, several dozen people protested in Grants Pass to protest what they called corruption in law enforcement when it comes to medical marijuana. They accused by name a Grants Pass detective and an assistant district attorney, saying they violated people's rights, falsified documents, and wrongfully submitted evidence. Police denied any wrongdoing.

This week, the US Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from two Oregon sheriffs of a state Supreme Court ruling that found they could not deny concealed hand gun permits to registered medical marijuana patients. The sheriffs had attempted to argue that to provide permits to patients would force them to violate federal gun laws, which bar controlled substance users from obtaining weapons. They lost in every court that heard the cases.

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4. Mexico Drug War Update

by Bernd Debusmann Jr.

Mexican drug trafficking organizations make billions each year smuggling drugs into the United States, profiting enormously from the prohibitionist drug policies of the US government. Since Mexican president Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006 and called the armed forces into the fight against the so-called cartels, prohibition-related violence has killed more than 45,000 people, including more than 15,000 in 2010 and approximately 12,000 last year. The increasing militarization of the drug war and the arrests or killings of dozens of high-profile drug traffickers have failed to stem the flow of drugs -- or the violence -- whatsoever. The Merida initiative, which provides $1.4 billion over three years for the US to assist the Mexican government with training, equipment and intelligence, has so far failed to make a difference. Here are a few of the latest developments in Mexico's drug war:

Wednesday, January 4

In Altamira Prison in Tamaulipas, a clash between groups of rival inmates left 31 dead. Another 13 were wounded in the incident, which began when a group of men stormed a wing of the prison which they were forbidden from entering. Local media reported that the fighting was between members of the Gulf Cartel and the Zetas, but that has not been confirmed. Later on, twenty prisoners were detained for their part in the fight.

Thursday, January 5

In Michoacan, five bodies were found abandoned in a burning SUV. Authorities believe the five men were all cartel gunmen killed during intense gun battles between rival local criminal organizations.

In Tijuana, a Sinaloa Cartel figure was arrested. Omar Cabrera Bengoecha, "R-12," is alleged to be a former municipal police officer who worked for a faction of the Tijuana Cartel that broke away from the Arellano-Felix Organization and allied with El Chapo Guzman’s Sinaloa Cartel. In 2008, Cabrera Bengoecha was dismissed from the police force for his involvement in illicit narcotics transport.

Saturday, January 7

In Nuevo Leon, authorities announced the arrest of four men for participating in a kidnapping cell. One of the men was suspended professional goalkeeper Omar "El Gato" Ortiz. It is alleged that the gang -- which is tied to the Gulf Cartel -- participated in at least 20 kidnappings.

Monday, January 9

In Michoacan, 13 bodies were discovered dumped at a gas station near the town of Zitacuaro. At least two of the dead were minors. All the dead individuals were male and most had been shot in the head and tortured. A message left at the scene led authorities to believe the killings are in relation to the ongoing struggle between La Familia Michoaca and an offshoot group known as the Knights Templar.

In Ciudad Juarez, at least seven people were murdered in two multiple homicides. In one incident, a woman and three men were taken from their home by five heavily armed gunmen and executed. According to reports, the suspects wore black uniforms and said they were federal police officers. While the five men searched the home for drugs, at least ten other gunmen stood watch outside.

Tuesday, January 10

In Nuevo Leon, an army patrol killed four gunmen during an engagement near the municipality of Cerralvo, about 50 miles from the Texas border. A woman was seriously wounded in the fighting, but it is unclear if she was a kidnapping victim or lived at the rural location. Several weapons and vehicles were captured.

In Washington, the Treasury Department said in a statement that they were placing two Mexicans and a Colombian national on Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers list for their involvement with Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, whom they called the world's most powerful drug trafficker.

In Ciudad Juarez, one municipal police officer was killed and five others wounded after being attacked by a group of gunmen. Five civilians were also wounded in the attack.

In Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, authorities disarmed a car bomb left outside a state police facility.

Wednesday, January 11

In Mexico City, two bodies were found in a burning SUV left outside a high-end shopping mall in the city's Sante Fe area. A note left at the scene was signed by a local organization known as the "Hand with Eyes." Both victims had been decapitated.

[Editor's Note: Our 2011 estimated death toll is 12,150, pending the release of official figures. Our new 2012 death toll is also an estimate.]

