DEA

RSS Feed for this category

DEA Raiding Medical Marijuana Dispensaries in Denver! [FEATURE]

DEA and IRS agents backed up by Denver and other state and local law enforcement raided a number of Denver area medical marijuana dispensaries and grow operations Thursday. The US Attorney for Colorado's office confirmed the raids were taking place.

a Denver medical marijuana dispensary (not one of those raided Thursday) (wikipedia.org)
"The Drug Enforcement Administration, Internal Revenue Service Criminal Investigations, the Denver Police Department and state and local law enforcement are today executing lawfully obtained search warrants and seizure warrants," said Jeff Dorschner, spokesman for the US Attorney for Colorado's office in a Thursday statement

"Although we cannot at this time discuss the substance of this pending investigation, the operation under way today comports with the Department's recent guidance regarding marijuana enforcement matters," Dorschner added. "As this is an on-going investigation, no additional information will be made available," he said.

Dorschner was referring to an August 29 Justice Department memorandum to federal prosecutors that said the Obama administration would not interfere with marijuana legalization provided certain boundaries were not crossed. US Attorney for Colorado John Walsh laid them out in his own statement that same day.

"Of particular concern to the US Attorney's Office are cases involving marijuana trafficking directly or indirectly to children and young people; trafficking that involves violence or other federal criminal activity; trafficking conducted or financed by street gangs and drug cartels; cultivation of marijuana on Colorado's extensive state and federal public lands; and trafficking across state and international lines," Walsh explained.

The Thursday raids come less than two months before state-legal marijuana retail stores open for business on January 1.

The Denver Post reported that the number of sites hit was "about a dozen," while the alternative weekly Westword put the number at fewer than 20, although that number is tentative. Among businesses mentioned by "reliable sources within the scene" to Westword are VIP Wellness, Cherry Top Farms, marQaha, and Swiss Medical in Boulder. Westword printed a photo of police cars in the parking lot of marQaha, while the Post printed a photo of piles of uprooted marijuana plants lying in the snow outside Swiss Medical.

Westword also reported that the owner of Swiss Medical told it that the raid there was prompted by one person among multiple tenants using its space, but that the raiders seized all the plants belonging to anyone who had a grow there. That's similar to what happened at Cherry Top Farms in 2011, when federal raiders targeting one grower seized all the plants on the scene.

"We do not yet know the details of these latest federal actions, so it is too soon to say what inspired them," said Denver-based Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert. "The Justice Department said it would respect states' rights to regulate marijuana, and that it would not go after businesses as long as they are complying with state laws. We hope they are sticking to their word and not interfering with any state-regulated, law-abiding businesses."

Tvert emphasized that at this point he does not know whether any of the businesses struck are accused of violating state laws.

"Colorado has demonstrated that regulating marijuana works," Tvert said. "Those businesses that are in clear compliance with state laws are meeting the needs of the community and not causing problems. As a result, they have not faced much in the way of federal interference. If a business is suspected of violating state laws, they will likely face increased scrutiny, and if they are found to be in violation, they will likely face consequences. That is how our society treats alcohol, and that is how we expect to see marijuana treated."

Denver-based attorney and marijuana activist Rob Corry was less diplomatic. He told the Post the Justice Department was acting like a bully and targeting "mostly mom-and-pop businesses."

"That is true to form, the DOJ, behaving like the classic schoolyard bully picking on the little guy," he said. "The DOJ needs to explain in a logical fashion why they are picking and choosing, going after only some of these entities when every one of them selling marijuana is running afoul of the federal law."

Denver, CO
United States

Chronicle AM -- November 19, 2013

Hmmm, on the same day the DEA warns that "marijuana availability seems to be on the increase," hundreds of people apply for licenses to sell pot in Washington state. Times are changing, and somebody needs to let the DEA know. And there's more news, too. Let's get to it:

Crackdowns on pain pills are leading the way to comeback for heroin. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Hundreds Apply for Pot Business Licenses in Washington State. Monday was the first day budding ganjapreneurs could apply for licenses to open marijuana cultivation, processing, and retail facilities, and interest was intense. By 2:00pm Monday, 299 applications had been submitted. The state envisions up to 334 marijuana retail shops opening next year; it is unclear how many production and processing facilities will be licensed, although regulators have said they want to limit cultivation to two million square feet statewide. Applications are being accepted through December 17.

Arkansas Attorney General Rejects Another Marijuana Initiative. The Arkansas attorney general's office Monday rejected the proposed language of an initiative that would repeal the state's marijuana laws. The initiative isn't clear about what it seeks to achieve, the office said. The attorney general's office has been busy with initiatives this year; it has already approved two separate medical marijuana initiatives, and the author of this one can come back with new language if she wishes.

Drug Policy

DEA Releases 2013 National Drug Threat Assessment. The DEA Monday released the annual drug threat assessment, which includes looks at drug use and trafficking trends. The report identifies the illicit use of controlled prescription drugs as "the nation's fastest growing drug problem," warns that heroin use and supply is up, as is methamphetamine, but that cocaine use and supply is down. Also, "marijuana availability seems to be increasing," and synthetic drugs "have emerged as a serious problem in the United States."

New Yorkers to Map Out City Drug Policies on Saturday. New York City residents just elected a self-described progressive -- Bill de Blasio -- as mayor. Now, they will have a chance to let him know what direction they want the city to take on drug policy. As part of Talking Transition, "an open conversation about the future of New York City," hundreds of people are expected to attend a Saturday forum on "Ending the New Jim Crow: Mapping the Future of Drug Policy in New York City," then break into small groups to make recommendations on issues ranging from racially-biased marijuana arrests, lack of effective drug treatment, and overdose prevention strategies. Click on the main link for more details.

