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What To Do About the Drug Trade in West Africa? [FEATURE]

Over the past decade, West Africa has emerged as an increasingly important player in the global illicit drug trade. Although the region has historically not been a drug producing one -- with the important exception of marijuana -- it has become a platform for predominantly Latin American drug traffickers moving their illicit commodities toward lucrative European and Middle Eastern markets. The cocaine traffic alone is worth more than a billion dollars a year, according to a 2013 report from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

children walking from home to school in Bamako, Mali (JoeyTranchinaPhotography©2014 Sète, France)
And the trade is becoming more complex. Now, it's not only cocaine flowing through the region, but heroin destined mainly for Western Europe and methamphetamines being manufactured there and exported to Asia and South Africa, that same UNODC report found.

The region -- stretching along the African coast from Nigeria to the east to Senegal on the west, and extending deep into the Sahara Desert in countries such as Mali and Niger -- is plagued by weak states and corrupt governments, making it attractive to criminals of all sorts, who thrive in lawless lands. And it's not just criminals. The region is also home to various bands of Islamist militants, some of whom are involved in the drug trade.

Now, a commission of prominent West Africans is calling for fundamental changes in drug policies in the region. Last week, the West Africa Commission on Drugs, issued a report, Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State and Society in West Africa, calling for the decriminalization of drug use, treating drug use primarily as a public health issue, and for the region to avoid becoming the next front line in the failed war on drugs.

The commission is impressive. It was initiated by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan of Nigeria and headed by former Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo, and includes other former heads of state as well as a distinguished group of West Africans from the worlds of politics, civil society, health, security and the judiciary.

And so is its very existence. It marks the entrance of West African civil society into the international debate on drug policy in which calls for fundamental drug reform have gained increasing momentum in recent years. In 2008, former Latin American heads of state and other luminaries formed the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, and in 2011, Annan and other world luminaries and former heads of state came together to form the Global Commission on Drug Policy. Now, West Africa adds its voice to the chorus calling for change.

"We call on West African governments to reform drug laws and policies and decriminalize low-level and non-violent drug offenses," said Obasanjo upon the report's release last week. "West Africa is no longer just a transit zone for drugs arriving from South America and ending up in Europe but has become a significant zone of consumption and production. The glaring absence of treatment facilities for drug users fuels the spread of disease and exposes an entire generation, users and non-users alike, to growing public health risks."

"Most governments' reaction to simply criminalize drug use without thinking about prevention or access to treatment has not just led to overcrowded jails, but also worsened health and social problems," added Kofi Annan.

West Africa
"We need the active support and involvement of civil society and of the international community," said commission member Edem Kodjo. "South America, where most of the drugs smuggled to West Africa come from, and Europe, which is the main consumer market, must take the lead to deal with both production and consumption at home. We cannot solve this problem alone; governments and civil society have to come together in West Africa to help prevent the drug problem from getting completely out of hand."

The report won kudos from American drug reformer Ethan Nadelmann, head of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"First Europe, then the Americas, now Africa," he said. "Drug policy reform is truly becoming a global movement, with Kofi Annan and Olusegun Obasango providing the sort of bold leadership that we've also seen in Latin America. Maybe, just maybe, West Africa will be spared the fate of other parts of the world where prohibition-related crime, violence and corruption spiraled out of control."

But some analysts, while welcoming the report, suggested that it did not get at the heart of the problem in West Africa.

"The report focuses on public health, and that's great, but I'm not sure that's the issue," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow with the Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution who has published extensively on West Africa. "Nor are there generally large prison populations due to the arrests of low-level drug offenders. There is increasing drug use, and many addicts don't have access to public health. That, however is not because they were arrested, but because Africa in general doesn't have access to public health," she pointed out.

"In some senses, the commission report is preventative -- it warns of policies that would be counterproductive -- but it is not going to solve West Africa's problems," Felbab-Brown continued. "And the harm reduction approaches that dominate the discourse in Europe and the US are not really apropos for West African public health issues. The increasing focus of the international community is interdiction, but that accounts for only a small fraction of the total traffic, and the report doesn't deal with what kind of alternate law enforcement there should be, or who should be targeted."

But others thought the criminal justice and public health emphasis in the report were a step down the right path.

"The report's message about alternatives to criminalization for use and minor offenses is important in criminal justice terms -- to discourage the horrible over-representation of minor drug offenders in prisons in the region -- but also as a reminder that there are no such alternatives unless the health and social sectors develop those alternatives," said Joan Csete, deputy director of the Open Society Foundation's Global Drug Policy Program.

