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Drug War Snapshot: Ocean City, Maryland

Ocean City, Maryland, is a popular East Coast beach vacation destination, but it's also the scene of a major push for marijuana arrests, according to the Bethany Beach Wave. Police there have made 615 drug possession arrests there so far this year, and a whopping 85% of them are for pot possession.

Ocean City boardwalk (wikimedia.org)
Police said they didn't want such a high level of drug busts, but then said they were a high priority.

"Nobody wants to see all those drugs arrests, but it ultimately makes Ocean City a safer place to get those drugs off the street," police spokeswoman Jessica Waters said. "Drug arrests have been high on the priority list for officers, whether it be on a traffic stop or on the Boardwalk."

The arrests run in tandem with the high season for tourism, when tens of thousands of people flood into the seaside resort to escape the summer heat. Last year, according to the department's annual report, police made 160 drug possession arrests between January and May, but the number skyrocketed to 473 in the month of June 2011, declined to 284 in July and 154 in August before falling to the double or single digits for the rest of the year.

Ocean City police made a total of 3,829 arrests last year, 1,166 on drug charges. The department doesn't specify, but the majority of those were presumably for pot possession. The number of drug arrests has climbed rather remarkably in recent years, averaging under 800 for 2005 through 2008, before climbing to 839 in 2009, 933 in 2010, and more than 1,100 last year.

Ocean City has about five times the number of police per capita as other Maryland departments, at least in part because of its high number of visitors, but it also has a higher crime index than the US national average. While police have prioritized drug arrests in general and marijuana arrests in particular, they have apparently not been able to get a handle on their real crime problems.

And for marijuana consumers, well, there are other beaches on the East Coast.

Ocean City, MD
United States

Drug War Snapshot: Corpus Christi and Nueces County, Texas

Nueces County, Texas (pop. 340,000), sits on the Gulf Coast halfway between Houston and the Mexican border, astride drug trafficking corridors headed from Mexico to the central and eastern US. Its leading newspaper, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times reported Saturday that drug offenses were the single leading reason people appeared in felony court there over the past decade.

Of 32,000 felony cases analyzed by the Caller-Times, 10,300, or 32% were drug offenses. The newspaper did not provide a breakdown between possession and sales charges. Texas treats simple drug possession as a felony.

About two-thirds, or 6,790, of all the felony drug crimes were for cocaine offenses, followed by more than a thousand meth cases, and about 600 cases each of heroin and marijuana charges.

The number of felony drug charges over the past decade was greater than the 8,700 property crime felonies charged. The newspaper did not provide numbers on violent felonies charged, but insisted that drug offenses were the leading charge.

"It's not surprising that South Texas has a significant drug traffic issue with its proximity to the border," said Corpus Christi Police Capt. David Cook, who is with the department's Narcotics Vice Investigations. "We get a lot coming through here," he told the Caller-Times.

State District Judge Sandra Watts told the Caller-Times that about half of her daily docket consists of drug-related cases. She said she would rather sentence addicts to places like the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment facility instead of prison so offenders can get treatment and the state can save money. A supervised drug treatment program costs $2.46 a day, compared to $50 a day for prison, she said.

"Very often we see repeat offenders because an addict is an addict," she said."If someone is addicted to drugs we will see them again until we get a handle on the addiction," she said. "And we don't have enough prisons to put everyone in jail for possession of controlled substances."

For the past decade at least, Nueces County has been arresting its citizens at a rate of more than 1,000 a year for offenses in which the most serious charge is a drug charge. Perhaps it might want to offer treatment on demand instead of treatment by court order, or simply decriminalizing drug possession, for a start.

But local law enforcement isn't thinking like that. Captain David Cook of the Narcotics Vice investigations squad had an old-fashioned answer: more cops. He said the department's 22 narcotics officers aren't enough.

"The drugs go north, and the currency comes south," he said. "I see everything that happens here and we try to keep a lid on it but it's difficult. You could give me 50 or 60 narcotics officers and maybe we could keep up."

They could no doubt keep up, or even increase, their drug arrests numbers with triple the narcotics officers, but can the good people of Corpus Christi afford to just pay for more of the same, year after year after year?

