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Key Sinaloa Cartel Figure Reported Dead

Reports are emerging from Mexico that Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, a key figure in the Sinaloa cartel, has died of natural causes. After the capture of cartel head Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman by Mexican authorities earlier this year, Esparragoza and Ismael "El Mayo" Zambada were viewed as the effective leaders of the cartel. Now, only Zambada remains.

The story was broken Sunday by the Culiacan, Sinaloa-based investigative weekly Rio Doce, which cited people close to the Esparragoza family, as well as anonymous police sources. On Monday, Radio Formula reported that the Mexican attorney general's office had opened an investigation into "rumors" of his death.

According to Rio Doce, Esparragoza had suffered spinal injuries in an auto accident about two weeks ago and was convalescing in a hospital in either Cuernavaca or Mexico City when he suffered a heart attack while attempting to get out of bed. He was 65. His body was reportedly cremated, with plans to return his ashes to his native Sinaloa.

[Editor's Note: We covered a 2008 conference in Culiacan organized by the folks at Rio Doce. You can read our report here.]

Along with Guzman and Zambada, Esparragoza was part of a generation of Sinaloa narcos who came to dominate the trade across Mexico, including running cartels in Tijuana, Ciudad Juarez, and Guadalajara. Now, Zambada is about the only one left. The rest are dead or behind bars.

Esparragoza was known as a shrewd negotiator, one who could make peace among warring drug trafficking groups. Much of that reputation was based on his years working for the Juarez cartel in the 1990s, the era of famed narco Amado Carillo Fuentes, known as "the Lord of the skies" for his fleet of planes ferrying cocaine from Colombia.

He was also reportedly an efficient corrupter, as good at greasing palms as he was at cooling down hot heads. And he preferred a low profile. While not as well known as some of his more infamous counterparts, Esparragoza was a key player and a deal-maker. This could portend more strife within the Sinaloa cartel.

Mexico

Chronicle AM -- June 9, 2014

In California, all eyes now turn toward 2016 for marijuana legalization, Washington state's first retail marijuana store will open soon, Mexico's president is willing to debate marijuana legalization, British activists are planting the seeds of change, and more. Let's get to it:

Marijuana Policy

Last California 2014 Legalization Initiative is Dead. The last remaining campaign to put a marijuana legalization initiative on the 2014 ballot is dead. The secretary of state's office announced last Friday that the Marijuana Control, Legalization and Revenue Act of 2014, sponsored by San Jose interests had failed to gather enough signatures by its cutoff date. That means all eyes turn to 2016. See the next item.

California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform Launches Grassroots Campaign for Marijuana Legalization. The Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (CCPR) announced today it was launching a grassroots campaign to legalize marijuana in the Golden State. CCPR already has the backing of most national drug reform organizations, as well as the ACLU, the California NAACP, and the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). A new Reform CA web site and Facebook page are now up, and CCPR says they have 120,000 people on their list so far.

Texas GOP Spurns Marijuana Reform. Meeting at its state convention in Fort Worth over the weekend, the Texas Republican Party quickly rejected adding support for medical marijuana to its platform and even more quickly rejected a legalization plank.

Colorado Governor Signs Marijuana Banking Bill. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) last Friday signed into law legislation designed to allow marijuana businesses to use a series of cooperatives a means of accessing basic banking services. The move is aimed at allowing those businesses to move away from cash-only operations, but still needs approval from the Federal Reserve.

Washington State's First Marijuana Retail Store Will Open July 1. The first legal non-medical marijuana retail shop will open in Spokane on July 1. Kouchlock Productions says it will be open, but will set quantity limits until more supply is available. Koucklock is also a licensed producer, but has only been growing its first crop for two months. More retail outlets should open in coming weeks; the state says 334 will be allowed.

Drug Policy

DPA, MAPS Release Report on DEA Obstructionism and Rejection of Science. The Drug Policy Alliance and the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies today released a new report highlighting DEA obstructionism and the rejection of science, primarily around medical marijuana, but also including examinations of how the DEA can move with lightning speed when it comes to prohibiting drugs, as opposed to its lethargy regarding a series of medical marijuana rescheduling petitions. The report calls for responsibility for drug scheduling to be removed from the DEA and for an end to the government's monopoly on research-grade marijuana. DPA and MAPS will also hold a teleconference Wednesday with Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Steven Cohen (D-TN) and Dr. Carl Hart.

Law Enforcement

$10 Million Federal Grant for Vermont Anti-Heroin Drug Task Forces Wins Senate Committee Vote. A proposal from Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) to fund a $10 million competitive grant for state law enforcement drug task forces was approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee last Thursday. The grant is an innovative way for Vermont to get around restrictions in the Edward Byrne Justice Assistance Grants program, which are based on formulas that assess size and need. Instead, this competitive grant would prioritize locales that have high per capita treatment admissions for opiates. But it is still a 100% law enforcement approach.

International

Mexico's President Says Marijuana Legalization Should Be Debated. Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said Sunday that while he doesn't personally support marijuana legalization, he favors debating the issue, and that Mexico could follow the lead of US states that have legalized it. Marijuana prohibition is "a failed policy," he said. "It needs to be reviewed. I repeat, I'm not in favor of legalization, this is a personal conviction. But we can't continue on this road of inconsistency between the legalization we've had in some places, particularly in the most important consumer market, the United States, and in Mexico where we continue to criminalize production of marijuana," he added.

