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Feature: With More Cuts Proposed in Drug Task Force Grant Program, Battle to Restore Funding Moves to Two Tracks

Even as law enforcement and its allies in Congress move to restore funding for the embattled Byrne Justice Assistance Grant (JAG) program, which is best known for funding the legions of state- and local-level multi-jurisdictional drug task forces that now roam the land, the Bush administration has struck again, this time proposing folding it into a broader grants program and funding it at only $200 million. Now, law enforcement will have to fight a rear-guard action to get back last year's cuts while at the same time having to try to persuade Congress to undo the cuts proposed in this year's budget.

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Sen. Harkin leads press conference calling for restoration of Byrne funding
It's not that the Bush administration is averse to funding drug war activities. According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) fact sheet on Justice Department spending, the DEA is seeing its budget increased slightly to just over $1.9 billion, the Organized Crime and Drug Enforcement Task Force is also getting a slight increase, to $532 million, and the new Southwest Border Enforcement Initiative would throw another $100 million at drugs, guns, and violent gangs on the border. The 2009 Bush budget also allocates hundreds of millions of dollars for Plan Colombia and its new baby brother, Plan Mexico.

Funded at $520 million last year, the two-decade old JAG program that allows states to supplement their anti-drug spending with federal tax dollars was already down substantially from previous funding levels. For the past three years, as a cost-cutting move, the Bush administration has tried to zero it out completely, but that has proven extremely unpopular with Congress. This year, the House voted to fund the block grant portion of the program at $600 million and the Senate at $660 million, but in last-minute budget negotiations, the White House insisted the funding be cut to $170 million.

While federal funding for law enforcement drug task forces would appear to be a sacred cow in a law-and-order Republican administration, there are several reasons the JAG program is a tempting target for cost-cutters, said Eric Sterling, executive director of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and former counsel for the House Judiciary Committee.

"First, Bush is not running for reelection, so there is no political cost in that sense," Sterling said. "And if Congress does listen to the cops, Bush can blame Congress for exceeding his budget."

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The second reason has to do with conservative fiscal ideology, said Sterling. "The typical Republican position is to let the states pay for state and local programs. It's a states' rights and states' responsibilities sort of position," he said. "And given the way their budgets have bankrupted the federal government, they have to cut somewhere."

And the pressure of looming cuts feeds into the third reason JAG is now on the line: bureaucratic imperatives. "The budget deficit is a real headache for all agencies," Sterling said. "For a manager within the Department of Justice faced with cuts that would lay off FBI agents or US Marshals or faced with cutting a program that only gives money to someone else, the choice is easy. It's much easier for Justice to say 'let's cut this.'"

That sort of decision is made a little easier by a 2005 OMB report that undoubtedly is one of the underpinnings of the Bush administration's effort to cut the program. OMB described the program as "results not demonstrated," and found that it scored extremely poorly when assessed for planning and design, strategic management, and results and accountability. The same sort of assessments lay behind other drug war programs the administration has cut or attempted to cut, such as the drug czar's youth media program and the National Drug Intelligence Center, which is once again on the chopping block.

As the Chronicle noted in our recent report on the battle over JAG program funding, the drug task forces have been repeatedly criticized by drug reform, civil liberties, and civil rights organizations as out-of-control cowboys responsible for scandals like Tulia and Hearne, Texas. But such criticisms have played no noticeable role in the administration's assault on the program.

Nor have they resonated with a bipartisan group of senators who last week announced they would seek to reinstate 2008 fiscal year funding for the JAG program at a level of $660 million. Led by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), the effort is also being backed by Sens. Kit Bond (R-MO), Joe Biden (D-DE), Saxby Chambliss (R-GA) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).

"Without financial support, Iowa communities are forced to combat crime and drugs with fewer and fewer resources. More than 10 Iowa counties have been forced to shut down their task forces because of funding cuts. This gutting of drug prevention programs cannot continue," Harkin said at a press conference announcing the move. "My aim is to restore Byrne Grants to a level that will give local law enforcement officials in Iowa and across the country ample funding for already successful anti-crime and anti-drug initiatives."

The senators' initiative is being supported and prodded by a powerful coalition of law enforcement groups, including the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA), the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition, and the National Association of County Officials.

"Let there be no room for doubt, communities everywhere will see the effects of this bill and its cuts to criminal justice funding," said NCJA president David Steingraber. "A cut to the JAG program is a cut to local law enforcement and victims of crime everywhere. Congress has just made the job of every police officer in this country more difficult. Members of Congress have turned their backs on local law enforcement officers who are now forced to make due without significant federal assistance," Steingraber said. "It is our hope these drastic cuts are not a long-term solution to a federal fiscal problem. The safety of our nation is far too important and deserves adequate funding, with violent crime back on the rise".