Total Body Count for 2007 (approx.): 4,300

Total Body Count for 2008 (approx.): 5,400

Total Body Count for 2009 (approx.): 9,600

Total Body Count for 2010 (official): 15,273

Total Body Count for 2011 (approx.): 12,150

Total Body Count for 2012: (approx.) 100

TOTAL: > 46,000

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5. Poll Finds Washington State Voters Split on Marijuana Legalization

An Elway Research poll released January 4 found more support for than opposition to marijuana legalization in Washington state, but support was under 50%. When asked if they favored legalization, 48% said yes, with 45% opposed.

That marks a decline in support from the last Elway Research poll in July, when 54% favored legalization.

The poll results come just days after New Approach Washington handed in over 355,000 voter signatures in its bid to get its Initiative 502 on the November ballot. The initiative would legalize the possession of up to an ounce of marijuana by people 21 and over and would regulate and tax marijuana sales at stores operated by the state Liquor Control Board. (All liquor stores in Washington are also operated by the state.)

The Elway polls asked generic questions about marijuana legalization. A November KING-TV/Survey USA poll that asked about specific provisions in I-502 found greater enthusiasm among voters. That poll had support at 57%.

Noting that the Elway Research poll only asked the generic question, New Approach director Alison Holcomb told the Seattle Times it didn't mention provisions in I-502 that are popular with voters, such as age restrictions and designating marijuana tax revenues for health and prevention programs.

"Our research over the years has shown us that voters really care about what the details are," she said.

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6. Time to Rethink Drug Raids, Police Trainers Say

With a 15% increase in shooting deaths of law enforcement officers last year, and with this year kicking off with an Ogden, Utah, drug raid that left one officer dead and five more wounded, some police trainers are saying it is time for police to rethink their tactics, USA Today reported Wednesday.

Time for an attitude adjustment? (Image: Barton County Sheriff's Office, Kansas)
Some 68 law enforcers were killed by gunfire last year, 10 of them while serving search warrants or on multi-agency raids. While only three of them died doing work directly related to drug law enforcement -- two US Marshals were shot and killed in separate raids trying to arrest drug fugitives and one Florida police officer was killed trying to search suspicious persons for drugs -- the bloody Ogden raid has focused attention on drug raids.

In that raid, aimed at Matthew Stewart, an Army veteran with no criminal record who was supposedly "self-medicating" with marijuana he grew himself, a local drug task force forced its way into his home only to be met with ferocious gunfire. When the bullets stopped flying, Ogden Officer Jared Francom was dead and five of his comrades and Stewart were wounded. Prosecutors said this week they would seek the death penalty for him.

But that won't bring back Officer Francom, and police need to reevaluate their tactics, said Pat McCarthy, who advises police agencies across the country.

"The days of knocking down doors in drug cases should be over. Given what's going on now, you have to consider other options," McCarthy told USA Today. "Police should focus on trying to lure suspects out into the open or just "wait them out," he said. "It's time to change our thinking, Cops are exposing themselves to increasing danger many times over, and it's just not necessary."

The Justice Department will host a meeting later this month with researchers and law enforcement officials to review tactics and training in the wake of the officers' deaths.

Of course, it's not just police who died in drug raids. The Chronicle's tally of domestic drug war deaths last year includes 13 civilians who were killed by police in drug raids on residences.

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7. Tallahassee to Pay in Death of Informant Rachel Hoffman

Tallahassee, Florida, city commissioners last Friday voted to approve a $2.6 million settlement in the wrongful death suit of a young woman killed in a drug sting when she agreed to be a confidential informant for police after being busted on marijuana and ecstasy charges. The payout comes even as a similar killing is shaking the Detroit area.

Rachel Hoffman (facebook.com)
Rachel Hoffman, 23, a recent Florida State University graduate, inhabited student drug circles, but after she was busted and agreed to become a snitch in 2008, Tallahassee police sent her out into an entirely different world. They set up a "buy-bust" sting, giving Hoffman $13,000 in marked bills to buy ecstasy, cocaine, and a gun. Instead of completing the transaction, the two men targeted shot and killed her, stole the money, her credit cards, and her car, and left her body in a ditch. The killers were later caught and are now serving life sentences.

But Hoffman's parents sued after her death, claiming police were negligent in setting her up as an informant and putting her in harm's way. Jury selection in the case began two weeks ago, and the trial was set to begin Monday. After meeting with city attorneys, commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the settlement. The city itself will pay an initial $200,000 installment shortly, but under Florida law, the rest will only be paid after the Florida legislature passes a "claims bill," which could take years.