Guatemala President Calls Costa Rica President "Strategic Partner" in Drug Reform Debate. Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said last Friday that Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solis is "a strategic partner" in the search for alternatives to the militarized prohibitionist drug policies currently in effect. "We feel that Costa Rica is a partner that brings an important vision in this battle to change the drug policy that is today based on prohibition," Perez Molina said. Solis does not support drug legalization, but he has expressed interest in further decriminalizing drug use in Costa Rica.

British Activists Planting Marijuana Seeds at Well-Known Landmarks. Marijuana seeds aren't illegal in Britain, and the Feed the Birds campaign sponsored by the London Cannabis Club is taking advantage of that to plant them at well-known landmarks around the country, including London's Tower Bridge and Big Ben. The project is aimed at decriminalizing marijuana and supporting medical marijuana users, and the seeds they are planting are from a strain with good medicinal properties, organizers said. "We've been doing this for years under a media blackout and we've grown everywhere you can imagine," said founder Finn Hemingway. "This isn't original, it's a return to the days before prohibition and we don't take much notice of whether it's legal or not. By helping medical users, we can get them away from low quality cannabis and dealers and make them self-sufficient." Police said it would be difficult to prosecute the seed-planters.

Chronicle AM -- June 5, 2014

An Arkansas marijuana legalization initiative can start signature-gathering, DC's medical marijuana program now includes more eligible conditions, Tennessee's governor unveils his prescription drug plan, Canada's mandatory minimum sentencing law is being challenged, and more. Let's get to it:

DNC Chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz gets scolded by the medical marijuana movement.
Marijuana Policy

Arkansas Legalization Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. State Attorney General Dustin McDaniel yesterday approved the popular name and ballot title for a constitutional amendment initiative that would legalize marijuana. Supporters of the Arkansas Hemp and Cannabis Amendment now have just over one month -- until July 7 -- to submit more than 78,000 valid voter signatures in order to qualify for the November ballot. A medical marijuana initiative sponsored by Arkansans for Compassionate Care is already in the signature-gathering phase.

Medical Marijuana

Group Targets DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz for Not Voting to End DEA Interference in Medical Marijuana States. The medical marijuana advocacy group Americans for Safe Access is now running TV ads criticizing Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-FL), chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee as "out of touch" for voting against a measure to bar the DEA from interfering in medical marijuana states. Wasserman Schultz was one of only 18 Democrats who voted against it while 170 Democrats voted for it. The ads are running on MSNBC in South Florida, where her district is.

DC Medical Marijuana Program Adds New Qualifying Conditions. The DC Department of Health has approved new conditions for which patients will be able to use marijuana. They are seizure disorders, Lou Gehrig's Disease, decompensated cirrhosis, cachexia or wasting syndrome, and Alzheimer's. Hospice patients will also be allowed to use marijuana. Previously, the DC program had been restricted to people suffering from HIV/AIDS, cancer, glaucoma, and muscle spasticity.

Heroin

Ohio Democratic Candidates Call for Tougher Action Against Heroin. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ed FitzGerald and Democratic attorney general candidate David Pepper are calling for tougher action against heroin. FitzGerald said he wants tougher enforcement on dealers and that rising heroin use should be treated as a public health emergency. And Pepper called for heroin overdose deaths to be treated like murder. FitzGerald added that not enough dealers are going to prison, especially after a sentencing reform bill passed. The Ohio Republican Party responded calling the Democrats "tone deaf" and "ghoulish," saying that Gov. John Kasich (R) has been a strong advocate on the issue, and besides, Attorney General Mike DeWine's (R) office had just indicted two heroin dealers last week.

Prescription Drugs

Tennessee Governor Rolls Out Prescription Drug Plan. Gov. Bill Haslam (R) Tuesday unveiled his seven-point program to battle problems associated with prescription drug use. "Prescription for Success: Statewide Strategies to Prevent and Treat the Prescription Drug Abuse Epidemic in Tennessee" calls for reducing the prescribing of prescription opiates, reducing overdose deaths (including through enactment of a 911 Good Samaritan law), increasing prevention, early intervention, and treatment, and increased cooperation among state agencies and between the state and other entities. While it has a law enforcement component, that doesn't seem to be emphasized. [Ed: There are some good provisions in this document, but reducing the prescribing of pain medications needs to be handled with great care. Although more people are getting opiates now, not all of the people who need them are, and it could easily get even worse for pain patients.]

Drug Testing

California Initiative to Drug Test Doctors Qualifies for Ballot. An initiative that requires random, suspicionless drug and alcohol testing of doctors has qualified for the November 2014 ballot, according to the Secretary of State's office. It also requires doctors to report any other doctor they suspect of being impaired by drugs or alcohol. It also increases the cap on pain and suffering damages in medical malpractice lawsuits, which may the initiative's main goal. Legislative analysts estimate it could cost the state "at least in the low tens of millions of dollars annually" in higher malpractice costs and up to "hundreds of millions of dollars annually" because of changes in the amount and type of health care services provided.