Heroin

Ohio Attorney General Declares War on Heroin. Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine Monday announced he had created a new heroin unit within his office to fight back against what he called "an epidemic" of heroin use. The move comes as heroin overdose deaths have doubled in recent years, from 292 in 2010 to 606 last year. DeWine said his office will spend an additional $1 million a year on increased assistance to law enforcement, community outreach workers, and lab technicians. The rise in heroin use in Ohio comes after Gov. John Kasich cracked down on pain clinics in 2011, leaving illicit heroin as the last resort for people strung out on opioids.

International

China to Turn "Re-Education" Labor Camps into Drug Treatment Centers. At its recent Third Plenary meeting, the Chinese Communist Party announced it was abolishing its controversial "re-education" labor camps. Now, it turns out that the camps won't be closing, but will instead be converted into drug treatment and rehabilitation centers. "The new rehab centers will provide compulsory drug rehabilitation treatment for addicts, and help them find self-confidence again," one official explained. There are 1.8 million "officially registered" addicts in China, but the number of actual addicts could run as high as 12 million.

Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy Meets in Vancouver This Weekend. Canadian SSDP is holding its annual national conference this weekend in Vancouver. In addition to panels and speeches, there will be tours of Insite, Vancouver's supervised injection facility, a Downtown Eastside Walking Tour, and rides on the Sensible BC bus. For more details, click the link.

US Supreme Court Rejects Marijuana Reclassification Appeal

The US Supreme Court Monday declined to hear an appeal from medical marijuana advocacy groups who had challenged the DEA's decision to maintain marijuana's status as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act, the category reserved for the most dangerous substances.

The court denied in summary order a petition for a writ of certiorari from the groups, led by Americans for Safe Access, which had sought Supreme Court review of a DC Circuit Court of Appeals decision upholding the DEA's ruling that a change in marijuana's classification required the Food and Drug Administration's recognition of acceptable medical uses for the drugs.

Advocates of rescheduling marijuana have been trying to do so for more than four decades, but have been thwarted by DEA delays and intransigence. This was the third formal rescheduling effort to be blocked by DEA decision making.

Schedule I drugs are deemed to have no acceptable medical uses and a high potential for abuse. Other Schedule I drugs include LSD, MDMA, and heroin. Despite the fact that there is an ever-increasing mountain of research detailing marijuana medicinal effects and despite the fact that 20 states and the District of Columbia have legalized medical marijuana, the DEA continues to insist that it cannot be down-scheduled.

Joe Elford, lead attorney on the case for Americans for Safe Access, told Law360 that the Supreme Court's denial of certiorari was in line with its reluctance to overturn lower court and administrative decisions on medical marijuana.

"It's disappointing, but not altogether surprising," he said.

A fourth effort to reclassify marijuana led by the governors of the medical marijuana states of Rhode Island and Washington was filed in 2011 and is still awaiting action.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Washington, DC
United States

Broad Coalition Seeks Capitol Hill Hearings on DEA

Spurred by recent revelations of the DEA using NSA and CIA programs ostensibly designed to fight terrorism to try to make drug cases, but grounded in decades of festering concern over the DEA's bull-in-a-China-shop behavior, a broad coalition of more than 120 groups Thursday asked Congress to hold hearings on the agency.

Citing an August Reuters report on the DEA's use of NSA spying data to make drug cases and hide the NSA connection from prosecutors and judges and a September New York Times story on how the DEA makes use of AT&T phone traffic databases to make cases against US citizens, the groups called on the House and Senate Judiciary and Oversight committees to hold broad hearings to investigate the DEA and hold it accountable for its actions.

"The implications of the Reuters revelations are serious and far-reaching. Since the Edward Snowden/NSA revelations, the American public has been continuously told by the Obama Administration and others that such programs do not constitute a domestic spying program, and that the programs are solely used for counterterrorism purposes. The news that the DEA is using such programs in domestic drug cases directly contradicts both these assertions," the coalition said in a letter sent to relevant committee chairs and ranking members and copied to Attorney General Holder.

"Additionally, we believe that by covering up the origins of evidence it obtained, the DEA has violated the constitutional rights of many Americans and created judicial chaos," the letter continued. "Indeed, lawyers seeking to review certain cases and convictions have been stymied by the fact that authorities will not inform them when and where such methods were used."

The letter was signed by more than 120 groups, both domestic and international and from across the political spectrum. Signatories included the ACLU, Witness for Peace, the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Global Exchange, Witness for Peace, the Drug Policy Alliance and numerous US drug reform groups, including StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter), and the International Drug Policy Consortium, which represents more than 160 non-government organizations.

"For too long Congress has given the DEA a free pass," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Our hope is that Congress does its job and provides oversight because this agency has a deeply troubling track record of unregulated and out of control behavior. The DEA must be reined in and held accountable."