The city's settlement isn't the only fallout from Hoffman's killing. After her death, her parents lobbied for, and the legislature passed, "Rachel's Law," which mandated reforms to protect informants. Under that law, police who work with informants are also required to get special training, must allow them to talk with an attorney before agreeing to anything, and cannot promise them reduced sentences if they cooperate.

If Michigan had such a law, perhaps Shelley Hilliard would be alive today. The 19-year-old transgender woman was found murdered and mutilated on Detroit's east side in October after last being seen going to meet a man she had set up in a drug sting after being busted herself for marijuana.

In a Thursday preliminary hearing for Qasim Raqib, the man charged with her killing, testimony revealed that police told her she could avoid arrest by helping to set up a drug deal. She used her cell phone to call Raqib as police listened in on a speaker phone and told him she knew someone who wanted to buy $335 worth of marijuana and cocaine. He was arrested when he arrived at a local motel 20 minutes later.

Further testimony suggested Raqib called Hilliard two days later and urged her to meet him. A taxi driver who took Hilliard on all her calls testified she said she was worried that Raqib would seek payback over the drug bust. The taxi driver testified that after dropping her off, she called him and sounded fearful, and he then heard a sound like the phone dropping to the ground before it went dead. Her body was found hours later.

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8. Mississippi Public Benefits Drug Test Bill Proposed

Last year saw efforts in numerous states to pass laws requiring that people receiving or applying for public benefits, such as food stamps or unemployment, be required to take and pass drug tests. This year looks to be more of the same, and some Mississippi legislators want the Magnolia State to be first out of the gate.

Mississippi State House
State Sen. Michael Watson (R-Pascagoula) told the Mississippi Press Monday that he will introduce this week a bill that requires recipients of public benefits to take mandatory drug tests and prove their US citizenship. The bill would apply to people receiving Medicaid, food stamps, electronic benefit transfer cards and other state assistance program benefits.

"Our system is abused," Watson said. "Across the state, lawmakers have big hearts and truly want to help people, but we want to help people who also want to help themselves."

Public benefits are designed as temporary help for people going through hard times, he explained.

"To the people who are taking advantage of our generosity and hardworking Mississippian's tax dollars, we want to say no more," Watson said. "The folks that can work need to get a job and stop taking advantage of our system."

The unemployment rate in Mississippi was 10.5% in November, the last month for which state-level data are available. It has hovered at over 10% and above the national average for all of the past two years.

Watson said he has heard opposing arguments that such programs are likely to save states little money, but said it would still be worth it.

"It's a sensitive and an emotional topic, but you have to look at it logically," Watson said. "Even if you break even, it's well worth it in my opinion."

Watson said his bill is modeled on a Florida law implemented last year. He didn't mention that the law was blocked shortly after it went into effect. A Florida welfare recipient backed by civil liberties attorneys successfully sought a temporary injunction in federal court and is awaiting a decision on a permanent injunction.

In Florida, the federal district court found a high probability that suspicionless drug testing will be found to be an illegal search under the Fourth Amendment. That ruling was based in part on a US 6th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in 2003 that threw out a Michigan welfare drug testing law -- the last suspicionless drug testing bill to be passed before Florida's.

Other states have passed drug testing bills that seek to avoid the constitutional issues by limiting drug tests to those benefits recipients officials have reasonable grounds to believe have been using drugs. Such measures have been passed in Arizona, Indiana, and Missouri, and have so far not been tested in the courts.

Ed Sivak, director of the Mississippi Economic Policy Center, told the Mississippi Press such efforts are misguided. "This is a policy proposal that's looking for a problem," Sivak said.

Sivak cited studies of programs in Idaho and Louisiana that found only small percentages of people tested positive and that the programs could cost as much as they save. He also said the state could have to pay to defend the bill if it becomes law and is challenged.

Legislators seem split along party lines on the welfare drug testing issue.

Rep. Steve Holland (D-Plantersville) said he saw no benefit to it. "And for what reason?" he asked. "What value does it offer? Other than further humiliation of mankind?"

But Sen. Bruce Wiggins (R-Pascagoula) said he supported the bill. "If you're getting, essentially, free healthcare from the government, you don't need to be doing drugs," Wiggins said.