Law Enforcement

In Massive Heroin Sweep, New Jersey Police Arrest Seven Users for Every Dealer. New Jersey cops arrested 325 people during an eight-week heroin sting, but only 40 of them are accused of selling heroin. The rest are alleged heroin users. Authorities said all were arrested on relatively low-level charges and all would have a chance to go through treatment programs, but the head of the state's drug court program said she wasn't sure the system could accommodate all of them.

International

New Zealand Workers Win Drug Testing Case. Workers at a mill who were subjected to mandatory drug tests after two marijuana plants were found growing on the site were treated unfairly and must be compensated, the Employment Relations Authority has ruled. The mill owner had argued that the discovery of pot plants was "reasonable cause" to drug test everybody, but the authority disagreed. "This is a victory for our members, and a victory for common decency and respect," says Ron Angel, a union organizer for timber workers. "Drug testing has to be about proving actual impairment at work - not treating workers as guilty until proven innocent."

Canada Battle over Mandatory Minimum Sentences Heads to BC Appeals Court. A case that could eventually overturn the Conservative government's mandatory minimum sentence scheme for drug offenses is being heard in the BC Court of Appeals today. Earlier this year, a BC provincial court judge ruled unconstitutional an automatic one-year prison term for a person repeatedly convicted of drugs. Lawyers for the government appealed; thus today's hearing. The case is that of Vancouver Downtown Eastside resident Joseph Lloyd, a long-time drug user with 21 previous convictions who was convicted last fall of trafficking small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and meth. The provincial court judge held that mandatory minimum sentences amounted to cruel and unusual punishment.

Bolivian Village to Bake Coca Birthday Cake for UN Head Ban Ki-Moon. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon will be in Bolivia when his birthday rolls around on June 15, and the mayor of Cobija, Ana Lucia Reis, says they are going to bake him a coca birthday cake. "The idea is that Ban tries the coca and realizes that coca is part of our culture and is not cocaine," she said.

Smuggler Shooting Immediately Tests Border Patrol's New Force Policy

Last Friday, Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced new policies designed to reduce the use of deadly force by Border Patrol agents. Hours later, a Border Patrol agent shot and killed marijuana smuggler Luis Arambula, 31, as he fled on foot through an Arizona golf course. Arambula becomes the 20th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

The killing is bound to put CBP's new use of deadly force policies to the test. According to the CBP's new handbook, the use of deadly force is authorized only when there is imminent danger of death or serious injury to the agent or someone else. Deadly force is not to be used "solely to prevent the escape of a fleeing subject," but can only be justified when the person "has inflicted or threatened to inflict serious physical injury or death" and the person's escape poses an imminent threat of serious injury or death to the agent or others.

But that doesn't appear to be the case with Luis Arambula. Border Patrol Agent Daniel Marquez shot him nine times as he ran through a golf course after his vehicle got stuck as he fled from agents. Agents had tried to pull him over on Interstate 19, but he didn't stop, instead getting off the highway, onto an access road and then a surface street into the golf course.

Two agents chased him on foot for a quarter mile, then Marquez opened fire. Agents claimed that Arambula made "punching out" motions with his arms, as if he were aiming a gun at that in a two-handed stance, but Pima County sheriff's deputies investigating the incident said Arambula was unarmed.

The Pima County Sheriff's Office is investigating the killing. We shall see how CBP handles this first challenge to its new deadly force policy.

Chronicle AM -- June 4, 2014

Legendary chemist Alexander Shulgin has died, the fight for medical marijuana in New York continues, Chicago sues Big Pharma over prescription opiates, Britain's black police association wants a look at legalization in the US, pot politics continues to get big play in Bermuda, and more. Let's get to it:

Britain's National Black Police Association wants the government to study marijuana reform in the US. (nbpa.co.uk)
Medical Marijuana

Compromise Could Be Coming on New York Medical Marijuana Bill. Two key players in the New York legislature, Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) and Assemblyman Richard Gottfried (D-Manhattan) met yesterday in an effort to find a compromise between their two bills that could lead to passage of a bill before the session ends in two weeks. The Assembly has already approved Gottfried's bill, but the Senate has yet to act on Savino's. Being able to actually smoke marijuana may be an item for discussion.

Ecstasy

Legendary Chemist Alexander Shulgin, "Godfather of Ecstasy" Dead at 88. Alexander Shulgin, the Berkeley-based research chemist who turned the psychotherapeutic community on to MDMA (Ecstasy) died Monday at his Northern California home. In addition to his work with MDMA, Shulgin also created more than 200 other psychedelic compounds. His life's work is distilled in two books PIKHAL (Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved): A Chemical Love Story and TIKHAL (Triptamines I Have Known and Loved): The Continuation. The DEA considers those books handbooks for illicit psychoactive chemistry.

Prescription Drugs

Chicago Sues Pharmaceutical Companies; Claims They Contributed to Prescription Drug Surge. The city of Chicago has filed a lawsuit against five drug companies -- Purdue Pharma, Cephalon, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Endo Health Solutions and Actavis -- charging they deceived the public about the risks and benefits of highly potent and effective opiate pain relievers. "For years, Big Pharma has deceived the public about the true risks and benefits of highly potent and highly addictive painkillers in order to expand their customer base and increase their bottom line, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said in a statement. The lawsuit claims the companies violated city laws against consumer fraud and misleading advertising. The city is seeking cash damages in an unspecified amount, but said it is not seeking to ban the medications.