But despite the formidable lobbying power of the police and their allies, the future of JAG funding remains in doubt. And drug reformers will unite with fiscal conservatives and the Bush administration in a strange alliance to try to keep the funding cuts intact.

"The reason the JAG funding was cut at the last minute last year was that it was obvious that Bush would veto it, and it remains clear that he pretty much wants to eliminate it," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "This year's appropriations process is just starting, but what is interesting and hopeful is that because Bush wants to eliminate it completely, that is going to make it harder for the Democrats to restore last year's funding."

But not impossible. As law enforcement proponents of restoring the money told the Chronicle last week, they will try to get it back any way they can, including attaching it to either the economic stimulus package or the supplemental war funding appropriation. It's the latter that has Piper worried.

"The Iraq supplemental doesn't have to fit within the overall budget, and Bush would be reluctant to veto his war spending bill," he said. "I know law enforcement and some senators are already talking about this. Our challenge is to reach out to fiscal conservative organizations and craft a message that funding shouldn't be restored, but if it is, it should be earmarked for treatment. It can already be used for that, but most states don't."

The JAG grant program is but one line item in a record-breaking, deficit-building, $3 trillion dollar 2009 federal budget. But it is one line item that could stand to be completely eliminated. That probably won't happen this year, but it seems likely the drug task forces are going to have to limp along with reduced funding, persuade state and local governments to cough up more money, or go out of business once and for all.

Sentencing: Mukasey Tells Congress to Pass Bill Blocking Early Release for Crack Prisoners

US Attorney General Michael Mukasey took his campaign against retroactive early releases for people sentenced under the federal crack cocaine laws to a new level Wednesday as he called on Congress to pass legislation by March 3 to block the releases. This week's call to arms comes just a few days after Mukasey first sounded the alarm about the release of crack prisoners, raising the specter of thousands of criminals pouring out of the nation's prisons and wreaking havoc on the streets.

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Michael Mukasey -- the mini-Ashcroft
Mukasey is responding to a decision by the US Sentencing Commission in December to make changes in the crack sentencing guidelines retroactive so they will apply to about 20,000 prisoners doing time under the crack laws. Earlier in the year, the commission had changed the sentencing guidelines for current offenders. The decision making the changes retroactive will go into effect March 3.

While as many as 20,000 crack prisoners could apply for sentence cuts, each one will have to go through a judicial process, and the cuts are not guaranteed. And only about 1,600 of them are eligible for sentence cuts that could result in their being released this year.

But that hasn't stopped Mukasey from playing up the fear angle. He was at it again Wednesday during a House Judiciary Committee hearing. In testimony prepared for that hearing, Mukasey said, "Overall, the Sentencing Commission estimates that retroactive applications of these lower guidelines could lead to the re-sentencing of more than 20,000 crack cocaine offenders, any number of whom will be released early."

Congress needs to act to avert that threat, Mukasey said. But given that March 3 is less than a month away, given that Congress very rarely moves so swiftly, and given that Congress passed on the chance to kill the retroactivity provision last year, Mukasey seems unlikely to get his wish.

Press Release: Advocates Urge Presidential Candidates to End DEA Raids by Executive Order