While the recent revelations about the DEA and the NSA and AT&T have been the catalyst for the hearings call, the letter also cited a small selection of other issues and scandals associated with the DEA (which should be familiar to Chronicle readers), including:

  • The case of Daniel Chong, a San Diego student who was left unattended and unfed in a holding cell by the DEA for five days, and who subsequently sued and settled for $.4.1 million in July of this year.
  • A drug war operation in Honduras in which the DEA took part, and which led to the killing of four innocent civilians. The incident has never been properly investigated by authorities.
  • DEA's role in the "Fast and Furious" scandal, where the agency smuggled and laundered millions of dollars in drug war profits for Mexican drug cartels as part of an ill-conceived sting operation.
  • DEA administrator Michele Leonhart's role in overruling the DEA's own administrative judges after they made decisions based on medical science.
  • Defense attorneys in Arizona are claiming government misconduct because the DEA rehired Andrew Chambers, a government informant who was terminated by the Justice Department years ago amid accusations of serial perjury.

In July, the DEA marked its 40th anniversary of its creation by President Richard Nixon. As the letter noted, "Congress has rarely held hearings on the DEA, its actions, and its efficacy." It is time for Congress "to investigate the DEA and hold it accountable for its actions," the letter's signatories said.

Washington, DC
United States

DEA Using Massive AT&T Phone Records Database

For at least six years, the DEA has had access to a massive AT&T database of phone call records dating back to 1987, the New York Times reported Sunday. According to the report, the DEA pays AT&T to place company employees in DEA offices around the country, where they supply DEA agents with phone data in compliance with federal subpoenas.

The program, known as the Hemisphere Project, is not limited to AT&T calls. It also covers data for any carrier using an AT&T switch and picks up 4 billion calls a day, according to the Times.

It only came to light because a Washington peace activist filed a FOIA lawsuit seeking information from West Coast law enforcement agencies, and one of them included training slides from the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The slides, which included a power point presentation, were marked "law enforcement sensitive."

They revealed not only the existence of the Hemisphere Project, but also efforts to keep it secret.

"All requestors are instructed to never refer to Hemisphere in any official document," one slide said.

The exposure of Hemisphere comes at a time when concern over government surveillance technologies is high, as revelations from former NSA employee Edward Snowden and his interlocutors about the extent of spying continue to appear on a regular basis. While NSA spying is ostensibly directed at foreign terrorists, it has also provided surveillance information to the DEA for use not in terrorism investigations, but in criminal ones.

Federal officials told the Times that the Hemisphere Project was no big deal, saying it has been useful in finding drug dealers who frequently discard cell phones and it uses investigative techniques that have been employed for decades and present no new privacy issues.

Privacy and civil liberties advocates begged to differ.

The Hemisphere Project "certainly raises profound privacy concerns," ACLU deputy legal director Jameel Jaffer told the Times. "I'd speculate that one reason for the secrecy of the program is that it would be very hard to justify it to the public or the courts," he said. And while he acknowledged that the database remained in AT&T's possession, "the integration of government agents into the process means there are serious Fourth Amendment concerns."

Holder Pressed on DEA Use of NSA Intelligence

A group of Democratic senators and congressmen want Attorney General Eric Holder to answer questions about a Reuters report earlier this month revealing that the National Security Agency (NSA) supplied the DEA with intelligence information aimed not at fighting foreign terrorism, but at making drug cases in the US.

Five Democratic senators and three Democratic congressmen -- all senior members of the House Judiciary Committee -- have sent a letter to Holder, obtained by Reuters, that submitted questions on the issue. Congressional aides told Reuters the matter will be discussed during a classified hearing next month.

The original Reuters report showed that a DEA intelligence unit passes on NSA-gathered intelligence to field agents and instructs them not to reveal the source of the intelligence -- even in court. Those tips involve drugs, organized crime, and money laundering -- not terrorism, which is the raison d'etre for the NSA surveillance program.

"These allegations raise serious concerns that gaps in the policy and law are allowing overreach by the federal government's intelligence gathering apparatus," said the letter written by Sens. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Tom Udall (D-NM), and Ron Wyden (D-OR).

Three congressmen -- ranking Judiciary Committee Democrat John Conyers of Michigan, Jerrold Nadler (D-NY), and Bobby Scott (D-VA) -- sent a similar letter after the original Reuters report earlier this month.

"If this report is accurate, then it describes an unacceptable breakdown in the barrier between foreign intelligence surveillance and criminal process," the congressmen wrote.

It's not just Democrats. House Judiciary Committee chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) told CBS's Face the Nation August 18 that the NSA's passing of intelligence to the DEA for non-terrorist criminal investigations is of concern.

"I think we need to have a very careful examination of this. I think that the trust of the American people in their government is what's at stake here," he said.

Washington, DC
United States

Senator Leahy Calls Judiciary Hearing on Federal Marijuana Policy [FEATURE]

US Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, announced Monday that he would hold a hearing next month on the Justice Department's response to marijuana legalization in Colorado and Washington and legal medical marijuana in 20 states and the District of Columbia. The hearing is set for September 10.

Patrick Leahy (senate.gov)
Leahy has invited Attorney General Eric Holder and Deputy Attorney General James Cole to testify before the committee and help clarify the conflicts between state and federal law, as well as the federal response. Cole is the author of the 2011 Cole memo giving federal prosecutors the green light to go after medical marijuana providers in states where it is not tightly regulated.

"It is important, especially at a time of budget constraints, to determine whether it is the best use of federal resources to prosecute the personal or medicinal use of marijuana in states that have made such consumption legal," Leahy said in a statement Monday. "I believe that these state laws should be respected. At a minimum, there should be guidance about enforcement from the federal government."

After Colorado and Washington legalized marijuana last November, Leahy sent a letter to the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy asking that the Obama administration make public its position on the matter. Although Holder said in February that a Justice Department response would be coming "relatively soon," it still hasn't appeared.