Sentencing

US Sentencing Commission to Hold Public Hearing Next Week on Retroactivity for New Drug Quantity Sentencing Tables. On Tuesday, June 10, the US Sentencing Commission will hold a public hearing to gather testimony from invited witnesses on the issue of whether the amendment to the drug quantity table sent to Congress in April should be applied retroactively. The Commission will not be voting on the issue of retroactivity at this hearing, and that issue is open for public comment until July 7. A tentative hearing agenda is available here​.

More Than a Thousand Religious Leaders Call for Federal Drug Sentencing Reform. Some 1,100 religious leaders representing 40 different faith groups have signed onto a letter to Congress supporting passage of the Smarter Sentencing Act (S1410/HR 3382), which would reduce mandatory minimum sentences for federal drug offenses. The sign-on was sponsored by the Faith in Action Criminal Justice Reform Working Group.

Law Enforcement

Sarasota, Florida, Cops' Reverse Sting on Nickel Bag Marijuana Buyers Raises Eyebrows, Civil Liberties Concerns. Police in Sarasota, Florida, went undercover to sell nickel bags of weed to unsuspecting customers in a city park and then charged them with "purchase of marijuana," a felony punishable by up to five years in state prison. The operation has critics calling foul and questioning whether the operation was a good use of police sources, whether it violated the civil rights of some defendants (including a mentally ill man), and why it targeted users instead of dealers.

International

British Black Police Group Call for Government to Examine US States' Marijuana Legalization. Britain's National Black Police Association wants the British government to examine marijuana legalization in US states, with an eye toward moving in the same direction in the UK. "We've had our current approach to drug laws for 20 years. If we can learn anything from the US I think we should to see whether we can get some better outcomes," said Nick Glynn, vice-president of the group. "There about a million stop and searches carried out in England and Wales every year. Around half of those are focused on street possession of cannabis so there's a lot of time spent dealing with that very low level offense. In the US they've done it in separate areas instead of across the whole country so maybe that's something we can replicate here."

Georgia Prime Minister Denies Rumors He Plans to Legalize Marijuana, But.... Georgian Prime Minister Irakly Garibashvili today denied rumors he plans to free the weed, but he did say that punishments for "soft drugs" may be reevaluated. Under current Georgian law, possession of marijuana can get you seven to 14 years in prison, although the state seems more interested in revenues from fines than in actually imprisoning people.

Bermuda Opposition Leader Stands By His Backing of Medical Marijuana; He Gave It to His Asthmatic Daughter. Opposition leader Marc Bean said Tuesday that he "absolutely" stands by his remarks last week supporting marijuana as a medicine and that he used it to treat his young daughter for asthma. He originally spoke out last week as the House of Assembly debated the findings of the Cannabis Reform Collective, which is calling for medical marijuana, decriminalization, and eventual legalization He also said he had smoked the stuff himself. "I was a Rastaman, full fledged -- I lit the chalice," Bean said.

Bermuda Parliamentary Select Committee Recommends Drug Testing for Legislators. A parliamentary joint select committee has issued a report recommending random, suspicionless drug testing of legislators because they are "guardians of public morality" and any drug use by them "calls into question their ability to uphold the principles of public morality and the rule of law and to lead by example. They might want to speak to Marc Bean first.

USDA Blocks Georgia Food Stamp Drug Testing Law

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has told the state of Georgia that its new law requiring some food stamp recipients to undergo drug testing violates federal policy. The state cannot implement the law, federal officials said Tuesday.

The Georgia law, passed in March and signed into law by Gov. Nathan Deal (R), would require food stamp recipients to undergo drug testing if state workers have "a reasonable suspicion" that they are using drugs. The "reasonable suspicion" language, common in a new generation of proposed bills aimed at drug testing public benefits recipients, is designed to get around federal prohibitions against random, suspicionless drug testing, which the federal courts interpret as violating the unwarranted search provisions of the Fourth Amendment.

But while Georgia was able to get around the Fourth Amendment concerns, the new law still runs afoul of USDA policy. That policy "prohibits states from mandating drug testing of (food stamp) applicants and recipients," wrote Robin Bailey, regional administrator of the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, in a letter to Georgia officials.

While a number of states have passed "reasonable suspicion" (or the equivalent) public benefits drug testing laws, Georgia is the only one to have passed a law that includes food stamp recipients. Perhaps USDA's stance will discourage other states from enacting similar measures.

Atlanta, GA
United States

ATF's Operation Gideon Raises Questions of Fairness, Justice, and Race [FEATURE]

Special to Drug War Chronicle by Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Part I of a series on the ATF's Operation Gideon, targeting inner city "bad guys" with drug house robbery stings

Early in May, a panel of judges from California's 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals denied petitions for an "en banc" hearing that would have allowed the full court to consider overturning long prison sentences for four would-be robbers seduced by an informant into believing they were about to rip-off a stash house loaded with drugs.

The stash house was fictional, those drugs never existed, and the brains behind the plot were not criminals, but federal agents.