For Immediate Release: January 29, 2008 Contact: ASA Media Liaison Kris Hermes (510) 681-6361 or ASA Director of Government Affairs Caren Woodson (510) 388-0546 Advocates Urge Presidential Candidates to End DEA Raids by Executive Order Nationwide campaign launched today to end federal enforcement against medical marijuana Washington, D.C. -- With only a week left until Super Tuesday, medical marijuana advocates launched a nationwide campaign today to urge presidential candidates to end federal raids in states with medical marijuana laws. The campaign urges candidates to issue an Executive Order upon taking office that would end federal interference in state-sanctioned medical marijuana laws. The proposed Executive Order would deny funds to the Department of Justice for federal enforcement efforts against patients and providers in states that have adopted medical marijuana laws. "To match the increased level of federal interference in states with medical marijuana laws, we're asking candidates to clearly state their opposition by pledging to issue an Executive Order, if elected." said Caren Woodson, Director of Government Affairs at Americans for Safe Access, the advocacy group that launched the campaign. "We're spending millions of dollars on law enforcement actions that harm our most vulnerable citizens," continued Woodson. "And, the President wields the power to stop it at any time." Ever since the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gonzales v. Raich (2005), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has stepped up its enforcement actions against medial marijuana patients and providers. While federal interference has occurred in multiple medical marijuana states, some have been hit harder than others. In California, the DEA has conducted more than 100 raids and threatened more than 300 landlords with criminal prosecution and asset forfeiture if they continue to lease to medical marijuana dispensing collectives (dispensaries). In addition, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is currently prosecuting more than 100 medical marijuana-related cases. The campaign focuses on candidates that have already made supportive statements on medical marijuana: Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, former Senator John Edwards, and Representative Ron Paul. These candidates are being asked to officiate their support by pledging to issue an Executive Order, which states that: "No funds made available to the Department of Justice shall be used to prevent States from implementing adopted laws that authorize the use, distribution, possession, or cultivation of medical marijuana. In particular, no funds shall be used to investigate, seize, arrest or prosecute in association with the distribution of medical marijuana, unless such distribution has been found by adjudication to violate state or local law." DEA actions have already garnered opposition from both local and federal lawmakers, including Oakland Mayor Ron Dellums and House Judiciary Chair John Conyers. In December, Mayor Dellums made a public statement condemning DEA tactics. The same month, Chairman Conyers publicly voiced his "deep concern" over DEA "efforts to undermine California state law," and he committed to sharply question these tactics in oversight hearings. Further information: ASA Executive Order Campaign Page: http://www.americansforsafeaccess.org/ExecutiveOrder Proposed Executive Order: http://www.safeaccessnow.org/downloads/Proposed_Executive_Order.pdf Background Information on Increased DEA Actions: http://www.safeaccessnow.org/downloads/dea_escalation.pdf Video footage of Candidates' Position on Medical Marijuana: http://safeaccessnow.org/blog/?p=48 Statement by House Judiciary Chair John Conyers: http://judiciary.house.gov/newscenter.aspx?A=889 # # #
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United States

Medical Marijuana: Berkeley Declares Itself a Sanctuary City

The Berkeley City Council gave a collective raised middle finger to the DEA Tuesday night, unanimously approving a resolution declaring the city a sanctuary in the event the federal agency attempts to interfere with its medical marijuana dispensaries. Passage of the resolution was greeted with loud applause, according to the Daily Californian, the student newspaper at Cal Berkeley.

The resolution was opposed by the DEA, and softened last month to accommodate grumbling from Police Chief Douglas Hambleton and City Manager Phil Kamlarz, but it still puts the city on record as "opposing the attempts by the US Drug Enforcement Administration to close medical marijuana dispensaries, and declaring the City of Berkeley as a sanctuary for medicinal cannabis use, cultivation, and distribution that complies with State law and local ordinances in the event that" the DEA tried to raid one of the city's regulated dispensaries.

The resolution also reinforces a 2002 Berkeley policy directing police not to cooperate in federal medical marijuana investigations. City police were criticized last fall after arriving at the scene of a DEA action related to a raid on a Los Angeles dispensary. The resolution reemphasizes that the Berkeley police and the city attorney's office are not to cooperate with the DEA in "investigations of, raids upon, or threats against physicians, individual patients or their primary caregivers, and medical cannabis dispensaries and operators" operating within California law.

In addition, the resolution directs the city clerk to send letters to Alameda County, of which Berkeley is a part, to state Attorney General Jerry Brown, and to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, urging them to appropriately support medical marijuana.

The city of Berkeley has now committed itself to ensuring that its residents have access to medical marijuana, but it's not clear just yet exactly what that means. The resolution directs the police chief and the city manager to try to find ways to turn the resolution into reality. If the DEA shuts down Berkeley's dispensaries, will the city provide medical marijuana? Will it help new dispensaries set up? The answers are in the making.

Sentencing: US Attorney General Raises Specter of Violent Crime Jump If Crack Prisoners Released, Warns He Could Try to Block It

Twice in two days last week, US Attorney General Robert Mukasey lashed out at the US Sentencing Commission's December decision to apply cuts in federal crack sentences to prisoners currently behind bars, warning last Thursday that they could spark an increase in violent crime and suggesting the following day he may try to block the releases.

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an unfortunate choice by AG Mukasey
The Sentencing Commission decision brought a small measure of justice to some 19,500 federal prisoners, about 85% of whom are black, who were sentenced under harsh federal crack laws. Some 2,500 of them will be able to start applying for sentence reductions in March, a process that will undoubtedly drag out for months and not automatically result in reductions for everybody.