State officials in Colorado and Washington said last week that they thought the Justice Department had given them "tacit approval" to move forward with their plans to implement marijuana regulation, taxation, and legalization. Leahy, who has said he supports the efforts in those two states, would like to get something more definitive from the Justice Department.

In the meantime, while the feds are silent on how they will deal with legalization, federal prosecutors and the DEA have kept up the pressure on medical marijuana producers and distributors. Since the Cole memo came out two years ago, hundreds of dispensaries have been raided and hundreds more subjected to federal "threat letters." While actual prosecutions have been more rare, the result has been a reduction in access to medical marijuana for patients in areas where dispensaries have been forced out of business.

Leahy isn't the only one in Congress who is interested in federal marijuana policy. At least seven bills have been filed, most with bipartisan sponsorship, addressing federal marijuana policy. They range from bills to legalize hemp and marijuana to bills that would prevent the use of the IRS to crack down on medical marijuana dispensaries.

Holder won kudos from many drug reformers earlier this month when he announced his support for further sentencing reforms, but medical marijuana and marijuana legalization advocates were disappointed that he did not address the tension and contradictions between state and federal marijuana policies. Now, it appears that Leahy is going to force the issue, and marijuana reform advocates couldn't be more pleased.

"This is an important development for all sorts of reasons -- not least because the Senate has been so remarkably passive on marijuana issues even as twenty states have legalized medical marijuana and two have legalized it more broadly. I am delighted that Senator Leahy now seems ready to provide much needed leadership on this issue," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

"The ballot initiatives in Washington and Colorado made history not so much because they legalized possession of small amounts of marijuana but because they mandated that state governments regulate and tax what had previously been illicit markets," Nadelmann continued. "Ending marijuana prohibition not just in the states but also nationally is going to require the sort of leadership that Senator Leahy is now providing. Now is the time for his colleagues to stand up as well in defense of responsible state regulation of marijuana."

"Two states have made marijuana legal for adult use and are establishing regulated systems of production and distribution. Twenty states plus our nation's capital have made it legal for medical use. By failing to recognize the decisions of voters and legislators in those states, current federal law is undermining their ability to implement and enforce those laws," said Dan Riffle, director of federal policies for the Marijuana Policy Project.

"Marijuana prohibition's days are numbered, and everyone in Washington knows that," Riffle continued. "It's time for Congress to stop ignoring the issue and develop a policy that allows states to adopt the most efficient and effective marijuana laws possible. We need to put the 'reefer madness' policies of the 1930s behind us and adopt an evidence-based approach for the 21st Century."

"We're still waiting for the administration to announce its response to the marijuana legalization laws in Colorado and Washington, a policy that the attorney general has been saying is coming 'relatively soon' since December," said Tom Angell, head of Marijuana Majority. "If the administration is serious about using law enforcement resources in a smarter way, it should be a no-brainer to strongly direct federal prosecutors to respect the majority of voters by allowing these groundbreaking state laws to be implemented without interference."

It ought to be an interesting, and perhaps, historic hearing. It's two weeks away.

Washington, DC
United States

DEA Must Pay $3 Million in 2010 Killing of LA Teen

A federal judge Tuesday awarded $3 million to the family of an 18-year-old Los Angeles honors student who was gunned down by undercover DEA agents in a parking garage in 2010. But the judge also ruled the officers were not negligent in their actions.

Zachary Champommier (justiceforazac.blogspot.com)
Zachary Champommier died when he drove into a Studio City shopping center parking lot to meet a friend. Also in the parking lot were a group of undercover officers, including DEA agents and LA County sheriff's deputies and LAPD officers who had been deputized by the DEA.

The cops were discussing a search warrant they had just served when they observed Champommier's friend walking in the parking garage. Suspecting the friend was breaking into cars, they detained him. When Champommier drove up, he saw his friend being accosted by people he didn't know and attempted to drive away from possible trouble.

Officers claimed that Champommier's vehicle struck a deputy as he attempted to leave the scene. Officers opened fire, killing the 18-year-old honor student and "band geek."

Both the DEA and the LA County Sheriff's Department said the shooting was justifiable because Champommier had tried to run down an officer.

"The nature of [Champommier's] aggressive actions, actually hitting the deputy -- that is not someone who is without some degree of fault," Sheriff Lee Baca said shortly after the shooting.

Champommier's mother, Carol, filed a wrongful death lawsuit, charging that federal and local drug enforcement officers were reckless in shooting at her son, who she claimed posed no reasonable threat.

US District Court Judge Michael Fitzgerald ruled that the DEA agents did have reason to believe they were in danger, but acted recklessly in shooting at Champommier's vehicle as it passed them because at that point they were no longer in danger.

Los Angeles, CA
United States

Medical Marijuana Update

Dispensaries get regulation in Oregon, a dispensary will open in Delaware, and they're already popping up in Arizona. There's more medical marijuana news, too; let's get to it:

Arizona

Last Wednesday, the first medical marijuana dispensary in Yuma opened for business. The Jamestown Center on East 32nd Street will serve qualifying patients and is staffed with three pharmacists and a biochemist.

On Tuesday, a new dispensary opened in Tucson. The Downtown Dispensary could potentially be the city's busiest; it is the closest one to the University of Arizona.

