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Drugs, Freedom, and Responsibility at Burning Man

Editor's note: This is a repost of the piece I wrote about Burning Man last year. I couldn't top it, so I'm sharing it again. Enjoy.

Having just emerged from one of the most epic experiences of my life, I'd like to share a few thoughts before returning to my usual news-skewering routine. Don't worry, it's about drug policy, although I'm proud to say I did manage to go an entire week without thinking about the drug war much at all.

I just spent seven days in the desert with 50,000 very enthusiastic adventurers, more than a few of whom engaged in the recreational use of mind-altering substances other than alcohol. Now, Burning Man is about much more than drugs, and even among those choosing to consume, beer seemed to be the most popular choice. But there was also a robust and visible psychedelic culture to be found there, making the event a rather vivid depiction of what happens when you release thousands of rabid psychonauts in harsh desert conditions and let them do whatever the hell they want.

Let's just say the outcome is substantially more graceful and orderly than even my own wide-open mind could have anticipated. I've seen far more sloppiness and idiocy at any football game I've ever attended than I did at Burning Man, even after dark when the serious weirdos really get down to business. Not even an abundance of liquid acid can unravel the inherent civility that takes hold when an intentional community of caring and curious people unites to celebrate free-expression on its own terms.

No major festival is entirely immune to the disruptive influence of individual trouble-makers, but Burning Man has established an impressive track record of general safety and cohesion going back many years now. It's a brilliant exhibit in the viability of expanding the boundaries of acceptable human behavior, particularly insofar as anyone who doesn't want to see naked people driving around in fire-breathing dragon-cars can simply choose not to attend.

The whole experience for me became yet another reminder of the profound stupidity of attempting to purge the psychedelic experience from our culture. If the paranoid fulminations of the anti-drug demagogues even approached the truth, an event such as this could never exist, for the playa would be soaked in blood and tears before the first sunrise. Once it's understood that the post-legalization drug apocalypse we've been taught to fear for so long is nothing more than a mindless fantasy, the justification for war evaporates faster than sweat under the desert sun.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy "Legalize It!" Party

Dear David,

Everyone in the nation's capital seems to be talking about marijuana policy. Well, here's your chance to join the conversation! On Wednesday, September 14th, Students for Sensible Drug Policy will be hosting our first annual Washington, DC reception to thank our students and allies for their amazing work and support for marijuana legalization.   

We're particularly excited to announce our special guests - Niambe Tosh, daughter of legendary musician Peter Tosh, The Wire's Tray 'Poot' Chaney, and the Honorable Jared Polis (D-CO)!  

  • Date: Wednesday, September 14th 
  • Time: 6-10pm
  • Location: K St. Lounge, 1301 K St. NW, Washington, DC 
  • Tickets & more info: legalizeit.eventbrite.com

Please invite all your friends by sending them this linklegalizeit.eventbrite.com

Can't wait to see you there!

Sincerely,

Irina Alexander
Chair, Board of Directors
Students for Sensible Drug Policy

Connect with SSDP

 

Date: 
Wed, 09/14/2011 - 6:00pm - 10:00pm
Location: 
1301 K St. NW
Washington, DC
United States

Feds vs. Deadheads in Missouri "Schwagstock" Forfeiture Battle [FEATURE]

Since 2004, when veteran musician Jimmy Tebeau brought the 350-acre rural property in central Missouri and turned it a camping and concert venue, Camp Zoe has been Deadhead central in the Show Me State. A member of the Grateful Dead tribute band The Schwag, Tebeau has hosted numerous Schwagstock and Spookstock festivals, as well as other concerts and events, drawing nationally known acts and thousands of fans for weekends of outdoor fun in the sun.

Jimmy Tebeau (image via campzoe.com)
But the DEA and the Missouri Highway Patrol harshed Camp Zoe's mellow vibe last November, when they rolled into the venue early in the morning and searched the site. A week later, they announced that they were initiating federal civil asset forfeiture proceedings against the property because of alleged rampant drug use and Tebeau's failure to put a halt to it.

According to a complaint filed November 8 in the Eastern Missouri US District Court, the feds alleged that "over the past several years law enforcement agents have specifically observed the open sales of cocaine, marijuana, LSD (acid), ecstasy, psilocybin mushrooms, opium and marijuana-laced food products by individuals attending the music festival and made multiple undercover purchases of illegal drugs."