Still, speaking before the US Conference of Mayors last Thursday, Mukasey warned that some 1,600 convicted crack offenders, "many of them violent gang members," could be released as early as March. "Before we take that step, we need to think long and hard about whether that's the best way to go about this -- whether it best serves the interests of justice and public safety," Mukasey said. "A sudden influx of criminals from federal prison into your communities could lead to a surge in new victims with a tragic but predictable result."

Jurists and sentencing reform analysts contacted by the Los Angeles Times were quick to criticize Mukasey's remarks. "In the grand sweep of the nation's criminal justice system, the release of this minuscule number of prisoners will not affect crime rates. It will, however, significantly improve the perceived fairness of our federal criminal justice system," said Paul Cassell, a professor at the University of Utah law school and prominent conservative, noting that no prisoner would be released early unless a judge found he was not a threat to the community. "All of these prisoners were going to be released in the future," Cassell said, "so the retroactivity provision simply provides a slight acceleration of their release date."

Mukasey's numbers are misleading, said Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project. "About 700,000 people are coming out of prison this year, many of whom were convicted of a violent offense. So now the change means we'll have 701,600 instead. Seems like he's kind of missing the point," said Mauer.

Criticism notwithstanding, Mukasey was back at it again last Friday. In a press briefing, he said that the Justice Department may try to block the sentencing guideline reforms that will lead to the early releases. "We're going to try to do whatever we can to mitigate it," Mukasey said. "We would obviously like to see something done about something that we think was unwise in the first place." The department could suggest legislation to block it, he said, although he acknowledged it could be hard to pass in the Democratic Congress.

"Many of those [defendants eligible for release] were involved in violence, and can be expected to continue after they get out," Mukasey told reporters. He reiterated his comments from the previous day that he was concerned the early release prisoners might not have received job training and drug treatment. "None of that will have happened, or a lot of it will not have happened, by the time some of these folks get out," he said. "And that's a cause of anxiety."

Douglas Berman, professor of law at Ohio State University and publisher of the Sentencing Law and Policy blog, speculated, "I suspect AG Mukasey is now being 'unusually outspoken' primarily to influence federal district judges as they consider motions for crack sentencing modifications. As the AG knows, no defendant will get a reduced sentence without judicial approval. During the post-Booker period, tough talk by DOJ has led judges to be particularly cautious about lenient sentences that might become 'tough-on-crime' political talking points. I suspect that the AG and main Justice hope that tough talk about going to Congress might make it easier for local federal prosecutors to oppose sentence reductions in individual cases."

Pain Wars in the Heartland: With Their Doctor Behind Bars, Kansas Patients Wonder Where To Turn

In a drama that has been played out all too many times across the country in recent years, the Justice Department's campaign against prescription drug abuse -- if you can call it that -- came in crushing fashion to Haysville, Kansas, last month. Now, a popular pain management physician and his nurse wife are being held without bond and more than a thousand patients at his clinic are without a doctor, but the US Attorney and the Kansas Board of Healing Arts say they are protecting the public health.

It all started December 20, when federal agents arrested Dr. Stephen Schneider, operator of the Schneider Medical Clinic, and his wife and business manager, Linda, on a 34-count indictment charging them with operating a "pill mill" at their clinic. The indictment charges that Schneider and his assistants "unlawfully" wrote prescriptions for narcotic pain relievers, that at least 56 of Schneiders' patients died of drug overdoses between 2002 and 2007, and that Schneider and his assistants prescribed pain relievers "outside the course of usual medical practice and not for legitimate medical purpose."

In their press release announcing the arrests, federal prosecutors also said that four patients died "as a direct result of Schneider's actions," but the indictment does not charge Schneider or anyone else with murder, manslaughter, or negligent homicide. In all four deaths, the patients died of drug overdoses, with prosecutors claiming Schneider ignored signs they were becoming addicted to the drugs or abusing them.

A handful of Schneider's former patients have filed malpractice lawsuits, claiming they became addicted as a result of his treatments. The Kansas Board of Healing Arts was investigating several complaints against Schneider before it backed off at the beginning of 2007 at the request of federal prosecutors seeking to build their case. (The US Attorney's office in Wichita denies that it asked the board to desist, but the board insists that is in fact the case.)

Under pressure from state legislators, the board acted this week, suspending Schneider's license to practice and effectively shutting down his clinic, which had remained open with physicians' assistants writing prescriptions. That move came as a surprise to Schneider's patients and supporters, who had been engaged in negotiations with the board to keep the clinic open.