"Health ministries need to be as important around the drug policymaking table as the police, which is far from the case in most of Africa today," she added. "Services for treatment of drug dependence in the region are absent or of appalling quality. Improving health and social support for people with drug dependence is a key to drug policy reform in West Africa."

And Felbab-Brown agreed that while measures like drug prevention and treatment wouldn't solve the region's problems, they would still be helpful.

"We're already seeing quite a bit of heroin in the region, and we are seeing increasing use," she said. "These are cheap and prevalent commodities, the traffickers partake in kind, and user communities are being established. In a sense, developing strategies to prevent use, get treatment, and prevent the spread of HIV and Hepatitis C is useful because there are more and more users."

drug, security, and insurgency analyst Vanda Felbab-Brown (brookings.edu)
But for Felbab-Brown, the key problem for West Africa is its weak and corrupt states.

"The big trafficking issues are around the intersection of very poor, very weak, very corrupt, and often very fragile states with state participation in various forms of criminality," she said. "Drugs are just another commodity to be exploited by elites for personal enrichment. Elites are already stealing money from oil, timber, and diamonds, and now there is another resource to exploit for personal enrichment and advancement," she argued.

"One narrative has it that drug trafficking has caused fragility and instability, but I think trafficking compounded the problems; it didn't create them," Felbab-Brown continued. "There is a systematic deficiency of good governance. Many of these states have functioned for decades like mafia bazaars, and the trafficking just augments other rents. There are rotten governments, miserable institutions, and poor leadership around all commodities, not just drugs."

"The states are not monolithic," Csete noted. "Some have high-level corruption, some are aggressive in trying to fight money-laundering and other elements of organized criminal networks, some rely heavily on traditional interdiction methods. Some of these countries have relatively strong democratic systems and relatively strong economic growth; some have governance institutions that are less strong."

The state of the states in West Africa influenced the commission and its recommendations, Csete said.

"Legalization of drugs -- production, sale, consumption -- was not judged to be politically feasible or necessarily desirable by the commission," she explained. "I think the commissioners generally perceive that generally these countries do not yet have a political climate favorable to debate on progressive changes in drug policy. The whole idea of the commission and its report is to open those debates -- high-profile people from the region saying things that sitting officials do not find it politically easy to say."

"These are newer post-colonial states," Felbab-Brown noted. "Are we having unreasonable expectations? Is this like Europe in the 13th Century, or is that some of these countries are doomed to exist in perpetual misgovernance?"

While there may be concern in Western capitals about the specter of West African drug trafficking, many West Africans have other, more pressing, drug policy concerns.

In its 2013 report, the UNODC noted that the importation of fake pharmaceutical drugs from South and Southeast Asia into the region was a problem. Joey Tranchina, a longtime drug policy observer who has recently spent time in Mali, agrees.

"Having traversed Mali from Bamako to Mopti, except for the usual oblique indigenous references to smoking weed, the only personal experience I have with drug crime is counterfeit pharmaceuticals from India, China, and Russia," he said. "They're sold cheap in the streets to people who can't afford regular meds and they take the place of real pharmaceuticals, especially malaria and HIV drugs. These drug scams are killing people in Mali," he said.

"Most people in West Africa don't see drug trafficking as that much of a problem," said Felbab-Brown. "If it's mostly going to Westerners, they say so what? For them it is a mechanism to make money, and those drug traffickers frequently become politicians. They are able to create and reconstitute patronage networks around drug trafficking, just as they were once able to get elected with money from blood diamonds."

It seems that, to the degree that drug use and drug trafficking are West African problems, they are problems inextricably interwoven with the broader issues of weak, fragile, and corrupt states that are unable or unwilling to deliver the goods for their citizens. The West Africa Commission on Drugs has pointed a way toward some solutions and avoiding some failed policies already discredited elsewhere, but it seems clear that that is just the beginning.

Chronicle AM -- June 13, 2014

Jamaica will decriminalize pot possession and Bermuda is thinking about it, legalization initiatives in Alaska and Oregon get big bucks donations, medical marijuana reform is moving in the DC city council, and more. Let's get to it:

MPP Gives Alaska Initiative Campaign Big Cash Contribution. The Marijuana Policy Project, which is backing the Alaska legalization initiative, has just kicked in another $140,000. That's the second largest contribution to the campaign yet (the biggest, also from MPP, was $210,000), and pushes its total contributions to over half a million dollars. The organized opposition -- Big Marijuana, Big Mistake, Vote No on 2 -- has, on the other hand, raised only $31,000, most of it in a single donation by an Alaska Native village corporation.