Watson's bill could go before the Drug Policy Committee, where he is vice-chairman, or before the Public Health and Welfare Committee, on which Wiggins sits.

Mississippi isn't the only state moving fast on the issue this year. A hearing on an unemployment drug testing bill is set for this week in South Carolina, and movement is happening in other states, too. Look for a feature article on the issue next week.

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9. Florida Medical Marijuana Bills Filed

For the second year in a row, medical marijuana legislation has been filed in Florida, and for the first time ever, bills have been filed in both the House and the Senate. The bills, House Joint Resolution 353 and Senate Joint Resolution 1028, ask the legislature to approve a referendum on medical marijuana for the November ballot.

Florida Decides activist Catherine Jordan
If the legislature approves the resolutions, the referendum must then win the approval of 60% of the voters. If 60% of the voters approve it, the state constitution would be amended to include medical marijuana language.

Under the resolutions, patients with a doctor's recommendation and his or her primary caregiver would have an affirmative defense if charged with a marijuana offense as long as the amount of marijuana was not greater than the amount set by the state and could still mount an affirmative defense if it was, provided that greater amount is "medically necessary." The amount is not set in the resolutions; instead, the legislature would be charged with setting quantity limits in the event the referendum passes.

Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing. Still, Florida activists are happy to see them and will be present in Tallahassee to lobby for them.

"This is the first time since 1978 that cannabis advocates will have a sustained presence in the legislature," said veteran activist Jodi James of the Florida Cannabis Action Network.  "Sick and dying people need access to this medicine now, she told the Gainesville Sun.

The group has also created a Florida Decides web site with a petition to Gov. Rick Scott (R) asking him to urge the legislature to bypass the referendum process and just pass a medical marijuana bill directly. So far, that petition has 2,876 electronic signatures.

While the House version has a handful of cosponsors, the sole sponsor in the Senate is Sen. Larcenia Bullard (D-Miami). She told the Sun she had originally sponsored the bill as a courtesy to constituents, but after researching it, has embraced the cause.

Now, it's up to the rest of the legislature to embrace the cause, and James and the Florida Cannabis Action Network are there to help them see the light.

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10. Dutch to Ban Khat

In keeping with the regressive turn Dutch drug policy has taken under its conservative coalition government, the Dutch government said Tuesday it will ban khat, a plant used by people from the Horn of Africa and the Arabian peninsula for its mild stimulant properties.

Man chewing khat, Sanaa, Yemen, 2009 (wikimedia.org)
"Health Minister (Edith) Schippers will soon place khat on list II of the opium law. This will make possession and trade in khat illegal," said a joint statement from the Dutch interior affairs, security and justice and health ministries.

The ban is designed to serve a dual purpose for the Dutch. First, it is aimed at reducing domestic khat consumption, mainly among Ethiopian and Yemeni immigrants. Dutch officials said social problems, including high unemployment in the Somali community, prompted the ban, although it's not clear how banning khat will boost the jobs picture for immigrants.

They also cited longstanding pressures from other European countries to clamp down on the khat trade. The ban is thus also designed to stop the use of Amsterdam's Schipol Airport as a key hub for khat destined for other European countries where it is already illegal, including Denmark, Germany, and Sweden. (Khat is also banned in the US and Canada.)

The Dutch said that more than 800 tons of khat were imported into the Netherlands last year, 80% of which was exported to other European countries.

Swedish police welcomed the Dutch action, saying they suspected profits from the trade were going to finance militants like Al Shabaab in Somalia. Swedish police estimate that 200 tons of khat are smuggled into the country each year.

"Smuggling to Scandinavia is quite substantial... we catch smugglers on the Swedish border several times a week, though probably 9 in 10 transports get through," Stefan Kalman of the Swedish police drug squad told Reuters. "This ban means a huge change for us. I expect the numbers to go down now, as smuggling becomes more difficult," he added.

The Dutch khat ban is in line with the government's crackdown on the sale of marijuana and hashish. The number of cannabis coffee shops there is declining, and a ban on foreigners in coffee shops is set to begin going into effect this year.