Tebeau and other Camp Zoe staff members "were in the immediate area" when drug deals were going down and "took no immediate action to prevent the activity," the complaint continued. It added that "undercover purchases have been made as recently as September 2010," when Schwagstock 45 was held, but noted that the investigation stretched back to 2006 and included evidence from "surveillance, undercover operations, source information, bank records, and interviews."

Most critically, the complaint alleges that Camp Zoe was "knowingly opened, rented, leased, used, or maintained for the purpose of manufacturing, distributing or using controlled substances." In other words, the feds are arguing that the purpose of Camp Zoe was not to be a concert venue, but a drug den, and it could thus be lawfully seized, along with nearly $200,000 in cash they seized from the site and various bank accounts.

good clean fun at Camp Zoe (image from campzoe.com)
The case pitting a local counterculture icon and his property against the power of the federal government has stirred considerable interest in Missouri, as well as among members of the peripatetic Deadhead set. (In fact, I had a conversation about the case with a dreadlocked young woman at a Northern California music festival last weekend.) It has also excited the attention of asset forfeiture reformers and critics of overweening governmental power.

But wait, it's even worse. The feds upped the ante further just a couple of weeks ago. After stalling the asset forfeiture proceedings for seven months -- leaving Camp Zoe silent and vacant and Tebeau without his primary source of income -- and seeing that Tebeau was not about to roll over for them, federal prosecutors last week sought and got a criminal indictment charging that Tebeau "knowingly and intentionally profited from and made available for use, with or without compensation, said place for the purpose of unlawfully storing, distributing, or using controlled substances."

"This is the sort of things Soviet thugs did and that continues to happen in Russia under Vladimir Putin," said Eapen Thampy, executive director of the Kansas City-based Americans for Forfeiture Reform. "They take a businessman, take his money, and take him to jail. I see this as an attempt by rich and powerful law enforcement agencies to acquire property or money they can turn into salaries or equipment."

fun and camping at Camp Zoe (image from campzoe.com)
"The Camp Zoe situation is really interesting," said Dave Roland, a St. Louis-based attorney who is director of litigation for the libertarian-leaning Missouri Freedom Center. "The federal government has recently come back and said they will charge him with maintaining the property for the purpose of facilitating drug transactions, but that seems like an after the fact justification for their attempt to seize the property. The more likely explanation is that the government was embarrassed by the fact people kept saying how can you take this property without alleging he's doing something illegal in the first place," he ventured.

"There was no one engaging in violence at Camp Zoe, there were no allegations of harm or injury," Roland continued. "That the government is concentrating on these sorts of victimless crimes demonstrates misplaced priorities. Especially in light of the financial crunch, we ought to be reallocating resources to deal with real threats to the health and safety of the community and not these drug witch hunts."

But there's the rub. Missouri law enforcement agencies profit handsomely from asset forfeiture, especially when they do an end run around state asset forfeiture law and partner with the feds. Under a 2004 asset forfeiture reform law, funds seized by state and local law enforcement agencies are supposed to go to the state education fund, but that's not what happened.

The state auditor's reports on asset forfeiture activity show a quick learning curve by state and local law enforcement. While, after the 1994 reforms, schools got 27% of seized funds in 1996 and 1997, in 1998, that figure fell by half to 14%. There was no audit done in 1999, but in 2000 and every year since, schools have gotten 2%, with that figure dropping to 1% in 2008 and 2009. Meanwhile the Justice Department and state and local cops have raked in millions of dollars, gobbling up the vast majority of funds that were supposed to go to Missouri's schools.

"Asset forfeiture abuse is rampant all over the country," said Roland. "Here in Missouri, the state made an effort to improve its statutes a decade ago, but the problem is that law enforcement agencies find alternative ways to accomplish the same end. Now, you see state and local law enforcement handing cases over to federal agencies because they get a kickback from the asset forfeitures. There is an actual financial incentive to assist federal agencies in the unconstitutional use of asset forfeiture laws."

"Missouri has laws that say how asset forfeiture should be conducted and where the money should go, but they aren't being followed," said Thampy. "When you put this into that context, these abuses are way more serious," he said, adding that he believed 90% of Missouri counties were not in compliance with the law.

Neither Roland nor Thampy were impressed with the criminal charges now being brought against Tebeau. Nor were they aware of other cases of "maintaining a drug premise" being brought against other concert venues. That law is widely known as the "crack house" law.