Peter Lewis Family Gives Oregon Initiative Campaign Big Cash Contribution. A PAC controlled by heirs of Progressive Insurance founder and drug reform funder Peter Lewis has donated $250,000 to the New Approach Oregon legalization initiative. Lewis had donated $96,000 before his death last fall, and there were fears his death could end his reform largesse, but his family is carrying on. The group has raised more than $900,000 overall.

SurveyUSA Oregon Poll Has 51% for Legalization. A new SurveyUSA poll in Oregon has 51% supporting marijuana legalization, with 41% opposed, and 8% undecided. The poll comes as three legalization initiatives are in the final weeks of signature-gathering to put the issue on the November ballot. Initiative organizers are not going to breathe easy with numbers like these, though; the conventional wisdom is that initiatives want to be polling at 60% or above before the campaign begins in earnest. Click on the link for demographic and methodological details.

Medical Marijuana

DC Council Moves Toward Approving Expanded Medical Marijuana Access. The District of Columbia city council moved ahead yesterday with plans to expand access to medical marijuana. In a joint session of the Health and Judiciary and Public Safety committees, the council gave preliminary approval to two bills. Bill 20-766, cosponsored by every member of the council, would repeal the qualifying conditions list and allow physicians to recommend marijuana to any patient they think marijuana would benefit. Bill 20-678, will increase the number of plants a cultivation center could possess from 95 to 500, better ensuring that patient need is met.

Feds Warn Casinos to Not Take Bets Made With Marijuana Money. Federal regulators addressing a banking secrecy conference in Las Vegas yesterday warned casinos they can't accept bets from people working in the marijuana industry unless the casinos undertake rigorous background checks and allow the federal government to monitor the bets. That's because casinos are subject to the same financial reporting requirements as financial institutions. It's a lengthy report; click on the link to read it all.

Sentencing

Fair Sentencing Act Gets Another Cosponsor. Add Rep. David Joyce (R-OH) to the list of cosponsors of the federal Fair Sentencing Act of 2013. He signed on yesterday. That makes 24 Democrats and 14 Republicans. The bill is before the House Judiciary Committee. Clicking on the link will take you to the bill.

Law Enforcement

Virginia Sheriff's Office Makes Mass Drug Bust… Again… and Again. The Amherst County Sheriff's Office announced yesterday that a county grand jury had indicted 68 people on drug charges after a months-long investigation by the department. It's the third mass bust since 2010's Operation Silent Night and 2012's Operation Avalanche. The sheriff's office seems to understand--at least on some level--the futility of such operations: "It stops these folks from selling drugs [but] as soon as you remove these folks, someone else takes their place. It's a never-ending cycle we're working on," a spokesman said.

International

Jamaica Will Decriminalize Marijuana Possession. Jamaica will decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana, the government announced yesterday. It will also allow possession for some medical and scientific purposes. And it will allow possession for religious purposes. Justice Minister Mark Golding said that the cabinet is supporting a proposal to decriminalize the possession of to two ounces of the ganja. Under the proposal, those caught with marijuana could be subjected to fines, but not criminal charges.

Bermuda's Attorney General Says Government Should Consider Marijuana Decriminalization. As the Bermudan government mulls marijuana reform, new Attorney General Trevor Moniz has come out for decriminalization. Moniz would prefer "a system where if you get caught with a small amount of marijuana, you don't go to court and you wouldn't have any criminal record," he said. "In New York and the UK., they have a caution only for a first offence, which may need to be broadened. I'm in favor of small steps, incremental steps, rather than a big leap," he added.

Barcelona Bans New Cannabis Clubs for a Year. Citing a proliferation of private cannabis clubs and a lack of regulation, the Barcelona city council announced today it was instituting a moratorium on new clubs for one year. The crackdown comes just days after a club was closed for illegal sales. The clubs allow members to grow and consume their own cannabis, but they aren't supposed to sell the stuff to outsiders. The clubs have been attracting cannabis tourists from around the world.

Conflict in Turkish Municipality Tied to Marijuana Crop. Three weeks of violent protests in the municipality of Lice in Diyarbakir Province, where Kurds predominate, are linked to the looming marijuana harvest, some of the profits from which are destined for the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), according to this report. Violent incidents have been ongoing since demonstrators attacked a security forces outpost with homemade bombs and Molotov cocktails, and soldiers opened fire, killing the nephew of a "notorious trafficker."