The denial of the petition was not a unanimous decision, and it revealed deep fissures on the appeals court. Dissenting judges argued that the practice of enticing poor young men into robbing stash houses raised questions not only of fair play, but also of constitutionality. The dissenters were particularly concerned that federal agents targeted primarily minority neighborhoods filled with desperate, unemployed young men tempted by the lure of fast cash.

"The sting poses questions of whether the government intentionally targets poor minority neighborhoods, and thus, seeks to tempt their residents to commit crimes that might well result in their escape from poverty," Justice Stephen Reinhardt wrote in a blistering dissent. He also called it "a profoundly disturbing use of government power that directly imperils some of our most fundamental constitutional values."

The case involved four Phoenix men -- Cordae Black, Kemford Alexander, Angel Mahon and Terrance Timmons -- who were convicted in 2010 on charges of conspiracy to distribute more than five pounds of cocaine, as well as federal firearms charges, for a fake drug rip scheme set up by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF). All four are now serving prison sentences of 13 to 15 years.

Even though federal appeals court judges have joined defense attorneys in calling the ATF drug rip schemes "outrageous conduct," they are not an anomaly, but are instead part and parcel of ATF's Operation Gideon, a nationwide program. The ATF, federal prosecutors, and the Phoenix police said a press release announcing a pilot sweep that rolled up 70 people, including Cordae Black and his crew, that Gideon "involved the deployment of some of ATF's most experienced undercover operatives to team with local agents and police investigators by conducting sting investigations involving violent home invasion crews."

According to a USA Today investigative report, as of last year, the feds had already locked up more than a thousand people who its agents had enticed into conspiracies to rob fake drug stash houses. And it's not just the AFT. The DEA often uses the fake drug rip-off schemes, as well.

US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephen Reinhardt
The argument at the 9th Circuit in the Phoenix case centered on entrapment and whether ATF agents illegally enticed the defendants into the crime through "outrageous government conduct" beyond that allowed by entrapment doctrine.

Relying on the US Supreme Court's 1973 ruling in US v. Russell, where the court upheld such schemes if the defendant showed a predisposition to commit the offense, 9th Circuit Judges Susan Graeber and Raymond Fisher rejected claims of entrapment and outrageous conduct by the agents, and argued that the reverse sting was within legal boundaries of law enforcement tactics, which includes officers working undercover to infiltrate criminal organizations.

Fisher and Graeber said the agents' actions were reasonable when they offered the men the opportunity to make money by committing a drug robbery. The pair also held the defendants failed to show they lacked "predisposition to commit the offense."

That provoked a sharp retort from a second dissenter as well, Judge John T. Noonan.

"Today our court gives approval to the government tempting people in the population at large currently engaged in innocent activity, and leading them into the commission of a crime, which the government will then prosecute," he wrote.

It's not just the 9th Circuit. Fake drug stash operations that only target inner-cities have ignited a firestorm of controversy, including other caustic remarks from the federal bench.

"There is a strong showing of potential bias in the robbery stings," US District Court Judge Rueben Castillo wrote in an order last year. Castillo noted that since 2011, federal agents have used such stings to lock up at least 26 people in the Chicago area -- and that all of them were either black or Hispanic.

Federal officials retort that they are not engaging in selective prosecution based on race, but are going where known felons often commit violent home invasion-type drug robberies.

But defense attorneys argue that the operations target people who weren't doing anything, entice them with visions of easy wealth, set them up, and then throw the book at them.

"What the ATF is doing is basically targeting low-level criminals for high-level crimes," said attorney Tara Loveland, who is representing Cordae Black on appeal.

The case against Black and his codefendants raises serious questions about racial profiling. According to evidence introduced at the original trial -- and subsequently heard again at the re-hearing (via the appellate brief) -- ATF Agent Richard Zayas had a paid informant travel from Miami to Arizona to find "bad guys" in a "bad part of town."

That prompted Judge Reinhardt to say that Zavas' instructions obviously meant the informant should recruit people from minority communities. The targeting of the fake drug house robbery scheme was a practice "that creates the appearance of selective prosecution based on race and wealth inequality," he said.

"It is a tragedy when ATF has to drum up a crime that didn't exist," attorney Eugene Marquez, who represented Cordae Black at trial, told the Chronicle.

Chicago Operation Gideon suspect William Alexander just before his arrest (atf.gov)
Defense attorneys who represented the defendants on appeal argued that "fake drug stings initiated by ATF amount to entrapment because there were no drugs -- and none of the defendants would have agreed to participate had it not been for a paid snitch and the ATF's scheme of enticing the men to arm themselves with weapons to rip-off a large quantity of drugs that automatically brings severe mandatory prison sentences."

"Our defense was outrageous conduct and sentencing entrapment," Marquez explained.

But 9th Circuit majorities weren't listening to the defense attorneys. In a separate ruling, they reiterated their original decision denying defense counsel's motion to overturn the original convictions.

"There is no bright line dictating when laws enforcement conduct crosses the line between acceptable and outrageous," Judge Raymond C. Fisher wrote for the majority. Outrageous government conduct can only occur when government agents engineer and direct a "criminal enterprise from start to finish -- or creating new crimes merely for the sake of pressing criminal charges," he argued.