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11. Peru Fires Reformist Drug Czar

Ricardo Soberon, the reformist head of DEVIDA, the Peruvian drug agency, has been fired and replaced, the Peruvian government announced Tuesday. Soberon made waves last August when he implemented a temporary ban on forced eradication of coca plants, taking the US Embassy by surprise, but that was soon reversed on the orders of his boss, Interior Minister Oscar Valdes.

statues of coca leaves adorn a small town plaza in Peru (photo by author)
Relations between Soberon and Valdes never warmed, and he "resigned" on Tuesday after just five months in office. Soberon also found himself increasingly at odds with President Ollanta Humala, who had campaigned on a pledge to not aggressively pursue eradication, but who has shifted to the right on this and other issues since taking power.

Soberon had taken that same message to coca growers, with whom he had forged relationships after years of work in the field. His departure could mean an uptick in conflict in the already contentious relationship between coca grower unions and the government.

"Soberon's exit was a matter of time," Peruvian drug policy expert Jaime Antezana told the Washington Post. "There was no chance that Oscar Valdes would keep him in the job."

Soberon had been working on a five-year national drug strategy that would have called for vigorous pursuit of cocaine traffickers and money launderers and interdiction of incoming precursor chemicals and outgoing cocaine, but de-emphasized punishing the peasants who grow coca outside the government coca monopoly, ENACO. That strategy was never approved.

Peru is now arguably the world's largest producer of cocaine, having surpassed Colombia despite the latter country's having more acreage of coca planted, according to US officials. Peru's coca fields are higher-yielding because they are more mature, and the country had the potential to produce 325 metric tons of cocaine last year, compared to 270 tons in Colombia.

Peru eradicated about 15% of the crop last year, but at the political price of alienating thousands of coca growing farm families. Now, it appears ready to deepen that divide.

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12. Five Utah Police Wounded, One Killed in Drug Raid

[Editor's Note: Again this year, we are trying to track all deaths directly attributable to US domestic drug law enforcement operations. We can use your help. Let us know if you come across an incident that you think qualifies. To see the 2011 drug war deaths, go here.]

http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/files/agent-jared-francom.jpg
Agent Jared Francom
An Ogden, Utah, police officer was shot and killed and five others wounded, two in critical condition, in a drug raid on an Ogden home the night of January 4. The resident was also wounded and is in custody facing as yet unspecified charges. Although police aren't saying, it appears the target was a personal marijuana grow. Agent Jared Francom becomes the first person killed in US domestic drug law operations this year.

According to the Deseret News, citing police sources, Agent Francom died at the Ogden Regional Medical Center early last Thursday. He was assigned to the Weber-Morgan Metro Narcotics Strike Force when he was killed.

Twelve members of the strike force were attempting to serve a warrant when a gun battle erupted. Police said they were doing a "knock and enter" warrant, meaning they would knock on the door and enter if no one responded. When the entered the residence, they were met with gunfire. They later found the resident wounded and hiding in a shed.

The resident and suspected shooter is Matthew David Stewart, 37, who worked a midnight shift at a local Walmart and whose previous criminal record consisted of a misdemeanor conviction for driving without insurance in 2005 and a citation for not wearing a seat belt in 2004.

Police did not specify what the warrant was for, but Stewart's father, Michael Stewart, told the Deseret News his son had "mental difficulties" and was self-medicating with marijuana. The elder Stewart also said he believed his son was growing marijuana, but only for himself. He added that Stewart was probably sleeping before going to work when the 8:40 pm raid happened and he reacted the way he did because he awoke to people in his house.

Police are not releasing further details on the raid pending completion of their internal investigations.

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13. This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Cops continue to have problems keeping their hands off the drugs they come across. And they're developing problems with prescription pills, too. Let's get to it:

In Seattle, a South Seattle police officer was arrested January 4 in a sting after colleagues and members of the public complained of his handling of drug evidence. Patrolman Richard Nelson went down after failing an "integrity test," in which an undercover officer posing as someone who found a purse containing cocaine turned it in to him as investigators monitored him. He didn't turn in the drugs and was arrested. He was released from jail early the next morning, and hours later, he shot himself to death in the Cascades foothills.

In Rhine, Georgia, the Rhine police chief was arrested last Thursday on charges he was trafficking in prescription pills. Chief Kip Herman Cravey went down after a joint investigation by the Dodge County Sheriff's Office, the Eastman Police Department, and the Oconee Drug Task Force. He is charged with one count of unlawfully distributing Schedule III narcotics (two dozen Soma tablets) and one count of criminal attempt to purchase Schedule II narcotics (Roxicodone). Additional charges may be filed. No word yet on bail arrangements.