Chronicle AM -- June 12, 2014

Marijuana reform is exciting some third-party activity, New York's medical marijuana bill is still alive amidst ongoing last-minute negotiations, the New York Senate has passed a package of anti-opiate bills that will bring on more drug war, a high-level commission calls for radical drug policy changes in West Africa, and more. Let's get to it:

coca plant (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Minnesota Independence Party Runs on Legalization Platform. The Independence Party of Minnesota, a fiscally conservative and socially liberal state party, is making marijuana legalization a key part of its 2014 platform. The party, which is fielding candidates in a number of statewide and legislative races, is descended from the Jesse Ventura-era Reform Party. Its gubernatorial candidate got 12% of the vote in the 2010 election.

New Jersey Democrats Try to Kick NJ Weedman Off Ballot. Ed Forchion, better known as the NJ Weedman, is running for a congressional seat on the Legalize Marijuana Party ticket, but the state Democratic Party issued a last-minute (or past the last minute) challenge to his candidacy Monday afternoon. The Democrats claim he is one signature short of qualifying and that he registered to vote last month in California, where he sometimes resides. NJ Weedman says he will fight the challenge.

Medical Marijuana

New York Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive; Talks Underway. Last minute negotiations to pass the Compassionate Care Act continued in Albany today. The measure was transferred out of the Senate Finance Committee, where the committee chair said yesterday he would not allow a vote, to the Senate Rules Committee. Bill sponsor Sen. Diane Savino (D-Staten Island) said she is in talks with legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew Cuomo's (D) office to keep the bill alive. Cuomo said earlier today that he still has "serious questions" about the bill. Stay tuned.

South Carolina Democrats Overwhelmingly Favor Medical Marijuana in Non-Binding Primary Question. South Carolina Democrats voting in the party primary Tuesday supported a non-binding question about allowing for medical marijuana use by a margin of three-to-one. The state passed a limited CBD medical marijuana bill this year, but that will only help a small number of patients.

Opiates

New York Senate Passes Package of Heroin Bills; Would Intensify Drug War. The state Senate earlier this week passed a massive package of bills aimed at dealing with increased levels of heroin and other opiate use. While the package includes prevention and harm reduction measures, such as increasing access to the overdose reversal drug naloxone, other bills in the package seek to limit access to prescription opiates for acute pain, and the majority of the 23-bill package are law enforcement measures that aim to take the state back in the direction of the draconian Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s. Read the complete list of bills passed here. Whether any of these will become law remains to be seen; the session ends next week.

International

West Africa Needs to Consider Drug Decriminalization, Report Says. The West Africa Commission on Drugs, headed by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, issued a report today calling for radical policy changes, including drug decriminalization, to reduce regional instability in West Africa exacerbated by the illicit trade in drugs. Otherwise, the region faces becoming "a new front line in the failed 'war on drugs,'" the report says. It also calls for drugs to be treated primarily as a public health issue. The report is Not Just in Transit: Drugs, the State, and Society in West Africa.

Spain to Start Including Illicit Drug Trade in GDP. Spanish officials said today they will begin including estimated revenues from the drug trade, as well as prostitution, in calculating the country's Gross Domestic Product. Other European countries are doing the same as part of new European Union requirements that they must state percentages of GDP derived from illicit activities.

Peru Coca Output Declined Last Year, Prices Soared Amidst Eradication Efforts. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday that, under the pressure of eradication campaigns, coca leaf production declined 18% last year, but that prices jumped nearly 50%, to more than $1300 a kilogram. The UNODC noted the changes in its annual Peruvian coca survey. Cultivation fell last year after expanding for the seven previous years. Peru is either the world's number one or number two coca producer; we'll have to see what UNODC says about Colombian production later this year. Bolivia is number three.

Mexico Awaiting DNA Test Results to Confirm Death of Sinaloa Cartel Leader "El Azul" Esparragoza. Mexican officials are waiting for DNA test results that would confirm the death by natural causes of Sinaloa cartel leader Juan Jose "El Azul" Esparragoza, which was first reported by the Sinaloa news weekly RioDoce on Sunday. Family members have reportedly confirmed his death, but the government is still waiting to make it official.

(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.)

