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Senate Holds Hearings on Controversial DEA Nominee [FEATURE]

Michele Leonhart's nomination to be Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) administrator appeared to be on track for an easy confirmation after a Wednesday hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The nomination is opposed by the drug reform, medical marijuana, and hemp movements, but insiders say it is all but a done deal.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/mleonhart.jpg
meet the new boss, same as the old boss
While reformers had hoped one or more senators would ask Leonhart "tough questions" about her tenure as acting DEA administrator, that didn't happen. Sens. Herb Kohl (D-WI) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) pressed Leonhart about easing access to pain medications for senior citizens in nursing homes, but that was about the extent of the prodding.

Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), expressing concern about all that legalization talk in the air, gave Leonhart the opportunity to assure him that she and the DEA stood steadfast. She obliged him.

"I have seen what marijuana use has done to young people," Leonhart said. "I've seen the addiction, the family breakup. I've seen the bad. I'm extremely concerned about the legalization of any drugs," she avowed. "We already have problems with prescription drugs, which are legal, so it's of concern."

Legalizers are singing a seductive siren song, Leonhart warned. "The danger of these legalization efforts, they say we could just end the problem of drugs if we just make it legal," she explained. "But any country that has tried that -- the Netherlands, Alaska -- it has not worked, it is failed public policy."

Leonhart was nominated by President Bush to be administrator at DEA after replacing Karen Tandy in 2007 and has been acting administrator ever since. The Obama administration renominated her as administrator in February, but the nomination languished as the committee dealt with other business, most notably addressing  a backlog of judicial nominations and preparing for confirmation hearings for the nomination of Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court.

Medical marijuana and drug reform advocacy groups have opposed Leonhart's nomination on a variety of grounds. As Special Agent in Charge of the DEA's Los Angeles office from 1998 to 2004 and DEA deputy administrator from 2003 to 2007, she presided over hundreds of raids on medical marijuana patients and providers. As acting administrator, she ran DEA while California medical marijuana raids continued unabated until the October 2009 Justice Department memorandum  to quit persecuting patients and providers "whose actions are in clear and unambiguous compliance with existing state laws."

Even since then, while DEA medical marijuana raids have diminished, they have not stopped. According to the medical marijuana support group Americans for Safe Access (ASA), since the memo went out, the DEA under Leonhart has engaged in more than 30 raids of medical marijuana providers in states where it is legal.

"As the deputy director, Ms. Leonhart supervised an unprecedented level of paramilitary-style enforcement raids designed to undermine safe access and the implementation of state medical marijuana programs," ASA said in an alert to its members.

Leonhart is also drawing fire from advocates for overturning a DEA administrative law judge's decision to issue a license to UMass-Amherst Professor Lyle Craker to grow marijuana for FDA-approved research. That decision left intact the federal government's monopoly on the cultivation of marijuana for research purposes. It is grown only at the University of Mississippi.

And she is being opposed as well for her DEA's recalcitrance when it comes to industrial hemp. In a July letter to the committee, the industry group Vote Hemp said it opposed Leonhart's nomination because under her tenure DEA continues to block hemp production in the US, has failed for more than three years to respond to several applications from North Dakota-licensed farmers to grow hemp, and continues to maintain the fiction that hemp is marijuana.

"Michele Leonhart, the nominee for administrator and a lifetime DEA bureaucrat, severely lacks the vision to change policy on hemp farming for the better," the group said.  "Vote Hemp strongly opposes the nomination of Michele Leonhart to be Administrator of the DEA."

There is another reason to question her suitability to run DEA -- her dealings with and defense of one-time DEA "supersnitch" Andrew Chambers. Chambers earned an astounding $2.2 million for his work as a DEA informant between 1984 and 2000. The problem was that he was caught perjuring himself repeatedly. The US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals called him a liar in 1993, and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals echoed that verdict two years later.