"The government has a pretty steep hill to climb to prove that Tebeau was operating this camp so that people could buy illegal drugs," said Roland. "I'm very skeptical that the government is going to be able to carry its burden of proof."

"That charge is complete bullshit," Thampy responded bluntly. "If they wanted to charge him with drug trafficking or drug possession, those would be appropriate charges if they could prove them. But charging him with running a drug premise says that he got this land for the sole purpose of conducting drug transactions. It would be putting it mildly to say this is an abuse of prosecutorial power."

"To the best of my understanding, this is not a commonly used statute," said Roland. "I don't recall ever seeing it used in the context of a concert venue owner. They're alleging that the property is being used for the purpose of facilitating drug transactions simply because Tebeau didn't take some unspecified affirmative action."

Now facing criminal charges as well as the seizure of Camp Zoe, Tebeau is still refusing to roll over and cut a deal. With his income-producing property shut down and his bank accounts seized, Tebeau is at a real disadvantage, but thanks to his fans and followers and continuing gigs as a musician, he has so far been able to raise the funds to defend himself.

"A just outcome would be dropping the charges and dropping the attempted asset forfeiture," said Roland. "If we're not going to legalize drugs, the government needs to at least focus on the people and activities they're really worried about. Jimmy hasn't been charged with actually being involved, and it's unjust to target him for a criminal action because someone else was doing something illegal. That's manifestly unjust."

MO
United States

40th Anniversary Drug War Continues, SWAT Raid Music Video, More Wire

The 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's declaration of the drug war continues. First, footage from LEAP's press conference, followed by their march from the National Press Club to the Office of National Drug Control Policy office to hand-deliver their report to drug czar Kerlikowske:



Comedian/Activist Randy Credico has made a startling discovery, with his first release from the "Nixon: The Lost Tapes" collection. In Credico's (parody) excerpt, Nixon says he was duped into calling for a drug war and says he regrets it:



We link Reason again, this time with their new music video, No Knock Raid. Don't watch it if you're about to try to get to sleep:



If you haven't already, check out my post last week about Reason's current magazine issue, "Criminal Injustice."

The Wire is back in the news too. Last weekend we noted that Attorney General Eric Holder really wants another season of the show, but David Simon says they'll only do it if he ends drug prohibition. On Thursday Holder said okay!

Unfortunately he was only joking -- and the drug war is no joking matter. Still, I interpret it as reflecting implicit respect for the anti-drug war viewpoint -- we'll take it.

Gary Johnson Snubbed in CNN GOP Presidential Debate

CNN held its first televised debate among Republican presidential candidates Monday tonight, but while the cable news network issued invitations to several non- or yet-to-announce candidates, it excluded one announced candidate who meets the criteria for inclusion. Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, an avowed and articulate opponent of drug prohibition, was not invited to participate, and his campaign and supporters are crying foul.

Gov. Gary Johnson -- you didn't see him on CNN for the debate. (Image via Wikimedia.org)
CNN, along with WMUR-TV and the Manchester Union-Leader, the debate cosponsors, set the bar for an invitation at the candidate having received an average of at least 2% in at least three national polls during the month of May. According to the Johnson campaign, Johnson has met that hurdle, polling an average of precisely 2% in three national polls last month.

"It is our hope that CNN will review the criteria that has excluded two-term Governor Gary Johnson from the New Hampshire debate," said senior Johnson campaign advisor Ron Nielson on Saturday. "Now that this information has come to light, we look forward to receiving an invitation for Governor Johnson to participate."

But CNN didn't change its mind. Instead, the network presented front-runner former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, Godfather's Pizza entrepreneur Herman Cain, non-announced candidate  (until her announcement during the debate itself) Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

Most of the invitations were well-justified. According to Real Clear Politics' aggregate poll data (which also does not include Johnson) all of the invitees are above 2%, although Santorum, at 3.2% overall, only averaged 2.67% in three May polls. Up until debate time non-announced candidate Bachmann is averaging 5.1%, although that's a decline from her May poll average of 7%.

Still, why Johnson was excluded even though he has officially announced and meets the debate criteria remains a mystery. CNN said it only wanted "serious" candidates with at least 2% of the vote, but also admitted it failed to include Johnson in its own polls.