Corpus Christi, TX
United States

Drug War Snapshot: Volusia County, Florida

Volusia County, Florida, situated midway up the state's Atlantic Coast, has just under half a million people, and if its July 6 county jail bookings are any indication, it has one heck of a drug problem -- or is it an elective policing problem?

Volusia County Courthouse (volusia.org)
Of the 67 people booked into the Volusia County Branch Jail on the Friday after the 4th of July, only seven were charged with violent crimes, while people charged with drug offenses made up more than half of all bookings. At least 35 people were charged with drug offenses, mostly small-time trafficking, while three more were charged with drug possession while arrested for another crime.

The most common drug charges were sale of cocaine (11), followed by sale/trafficking in controlled substances (10), violation of drug court rules (4), possession of a controlled substance (3), and possession of cocaine (2). The day also saw single counts of possession of meth, sale of meth, manufacture of meth, sale of marijuana, and possession of marijuana.

Six people were arrested on unspecified probation violation or failure to appear charges. Some unknown portion of those were likely originally arrested on drug charges.

Only three people arrested on drug charges were also arresting on other criminal charges at the same time, one for burglary and drug possession, one for solicitation to commit prostitution and drug possession, and one for hindering a firefighter and drug possession. While drug use could be a factor in other charges filed, such as the five accused burglars below, they apparently weren't carrying drugs when committing those crimes.

Of the 23 people charged with other than drug offenses, only seven were charged with crimes of violence. Four faced charges of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, one was charged with strong-arm robbery, one with robbery by assault, and one with intimidating a witness.

Three people were charges with status offenses -- acts that would not be a crime except for their having previous criminal convictions. One was charged with failure to register as a sex offender and two with felon in possession of a firearm.

The most common non-drug charge was burglary of an unoccupied dwelling, with five people being booked into the jail on that charge. The remaining eight people were charged with offenses ranging from solicitation to commit prostitution to child neglect and child porn possession to possession of counterfeit notes, fleeing and eluding, and grand theft.

Last Friday in Volusia County, prosecuting the drug war took up more than half of the county's law enforcement, prosecutorial, judicial, and correctional resources. The decisions about how to allocate law enforcement resources (or whether to even reduce them given the paucity of non-drug crimes) is something the good people of Volusia may want to ponder.

Daytona Beach, FL
United States

NYPD Sued Over Stop and Frisk Marijuana Arrests

The Legal Aid Society in New York City announced last Friday that it had filed a lawsuit against the NYPD over its continuing practice of making misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests when they order suspects to empty their pockets during the department's controversial stop and frisk searches. Police Commissioner Raymond issued a memorandum last fall directing police not to make the arrests, but only to ticket pot possession offenders, but police continue to charge people with misdemeanors, according to the lawsuit.

"It's certainly a sad commentary that the commissioner can issue a directive that reads well on paper but on the street corners of the city doesn't exist," said Legal Aid's chief lawyer, Steven Banks.

Under New York state law, marijuana possession is decriminalized, but public possession remains a misdemeanor. In New York City, police order suspects to empty their pockets, then charge them with public possession if a baggie appears.

A call to modify the state's decriminalization law to include public possession as only a ticketable offense won broad support, including from Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and Mayor Michael Bloomberg (R), but was killed last week by Senate Republicans.

The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, seeks a court order against the city and the NYPD declaring the practice illegal under state law and barring officers from making such arrests.

The Legal Aid Society filed the suit on behalf of five New Yorkers, all of whom were arrested since mid-April on misdemeanor possession charges after small amounts of pot were found on them during police stops. In each case, the marijuana became visible only after officers searched the men or asked them to empty their pockets.

"These five individuals are New Yorkers who were essentially victimized by unlawful police practices," Banks said. "The lawsuit is aimed at stopping a pernicious police practice, which is harming thousands of New Yorkers a year and clogging up the court system with one out of seven criminal cases and diverting resources and attention from more serious criminal matters."

One plaintiff, Juan Gomez-Garcia, said he was waiting for a food order outside a Kennedy Fried Chicken restaurant in the Bronx on May 16 when an officer approached, began to question him and asked if he had any drugs on him. Mr. Gomez-Garcia, 27, said that after he admitted to the officer that he had marijuana in his pocket, the officer reached inside the pocket and removed a plastic bag containing a small amount of the drug.