But if federal prosecutors, the state board and a few patients are painting Schneider as a Dr. Feelgood, for some of his patients, he was a life-send. Debbie Sauers was one of those patients. Suffering from the after-effects of a dissecting aortic aneurysm and chronic pain from four failed back surgeries, the former nurse said she now has nowhere to go. "The clinic is shut as of tomorrow, and today was the last day to get prescriptions filled," she said Wednesday. "Dr. Schneider was the only one who would treat me with pain medicine, and now I don't know what I'm going to do," she said.

Her efforts to find another doctor to take her on have been a stark exemplar of the stigmatization faced by pain patients whose physician is accused of being a pill-pusher. "I've had doctors' offices refuse to see me or laugh in my face or tell me to check into drug rehab when I tell them I was one of Dr. Schneider's patients," she said. "If you go to the ER, they hand you a list of drug rehab places. They put my doctor in jail, and no one will treat me now." Sauers is currently on massive doses of morphine and high-dose Lortab and says her cardiologist tells her a rapid withdrawal could kill her. "I don't know what to do," she repeated.

Darren Baker is another patient who swears by Dr. Schneider. The operator of a tree gardening service, Baker has bone spurs in his knees from years of climbing, and two years ago, he fell out of a tree, shattering both his heels. "They put all kinds of hardware in my heels, and I have to have pain medications just to walk," he said. "With the pain meds, I can't walk real well, but without them, I can't walk, period. Dr. Schneider was the only one who would treat me."

Now, like Sauers, Baker is in search of a doctor. "I haven't found one yet," he said. "I got a list today, but most of them are turning you away if you're associated with Dr. Schneider. If I can't get another doctor, I won't have any option except to retire and go on disability. I take my medicine to be a productive member of society," he said angrily. "I need my meds to survive and pay my bills and fight the daily grind. This really goes against our constitutional rights. How the hell can I pursue happiness lying in bed?"

If convicted, the Schneiders face a minimum of 20 years in federal prison, and given the multitude of counts, they could theoretically face centuries. While, since their arrests, they have been excoriated in the Kansas press and by politicians, they have also received strong support, not only from patients, but also from a national pain advocacy organization, the Pain Relief Network. Headed by Siobhan Reynolds, a former documentary film maker turned crusader after her life partner suffered horrendously from lack of adequate pain treatment before dying in 2006, the network has done highly effective advocacy on cases ranging from that of imprisoned Northern Virginia pain specialist Dr. William Hurwitz to wheelchair-bound, formerly imprisoned, and now pardoned Florida pain patient Richard Paey.

Reynolds senses a similar injustice on the Kansas prairies. "Dr. Schneider is a wonderful doctor and he ran a wonderful clinic," she said. "But the Justice Department comes in here and after the fact characterizes his medical practice as drug dealing and also after the fact decides that a patient death is caused not by a doctor but by a 'drug dealer,' making it now tantamount to murder, with a 20-year mandatory minimum. If anyone wonders why doctors don't take care of sick people, this is why."

The root of the problem, said Reynolds, is the Controlled Substances Act, under which the Justice Department determines what constitutes proper medical practice and what doesn't. "Under the act, the exchange of money for drugs is presumptively illegal, and doctors have to show they are doing medicine in an 'authorized fashion' approved by the Justice Department. Under the act, doctors are effectively presumed guilty until proven innocent. It's backwards, and it helps explain why it is so difficult to win these cases," she said.

The Pain Relief Network will shortly bring a federal lawsuit challenging the Controlled Substance Act, Reynolds said. "The act is profoundly unconstitutional and unlawful. It reverses the presumption of innocence, and we think we can win that challenge, even if we have to go to the Supreme Court."

While the network had vowed to file the lawsuit last month, it hasn't happened yet. That's because the network has been too busy putting out fires in Kansas, she said, adding that the lawsuit will be filed soon.

Meanwhile, Dr. Schneider and his wife remain jailed without bond at the request of federal prosecutors pending a first court date later this month. His patients are now scrambling to find replacement doctors with little success, especially now that other local doctors see what could await them if they apply aggressive opioid pain management treatments. And a chill as cold as the February wind is settling in over pain treatment on the Kansas plains.

Perhaps Dr. Schneider is guilty of failing to adequately screen his patients, said Darren Baker, but that's not a crime. "Pain meds are narcotics," he said. "Some people have to have them to survive, but other people just want them. I think Dr. Schneider should have covered his ass more. A drug addict is going to get his drugs, whether through a doctor or on the street. They can buffalo a doctor. But when they abuse their prescriptions, how can it be the doctor's fault? Maybe he could have done things differently, but he operated in good faith."

Why Does the Drug Czar's Office Oppose Efforts to Prevent Drug Overdoses?