But instead of terminating its relationship with Chambers, the DEA protected him, failing to notify prosecutors and defense attorneys about his record. At one point, DEA and the Justice Department for 17 months stalled a public defender seeking to examine the results of DEA's background check on Chambers. Even after the agency knew its snitch was rotten, it refused to stop using Chambers, and it took the intervention of then Attorney General Janet Reno to force the agency to quit using him.

Michele Leonhart defended Chambers. When asked if, given his credibility problems, the agency should quit using him, she said, "That would be a sad day for DEA, and a sad day for anybody in the law enforcement world... He's one in a million. In my career, I'll probably never come across another Andrew."

Another Leonhart statement on Chambers is even more shocking, as much for what it says about Leonhart as for what Leonhart says about Chambers. "The only criticism (of Chambers) I've ever heard is what defense attorneys will characterize as perjury or a lie on the stand," she said, adding that once prosecutors check him out, they will agree with his DEA admirers that he is "an outstanding testifier."

And then there's her connection to the "House of Death" scandal. The "House of Death" in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, was a house used by the Juárez drug cartel to murder people. Dozens of bodies were eventually recovered when the police raided it. The case revolves around a US Immigration and Customs (ICE) and DEA informant in Mexico, code-named "Lalo," who witnessed (and perhaps took part in) a murder in the House of Death during August 2003. In a lawsuit, whistleblower and former DEA Special Agent Sanalio Gonzalez charges that Leonhart and other officials fired him for speaking out about the murders and then helped cover the scandal up.

A number of reform groups have organized Internet and phone call-in campaigns in a bid to derail the nomination. Students for Sensible Drug Policy, NORML, California NORML, and Firedoglake have all sounded the alarm. So has the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP).

[Editor's Note: The interviews below were conducted before Wednesday's hearing.]

"We are asking our supporters and followers to contact their representatives if they are serving on the committee and tell them to ask her some tough questions about her previous actions," said MPP communications director Mike Meno. "She presided over hundreds of DEA raids on legal medical marijuana providers during Bush admin, and played a crucial role in rejecting applications to do FDA-level research on marijuana."

ASA provided a list of questions for the committee to ask Leonhart, including how raiding medical marijuana providers was an efficient use of DEA resources, how the DEA might work with medical marijuana states, why the DEA didn't just hand over cases of "clear and unambiguous" violations of state medical marijuana laws to state authorities, and when the DEA might get around to deciding the status of a 2002 petition to reschedule marijuana.

"I was hoping that this nomination was going to die a slow death but it appears as if they are going forward with it," said Tom Murphy, outreach coordinator for Vote Hemp. "We sent a letter in opposition, as I know a number of other organizations have. We've also got a pair of action alerts up on our web site. We've been working it against this since June, and we have a long list of reasons to oppose her nomination."

But it doesn’t appear that the senators on the Judiciary Committee are paying much heed to the stop Leonhart campaign. Despite the protests, her nomination is likely to sale through the committee tomorrow and be quickly approved by the Senate.

"Unfortunately, I don't think there's any chance of stopping her nomination," said Murphy. "She was nominated by Bush, and the committee sat on it, and renominated by Obama and they sat it on. Now we're a lame duck session, and they’re moving it. That tells me they have the votes to get it through and it's a done deal."

"The prospects aren't good. Every office we've talked to has said they weren't going to go against an Obama nominee," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance, which also opposed the nomination. "But if we can get some senators to put pressure on her publicly or privately, maybe she will quit being such as obstacle when it comes to things like Amherst and the raids. We're taking sort of a harm reduction approach, like when Asa Hutchinson was grilled during his hearing and came out in support of reducing the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity."

Getting Michele Leonhart to back off a little on the medical marijuana raids would be a welcome consolation, but don't hold your breath. Progressive drug policy stances are not the traditional province of the DEA, and it looks like nothing is going to change there for the foreseeable future.

Washington, DC
United States

Oakland Pays Out $1.2 Million to SWAT Raid Victim

The city of Oakland will pay out $1.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed by a woman who suffered serious burns from a flash-bang grenade thrown by a SWAT team officer during a 2008 drug raid. The city council voted to approve the settlement in closed session October 5 without admitting any wrongdoing.