He was arrested and charged with "open to public view" possession for having marijuana "in his right hand." He spent about 12 hours in a jail cell and was let go after he pleaded guilty to a disorderly conduct violation, according to the lawsuit.

Because of the NYPD's massive stop-and-frisk program -- aimed overwhelmingly at young people of color -- and because of the department's willful misinterpretation of the law and refusal to follow Commissioner Kelly's directive, New York City is the nation's marijuana arrest capital. Around 50,000 people a year are charged with misdemeanor pot possession.

According to the Legal Aid Society, NYPD continues to arrest people for pot possession at about the same pace as ever. While arrests dipped below 3,000 in December, by March, the number of arrests had risen to 4,186, a number almost identical to the 4,189 arrests made last August, before Kelly issued his directive.

New York, NY
United States

NY GOP Kills Marijuana Decriminalization Reform

New York decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, but New York City police continue to arrest 50,000 people a year for pot possession after stopping-and-frisking them, then tricking them into emptying their pockets and revealing their baggies of weed, triggering the misdemeanor offense of public possession of marijuana.

March 2012 protest of NYC stop and frisk violations
In a bid to end that practice, Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and the Democratically-controlled Assembly moved to reform the decriminalization law by removing the public possession provision with Assembly Bill 10581, but Monday night, Republicans and their Conservative Party allies in the Senate effectively killed it.

The Senate Republicans caved under pressure from Conservative leader Mike Long, who threatened to not allow any Republicans who supported the bill to appear on the Conservative Party line. The Senate then refused to take up the bill. That means the mass arrests, predominantly of young people of color, for what should, under state law, be only a ticketable offense, will continue, costing the state tens of millions of dollars each year.

The Republican failure to act comes in the face of widespread law enforcement support for the reform, including NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly, the district attorneys in all five New York City boroughs and suburban Nassau County, and even the New York City Patrolman's Benevolent Association. Kelly called the reform "a balanced approach," while Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance said it would bring greater "safety and fairness" to the criminal justice system and it was "the right thing to do."

"The Senate Republicans have single-handedly decided to continue ruining tens of thousands of lives -- mostly those of young people of color -- every year. Opposing law enforcement and the clear political consensus in the state is not just heartless -- it's a political miscalculation that will come to haunt them," said Dr. Divine Pryor, executive director of the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.

"Even Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have come out in support of this legislation. So what's holding up the Senate from passing smart reforms that will eliminate the tens of thousands of unlawful arrests taking place in the city every year?" said Alfredo Carrasquillo, community organizer with VOCAL New York.

Last week, the New York City Council passed a resolution by an overwhelming margin calling for an end to racially biased, costly, unlawful arrests. The resolution, introduced by Council Members Melissa Mark-Viverito and Oliver Koppell, was cosponsored by a majority of council members. The resolution came a day after hundreds of community activists went to Albany to deliver thousands of signatures to demand the New York State Senate pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana possession in public view.

"The New York Senate Republicans are doing what Republicans do best at the federal and local level -- they are obstructing progress and paralyzing government. The Republican Conference in the State Senate is completely out of touch with our communities of color in New York City and because of their inaction, tens of thousands more of our young people of color will be arrested before the end of this year, saddling them with a criminal record," said Mark-Viverito. "The governor, our mayor, the police commissioner, the city council, five district attorneys and criminal justice advocates are all on the same page here. Marijuana was decriminalized in 1977; all we are trying to do is close the 'in public view' loophole that is allowing thousands of unjust arrests of black and Latino youth in our communities."

"It wasn't too long ago that we referred to the 'three men in a room' when discussing the leadership structure in Albany. Now when we talk about leadership in the Senate, we should talk about 'one guy in Brooklyn,' said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "While we are disappointed by the lack of action, we're not going anywhere. This campaign for reform has already scored a major victory by bringing this issue to the attention of New Yorkers and the entire country. We cannot and will not accept a situation where the laws are applied differently to different people based on their race or ethnicity or where they live. We'll keep pushing for reform, for fairness, equality, and justice. Given the overwhelming support by law enforcement for this proposal, I think Majority Leader Skelos and even Mr. Long will come to do what’s right."