California

Last Wednesday, state legislators gave up on a dispensary regulation bill in the face of strong opposition lobbying from law enforcement unions. Senate Bill 439 would have given the state attorney general's guidelines on dispensaries the force of law. Under the status quo, which will now continue indefinitely, the guidelines are not legally binding, allowing recalcitrant law enforcement and local prosecutors to ignore them.

On Tuesday, Fresno County supervisors sought to beef up the county's marijuana growing ordinance. They asked legal staff to explore ways to toughen up the ordinance after county residents complained about rampant pot farming. Residents talked of generators humming all night, dogs running loose and squatters. They said they are afraid to walk off their property or have guests over. Under the current ordinance, violations are punishable by a $100 fine. Some supervisors want to emulate nearby Kern County, where grow ordinance violations are treated as misdemeanors, with up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Other supervisors said the county should just enforce the existing ordinance.

Also on Tuesday, the Napa city council scrapped a proposed dispensary ordinance. The city had spent four years trying to craft it. The council also declined to move forward on a proposed ban. The only action the council could agree to was to send a letter to lawmakers bemoaning the confusion over medical marijuana laws. The city has an existing moratorium on dispensaries, but that is set to expire in October.

Colorado

On Wednesday, activists protested at the state Board of Health over allegations that the Department of Public Health and Environment has been illegally sharing confidential patient information through an online database. Laura Kriho of the Cannabis Therapy Institute and Kathleen Chippi of the Patient and Caregiver Rights Litigation Project authored an emergency petition calling for the database to be disabled. The Health Department has agreed to improve security, but the protesters want to see quicker action.

Delaware

Last Thursday, Gov. Jack Markell (D) announced he would move forward with opening a state-registered dispensary. He had balked at implementing that portion of the state's 2011 medical marijuana law after receiving a threat letter from federal prosecutors, leaving the state's patients without any legal access to their medicine. The law called for one dispensary in each of the state's three counties, but Markell said he would start with one.

Florida

Last Thursday, medical marijuana initiative organizers cleared their first hurdle on the way to the November 2014 ballot. They handed in more than 110,000 voter signatures, well above the 68,000 valid signatures required to trigger a review of the initiative's language by the state Supreme Court. See our feature story on the Florida effort.

Massachusetts

On Saturday, a Sandisfield town hall meeting rejected a proposal for the town to explore running a nonprofit dispensary. The proposal would have allocated $30,000 for a consultant who would advise the town on how to submit an application before next week's competitive filing deadline.The state is currently accepting applications for up to 35 statewide dispensaries. The deadline is August 22.

Michigan

On Tuesday, DEA agents raided an Ann Arbor dispensary. Hit was People's Choice Alternative Medicine. The dispensary had a sign on the door Tuesday afternoon saying it was closed until further notice. It's the second such raid by the DEA in Washtenaw County in a month. On July 30, a search warrant was executed at The Shop -- a medical marijuana dispensary in Ypsilanti.

New Jersey

Last Thursday, the state's only dispensary reopened after being closed for seven weeks. The Greenleaf Compassion Center in Montclair had closed its doors because of a lack of supply. Because it is the only dispensary operating in the state, it quickly was overwhelmed by demand. Now, they will limit new patients to the seven-county north Jersey region it was originally licensed to serve. Two other dispensaries, one in Woodbridge and one in Egg Harbor, have been given permission to begin growing their crops and are expected to open this fall.

Last Friday, Gov. Chris Christie (R) conditionally vetoed a bill allowing medical marijuana for children, but signaled to the legislature that he would okay it if it were changed to require that kids see not only a pediatrician, but also a psychiatrist, and if the use of medical marijuana edibles were limited to children. On Monday, the state Senate approved those changes. Action awaits in the state Assembly.

New Mexico

Last Wednesday, the state Medical Board postponed a hearing on proposed new rules for providers, saying high public interest required it to find a larger meeting space. The hearing was set for a space holding 100 people, but the board said it now expects 400 to attend. It will provide 30-day notice of the new hearing date. The proposed new rules include requiring providers to consult with a patient's other medical providers and requiring a periodic re-diagnosis of conditions warranting medical marijuana use.

Oregon

Last Thursday, Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) signed into law a medical marijuana dispensary bill. Kitzhaber signed House Bill 3460, which authorizes the Oregon Health Authority to establish procedures to license and regulate dispensaries. Oregon has an estimated 200 dispensaries already operating, but until now, they have operated in a legal gray area and have been subject to harassment and prosecution depending on the attitudes of local police and prosecutors. This bill will require them to register under OMMA and comply with regulations, which will include testing, tracking to ensure that only valid patients are receiving marijuana, and restrictions on location.

[For extensive information about the medical marijuana debate, presented in a neutral format, visit MedicalMarijuana.ProCon.org.]

Serial Offender: Miami Fed. Prosecutor Called on Misconduct in Drug Cases [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by Houston-based investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Part 6 in a series, "Prosecutorial Misconduct and Police Corruption in Drug Cases Across America."

There is something rotten in Miami. A federal prosecutor there, Assistant US Attorney Andrea Hoffman, seems to have problems staying within the bounds of the law as she attempts to prosecute major drug cases. As a result, cases are coming undone, and some Colombians are going home, some who likely were innocent. And Hoffman's pattern of prosecutorial misconduct has so far come without serious professional consequences.