Judge Reinhardt again dissented.

"In this era of mass incarceration, in which we already lock up more of our population than any other nation on earth, it is especially curious that the government feels compelled to invent fake crimes and imprison people for long periods of time for agreeing to participate in them -- people who but for the government's scheme might not have ever entered the world of major felonies," Reinhardt wrote.

If getting set up and convicted in a sting weren't bad enough, the defendants also got hit with longer sentences based on the imaginary amounts of drugs that were going to rob. Marquez explained that his client, Cordae Black, was hit a 10-year mandatory minimum because the ATF pretended the imaginary drug house had more than five kilos of cocaine in it.

But while jurists and defense attorneys grumbled, the ATF was pleased with its handiwork.

Arizona ATF agent Thomas Mangan welcomed the convictions of Black and his partners, as well as appeals court rulings upholding them. The stings had resulted in over 70 Arizona arrests, and the crew had "ample opportunity to back out, but had remained committed to carry out the robbery until they were arrested," he said in the Operation Gideon press release.

While court-approved enticement has a lengthy pedigree in this country, so does "outrageous government conduct" that can take it over the line into entrapment. A classic case is that of legendary automaker John Delorean, who was acquitted of cocaine conspiracy charges in 1984, even though prosecutors had Delorean on videotape wisecracking and saying that the cocaine stuffed inside a suitcase was "good as gold."

But Delorean's attorney was able to convince the jury that the FBI had leaned on a convicted drug smuggler, James Hoffman, to draw Delorean into a trap, complete with thinly-veiled threats if Delorean backed out of the sting.

"Without the government there would be no crime," Delorean's attorney told the jury.

Taking Down the Phoenix Crew

Putting together a fake drug robbery stings is like assembling the cast of a gritty crime drama. The Phoenix reverse sting worked against Cordae Black and his eager crew in typical take-down fashion. ATF agent Richard Zayas recruited a paid informant to frequent seedy bars and diffferent places in the "bad part" of town -- to find receptive players to rip-off a drug house. Zayas's informant met Shaver "Bullet" Simpson, a big-talking guy ready to play.

Zayas's informant duped Simpson into believing he had a friend with information on a stash house filled with drugs worth thousands of dollars. Simpson boasted he could find some tough-ass homies to do the job. Agent Zayas reminded Simpson that everyone involved with the plot must keep their mouths shut, and not talk about what goes down.

"My people straight," Simpson replied. "I hate snitchers."

Following the informant's meeting with Shaver Simpson, he introduced "Bullet" to undercover ATF Agent Richard Zayas, who fronted himself off as a disgruntled drug courier interested in having someone rob a dope house owned by Zayas's supposed cartel's connections. Zayas informed Simpson that Simpson's homeboys would need the "balls to do it because this ain't no easy lick."

Simpson then posed a question to Zayas: "My goons want to know whether they need to kill the people in the house."

Zayas responded nonchalantly that he "didn't care what they did as long as they took care of business."

Hooked like a fish, Simpson swallowed the bait, "Don't worry Daddy," he told Zavas. You got a real Jamaican (expletive), that's my family business; it's where I worked; I got this shit down to a science, man."

The beat goes on. Press conference announcing latest round of Operation Gideon busts, Stockton, CA, 2014 (atf.gov)
The trap was set. Shaver Simpson, the braggart, strangely, didn't show up for the showdown. But the work crew did. Once Cordae Black, Terrence Timmons, Kemford Alexander and Angel Mahon showed up at the designated meeting spot, the ATF agents and local police took the hapless crew down with guns drawn. A search of their vehicles produced four loaded weapons (which, according to the appellate brief, Zava insisted the crew have with them).

Despite Simpson's bravado about not being a snitch and hating such creatures, he pounced on the first opportunity to become one by testifying against his four homies. Still, at trial, Simpson accused ATF agent Richard Zayas of pressuring him to quickly find as many guys he could find to pull off the robbery.

Same Sorts of Cases, Different Results

In another Operation Gideon case, Chicago native William Alexander, a street-level crack dealer and beauty school dropout, got stung in a fake drug robbery on February 23 2011, along with his cohorts Hugh Midderhoff and David Saunders. All three were convicted of possession with intent to deliver five or more kilos of cocaine, along with firearms charges. To win a new trial, Alexander's lawyer argued on appeal that ATF's systematic strategy of sending informants into "bad parts of town" to recruit "bad people" meant that racial profiling played a vital role in Alexander's case.

His appeal brief noted that in the 17 stash house robbery stings prosecuted in the Northern Illinois Federal District since 2004, blacks were disproportionately represented. Of the 57 defendants, 42 were black, eight Hispanic, and seven white.

His appeal was denied -- because he couldn't show that the ATF and prosecutors intended racially disparate outcomes.

"To establish discriminatory intent, Alexander failed to show the decision makers in (his) case acted with discriminatory purposes -- and that the Attorney General and US Attorneys has broad discretion to enforce federal criminal laws," the appeals court held.

Antuan Dunlap and his heavily-armed posse-mates, Cedrick Hudson and Joseph Cornell Whitfield, had better luck. They were released from jail in an ATF drug house rip-off scheme when California US District Court Judge Otis Wright ruled the ATF crossed the line into entrapment.