SWAT raid
Nicole White, 31, was visiting a home in East Oakland and sleeping on a couch in the living room when an Oakland Police SWAT team serving a drug search warrant broke through the door after home resident Patricia Wilson slammed it in their face. One team member, Officer Chris Saunders, threw a flash-bang grenade toward a hallway, but it ricocheted into the living room, burning White on her chest and leg. Wilson was also injured, and has received a $45,000 pay-out from the city.

White suffered burns on 11% of her body and was permanently disfigured. She spent nearly a month being treated in the hospital. Her medical expenses ran to $400,000.

"This was a real tragedy," White's attorney, John Burris, told the San Francisco Chronicle. "The conduct of the police was reprehensible."

White's lawsuit accused police of using an "extreme level of force" in throwing the grenade in the house.  Police should have known that flash bangs, which emit a loud noise and blinding flash upon detonation, could burn or injure innocent bystanders, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also accused police of conducting the raid to retaliate against a man connected to the home who had just three days earlier filed a class-action lawsuit accusing officers of lying on search warrants. The city denied any link, saying police believed people at the residence were armed gang members. Police found two shotguns in a garage, as well as unspecified quantities of heroin and cocaine. Neither White nor Wilson were charged.

The man who filed the class action suit, Roland Oliver, had been arrested at the house in March 2008. But prosecutors dismissed the case after finding that Officer Karla rush falsely stated on a search warrant affidavit that suspected drugs seized during his arrest had been tested and confirmed as actual drugs. That case was one of a series of similar cases in which officers lied about having confirmed drug samples. Four officers, including Rush, were fired, although one got his job back through arbitration.

Oakland, CA
United States

Police Invade Wrong House on Drug Raid, Terrorize Elderly Couple

An elderly couple says sheriff's police on a drug raid smashed into their house late Thursday night, terrorizing them before admitting they had the wrong house.
Publication/Source: 
Chicago Tribune (IL)
URL: 
http://www.chicagobreakingnews.com/2010/10/cops-invade-wrong-house-on-drug-raid-terrorize-elderly-couple.html

Council Could Make New SWAT Policy Permanent

Location: 
Columbia, MO
United States
The idea of making recent changes to Columbia police SWAT policy permanent could move ahead this week. Soon after police Chief Ken Burton made SWAT policy changes in May in response to a controversial February drug raid on Kinloch Court, Columbia resident Holly Henry requested that the council and the review board put the new policy into a city ordinance.
Publication/Source: 
The Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)
URL: 
http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2010/oct/04/council-could-make-new-swat-policy-permanent/#

SWAT Raid Lawsuit Claims Rights Were Violated

Location: 
Columbia, MO
United States
A civil lawsuit filed yesterday against the city of Columbia and police officers claims a family’s constitutional rights were violated in a February SWAT raid at their home. The suit specifically cites violations of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the 14th Amendment, a citizens’ rights measure ratified after the Civil War.
Publication/Source: 
The Columbia Daily Tribune (MO)
URL: 
http://www.columbiatribune.com/news/2010/sep/21/swat-raid-lawsuit-claims-rights-were-violated/

Family Sues in Missouri Dog-Shooting SWAT Raid

The Columbia, Missouri, family whose dogs were shot during a Columbia Police SWAT raid in February, video of which went viral on the Internet, filed a federal civil lawsuit Monday against the City of Columbia and 13 other defendants in US Western District Court in Jefferson City.

(click link above to view)
The raid, in which police expected to find a large quantity of marijuana and other evidence of drug dealing, turned up a miniscule amount of marijuana and a pot pipe. Jonathan Whitworth was originally charged with possession of marijuana, possession of drug paraphernalia and second-degree child endangerment, but in a plea agreement, pleaded guilty to the paraphernalia count, and the other charges were dropped.