2011 press conference in Bogota announcing the 56 indictments (presidencia.gov.co)
On September 2, 2011, US Attorney for the Southern District of Florida in Miami Wilfredo Ferrer announced the arrest of 56 Colombians in a trio of separate foreign investigations -- Operation Seven Trumpets, Operation Under the Sea, and Operation BACRIM (Bandas Criminales). In what was one of America's biggest drug busts, authorities also seized 21 airplanes, 12 submarines, millions of dollars in cash, and more than 20 tons of cocaine and heroin.

"Together with our law enforcement partners in Colombia, we have developed a proactive strategy to combat the rise of narco-trafficking operations to eliminate the threat they pose to the security of the international community," Ferrer crowed at a press conference with Colombia President Santos and Prosecutor General Viviane Morales in Bogota that day.

But what appeared to a slam-dunk case validating America's never-ending war on drugs soon went sideways, and Hoffman was there. Two Colombian nationals arrested in the case, John Winer and Jose Buitrago, who were looking at life in prison without parole, are now free men after federal District Court Judge Marcia Cooke ruled earlier this year that Hoffman deliberately withheld key evidence from the defense, undermining the defendants' rights to a fair trial.

And that's just for starters.

Winer and Buitrago

On May 21, a jury had already been seated to hear the case against Winer, represented by attorney Jose Quinon, and Buitrago when the latter's defense attorneys, Kashap Patel and Helen Batoff, got DEA agents and a Colombian narcotics officer to acknowledge they knew the DEA was making monthly payments to "vetted units" of the Colombian narcotics police -- and that prosecutor Hoffman also knew about those payments.

"Vetted units" are elite anti-drug squads whose members have passed muster as not being corrupt, and are often used by the DEA and other agencies in their overseas investigations. These units are required to file monthly reports on their activities in order to justify incurred expenses paid for by the DEA as part of US foreign assistance to Colombia to wage the drug war.

Hoffman denied any previous knowledge of the payments to the vetted units.

But on the stand that day, Colombian police officer Pacheco blew up Hoffman's denials about the DEA payments. Pacheco said the matter about the money was discussed between him, Hoffman, and DEA agent Guillermo Turke upon arriving in Miami from Bogota on Sunday, May 14th.

Attorneys Patel and Batoff had already been tipped-off about the use of the vetted units in the case against their clients, and prosecutors acknowledged as much, but refused to disclose information about their role in the case unless the defense attorneys could prove they were entitled to it.

Under the Brady rule, the government is required to turn over exculpatory evidence or material information in the government's possession that could be favorable to a defendant.

"The defense sent a written request to get the documents from Hoffman and her co-counsel, Cynthia Wood, on April 3, 2013," Patel told Judge Cooke. Receiving no reply from Hoffman,  defense attorneys re-sent the letter and, on May 1, received a reply from Hoffman's office acknowledging that the payment information existed, but demanding that the defense explain how it was entitled to that information.

"Tell me why it's Brady material, or under what theory you are entitled to it," prosecutor Christina Maxwell responded.

"The DEA payments to Colombian officers were disclosable to the defense without them having to file a Brady motion to get them," harrumphed Washington, DC, criminal defense attorney Stephan Leckar in an interview with the Chronicle.

US District Court Judge Marcia Cooke didn't let Hoffman get away with misconduct. (stu.edu)
Judge Cooke suspended the trial to hold a hearing on the matter, and things only got worse for Hoffman. Cook and the defense attorneys grilled a bevy of DEA agents, and they testified that Hoffman had known about the payments at an earlier date.

Bogota DEA Special Agent Guillermo Turke reiterated Pacheco's testimony that the "payments were specifically discussed with Hoffman on May 19th".

Miami DEA Corrine Martin told the frustrated judge "after all of the court motions, we spoke with DEA Special Agent Ed Reed about the payments and we also let Ms. Hoffman know."

Replying to a question from Judge Cook, Miami DEA Special Agent Mike Torbert concurred.

"I discovered there was a $200 operational expense given to SIU (special investigation units)," he told the court. "I passed the information to Ms. Hoffman."

Although her office had responded to defense letters about the payments on May 1, acknowledging they had occurred, Hoffman insisted to Judge Cooke that she had first found out about them on May 20, on the eve of the trial. But when Cooke pressed, Hoffman revised.

"Your honor, I found out about the payments at noon on May 21," she then replied.

But after hearing the defense evidence that Hoffman in fact knew about the money paid to the Colombian sources before the trial started, Judge Cooke accused Hoffman of prosecutorial misconduct, or intentionally engaging in inappropriate or illegal behavior by withholding evidence or knowing permitting false testimony and tampering with witnesses. Hoffman had violated the Brady rule by not automatically turning over materially important evidence to the defense prior to trial and when the trial started.

Had defense attorneys been given the information by Hoffman about the DEA payoffs, the wiretaps in the Winer-Buitrago case could have been challenged and used to impeach witnesses, the attorneys argued.  "The scope of the defense would've been different," Patel explained to the judge.

Hoffman apologized to the court, blaming her misconduct on miscommunications due to language barriers, but Judge Cooke wasn't buying it.

"I think the US government was aware of Colombian police officers receiving payments and did not disclose it to the defense," an angry Cooke replied. "The prosecutor was ethically and legally bound to turn the information over. This does not make sense to me. This is all you do. Answer this:  Why does the government get a pass?"

Defense attorneys moved to have the case dismissed because of Hoffman's misbehavior.

"The government's conduct deprived the defendants of their constitutional rights to due process," the attorneys wrote. "Such flagrant disregard for the rule of law and brazen dishonesty to the court and to opposing counsel should 'shock' the court's conscience."