Prosecutors had argued that Dunlap "manifested his propensity to commit robberies" by claiming to have engaged in similar activities in the past, and thus, "the defendant's words justified the reverse sting."

But in a 24-page stinging rebuke, the angry judge said the ATF engaged in "outrageous conduct" by enlisting people in "made-up crime" just so they could bust eager volunteers in drug stings. "Society does not win when the government stoops to the same level as the defendants it seeks to prosecute -- especially when the government has acted solely to achieve a conviction for a 'made-up' crime, Wright wrote. He also noted that such tactics "haven't brought down the crime rate nor taken drugs off the streets."

But the ATF and DEA fake drug rip-off schemes remain in full-swing across the nation despite the brewing controversy over tactics some defense attorneys and jurists regard with loathing. If the Justice Department will investigate whether the stings are aimed disproportionately at minority communities remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Phoenix crew sits in federal prison, while their attorneys plan an appeal to the US Supreme Court.

Next in the series: ATF's Deadly Takedown in Fake Drug Robberies.

House Passes Historic Medical Marijuana Amendment

Late Thursday night, the House of Representatives told the DEA to butt out of medical marijuana states by approving a budget amendment barring the use of taxpayer funds to do so.

Not with our tax dollars anymore--if the Senate gets on board (usdoj.gov)
Wow, things are changing fast. Efforts to pass similar amendments have never come close in previous years--the previous best was 165 yea votes in 2007--but the amendment passed by 30 votes tonight.

Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority is liking what he's seeing:

"This historic vote shows just how quickly marijuana reform has become a mainstream issue," he said. "The last time a similar amendment came up it didn't come very close to passing but, since then, more states have passed medical marijuana laws and a couple have even legalized marijuana for all adults. More states are on this way later this year and in 2016, and it's clear that more politicians are beginning to realize that the American people want the federal government to stop standing in the way. If any political observers weren't aware that the end of the war on marijuana is nearing, they just found out."

It ain't a done deal just yet, though. If the Senate version of the bill doesn't contain similar language, it will be up to the House leadership to fight for the amendment (or not) in conference committee.

Still, this is historic. I like it when we make history like this. And it seems to be happening more often these days.

Angell also makes another astute point. While we can grumble about the spate of what I call "limited CBD medical marijuana bills," and how they are so extremely restrictive, they have also spread the medical marijuana meme to places where it hadn't thrived before, like the Deep South. And that could be paying off in congressional votes like this one.

"This year's huge vote increase can largely be attributed to the fact that lawmakers only recently began hearing the moving stories of the many children whose severe seizures are only relieved by marijuana. Being able to list these CBD states in the amendment text meant that more members of Congress that represent these states voted yes than otherwise would have. Counting these states, 60 percent of the U.S. population lives in a place where state law disagrees with federal law."

Location: 
Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- May 29, 2014

Minnesota becomes the 22nd medical marijuana state, the California Senate passes a medical marijuana regulation bill and a bill equalizing crack and powder cocaine offenses, a new study reports on who current heroin users are, there are a series of votes set for today to rein in the DEA, a Canadian court allows heroin-assisted treatment trials to move forward, and more. Let's get to it:

Cocaine is cocaine, whether rock or powder, and the California Senate has voted to treat it like that. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Poll Has Support for Legalization at 42%. A Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll released today has support for marijuana legalization at 42%, with 52% opposed. The poll conducted by the Glengariff Group of Chicago surveyed 600 voters. It has a margin of error of +/ -4%. "There is a sharp difference in attitudes on marijuana legalization among voters under and over the age of 40," said pollster Richard Czuba. "And while Democratic voters support legalization of marijuana, independents and Republican voters strongly oppose legalization." Click the link for more demographic details.

Washington, DC, Initiative is Sweating the Signature-Gathering. Organizers of the DC initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana -- but not the legalization and regulation of marijuana sales -- are "a little nervous" about the progress of their signature-gathering campaign. They have until July 7 to collect 22,373 valid voter signatures. They had collected some 19,000 raw signatures by Monday, but of the 16,734 that have been processed, only 5,360 have been found to be valid.

Delaware Decriminalization Bill Filed. Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington) today introduced a decriminalization bill, House Bill 371. It would make possession of up to an ounce a civil offense with a maximum $100 fine for people 21 and over. Currently, possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) today signed into law the medical marijuana bill approved earlier this month by the legislature. It allows for eight distribution centers across the state to by supplied by two medical marijuana manufacturers. The bill does not allow for the smoking of medical marijuana; but it can be vaped or eaten. Some medical marijuana groups are calling the law "overly restrictive."

California Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill. The state Senate yesterday approved Senate Bill 1262, sponsored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Anaheim). It is supported by cities and law enforcement, and would impose tighter controls on dispensaries, cultivation, and recommending. A competing bill, Assembly Bill 1894, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) was expected to be voted on today. If both pass their respective houses, look for a compromise.

Drug Policy

Congress Set to Vote Today on Four Amendments to Reign in DEA. Congress is set to vote today on at least four amendments aimed at reigning in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). One would prohibit DEA from interfering in states that allow medical marijuana; another would prohibit it from blocking hemp seed imports in states that have approved hemp research; a third would prohibit it from undermining state laws that allow for hemp cultivation; and a fourth would reject a proposed $35 million increase in the DEA's FY 2015 budget.