The suit was filed by Columbia attorneys Milt Harper and Jeff Hilbrenner on behalf Jonathan and Brittany Whitworth and her seven-year-old son. It alleges that SWAT team members broke down the door, discharged weapons as they entered and again as they shot and killed one dog and wounded the other. It also alleges than Jonathan Whitworth was kicked by an officer as he lay on the floor at gunpoint, and that Brittany Whitworth and her child were held at gunpoint sitting on the floor in view of the child's dead dog.

"Defendants had no reason to use deadly force or any other force upon entering the Whitworth home," the complaint charges. "Defendants were all armed with assault weapons and side arms and other weapons. Jonathan Whitworth, Brittany Whitworth, and P. M. [the child] were not armed, were not violent, were not resisting and were no threat to Defendants or anyone else. The two pet dogs were no threat to anyone and there was no reason to use assault weapons on those two animals. Defendants, under color of law, deprived each Plaintiff of rights secured under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Defendants conspired to deprive each Plaintiff of rights secured under the Constitution and laws of the United States. Defendants refused or failed to prevent the deprivation of Plaintiffs' rights secured under the Constitution and laws of the United States."

The lawsuit seeks restitution for bullet hole and door damage to the Whitworth home, as well as medical and veterinary expenses for the dead and wounded dogs. It is filed against the officers who were on the scene.

"This is all about demanding professionalism from our law enforcement agencies," Harper said Monday. "I think when they considered the 7-year-old and the fact that he had to have counseling, pay vet bills for an injured dog and the loss of another, along with repairs to the home and the trauma of that night, they made the decision that this needed to be done," Harper said.

"Our department will discuss the matter with our risk management office and legal office and be able to comment further once we've had a chance to do that," Columbia police spokeswoman Officer Jessie Haden told the Columbia Tribune Monday afternoon. "Whatever we're able to discuss publicly and legally, we will. This incident has received an enormous amount of attention locally, and it is our intention to make the public as informed, with accurate information, as we can, without compromising the legal process."

The raid and heated public response to it has led to repeated public hearings in Columbia, and the department moved quickly to review and revamp its policy regarding the use of the SWAT team on search warrants. But it will likely have to pay for its errors in the Whitworth raid.

Columbia, MO
United States

It Could Happen to You (Action Alert)

We Are the Drug Policy Alliance.

Protect your community!Tell Congress to stop supporting
militarized police drug raids.

Take Action!

Email Your Members of Congress

Dear friends,

How would you react if a large group of men in camouflage and combat boots came bursting through your front door with machine guns pointed at you? Helen Pruett, a 76-year-old woman who lives alone in Polk County, GA, suffered a heart attack when her house was mistakenly stormed by about a dozen local and federal agents looking for suspected drug dealers. Militarized police units are used every day to conduct drug raids and it is getting out of control.

Tell Congress to put a stop to these dangerous home invasions.

The Polk County raid is not an isolated incident, and it’s not a result of rogue police officers overstepping their orders. There are more than 100 SWAT raids in America every day, most commonly to serve drug warrants. When police invade homes in riot gear with machine guns and flash bang grenades, they’re following standard procedure.

What’s even more disturbing is that these raids can happen anywhere, to anyone, no matter how minor the offense. Sometimes a crime hasn’t even occurred. Police raid the wrong house or act on information from untrustworthy informants, and completely innocent people wake up in the middle of the night to armed men breaking down their front door.

Congress’s funding of the war on drugs has allowed police excess to escalate out of control.Federal drug war grants for SWAT team equipment and drug task forces create incentives for local police to militarize. Local squads even have access to weapons from the Pentagon’s surplus arms stock.Demand an end to federal funding for this misuse of police resources.

The war on drugs isn’t just an ideological battle.  It’s a real war, with real weapons and real casualties, waged against American civilians. These dangerous raid tactics show just how far it’s escalated -- they're the end result of the drug war’s militarization of local law enforcement. 

Paramilitary raids should not be happening daily in our neighborhoods.  They should not be happening when no threat to public safety exists. Police should be keeping the peace instead of treating our communities like war zones.