Albany, NY
United States

US/Mexico Drug War "Caravan of Peace" Gearing Up [FEATURE]

Aghast and appalled at the bloody results of Mexican President Felipe Calderon's war on drugs, which has resulted in at least 50,000 deaths since he deployed the military against the so-called drug cartels in December 2006 and possibly as many as 70,000, dozens of organizations in Mexico and the US announced Monday that they will take part in a "Caravan for Peace" that will journey across the US late this summer in a bid to change failed drug war policies on both sides of the border.

caravan launch at Museo Memoria y Tolerancia, Plaza Juárez, Mexico City (@CaravanaUSA @MxLaPazMx)
Led by Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who was spurred to action by the murder of his son by cartel members in Cuernavaca in 2010, and the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (MPJD) he heads, the caravan will depart from San Diego on August 12 and arrive in Washington on September 10 after traveling some 6,000 miles to bring to the American people and their elected officials the bi-national message that failed, murderous drug war policies must end.

The caravan will be underway in between presidential elections in the two countries. Mexico will choose a successor to Calderon on July 1, and whoever that successor is, will be re-tooling its fight against the drug cartels. By late summer, the US presidential campaign will be in full swing, and advocates hope to have at least some impact on that as well.

The caravan builds on similar efforts last year in Mexico. Led by Sicilia and other relatives of drug war victims, one caravan of more than 500 people left Cuernavaca and traveled north through 15 cities to Ciudad Juarez, one of the epicenters of prohibition-related violence in Mexico. A second caravan left Mexico City with 700 people traveling south through 21 cities. Those caravans helped turn what was an amorphous fear and dismay among Mexicans at the violence into a political movement that has put the issue of the drug wars and their victims squarely on the Mexican political agenda.

"The war on drugs has had painful consequences for our country, such as corruption and impunity," said Sicilia at a Mexico City press conference. "The proof of this is that Mexico has seen over 70,000 deaths and 10,000 disappearances, and this is closely linked to US regional security policies, which have sparked widespread areas of violence, human rights violations, and the loss of the rule of law. The drug war has failed," he said bluntly.

"On August 12, Mexicans will come to the US and cover a route of 25 cities in one month," Sicilia continued. "Our message is one of peace, and our journey will be peaceful with an open heart and the hope of speaking with each other. We believe the harm we live is linked to the failed policies we want to change."

"Regarding policies on the war on drugs, we propose the need to find a solution with a multidimensional and international approach that places the dignity of the individual at the center of drug policy," Sicilia said. "We call on both Mexican and US civil society to open and maintain a dialogue on evidence-based alternatives to prohibition and to consider various options for regulating drugs."

Javier Sicilia on CNNMéxico
For Sicilia and the caravan, drug policy is inextricably tied to other policies and issues that affect both sides of the border. The caravan is also calling for a ban on the importation of assault weapons to the US (because they then end up being exported to Mexican criminals), a higher priority for concentrating on money laundering, an end to US immigration policies that have resulted in the militarization of the border and the criminalization of immigrants, and a refocusing of US foreign policy to emphasize human rights while suspending US military aid to Mexico.

The broad range of interrelated issues is helping build a broad coalition around the caravan. Groups concerned with the border, immigrant rights, human rights, racial justice, and labor are all coming on board.

"Forty years ago, then President Nixon inaugurated the war on drugs, and we've not won the war on drugs -- the only thing we've achieved is being the world's leader in incarceration," said Dr. Niaz Kasravi, with the NAACP criminal justice program. "Through these policies, we've also promoted violence and death for those caught up in the drug war in the US and Mexico. In the US, those who have borne the brunt of it have been people of color. The war on drugs hasn't made our communities safer, healthier, or more stable, but has resulted in the mass incarceration of people of color, a de facto Jim Crow. We are in a violent state of emergency that must end, and we stand committed to ending the war on drugs."