This has already been addressed at DrugWarRant and The Agitator, but I'd just like to echo the observation that Dr. Bertha Madras is a cruel witch whose idea of drug prevention is willfully letting drug addicts die before our eyes.

In her capacity as Deputy Director of Demand Reduction at the Drug Czar's office, Madras is speaking out against medicines that effectively treat drug overdoses. If that sounds crazy to you, well, what can I say? These people are deranged:

...Dr. Bertha Madras, deputy director of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy, opposes the use of Narcan in overdose-rescue programs.

"First of all, I don’t agree with giving an opioid antidote to non-medical professionals. That’s No. 1," she says. "I just don’t think that’s good public health policy."

Madras says drug users aren’t likely to be competent to deal with an overdose emergency. More importantly, she says, Narcan kits may actually encourage drug abusers to keep using heroin because they know overdosing isn’t as likely.

Madras says the rescue programs might take away the drug user’s motivation to get into detoxification and drug treatment.

"Sometimes having an overdose, being in an emergency room, having that contact with a health care professional is enough to make a person snap into the reality of the situation and snap into having someone give them services," Madras says. [NPR]

Um, maybe…if you don’t die. I seriously can’t believe my eyes. This is just as cold as it gets, even by ONDCP standards. Does she know or care that lives will be lost if her vision of good public health policy prevails? How many people should we allow to die in order to spread the message that heroin is dangerous?

This is one of those moments that reveal in stark terms the complete logical bankruptcy of the drug warrior mindset. By rejecting any interest in saving lives, Madras leaves one wondering what the hell she even wants. Seriously, what are we paying these people to do if not save lives?

This is not some crackpot narc spouting off silly soundbites in a local paper. This is a spokeswoman for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. These people are supposedly the smartest, most competent drug experts, charged with drafting public health policies to protect us all, and their idea of the week is to cheer from the sidelines as people die from drugs so that the rest of us will learn to behave ourselves.

ONDCP's hateful, literally fatal contempt for the people they should be helping is just so creepy and awful that one struggles to understand the continued need to expose their behavior for what it is. Really, what could I say about this organization that is not made perfectly evident by the philosophy which its own spokespeople espouse openly in our newspapers?

If I didn't know better, I'd predict that ONDCP's open opposition to preventing drug overdoses would immediately cost them what remains of their shrinking legitimacy.

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Feature: Faced With Slashed Federal Grants, Drug Task Forces Howl... and Plot to Get Their Funding Back

For years, Congress has provided hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants through the Justice Action Grant (JAG)/Byrne grant program to aid state and local anti-drug efforts, with much of the money going to multi-jurisdictional drug task forces, the controversial multi-agency police squads who make prosecuting the drug war their livelihood. But funding for the program was dramatically slashed in the omnibus federal budget passed a few weeks ago, and ever since, a curious phenomenon has occurred: In newspapers across the land, stories with headlines like these have been popping up: Grant Cut Threatens Narcotics Task Force (Kentucky), Drug Task Force Discusses Grant Cut (Georgia), Cuts Could Affect Local Drug Task Force (Iowa).

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That's no accident. The spate of stories bemoaning the sorry state of the multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces is part of a campaign by law enforcement and state and local elected officials to restore the $350 million hit the JAG/Byrne grant program took this year. Ron Brooks, executive director of the National Narcotics Officers Associations Coalition told the Chronicle Tuesday that the coalition to restore grant funding had managed to get 120 stories or letters to the editor like those above published so far.

Funded at $520 million last year, the two-decade old program that allows states to supplement their anti-drug spending with federal tax dollars was already down substantially from previous funding levels. For the past three years, as a cost-cutting move, the Bush administration has tried to zero it out completely, but that has proven extremely unpopular with Congress. This year, the House voted to fund the block grant portion of the program at $600 million and the Senate at $660 million, but in last-minute budget negotiations, the White House insisted the funding be cut.

"The Democrats wanted to restore Bush's previous cuts to the program," said Bill Piper, national affairs director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "In fact, they wanted to increase it over last year, but it was Bush's hard-stance on domestic spending that forced them to cut the program at the end. The Democrats, and most Republicans, wanted to restore the funding."

Now, Brooks and his allies are regrouping to seek renewed funding in a supplemental appropriations bill this year. "The Byrne grants are really the only funding stream to help chiefs and sheriffs participate in multi-jurisdictional drug task forces," said Brooks. "This means task forces around the country will close, and we will no longer be able to focus multi-jurisdictional effort on drug trafficking organizations -- we'll be back to picking the low-hanging fruit."