Chronicle AM -- June 11, 2014

There's money in marijuana, as Colorado keeps finding out, MPP is eyeing Massachusetts in 2016, opponents of Florida's medical marijuana initiative got a big bucks contribution from a major Republican funder, Customs and Border Patrol fires its internal affairs head, the US Embassy in Kabul can't explain what impact $7 billion in anti-drug aid there has had, and more. Let's get to it:

In Afghan fields, the poppies grow... (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Marijuana Revenues Keep Climbing. Recreational marijuana sales hit $22 million in April, with the state taking in more than $3.5 million in sales and excise taxes. With medical marijuana sales factored in, people bought more than $53 million worth of weed in Colorado in April.

MPP Opens Ballot Committee in Massachusetts, Eyes 2016. The Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) opened a ballot referendum committee in Massachusetts Tuesday, a preliminary step for a marijuana legalization campaign in 2016. The formation of the committee, the Campaign to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol in Massachusetts, allows MPP to begin raising and spending money in the state.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Polls Have Strong Support for Medical Marijuana Among Likely Voters. With medical marijuana on the ballot in November, a new poll shows 70% of likely voters support the constitutional amendment. Because it is a constitutional amendment, it needs 60% to pass. Another poll released this week has support at 66%. "Florida's medical marijuana amendment that will be on the ballot this fall continues to appear headed for easy passage," Public Policy Polling, which did the second poll, wrote in an analysis.

Conservative Billionaire Sheldon Adelson Kicks In $2.5 Million to Defeat Florida Medical Marijuana Initiative. Billionaire casino magnate and major Republican political donor Sheldon Adelson has donated $2.5 million to the campaign to defeat the Florida medical marijuana initiative. A newly-formed group backed by Adelson, the Drug Free Florida Committee, was started by longtime GOP fundraiser Mel Sembler and his wife Betty. It has raised $2.7 million so far and its top donors have been primarily Republicans.

Pennsylvania Medical Marijuana Bill Still Alive. Following a Tuesday hearing on Senate Bill 1182 Tuesday, committee members said they had been assured the bill would get a vote in the Senate Law and Justice Committee, but it will be then up to Senate leaders to decide if they will allow a floor vote. If it gets and wins a floor vote, the House would still have to pass it, or pass its own version.

Methamphetamine

Michigan Bill to Restrict Meth Precursor Purchases Passes House. A bill that would require people with prior methamphetamine convictions to obtain a prescription to buy cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine has passed the House. The bill also creates a statewide database for pseudoephedrine purchases and would require buyers to show the drivers' licenses.

Opiates

New York Governor Announces Doubling of State Police Drug Team to Fight Heroin, Prescription Pill Use. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) announced this morning that he will add 100 investigators to the State Police Community Narcotics Enforcement Team, nearly doubling the unit's size. He also announced that the state would make the overdose reversal drug naloxone to all first responders. And he announced an education and prevention campaign involving SUNY campuses.

New England Governors to Meet Next Week on Confronting Rising Opiate Use. The six New England governors are set to meet next week at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, to forge a regional strategy in response to growing alarm over increased use of prescription opiates and heroin. Massachusetts has declared a public health emergency over opiates, and other states in the region are experiencing similar issues. [Ed: Whether any of the New England governors, or New York's governor and narcotics police, will bear in mind the needs of chronic pain patients, remains to be seen.]

Law Enforcement

Myles Ambrose, Nixon's First Drug Czar, Dies. Myles Ambrose has died at age 87. He was President Richard Nixon's first "drug czar," serving as head of the White House Office of Drug Abuse Law Enforcement (ODALE), the precursor to the DEA, which was formed in 1973. He had come to Nixon's attention when, as head of Customs, he initiated Operation Intercept, which shut down the US-Mexico border in 1969. Ambrose appeared set to take over DEA, but was pushed aside, in part due to bureaucratic infighting and in part because of hints of scandal related to his visits to the home of a Texas banker investigated in a drug trafficking conspiracy.

Customs and Border Protection Fires Its Own Head of Internal Affairs. The US Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) has let go James Tomsheck, head of internal affairs for the agency, after claims he failed to investigate hundreds of allegations of abuse. More than 800 complaints of abuse by agents had been made during his tenure since 2006, but only 13 resulted in disciplinary actions. Tomsheck's firing by CBP head Gil Kerlikowske is part of an attempt by Kerlikowske to address widespread allegations of abuse by American border agencies. Last week, Kerlikowske set out new rules for the use of deadly force, only to be followed hours later by a Border Patrol agent shooting and killing a fleeing drug trafficker. At least 22 people have been killed by Border Patrol agents since January 2010 and many more injured.