"We emphasize the dignity and humanity of immigrants in the US," said Oscar Chacon of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC), "and when we were invited to consider joining the caravan, we identified with it as a cause of our own. We see our issues reflected throughout the caravan. Policies that emphasize militarization and authoritarianism and enforcement and punishment have human rights violations as their natural results. We see in the caravan an opportunity to write a new chapter in our initiatives to highlight the value of respect for all human life and we will use our participation to further educate Latino and immigrant communities about the relationship between policy decisions made in Washington and the sad effects they can have -- in this case, particularly for our Mexican brothers and sisters."

"Prior to coming here, I did not know the extent of the pain, sorrow, and suffering of the families here in Mexico," said Neill Franklin, head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "There are so many orphans, so many families being attacked. Families and future generations are also under attack in my country, with drive-by shootings and running gun battles in the streets of our big cities. Most of those targeted by the drug war here are blacks and Latinos; we have many broken families and communities because of these policies. This caravan will unite our people, our pain, and our solutions in an effort to save our sons and daughters."

"This is a historic moment and one of great necessity," said Ted Lewis of Global Exchange. "The caravan arrives between two presidential elections, and that's intentional, not because we have electoral ends, but because we want the message to be heard on both sides of the border. This is a truly binational effort, and it is very important that leaders on both sides of the border take this message deeply into account as they organize in Mexico a new administration and as they campaign here in the US. This issue must be dealt with now."

Also on board is Border Angels, a San Diego-based group best known for leaving caches of water in the desert to help save the lives of undocumented immigrants heading north. The group has long been critical of increased border enforcement efforts such as Operation Gatekeeper, which have pushed those immigrants away from urban areas and into harsh and unforgiving environments as they seek to make their way to a better life.

"Operation Gatekeeper has led to more than 10,000 deaths since 1994," said the group's Enrique Morones. "Two people die crossing the border every day, but they are also dying south of the border. Now, we see a new wave of migration to escape the terrible violence in Mexico, the country of my parents, and that's why we are joining this movement for peace in this historic caravan. We have told both Obama and Calderon that human rights, love, and peace have no borders. We demand peace, justice, and dignity."

"I think this will really have a significant impact," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's going to be a pivotal moment, just a month after the Mexican elections and just a few months before the US elections. I don't think drugs will be a major issue, but it will be bubbling up from time to time."

The caravan will seek to raise awareness on both sides of the border, Nadelmann said.

"Americans need to be aware of the devastation in Mexico from the combination of US demand and our failed prohibitionist policies," he said. "It's also important that Mexicans understand the devastating consequences of the war on drugs in the US -- the arrests and incarceration, the evisceration of civil rights. This mutual understanding is a pivotal part of what we're trying to accomplish."

"I hope the message will come through that change is needed on both sides of the border," Nadelmann continued. "We've seen the failures of prohibition on both sides, but the biggest impetus has to come from the US through legal regulation of marijuana and more innovative policies to reduce demand -- not from locking up more people, but by providing effective drug treatment and allowing people addicted to drugs to get them from legal sources. We need a fundmentally different approach, and this caravan will be a leap forward in understanding the consequences of failed prohibition."

Mexico City
Mexico

NY Pols Call for Marijuana Decriminalization Fix

The New York Times reported Sunday that Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) would come out Monday in support of legislation that would halt the NYPD's practice of arresting people for public possession of marijuana after stopping and frisking them and ordering them to empty their pockets. By Monday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly both agreed, throwing their support behind the proposal.

New York actually decriminalized the possession of up to an ounce of pot back in 1977, meaning people caught with small amounts of marijuana would only be ticketed -- not arrested -- but beginning with the administration of then Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the NYPD began violating the spirit of the law (if not the letter) with its policy of forcing people it stopped to pull out their baggies, then charging them with the arrestable misdemeanor of public possession of marijuana. That meant an average 24-hour stay in the city's jails for people who should only have been issued a citation, as well as a criminal record.

Police in New York arrested a little more than 2,000 people a year for marijuana during the 1980s and through the mid-1990s, but as the city's stop-and-frisk campaign began under Giuliani and accelerated in the wake of 9/11, those numbers skyrocketed, averaging more than 40,000 a year since 1995. Last year it was more than 50,000, nearly nine out of 10 of them black or Latino.