"Trying to get more funding through a supplemental appropriations bill will be an uphill battle," DPA's Piper predicted. "It will be either the war funding or the economic stimulus bill, and both are going to be very expensive. Politically, there is only so much money they can put in those bills if they want to pass them. And if they try to attach it to the Iraq funding, we can argue that every dollar going to the cops is a dollar taken from the soldiers."

But failing to fund the task forces could lead to increased criminality, Brooks warned. "We can show the nexus between drugs and crime and gangs," he said. "We anticipate increases in violent crime because of this."

"We're very upset by the cutback," said Don Murray, legislative director for justice and public safety for the National Association of Counties (NACO), which is part of the coalition seeking redress. "The Byrne/JAG program is a major systemic approach to dealing with crime."

It may be a systemic approach, but it is a system that has been the site of scandalous abuses and one that has been roundly criticized by everyone from tax-watch groups to civil libertarians. It was federally funded Texas drug task forces that committed the Tulia and Hearne scandals, where large numbers of minority citizens were arrested, convicted, and imprisoned on nonexistent evidence, and that was only the tip of the iceberg in the Lone Star State. Drug task forces are also involved in some of those horrendous drug botched raids that have left a toll of dead civilians, suspects, and police officers. On a more banal level, drug task force members have made regular appearances in our Corrupt Cops Stories of the Week feature.

In the wake of the Tulia scandal and other task force scandals in her home state and beyond, Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee (D-TX) introduced a 2005 bill to rein in the task forces. While that bill never went anywhere, the Bush budget ax may accomplish more than Jackson-Lee ever dreamed.

At the time, Jesselyn McCurdy, an ACLU legislative counsel, addressed the problems with the task forces: "These drug task forces around the country haven't had to answer to anyone," she said. "As a result of this lack of state and federal oversight, they've been at the center of the some of the country's most egregious law enforcement abuse scandals. The law enforcement agents involved in these scandals weren't just a few bad apples," McCurdy said.

The JAG/Byrne grant program that funds the task forces seeded the above litany of abuses "has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources," said four conservative tax-payer organizations -- American Conservative Union, Americans for Tax Reform, Citizens against Government Waste, and National Taxpayers Union -- in a 2005 statement calling for the Bush administration to zero out funding.

While most attention around the grant program is centered on the funding of the drug task forces, NACO's Murray said, the money also pays for other drug policy costs. "The program covers law enforcement, courts, corrections, prevention, and drug treatment," he said. "When you look at these programs at the local level, JAG is crucial," he said.

When asked why state and local authorities don't fund their own law enforcement initiatives, Murray said they already do, but it isn't enough. "In 2002, we commissioned a survey of county criminal justice spending, and we found that the counties were spending $53 billion a year on it," he said. "But given all the issues we face -- reentry, the mentally ill behind bars, healthcare -- it isn't enough."

Law enforcement and its allies are mobilizing, Brooks said. "Nobody saw this coming," he said. "We formed a working group back in 2005, when these cuts were first proposed, mostly of national associations, and now we have some 30 groups representing almost a million members. We've got everybody from drug court judges to NACO to the National Association of Police Chiefs and the National Association of Attorneys General. Getting the funding back is the sole purpose of our coalition," he said.

The coalition will be working a two-track approach, he said. "We will try to encourage the leadership of Congress to restore this money in a supplemental funding vehicle, either the economic stimulus or the war funding supplemental, but that will only happen if the leadership opens the door," he said. "We're also doing grassroots work back in our communities. That's how the 120 articles got published."

While DPA's Piper said that restoring the grant funding would be an uphill battle, his organization is doing its best to counter the law enforcement offensive. "We will be working the Hill, trying to do some push-back in the media, and reaching out to taxpayer and conservative groups that have traditionally supported eliminating this program," Piper said. "But the real question is whether Bush will stand his ground and whether Republicans will back him."

President Bush has proven to be an unlikely ally in the fight to rein in federal funding of the drug war, but Congress appears vulnerable to pressure from the men with badges. And they're working hard: When Brooks spoke with the Chronicle this week, he was in the Hart Senate Office Building on his way to lobby staffers.

Law Enforcement: Snitch Culture Gone Bad in Ohio -- 15 Prisoners to Go Free Because of Informant's Tainted Testimony

In a case that has been stinking up northeast Ohio for several years now, a federal judge in Cleveland Tuesday decided that 15 Mansfield men imprisoned on drug charges should be freed because their convictions were based on the testimony of a lying DEA informant. The men, convicted on crack cocaine dealing charges, have collectively served 30 years already.