Sentencing

New Jersey Bail Reform Bill Gets Committee Vote Today. The Assembly Judiciary is set to consider Assembly Bill 1910, which would implement widely supported reforms to the state's bail system. Under the proposed legislation, arrestees would be assessed for risk and pretrial release decisions would be based on their measured risk, not their ability to pay money bail. Companion legislation in the state Senate, Senate Bill 946, was approved by the Budget and Appropriations Committee last week.

International

Rising Afghan Opium Production Threatens Reconstruction, US Official Says. Afghanistan's record-level opium production is stoking corruption, spilling into the financial sector, and aiding the Taliban and criminal networks, all of which threaten national reconstruction, John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghan reconstruction, told a House subcommittee Tuesday. The US has spent $7 billion on anti-opium efforts since it invaded Afghanistan in late 2001, but "On my trips to Afghanistan in 2013 and earlier this year, no one at the Embassy could convincingly explain to me how the US government counter-narcotics efforts are making a meaningful impact on the narcotics trade or how they will have a significant impact after" the US-led combat mission ends in December," Sopko said.

Finland Greens Call for Marijuana Legalization, Drug Policy Shift From Punishment to Harm Reduction. The Finnish Green League has adopted a new manifesto on drugs that says "the focus of drug policy should be shifted from punishments to reducing adverse effects" and that "the criminal sanctions for the use of cannabis as well as the possession and cultivation of cannabis for personal use should be abolished." The Greens hold 10 seats in Finland's 198-seat parliament and are part of the ruling six-party "rainbow coalition" government.

Chronicle AM -- June 10, 2014

New York City residents are still getting arrested for marijuana at the rate of 80 a day, New York state residents face another year without medical marijuana passing, Philly heads for decriminalization of a sort, the Justice Department supports retroactivity for recent sentencing reforms, the Sinaloa cartel has apparently lost another key leader, and more. Let's get to it:

NYC marijuana arrests just keep on coming. (www.nyc.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Lawsuit Claims Marijuana Taxes Violate Fifth Amendment. Denver attorney Robert Corry Jr. has filed a lawsuit on behalf of an unnamed marijuana retailer arguing that paying pot taxes violates a citizen's Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination since marijuana remains illegal under federal law. The lawsuit seeks a permanent injunction to stop the state from collecting taxes and the return of all taxes collected. A similar lawsuit has been filed in Washington state by attorney Douglas Hiatt.

New York City Marijuana Arrests So Far This Year at Same Pace as Last Year. New Yorkers are still being arrested for small-time pot possession in high numbers under new Mayor Bill DeBlasio (D). According to the Marijuana Arrest Project, so far this year, NYPD is arresting an average of 80 people a day for pot possession, compared to 78 a day throughout 2013 under then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R). Another constant is that blacks and Latinos continue to make up the vast majority of marijuana possession busts. They accounted for 87% of pot arrests last year and 86% so far this year. Click on the title link for more details.

Philadelphia City Council Committee Approves Decriminalization Measure. A city council committee yesterday approved a bill that would make possession of up to 30 grams of marijuana a code violation punishable by a $25 fine -- but would still give police officers the discretion to arrest. But Mayor Michael Nutter opposes the bill. His Public Safety Director, Mike Resnick, said the opposition stems the discretional arrest provision, which he said could create unfair situations. A final vote is likely next week.

Medical Marijuana

North Carolina "March Against Fear" Aims to Generate Support for Medical Marijuana. North Carolinian Todd Stimson is leading a 259-mile "March Against Fear" from Asheville to Raleigh to help bring attention to a pending medical marijuana bill, House Bill 1161. The bill was filed last month and is now languishing in the House Judiciary Committee. Click on the title link to join up or get more info.

Key New York GOP Legislator Says He Will Not Allow Vote on Medical Marijuana. Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco (R) said today he would not allow a vote on the Compassionate Care Act, sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino (D). "The Savino bill will not come out of my committee, the Finance Committee," he said. "You don't have any kind of reasonable research on the effects. You have people coming in here every day trying to ban e-cigarettes and use of tobacco in other ways." He said he and other Senate Republicans may be open to legislation that would not allow marijuana to be smoked. The session ends next Thursday.

Clark County, Nevada, Commissioners Approve 18 Dispensary Licenses. There will soon be 18 medical marijuana dispensaries operating in unincorporated parts of Clark County, the home of Las Vegas. County commissioners approved the licenses yesterday. Nevada approved medical marijuana in 2000, but only approved dispensaries last year.