Well, Republican-leaning drug reformers at least had Ron Paul to listen to.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Manchester, NH
United States

Bill Maher Talks 'Offshore' Pot Smoking and the War on Drugs

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone, the insanely smart and funny Real Time host talks Palin, marijuana, and politics, among other topics. Here -- in honor of 4/20 -- is the marijuana part.
Publication/Source: 
Rolling Stone (NY)
URL: 
http://www.rollingstone.com/politics/blogs/national-affairs/bill-maher-talks-offshore-pot-smoking-and-the-war-on-drugs-20110420

Marijuana Is Serious Business, But Leno and Conan are Hooked on Bad Pot Jokes

Although cannabis has been known to give people the giggles, there isn't exactly an abundance of amusement to be found in U.S. marijuana policy. Even as the nation moves towards a more sensible approach to the drug, our top comedians are still looking for laughs and coming up short.

Last week's news that the medical marijuana market is valued at $1.7 billion and will soon outsell Viagra was destined to become the butt of a late-night groaner or two, but Leno and Conan managed to mangle this one even worse than anyone could have anticipated. Here's Jay Leno's attempt (at 4:20, which I hope is a coincidence):


And here's Conan (at 4:40):




Of course, these guys are just doing their jobs, and I'm sure the combined marijuana/Viagra hook on this one was just too much to pass up. But is marijuana so funny that you don't even need a serviceable punchline to joke about it? Leno's was insulting to sick people, and Conan's didn't even make sense (at least not to me or Andy Richter).

So, at the risk of sounding like a humorless, oversensitive social justice advocate, I'm calling out the purveyors of pathetic attempts at pot comedy. I care too much about both humor and cannabis to let either be degraded any further by the false assumption that jokes about pot are automatically funny. The opposite has been made clear to a cringe-inducing extent too many times now, and I think we could all use a break and perhaps a period of reflection in which to carefully consider what is and is not amusing about marijuana. For example, we all know that it can give you the munchies, but the whole pot-makes-you-eat-twinkies punchline deserves to die. Jokes about glaucoma are lower still.

None of this is to say that comedians can't or shouldn’t ever joke about marijuana, but rather that what passes for a pot joke really ought to be re-examined. In particular, if professionals like Leno and Conan are having a hard time pulling this stuff off, then there's absolutely no excuse for public officials to look for laughs when responding to serious concerns about the harms of our marijuana laws (see here or here for gratuitous examples).

As a culture, marijuana users have survived far worse than a few dumb jokes, but it's gotten old nonetheless, and meanwhile those who've advocated our continued persecution have often escaped the mockery they so thoroughly deserve. I'd love to see Conan take a jab at the Drug Czar one of these days. In the meantime, please share your favorite (or least favorite) pot jokes in the comment section.

Washington State Marijuana Bill Should Reflect Shift in Culture (Editorial)

Location: 
WA
United States
The Spokesman-Review opines that because Congress refuses to update the absurd Controlled Substances Act, states are trying to figure out the best ways to implement the sane and popular wish that marijuana be made available for medicinal purposes. The newspaper says Washington's bill should put patients first by not erecting barriers that make it more difficult to legally obtain medical marijuana, and that the House should strip the bill of these excessive limitations. It says the bill represents a cultural shift in attitudes toward marijuana, and that regulation and enforcement ought to reflect that reality.
Publication/Source: 
The Spokesman-Review (WA)
URL: 
http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2011/mar/17/editorial-marijuana-bill-should-reflect-shift-in/

U.K. Reggae Star Smiley Culture Dies During Drug Raid

Location: 
United Kingdom
British reggae musician Smiley Culture has died after a drug raid on his home. The incident at Culture’s home is currently being investigated by the U.K. Independent Police Complaints Commission, after having been reported by Scotland Yard.
Publication/Source: 
National Post (Canada)
URL: 
http://arts.nationalpost.com/2011/03/15/u-k-reggae-star-smiley-culture-dies-during-drug-raid/

LSD Icon Owsley 'Bear' Stanley Dead at 76; Killed in Car Accident in Australia

Location: 
Australia
Owsley "Bear" Stanley's long, strange trip has ended. The counterculture icon who was a major LSD producer in the 1960s and was celebrated in song by The Grateful Dead and Jimi Hendrix, has died in a car crash in Australia.
Publication/Source: 
New York Daily News (NY)
URL: 
http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/2011/03/14/2011-03-14_lsd_icon_owsley_bear_stanley_dead_at_76_killed_in_car_accident_in_australia.html

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