Mayor Bloomberg had previously opposed efforts to revise the law to prevent abuses like those practiced by the NYPD, but in a Monday statement, he changed his tune. Because the proposed changes would still allow arrest for actually smoking or selling marijuana, they "strike the right balance," the mayor said.

The legislation the governor and the mayor are getting behind is Assembly Bill 7620 and its companion, Senate Bill 5187. Those bills would standardize penalties for marijuana possession by striking the language about "in public view" and "burning" from the state's marijuana law. But Cuomo and Bloomberg don't want "burning" to be decriminalized, so some haggling is likely to take place.

It's about time, said activists from the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, and VOCAL, a group representing people affected by AIDS, drug use, or exposure to the criminal justice system. The three groups have been spearheading the effort to get the bills through the legislature.

"Governor Cuomo has demonstrated real leadership and with his recognition that the NYPD is unlawfully arresting tens of thousands of young people; this is a tremendous advancement to ending these egregious police practices," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We cannot have laws applied differently to different groups of people when the dividing line is race. The legislature must now act and reform these policies, and only then will New York fully realize the intent of the 1977 marijuana decriminalization law."

"Governor Cuomo's call is well appreciated and welcomed by a growing coalition of faith and civil rights leaders who have been working to ensure a jail-free future for our youth by investing in community development and resources that are far more effective at guiding our youth in the choices they make towards fulfilling their best potential," said Kyung Ji Kate Rhee of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives.

"By taking up this issue Governor Cuomo is taking a major step forward to ending the criminalization of young men of color. This shows great leadership by our governor to address racially biased practices and restore the relationship between communities of color and our government," according to Alfredo Carrasquillo, community organizer for VOCAL New York and former victim of illegal marijuana arrests.

Those three groups, as well as others, are preparing a big push in the next two weeks to get the bills passed. Plans include an online media campaign and a mass rally in Albany on June 12. Stay tuned.

Albany, NY
United States

DEA Forgets Student in Cell, Pols Want Answers

The DEA and its parent agency, the Justice Department, have come under increasing criticism over the case of a University of California-San Diego student who was swept up in a drug raid, placed in a holding cell, and forgotten. When 23-year-old Daniel Chong was finally discovered five days later, his condition was so poor he was hospitalized for three days in intensive care.

The DEA has since apologized for the incident, but US representatives and senators from California are demanding answers, and Chong and his attorney have filed a $20 million lawsuit against the agency.

Chong was one of nine people swept up in a raid targeting Ecstasy traffickers early in the morning of April 21. Chong said that he had gone to the residence the night before -- the marijuana holiday of 4/20 -- "to get high" and was arrested along with the others the next morning. DEA agents booked all nine, then transported seven to local jails, released one person, and apparently forgot all about Chong.

In an interview with the Associated Press last Wednesday, Chong said that after waiting hours in the cell, which had no toilet or running water, he screamed and kicked the door, to no avail. As the days dragged on, he said he realized he was trapped. On day three, he began to hallucinate. He urinated on a metal bench so he could drink his urine to quench his thirst. He eventually began to accept that he would die in the cell. He bit into his glasses to break them and used a shard of glass to carve "Sorry, Mom" on his arm as a farewell, but only got as far as the letter "S".

He said he was considering using the glass to kill himself and end his suffering. "I pretty much lost my mind," he said. He also admitted ingesting some methamphetamine that had been left hidden in a mattress in the cell by a previous occupant.

Then, on day five, a DEA agent opened the door to find the still handcuffed Chong covered in his own feces. "Where did you come from?" the agent asked.

The engineering student for taken to a local hospital, where he was treated for dehydration, kidney failure, cramps and a perforated esophagus. He had lost 15 pounds. He spent three days in intensive care and two more days at the hospital before being released.

San Diego DEA Special Agent in Charge William Sherman apologized to Chong, though not directly, and said in a statement he was "deeply troubled" by the incident. Sherman said he had ordered an extensive review of policies and procedures at the office.