Drug Testing

Repeated School Drug Tests of Pennsylvania 10-Year-Old Provoke Scorching Editorial. The editorial board at the Pennsylvania news website PennLive has penned a strong editorial condemning the drug testing policy at the Susquenita Middle School, which has resulted in a 10-year-old girl be tested three times so far. The editorial notes that state law requires that school districts actually show there is problem and show that drug testing helps, but that Susquenita has failed to do either. "Repeatedly drug testing a trouble-free 10-year-old student like Natalie Cassell shows how ridiculous this kind of random snooping is. Innocent students are treated like criminals, while drug-using students can dodge the tests simply by deciding not to join after-school activities," PennLive noted. "At a time when school districts across the state are pleading for more state funding, surely Susquenita schools can find a better uses of money than an unproven, highly invasive program that randomly tests innocent 10-year olds.

Sentencing

Justice Department Supports Making Drug Sentence Cuts Retroactive. Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday that the Justice Department is formally supporting a US Sentencing Commission proposal to allow some nonviolent drug offenders currently doing time in federal prisons to seek sentence reductions. The proposal would extend sentencing reforms already approved by the commission by making them retroactive.

Smarter Sentencing Act Gains Four More Sponsors. The Smarter Sentencing Act of 2013 picked up four more cosponsors Monday, three Democrats and one Republican. They are Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL), Rep. Tony Cardenas (D), and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI). The measure now has 37 cosponsors, 24 Democrats and 13 Republicans. It has been sitting in the House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations since January.

Prescription Opiates

Massachusetts Governor Unveils Plan to Fight Opiate Use. Gov. Deval Patrick (D) today released a $20 package of proposals to deal with "the opioid addiction epidemic" in his state. He is calling for a summit of regional governors, as well as streamlined access to treatment, better prevention measures, and "strengthening safe prescribing and dispensing practices" to "minimize diversion and misuse." That last bit is likely to raise concerns among people worried about adequate access to prescription opiates. But unlike some other state-level responses to rising levels of opiate use, Patrick's did not contain a law enforcement component. The link leads to the full press release.

International

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.

Spanish Authorities Close Down Barcelona Cannabis Club for Selling… Cannabis. A Barcelona cannabis club has been closed after police spotted a man approaching tourists and taking them to the club to score. Under Spanish law, one can grow marijuana for personal use, but not sell it. The cannabis clubs have sprung up as a way for consumers to pool their growing resources. Members pay an annual membership fee for a chance to share in the proceeds of the collectively cultivated cannabis, but they're not supposed to sell it.

AG Holder Supports Making Federal Drug Sentence Reductions Retroactive

Attorney General Eric Holder announced Tuesday that the Justice Department is formally supporting a US Sentencing Commission proposal to allow some nonviolent drug offenders currently doing time in federal prisons to seek sentence reductions. The proposal would extend sentencing reforms already approved by the commission by making them retroactive.

Attorney General Holder keeps pushing on sentencing reform (justice.gov)
Earlier this year, the Sentencing Commission approved sentencing reforms that adjust sentencing guidelines by lowering the base offense levels associated with various quantities of drugs. The change is expected to cut many federal drug sentences by an average of nearly two years. The commission will be voting on whether to make the cuts retroactive next month.

The Justice Department is supporting retroactivity, but only for prisoners "who lack significant criminal histories and whose offenses did not include aggravating factors, such as the possession of a dangerous weapon or the use of violence."

"Under the department's proposal, if your offense was nonviolent, did not involve a weapon, and you do not have a significant criminal history, then you would be eligible to apply for a reduced sentence in accordance with the new rules approved by the Commission in April," Holder said in a statement. "Not everyone in prison for a drug-related offense would be eligible. Nor would everyone who is eligible be guaranteed a reduced sentence. But this proposal strikes the best balance between protecting public safety and addressing the overcrowding of our prison system that has been exacerbated by unnecessarily long sentences."

Holder's stance was reiterated by Sally Yates, the US Attorney for the Northern District of Georgia, and Bureau of Prisons Director Charles Samuels during a formal hearing of the Commission.

"We believe that the federal drug sentencing structure in place before the amendment resulted in unnecessarily long sentences for some offenders that has resulted in significant prison overcrowding, and that imprisonment terms for those sentenced pursuant to the old guideline should be moderated to the extent possible consistent with other policy considerations," Yates said.