The men were all convicted solely on the testimony of informant Jerrell Bray and his handler, DEA Special Agent Lee Lucas. But Bray has since admitted lying in the Mansfield drug cases and has since been sentenced to 15 years in prison on perjury and civil rights charges. He is now working with a US Justice Department task force investigating what went wrong in the cases.

"It's about time," said Danielle Young, the mother of Nolan Lovett, who was serving a five-year sentence but could be home by the end of the month. "This is long, long overdue. These boys will finally get justice, even if it is late," she told the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

US District Judge John Adams told attorneys Tuesday he hopes to have the men returned to Northeast Ohio from federal prisons across the county. Then, federal prosecutors can formally ask Adams to drop the charges because there is no evidence to convict the men. That could have happened as early as this week.

Bray and Lucas originally collaborated on a massive drug investigation that resulted in 26 indictments for drug conspiracy. Three people were sentenced to probation, judges or juries tossed eight cases, and 15 men were sent to prison. But that was before Bray's lies were exposed.

The Plain Dealer noted that 14 of the 15 had pleaded guilty, a fact the paper naively said made the situation "unique," but then pointed out that they may have pleaded after seeing what had happened to Geneva France, a young mother with no criminal record who was indicted, but refused to plea bargain and steadfastly maintained her innocence. Convicted on the testimony of Bray and Lucas, she was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

France served 16 months before being freed after Bray's perjury came to light. In a heart-rending article this week, the Plain Dealer recounted France's sorry tale. Her real offense? Refusing to date the informant.

While the victims of Bray and Lucas are about to be freed, the case isn't over yet, and now, the hunter has become the hunted. According to the Plain Dealer, Lucas is the focus of the Justice Department investigation. But it is the snitch system itself that should really be on trial.

Editorial: A Matter of Basic Fairness in the Marc Emery Case

David Borden, Executive Director

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David Borden
This week it was reported that Marc Emery, Canada's famed marijuana law reformer and one-time seed merchant, has tentatively reached a plea agreement with the US Dept. of Justice that will spare co-defendants Michelle Rainey and Greg Williams prosecution, and will spare him extradition to the US, but will place him behind bars in Canada for the next five years. The reports were premature -- the deal has yet to be accepted by both countries, either could reject it, according to Jodie Emery, posting on talk groups -- but that is the way things may go as they are looking at this point.

The Emery case highlights two issues of basic fairness where the US and Canadian governments both fell short. One is the root injustice of prohibition. As Emery pointed out to media, no one was harmed by his business. Therefore taking away his freedom -- putting him in prison -- is unjust. Even just shutting down his business was unjust, based on this idea, because the law is an unjust one. This is an unfairness applying to the vast majority of drug prohibition prosecutions.

The other fairness issue flows from the fact that Emery carried out his business completely in the open, with full knowledge of authorities on both sides of the border, for almost a decade. His office is literally in the center of downtown Vancouver, and the magazine headquarters and bookstore across the street have an open storefront. I've seen these places myself. Anyone searching the Internet could find out what he was up to -- if they didn't already know from him directly, at a rally or reading his quotes in the media.

Setting aside the wrongfulness of prohibition itself, one could argue that because prohibition is the law now, the government had the right to tell him to stop until the law one day gets changed. In this view, the fair approach would have been to inform Emery that things had changed, and that he had to stop selling seeds or risk US or Canadian ire moving forward. Unfortunately that's not what happened. Having done nothing to move against him for all of those years, and not having warned him, instead one day the DEA moved in, filed extradition papers, and announced that Emery and his friends were facing 20-to-life. And Canada -- having tolerated him for years and years, even having accepted $600,000 or so in taxes, according to reports, knowing that he gave most of it away -- cooperated fully.

This second fairness issue is one that is fairly specific to Marc Emery's case, more perhaps than to any other. But it also reflects on the character of the criminal justice system -- many of us refer to it as the (in)justice system -- that the people making the decisions on how they would proceed would choose this route instead of the other, and that the sentences Emery and Rainey and Williams could face are so obscenely long to begin with. We have many prisoners here in the so-called land of the free who will serve decades before seeing freedom, if they ever do. It's a dark sign of the times that in part what I feel about this outcome is relief that he may only serve five years.

But make no mistake, five years is a big chunk of a life, a very severe punishment and a very long time. Try to imagine if you were about to be incarcerated, only for one year, how you would feel. Even a year in prison is a very severe punishment, if we are going to be realistic about it. But the "tough-on-crime" hawks who have dominated policymaking as of late have forgotten this. Too bad for Marc that that has happened. But too bad for all of us too.

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