It's time to push back on politicians who let these raids continue.  Urge your members of Congress to stop supporting SWAT raids for nonviolent drug law violations.

Sincerely,

Bill Piper
Director, Office of National Affairs
Drug Policy Alliance

Location: 
GA
United States

Grandmother's Death in Botched Drug Raid Leads to $4.9 Million Settlement

The 2006 killing of Kathryn Johnston gave the American public a window into the rampant incompetence and needless violence that so often characterizes modern drug enforcement. A massive settlement announced today will hopefully serve as a vivid reminder to police that dirty tactics can carry a heavy price.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- The city of Atlanta will pay $4.9 million to the family of Kathryn Johnston, a 92-year-old woman killed in a botched November 2006 drug raid, Mayor Kasim Reed's office announced Monday.

Johnston was shot to death by narcotics officers conducting a "no-knock" warrant. Investigators later determined the raid was based on falsified paperwork stating that illegal drugs were present in the home.

In the four years since Johnston's death, we've seen equally dramatic national controversies emerge from Berwyn Heights, MD and Columbia, MO, as well as countless other disturbing events that for whatever reason failed to generate national outrage. I can only imagine that the next great drug raid fiasco is just around the corner. Until the drug war is brought to an end, the loss of innocent lives will continue and the cost of cleaning up the mess will fall on every one of us.

California Endures Another Summer of Outdoor Marijuana Raids [FEATURE]

It's August in California, and that means the state's multi-billion outdoor marijuana crop is ripening in the fields. It also means that the nearly 30-year-old effort to uproot those plants, the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting (CAMP), is once taking up its Sisyphean task of wiping out the crop. The choppers are flying, the SWAT teams are deploying, and the federal funds that largely feed CAMP are being burned through.

marijuana eradication helicopter
The raids are nearly a daily event in the Golden State at this time of year. CAMP spokesperson Michelle Gregory told the Chronicle Wednesday that the campaign had uprooted 2.27 million pot plants as of this week, slightly behind the 2.4 million uprooted by this time last year. Last year was a CAMP record, with 4.4 million plants seized by year's end.

"It's about the same this year," said Gregory.

In just the past couple of weeks, CAMP and associated law enforcement agencies pulled up 91,000 plants in Santa Barbara County, 48,000 plants in Sonoma County, and 21,000 plants in Calaveras County. So far this year, in Mendocino County alone, more than 470,000 plants have been destroyed.

The enforcement effort has also led to the deaths of at least three growers this year. A worker at a grow in Napa County was killed early last month when he pointed a gun at police. Another worker at a grow in Santa Clara County was killed two weeks ago. And last week, police in Mendocino County killed a third grower they encountered holding a rifle during an early morning raid.

While the number of deaths this year is high -- one grower was killed in Lassen County last year, one was killed in Humboldt County in 2007, and two were killed in Shasta County in 2003 -- there have also been other violent incidents. Last month, somebody shot out the rear window of a Mendocino County Sheriff's vehicle as it left a grow raid in the western part of the county, and police in Lake County encountered an armed grower there, but he fled.

CAMP and other law enforcement efforts may destroy as much as 25% of the state's outdoor harvest, but it is unclear what real impact the program is having. Prices for outdoor marijuana have been dropping in California for the past year, the availability of pot remains high, and use levels appear unchanged.

Bureau of Land Management agents recording a
marijuana field's location using GPS
"To point out the obvious, in almost 30 years, CAMP has been unable to reduce marijuana use or availability," said Mike Meno, communications director for the Marijuana Policy Project. "All it does is pay for law enforcement officers to go out in the woods and pull weeds. Every year, they find more and more, and that just motivates illegal growers to plant more."

"CAMP is an enormous waste of money -- I've even heard law enforcement refer to this as helicopter rides," said Margaret Dooley-Sammuli of the Drug Policy Alliance in Los Angeles. "It's fun for them, but spending this money on that doesn't do any good, and that's a shame when we're in such dire budgetary shape on all levels."