As of late April, there were 100,888 people serving federal time for drug offenses, according the federal Bureau of Prisons. They account for 49.9% of all federal prisoners.

Washington, DC
United States

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.

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.

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.

Chronicle AM--May 30, 2014

Yesterday was a bad day for the DEA as the House thrice voted to slap its hands, an anti-marijuana initiative in Montana gets okayed for signature-gathering, the New York Senate releases a report on heroin and opiate addiction and calls for more drug war, marijuana legalization supporters rally in Tel Aviv, and more. Let's get to it:

The DEA had a bad day on Capitol Hill yesterday.
Marijuana Policy

Montana Anti-Marijuana Initiative Approved for Signature-Gathering. An initiative that would repeal Montana's already severely scaled-back medical marijuana law and ban anything listed as a Schedule I controlled substance under the federal Controlled Substances Act, including marijuana, has been approved for signature-gathering. But Billings car dealer and initiative sponsor Steve Zabawa has only three weeks to get the 24,175 signatures necessary to get the measure on the November ballot.

Medical Marijuana

In Historic Vote, House Bars Justice Department, DEA from Using Taxpayer Funds to Interfere with Medical Marijuana in States Where It Is Legal. The US House of Representatives voted 219-189 last night to approve an amendment to 2015 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill to cut off funds for the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, to interfere in state-sanctioned medical marijuana programs. If the Senate doesn't come up with similar language, the provision will have to be fought for in conference committee.

Hemp

In Historic Vote, House Bars Justice Department, DEA from Using Taxpayer Funds to Interfere with Hemp Production in States Where It Is Legal. The US House of Representatives voted last night to bar the Justice Department and its agencies, including the DEA, from using taxpayer dollars to interfere with industrial hemp production in states where it is legal. Hemp production for research purposes in states that have laws allowing it was approved by the Congress as part of the omnibus farm bill earlier this year. A dozen states have such laws.

Law Enforcement

In Historic Vote, House Takes Funds from DEA, Shifts Them to Addressing Rape Kit Backlog. In addition to barring the DEA from going after hemp and medical marijuana in states where they are legal, the House also approved an amendment from Rep. Steven Cohen (D-TN) to take $5 million from the DEA's appropriation and shift the money into grants for state and local law enforcement to address backlogs of untested rape kits. The House voted down another Cohen amendment that would have taken $15 million from the DEA and allocated it instead to the Legal Services Corporation. The House also approved an amendment that would block additional staffing for the Pardon Attorney's Office in a bid to thwart President Obama's call for drug war prisoners to seek clemency.

Heroin and Opiates

New York Senate Task Force Proposes Massive Package of Prevention, Treatment, Law Enforcement Bills to Fight Increased Heroin, Prescription Pill Use. The state Joint Senate Task Force on Heroin and Opioid Addiction issued its final report Wednesday. The report, Solutions to New York's Heroin Epidemic, calls for prevention, treatment, and harm reduction measures, but the 25-bill package it includes is heavy on law enforcement. Thirteen of the 25 proposed bills would ratchet up the drug war. There is a complete list of the bills in the package in the report.

International

Colombian Government Releases Outline of Drug Accords With FARC. The Colombian government has released a document laying out the points agreed to with the FARC guerrillas on dealing with drug cultivation and the illicit drug trade. The two sides, meeting at peace talks in Havana a couple of weeks ago, reached the agreement a couple of weeks ago. Colombia Reports has the details at the title link.

Despite Drug Decriminalization, Colombia Continues to Arrest, Hassle Drug Users, Researcher Finds. In a report from the Research Consortium on Drugs and the Law, researcher Diane Guzman found that Colombia continues to rely excessively on punishing drug users, even though drug use is decriminalized there. Guzman blames police enforcement strategies and their focus on arrest, and reports that drug users detained by police are often let go after they pay bribes. She also found that Colombia's goal of reducing drug addiction suffers because the country doesn't devote sufficient resources to improving health care and rehabilitation for drug users. The report, En Busca De Los Derechos: Usuarios De Drogas Y Las Respuestas Estatales En América Latina, also examines drug policies in seven other Latin American countries. Guzman wrote the Colombia chapter.

Thousands March for Marijuana in Tel Aviv. An estimated 2,000 people marched and rallied for marijuana legalization in Tel Aviv Thursday night. The march comes as the Knesset prepares to debate a bill easing restrictions on medical marijuana next week and a bill from MK Tamar Zandberg to legalize marijuana a few weeks from now.

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