Judge Cooke denied the motion to dismiss but a deal was struck. Winer and Buitrago both pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of conspiracy to transport cocaine and were sentenced to 36 months, with credit for the two years they had already been behind bars pending trial. Both men were subsequently released from custody.

Winer and Buitrago and the Practice of Information Buying and Selling

The little matter of the Brady rule violation in the area of the vetted units wasn't Hoffman's only problem in the Winer-Buitrago case. Defense attorneys also accused her of failing to disclose a letter indicating that another Colombian, Daniel Bustos, who was facing years in prison on a cocaine conspiracy charge, had paid money to another drug defendant, Fabian Cruz, so that Cruz would use his informant connection with prosecutors or outsiders to obtain "inside information" about evidence in the Winer-Buitrago case and feed it to Bustos. Then, Bustos and other defendants could use that information to testify falsely for the prosecution against the Operation Seven defendants in exchange for leniency.

But Assistant US Attorney Hoffman rejected a defense request to obtain the whistleblower letter exposing the dealings between Bustos and Cruz. In the courtroom, Hoffman confirmed that the letter existed, and Judge Cooke gruffly ordered her to produce it for the defense, again citing the Brady rule. At the time, Bustos and Cruz were already on the prosecutors' witness list.

This underground scheme is called "buying and selling" evidence (fake or real) for a defendant to get on the bus with the Feds and ride all the way home to freedom. In a December 2012 story in USA Today, reporter Brad Heath exposed the inner workings of the practice, illustrating how prisoners game the system by buying and selling evidence against other defendants with pending drug cases, then using that bought information to testify for the prosecution in exchange for sentence cuts and early freedom.

That report found that "one out of eight" federal drug convicts had their sentences reduced for helping prosecutors. Similarly, the Houston Chronicle reported that federal judges last year "resentenced 1,738 inmates nationwide after they provided substantial assistance" to investigators and prosecutors.

The corrupt scheme works like this: An inmate with outside connections (or already an informant) will have relatives and friends collect information on the street about a drug dealer's operation, or have operatives to dig up additional information about a dealer awaiting trial. Then the inmate will sell the collected information to prisoners who have money but are short on facts or criminal contacts to cooperate with the government on their own.

Daniel Bustos was hoping to lessen his sentence by paying Cruz to get information on Winer and Buitrago and then using that information to testify against them. And Hoffman was prepared to let him until defense attorneys blew the whistle.

Hoffman has not been officially sanctioned by the court for her misconduct in the Winer-Buitrago case. A court worker told the Chronicle recently that while the matter was under consideration, no ruling had been issued, and Hoffman was still assigned to Cooke's courtroom.

A Miami public affairs spokesman for US Attorney's Office for Florida Southern District declined to comment.

That's not the end of the trouble in Miami. Operation Seven Trumpets and its prosecutors have taken more hits, with other Colombians who had been indicted in the operation and extradited to the US being released and sent home after the charges turned out to have been unfounded.

Carlos Ortega Bonilla

Carlos Ortega Bonilla hugs his son as he is released. (seitleslaw.com)
Carlos Ortega Bonilla and William "Willy" Gil-Perenguez, both Colombian nationals, were arrested and extradited to the US as part of operations Seven Trumpets and BANCRIM. Both were thrown into the Miami Federal Detention Center to await trial on cocaine charges, and both faced up to life in prison if convicted.

Ortega Bonilla, the former head of Colombia's Flight Security (the equivalent to the Federal Aviation Administration), was enjoying his retirement in Bogota when agents armed with paramilitary-style weapons swarmed his home and arrested him.

"You have been indicted for supplying airplanes to traffickers to ship tons of cocaine to other Latin countries and the US," one of the drug agents told him. The agent explained that Ortega Bonilla's voice had been heard on wiretaps selling planes to drug dealers, in particular one Alvaro Suarez, a veteran trafficker who had once worked as a pilot for legendary Medellin Cartel capo Pablo Escobar.

Protesting his innocence all the while, Ortega Bonilla was imprisoned in Bogota while he unsuccessfully fought extradition to the US. He was eventually transferred to Miami, where he languished in jail as he sought to prove his innocence, but that was an extremely hard sell for Assistant US Attorney Hoffman.

"I never worked harder in my life," Miami criminal defense attorney Mark Seitles told the Daily Business Review about his attempts to convince Hoffman to drop the charges.

Seitles immediately hired Ed Kacerosky as an investigator. Kacerosky is a highly decorated former US Customs Agent credited with helping the Feds dismantle the infamous Cali Cartel. Ironically as an agent, Kacerosky had worked closely on previous major drug cases with Hoffman.

Authorities targeted Ortega Bonilla, tapping his phone, but failed to provide evidence that any airplanes he sold were linked to drug trafficking. The key to his freedom would lie in the wiretaps.

"Kacerosky realized after hearing the wiretaps that there was a gross misidentification, and they indicted my client Ortega for acts of another guy named Carlos," Seitles explained.

At an August 14, 2012, hearing in the courtroom of Judge Cooke, Seitles explained that his client had been wrongfully indicted on drug crimes and that his own investigation discovered irrefutable evidence the feds had misidentified his client's voice on the wiretaps.

As a plane broker, Ortega Bonilla sold or leased aircraft, and someone had convinced the feds that he was dirty. But they were wrong.