"I think we are making a difference," said CAMP spokesperson Gregory. "There are still plants out there, but at the same time, the way we look at it, they are willing to defend their grow sites, so we're obviously impacting them monetarily."

Gregory blamed Mexico drug trafficking organizations for much of the illicit production, but was unable to cite specific prosecutions linked to them. She also cited environmental damage done to national parks and forests by illicit grows.

"Nobody wants our national parks and forests to be turned into illegal marijuana grows," said Dooley-Sammuli, "but the question is what is the best approach. The more we spend on CAMP, the more helicopter rides and gardening projects we get, but marijuana prices don't go up, and there is no measurable impact on availability. What we do get is increased violence in the national parks. The government should be looking at how best to reduce illegal grows," said Dooley-Sammuli. "One way would be to allow lawful cultivation as part of a regulated market."

Deputies prepare to repel out of helicopter into a marijuana grow (Santa Barbara Sheriff's Office via SB Independent Weekly)
The US Justice Department is spending nearly $3.6 billion this year to augment budgets of state and local law-enforcement agencies. In addition, the federal government last year set aside close to $4 billion of the economic-stimulus package for law-enforcement grants for state and local agencies. The White House also is spending about $239 million this year to fund local drug-trafficking task forces. In California, many of those task forces work with CAMP.

One approach to defanging CAMP is to work to cut off the federal funding spigot. Since it is largely dependent on federal dollars, attacking federal funding could effectively starve the program, especially given the perpetual budget crisis at the state and local level in California. But that runs into the politics of supporting law enforcement.

"There are many federal funding streams that go to state and local law enforcement, and there is a lot of politics around that," said Dooley-Sammuli. "CAMP really has little to do with marijuana and a lot to do with funding law enforcement."

Shasta County Sheriff Tom Bosenko is a case in point. He told the Wall Street Journal last month that although he is having to lay off employees, reduce patrols, and even release inmates early because of the budget crunch, he's spending more money on pot busts because "it's where the money is."

He has spent about $340,000 since last year on eradication in order to ensure that his department gets $492,000 in federal anti-drug funds. That is "$340,000 I could use somewhere else in my organization," he said. "That could fund three officers' salaries and benefits, and we could have them out on our streets doing patrol."

Sheriff's Deputies transporting larger marijuana plants
from site (SBSO via SB Independent Weekly)
"We're giving law enforcement resources, but not allowing them to put them to the best use," said Dooley-Sammuli. "With all the cuts we're having, I don't know any Californians who would rather spend federal law enforcement on helicopter rides and pulling plants out of the ground. Why are we forcing our law enforcement to prioritize something that for most of the public is at the bottom of the list?"

It's the law of unintended consequences that provoked the boom in growing on public lands in the first place, said Meno. "Around 2002, law enforcement said they started seeing a dramatic shift toward outdoor grows on public lands, but that's because they were raiding people growing indoors and on private property. Prohibition and law enforcement tactics drove those people out into those federal lands. Now, some of our most treasured resources are overflowing with marijuana because they were pushed there by law enforcement."

For CAMP, the endless war continues. "The laws are what they are," said Gregory. "Whether it's marijuana or meth or heroin, we're going to enforce the law. If the law changes, that's different," she said, responding to a query about the looming marijuana legalization vote. "But we're always going to have something to enforce."

CA
United States

StoptheDrugWar.org on Huffington Post

I have started blogging on Huffington Post. Check out my first post there, SWAT Raids: No One Is Safe. This is a basic statement laying out the case for why SWAT deployments are now out-of-control and need to be dramatically reined in. Sadly, even more outrageous and infuriating evidence of the need for SWAT to be reined in has already come out, as Scott's latest post here last night demonstrates. If you'd like to follow me on Huffington Post on a regular basis, visit my page there to make use one of the subscription options -- make sure to "like" the page on Facebook too. I will also be writing more editorials over the coming months in our own Drug War Chronicle newsletter; check out the latest one if you haven't already, here.

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