That wasn't good enough several members of the state's congressional delegation, who have demanded answers from the DEA and the Justice Department.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D) last Wednesday called on US Attorney General Eric Holder to begin an "immediate and thorough" Justice Department investigation into the matter. "After the investigation is completed, I ask that you please provide me with the results and the actions the department will take to make sure those responsible are held accountable and that no one in DEA custody will ever again be forced to endure such treatment," she wrote.

On Thursday, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-San Diego), head of the House Government Oversight Committee, called for in investigation, and Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego County) sent a letter to DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart asking for a full accounting of Chong's detention, processes in place for accounting for detained individuals, and the steps the DEA is taking to ensure it doesn't happen again.

"The situation involving Chong may in fact be an isolated incident," Hunter wrote. "Regardless, my concern is that this situation could also be a symptom of a bigger problem, with errors in procedure and oversight possibly extending to the division's law enforcement function."

Chong is "still recovering" from his ordeal, San Diego attorney Gene Iredale, who is representing him, said at a press conference last Wednesday. "He thought he was going insane," Iredale added.

Iredeale filed preliminary papers for the $20 million law suit last Wednesday. The suit alleges Chong was treated in a way that constitutes torture under US and international law.

"He is glad to be alive," Iredale said of Chong. "He wants to make sure that what happened to him doesn't happen to anyone else."

San Diego, CA
United States

Jacksonville Police Kill Armed Man in Drug Raid

A Jacksonville, Florida, narcotics detective shot and killed an armed man during a drug raid aimed at arresting a small-scale crack dealer last Thursday. Juan Montrice Lawrence, 40, becomes the 22nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year, and the third in a one-week period.

According to the Florida Times-Union, citing Jacksonville Sheriff's Office spokesman John Hartley, detectives had spent six weeks buying crack out of an apartment in the Casa del Rio St. Johns complex, and, after making one last purchase at the apartment door Thursday afternoon, a "take-down team" attempted to arrest their target, Nathaniel Phillip Hill, 39.

But Hill struggled, and the officers were pulled into the apartment as they took Hill to the floor. A second male, later identified as Hill's teen-age son, was also tackled. At that point, veteran narcotics Detective Valentino Demps saw Lawrence standing in a hallway with a gun in his hand. Demps ordered Lawrence to drop the gun, then shot him twice when he did not comply.

"He gave multiple commands for the suspect to drop the gun. He refused to obey the commands," Hartley said. "He was shot at least twice, once in the face, once in the hip."

Lawrence was taken to Shands Jacksonville Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Witnesses described seeing officers in black uniforms and ski masks gathered at the apartment complex.

By Friday, police had identified Lawrence as an "armed felon" whose previous convictions including carrying a concealed weapon and cocaine possession and were saying that the decision to shoot him had probably saved several officers' lives.

"If he'd let him get down that hallway, we could have three or four dead officers at the scene," Hartley said. "Certainly he [Lawrence] was ready to fire on them."

Nathaniel Hill was arrested and charges with distribution of cocaine and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. An ounce of cocaine, a pistol, and rounds of ammunition were seized at the apartment. Hill's teenage son was detained, but later released without charges.

Jacksonville, FL
United States

Protestors Challenge NYC Mayor on Mass Marijuana Arrests [FEATURE]

New York City has the dubious -- and well-earned -- reputation as the world's marijuana arrest capital, with more than 50,000 people being arrested for pot possession there last year alone at an estimated cost of $75 million. It also has a mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who has famously said he smoked marijuana and enjoyed it, yet who presides over a police force that has run roughshod over the state's marijuana decriminalization law in order to make those arrests, almost all of which are of members of the city's black and brown minority communities.

Protestors call on Mayor Bloomberg (DPA)
Last Thursday, activists and concerned citizens organized as the New Yorkers for Health & Safety campaign marched to the mayor's home, an apartment building in Manhattan's Upper East Side, to call him on his hypocrisy, chastise the NYPD for its racially-skewed stop-and-frisk policing, and demand that the city quit wasting tens of millions a dollar a year on low-level marijuana arrests even as it proposes cuts to other vital New York City services.

The campaign, consisting of members of the Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL-NY, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, and Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH), among others, brought out dozens of people for a march to the mayor's residence, followed by a brief rally. Protestors, some wearing Mayor Bloomberg masks, held signs and chanted as they rallied across the street from the apartment building.