"Ortega Bonilla's voice was on the wiretaps in one plane deal where he determined that the men who sought the aircraft were drug dealers," Seitles explained. "And he refused to do the deal. No plane was ever sold and emails sent by Ortega Bonilla to the men showed he refused to do business with drug traffickers. There are even recorded calls with Ortega Bonilla attempting to contact the FBI to tell them about this. And the affidavit in support of extraditing Mr. Ortega Bonilla mentioned seven planes and no mention of that airplane, which was an E-90."

The seven planes in question actually belonged to another Carlos, Honduran drug dealer Carlos Litona, Seitles explained.

But Hoffman was having none of it. She argued to Judge Cooke that she had a witness, a co-defendant willing to testify that Carlos Ortega Bonilla was the right guy. Seitles countered in a separate hearing, putting Kacerosky on the stand with the wiretap tapes to explain how he had uncovered evidence that the feds had fingered the wrong man.

"The real guy is Carlos Litona," Kacerosky told the judge.

Without calling her secret witness, Hoffman dropped the charges on August 31.

When Ortega's family arrived at the airport in the Colombian capitol, hundreds of supporters surrounded them, hugging him with teary eyes and wishing him well. But his problems aren't over.

"Ortega Bonilla's US visa has been revoked, and he's having a hard time accepting that he was in custody for a crime he did not commit," Seitles told the Chronicle.

Ortega Bonilla has hired a Colombian attorney to file a lawsuit there and is currently searching for legal representation in the US to file a lawsuit here.

William "Willy" Gil-Perenguez

In June 2006, DEA and Colombian National Police jointly investigated a widespread conspiracy among multiple defendants importing cocaine and heroin on cargo planes traveling from Colombia and landing at Miami International Airport. DEA picked up the name of a cargo worker named "Willy" who supposedly was part of the conspiracy. An informant even identified "Willy" 's voice on wiretaps.

Willy Gil-Perenguez was living the good life at the time in Cali. He had a beloved girlfriend and a decent job, working for the Girag cargo air freight company. But in June 2007, his good life came to a screeching halt, when Colombian drug agents arrested him, believing he was the "Willy" overheard on the drug investigation wiretaps.

He was taken to a DEA office in Colombia, where agents threatened him, telling him to cooperate with them or they could make a phone call and have him sent to prison for 30 years. Gil-Perenguez maintained his innocence, saying he had no idea what they were talking about. In September 2008, he was extradited to Miami to face assorted drug charges that potentially carried a maximum penalty of life in prison.

Facing the wrath and the resources of the US government, Gil-Perenguez caught a lucky break while sitting at the Miami Federal Detention Center awaiting trial. He encountered another detainee, Neixi Garcia Lamela, a major target of Operation Seven Trumpets, who had agreed to cooperate with the feds. But he had bombshell news for Gil-Perenguez.

"DEA agents and Hoffman tried to pressure me to implicate you but I refused, because I knew I would be fabricating testimony to implicate an innocent person," Garcia Lamela told Gil-Perenguez, according to a lawsuit he later filed.

Gil-Perenguez immediately contacted his attorney, Luis Guerra. Guerra relayed to Hoffman the information about Garcia Lamela's admission that his client was innocent.

"I went to Hoffman and said, 'You have the wrong guy. My guy is innocent,'" Guerra told Law.com. "She said she had other witnesses. Turns out the witnesses never existed," Guerra recounted.

After serving 19 months behind bars, which included one year in Colombia's Combita lockup, a place described by human rights activists as one of the most oppressive and notorious prisons in the world, US District Judge Donald Graham freed Gil-Perenguez in February 2009, finding that his voice had been wrongfully identified on the wiretaps.

Gil-Perenguez returned to Colombia wearing a "bad jacket." His fellow countrymen think he snitched on others to be released so early. He filed a $10 million wrongful arrest lawsuit against the US government, charging that he had been left jobless and in pain and suffering. But the US 11th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the lawsuit, ruling that the US lacked jurisdiction and that it couldn't be sanctioned for "any claims arising in a foreign country."

"Our country is not supposed to be making these kinds of mistakes," Florida attorney Richard Diaz, who represented Gil-Perenguez  in the civil suit, told Law.com.

Hoffman and her colleagues have managed to win some convictions in these high-profile drug conspiracy cases, and given her hardball attitude and willingness to skirt -- if not cross over completely -- the bounds of prosecutorial misconduct, that comes as no surprise. But other Colombian defendants continue to be exonerated, with two more of them, Luis Alfonso Rubiano Ramos and Jose Norberto Mejia Cortez having their cases dismissed and going home in June.

Dr. Ali Shaygan

Dr. Ali Shaygan has nothing to do with Colombian drug trafficking conspiracies, but his case is yet another example of Hoffman's prosecutorial overreach. As previously reported in the Chronicle, Shaygan was charged with overprescribing narcotics as part of the federal government's campaign against prescription drug abuse, but later acquitted.

After his acquittal, Shaygan won a $600,000 judgment against Hoffman and another federal prosecutor, with the judge in the case finding their conduct in attempting to influence witnesses and deny potentially exculpatory evidence to the defense so "profoundly disturbing that it raises troubling issues about the integrity of those who wield enormous power over the people they prosecute."

That judgment was overturned by the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Shaygan and his supporters sought review at the US Supreme Court, but were turned down. In the meantime, Hoffman is still on the job in Miami and, if her work on the big drug investigations is any indication, still bumping up against the rules without serious professional consequence. Prosecutorial misconduct still seems to be a bridge too far for the American criminal justice system to address.

Miami, FL
United States

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Safe Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School

StopTheDrugWar Video Archive