In Piscataway, New Jersey, a former Piscataway police officer pleaded guilty last Thursday to stealing cocaine from the department's evidence vault. Albert Annuzzi, 47, a 22-year veteran of the department, was arrested in April 2011. In court, he admitted he took the cocaine for his own personal use. Under a plea deal with prosecutors, he faces up to three years in prison and must serve two before being eligible for parole. He will also be banned from holding any public job in New Jersey and forfeit his pension. He is free on bond pending sentencing.

In Wolfeboro, New Hampshire, a former Wolfeboro police officer was convicted last Thursday of stealing drugs from the department's evidence room. Roger Martel, 40, was caught stealing 120 oxycodone tablets given to police as part of a prescription drug take-back program. He was charged and convicted on one count of theft by unauthorized taking and one count of controlling a vehicle in which a controlled drug was illegally kept. The eight-year veteran will do only three days in jail after he convinced the judge that he stole the pills because he had developed an addiction to them after being injured on the job. He was sentenced to 12 months behind bars, but the judge deferred all but three days provided Martel follows the court's other orders.

In Buffalo, New York, a former TSA "behavior detection officer" was sentenced January 4 to two years in prison for letting a local drug operation smuggle cash through the Buffalo Niagara International Airport. Minnetta Walker got the maximum sentence allowed after pleading down from her original charges of participating in a continuing criminal enterprise and conspiracy to distribute marijuana.

In St. Ignace, Michigan, a former state prison guard was sentenced last Friday to 10 months in jail for trying to smuggle drugs into the prison. Matthew Bell was busted in September 2011 and later pleaded guilty to possession with intent to deliver less than 50 grams of heroin, possession of less than 25 grams of heroin, and maintaining a drug house. He must also do two years probation.

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14. This Week in History

January 16, 1919: The 18th Amendment (alcohol prohibition) is declared ratified and is scheduled to take effect in one year.

January 16, 1920: At midnight, the 18th Amendment becomes law, making alcohol illegal.

January 12, 1929: The Porter Narcotic Farm Act is passed, establishing the first two narcotics hospitals for addicts in federal prisons in response to addicts' crowding.

January 14, 1937: A private federal cannabis conference takes place in room 81 of the Treasury Building in Washington, DC, leading to enactment of federal marijuana prohibition later that year.

January 15, 1963: President Kennedy establishes the Advisory Commission on Narcotic and Drug Abuse, with Judge E. Barrett Prettyman as chair.

January 16, 1980: Paul McCartney is arrested by Japanese customs officials at Tokyo International Airport when they find two plastic bags in his suitcases containing 219 grams of marijuana (approximately 7.7 ounces). Concerned that McCartney would be refused a US visa under immigration laws if convicted and be unable to perform in an upcoming Wings concert in the US, Sen. Edward Kennedy calls first secretary of the British Embassy D.W.F. Warren-Knott on January 19. McCartney is released and deported on January 25.

January 18, 1990: Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, DC, is arrested after hidden cameras record him smoking crack cocaine with ex-girlfriend Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore in her room at the Vista Hotel.

January 15, 1997: Milahhr Kemnah, an AIDS patient visiting the Cannabis Cultivators Club in San Francisco, becomes the first person to buy medical marijuana in California following passage of Proposition 215.

January 12, 2001: Salon.com reports that the nephew of Attorney General-designate John Ashcroft received probation after a felony conviction in state court for growing 60 marijuana plants with intent to distribute the drug in 1992. This is a lenient sentence, given that these charges often trigger much tougher federal penalties and jail time. Ashcroft was the tough-on-drugs Missouri governor at the time.

January 15, 2002: The Associated Press reports that a federal appeals court ruled that, in Idaho, marijuana users can drive legally as long as their driving isn't erratic and they can pass a field sobriety test. A three-judge panel of the San Francisco-based 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals wrote that while it is illegal to drive under the influence of alcohol or narcotics, Idaho law doesn't list marijuana as a narcotic.

January 14, 2003: A high profile pain prosecution ends with a whimper when California prosecutors dismiss all remaining charges against Dr. Frank Fisher.

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Permission to Reprint: This issue of Drug War Chronicle is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license. Articles of a purely educational nature in Drug War Chronicle appear courtesy of DRCNet Foundation, unless otherwise noted.

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