"Bloomberg is doing more than wasting $75 million a year on marijuana arrests, he is wasting the future our youth," said Chino Hardin, lead know-your-rights trainer for the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "We don't want kids using drugs, so why not put money into real programs that will help them make better choices, not give forever lasting criminal records."

On the march to the mayor's place, with Bloomberg masks (DPA)
Under New York state law, the possession of small amounts of marijuana is decriminalized, punishable by a ticket and fine. But NYPD practice, designed to get around that law and generate arrests, is to stop and frisk citizens going about their business, almost always young people of color, order them to empty their pockets (which they are not required by law to do), then arrest them for possession of marijuana in public when a baggie containing weed emerges. That is not an infraction, but a misdemeanor, and the victims are then arrested and jailed, typically for 24 hours or more, before being arraigned and released.

Last year, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered an end to that practice, but that has yet to be reflected in declining marijuana possession arrest numbers. And those numbers are huge: In addition to the more than 50,000 arrested last year, another 350,000 have been arrested since Bloomberg took office in 2002, at an estimated cost to the city of $600 million.

Even though whites use marijuana at higher rates than any other ethnic or racial group, nearly 85% of those arrested for pot possession are black and Latino, and most are under 30. Being arrested for pot means more than a day or so in jail; it also creates a permanent criminal record that can easily be accessed by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks, damaging the life prospects of those saddled with a rap sheet.

"For a mayor who celebrates diversity as a key staple of the city, he sure has a horrible way of demonstrating his appreciation for certain communities in our City," said Kassandra Frederique, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Black and Latino New Yorkers cannot walk down the street without fear of being stopped, frisked, illegally searched, and then falsely charged and arrested for something that was decriminalized over 30 years ago. This is costing us millions of dollars as taxpayers. It's an insult, and must end now."

Academic marijuana arrest researcher Harry Levine has a few words for the mayor (DPA)
Mayor Bloomberg last year launched a new $130 million Young Men's Initiative, "the nation's boldest and most comprehensive effort to tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men," but continues to preside over a marijuana arrest policy seemingly designed to increase those disparities. That makes the mayor a hypocrite, the protestors charged.

"Mayor Bloomberg is talking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to helping young Black and Latino men like me," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer for VOCAL-NY who has been targeted under stop-and-frisk practices, illegally searched and falsely arrested for marijuana possession. "The money for his Young Men's Initiative goes to waste along with the taxpayer dollars he's wasting on pursuing his marijuana arrests crusade in my community."

"New York City is spending $75 million dollars a year to arrest and prosecutor mostly young people of color simply for possessing marijuana -- which is not a crime in New York State." said Harry Levine, Queens College Professor and founder of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. "It is long past time for this outrage to stop."

The sign says it all (DPA)
It isn't just activists who have taken notice. Lawmakers in Albany have crafted bipartisan legislation, Assembly Bill 7620, introduced by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP-Brooklyn), and companion measure Senate Bill 5187, introduced by Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), that would standardize marijuana possession penalties statewide, enforcing the original legislative intent of the 1977 decriminalization law. Dozens of New York City council members have signed onto a resolution supporting those bills and calling to end to the mass marijuana arrests.

"The explosion of low level marijuana arrests in New York City is a tremendous waste of precious law enforcement resources and needlessly scars thousands of young lives," said Jeffries. "Our legislation is an additional step toward a more equitable criminal justice system that treats everyone the same, regardless of race or socioeconomic status."

Activists in the city aren't waiting for Albany to ride to the rescue. They are planning more street actions, including one next month, said the Drug Policy Alliance's Frederique, and they're looking for some white guys.

"We will be having an action in April, but haven't yet decided on the date and location, or the exact nature of the action," she said. "We're trying to get white men under 30 to show up, since those are the people who actually smoke marijuana, but don't get arrested. And we are cordially inviting New York City's most famous pot smoker, Mayor Bloomberg, to attend."

An organizing meeting for the April action will take place next Wednesday, April 4, at 113 West 13th Street in Manhattan. Contact the organizations linked to above for more information.

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