Heroin

Today's Heroin Users Are Mainly Young, White and Not in the Big City, New Study Finds. A new research article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that, unlike the heroin boom of the 1960s, most heroin users today are young white men whose opiate habits overwhelmingly started with prescription pain pills. "Our data show that the demographic composition of heroin users entering treatment has shifted over the last 50 years such that heroin use has changed from an inner-city, minority-centered problem to one that has a more widespread geographical distribution, involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside of large urban areas," the authors concluded.

Law Enforcement

Minnesota Prosecutor "Sending a Message" Charges Five Teens With Murder in Teen Girl's Overdose Death. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput has charged five local teenagers with murder in the January death of a 17-year-old girl who died after taking a new synthetic hallucinogen. "We think there's a moral obligation to keep kids free of drugs," said Orput. "We're sending a message that suppliers will be held fully to account." Those charged include a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old, and three 17-year-olds. Orput said the three minors will be charged as adults. The 19-year-old is accused of being the dealer; the others bought some of the drug and shared it among themselves and the dead girl.

Customs to Curtail Searches of General Aviation Aircraft Not Crossing Borders. After loud complaints from private pilots that their domestic flights were being searched for drugs by Customs agents, the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) has announced it will curtail the searches. An official told National Public Radio yesterday that "his agency has heard pilots' grievances and the program is being altered so as not to needlessly affront law-abiding pilots." The Airline Operators and Pilots Association has been raising a stink about the issue for the past year, saying it has received more than 50 reports from members who recounted their encounters with law enforcement at airports.

Georgia SWAT Team Throws Flash-Bang Grenade, Burns Toddler in Drug Raid. A 2-year-old child was burned when members of the Habersham County Special Response Team deployed a "distraction device" as they executed a drug search warrant early yesterday morning. The raid came a day after a snitch made a drug buy at the home and reported no children present. The raiders got themselves a no-knock warrant and breached the door of the home. "What had happened was there was a playpen -- a Pack N Play -- that was pushed up against the door, and when they breached the door it wouldn't open up because of the Pack N Play," Sheriff Joey Terrell said. "It was just wide enough to toss the flash bang in, then they had to physically push it [Pack N Play] on out of the way to get in. That's when the team medics saw the child, stopped at the child, took the child out and began first aid. "The door that we entered was the door that we bought dope out of -- that's why entered at that door," Terrell said. "Our team went by the book. Given the same scenario, we'll do the same thing again. I stand behind what our team did," he maintained. He blames the target of the warrant. Read the whole story at the link.

Sentencing

California Senate Approves Bill to Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. The state Senate Wednesday approved a bill that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine sales and make it easier to get probation for either. The measure is Senate Bill 1010, introduced by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). It now goes to the Assembly.

International

Peru Names Former Defense Minister as New Drug Czar. President Ollanta Humala has named former Defense Minister Luis Otorala as the new head of the Peruvian anti-drug agency, DEVIDA. He replaces Carman Masias. Otarola said that while eradication of coca crops will continue, greater emphasis will be placed on economic alternatives for farmers. Hardline critics said the move and the new emphasis "showed a weakening in the resolve of the government" to confront the drug trade. Peru is once again the world's leading coca and cocaine producer.

Medical Marijuana Bill Introduced in Philippines. Rep. Rodolfo Albano III has filed a medical marijuana bill in the Philippine legislature. House Bill 4477, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Bill, is intended "to provide accessible, affordable, safe medical cannabis to qualifying patients."

British Columbia Supreme Court Grants Injunction for Heroin Treatment Study to Continue. Canada's BC Supreme Court today granted an injunction for an exemption from federal drug laws for participants in the SALOME study (The Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Maintenance Effectiveness). The injunction will allow doctors in the study to continue prescribing heroin to patients for whom other treatment options have been ineffective.

One Dead As Car Carrying Marijuana Crashes During Police Pursuit

One man is dead and another hospitalized after the car they were in flipped and crashed during a high-speed police pursuit outside the East Texas town of Bullard Saturday night. Christopher Blake Lucas, 26, becomes the 18th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to KLTV News, citing Texas Department of Public Safety officials, a state trooper tried to pull the vehicle over for "a routine traffic stop" when it took off on a paved rural road. Officers later spotted the car on another paved rural road, and threw down spike strips.

The spike strips popped three of the car's tires, but it kept going, then failed to negotiate a turn and flipped. Lucas, the driver, was pronounced dead at the scene.

The officials said four pounds of marijuana were found in the car. The injured passenger will be charged with possession of marijuana and evading arrest once he is released from the hospital, DPS said Monday.

[Editor's Note: This one is a judgment call for inclusion in our list. Although police said it was "a routine traffic stop," there are several reasons to consider it a drug war death. First, "routine traffic stops" are often pretexts for drug law enforcement efforts. Second, even "routine traffic stops" can quickly turn into drug law enforcement efforts. Third, and mainly it is probably safe to presume this guy was running because he had four pounds of pot in his vehicle, not because he didn't want to get a speeding ticket.]

Bullard, TX
United States

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