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Did Miami Police Wrongfully Execute Four, Including Their Informant? [FEATURE]

special to the Chronicle by Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Part II of his series on ATF Fake Drug Stings Across America.

During the 1980s, Miami was a rich, glittering, southern city, awash in cocaine, and all sorts of other illegal drugs. The drug scene was so heavy and dangerous, its real-life drama inspired the popular Miami Vice TV series and the classic movie Scarface, as well as the more recent Cocaine Cowboy, an award-winning documentary based on the city's cocaine trafficking scene.

Today, Miami is no longer in the spotlight, but the drug business is still booming. And now there's a new twist: Law enforcement has made the dangerous world of the illicit drug trade even more dangerous by creating schemes to deceive would-be players into robbing drug trafficking stash houses that don't exist, setting up confrontations between robbers and police or robbers and homeowners over crimes cooked up by law enforcement itself.

The "fake robbery sting" is the brainchild of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco & Firearms (ATF), and the pro-active tactic has proven wildly popular, with state and local law enforcement agencies across the country engaging in the stings, particularly in the inner cities. In Miami, the results have included the mass killings of suspects by police SWAT teams under highly questionable circumstances.

A 2011 "fake robbery sting" that left four people dead -- including a police informant -- gunned down by a Miami-Dade SWAT team, has brought the program into harsh relief. Tricked by an informant into believing the residence was loaded with marijuana and large amounts of cash, the four men showed up armed and wearing ski masks.

SWAT officers shot and killed all four of them, including informant Rosendo Betancourt-Garcia, 39, an ex-con who helped police set up the sting. Also killed by police were Roger Gonzalez-Valdez Sr., age 52, Jorge Lemus, 39, and Antonio Andrew, 36.

A fifth suspect Gonzalez-Valdez Jr., the son of Roger Gonzalez-Valdez Sr., was the only survivor. Police arrested him at the scene in the getaway vehicle, an Cadillac Escalade located outside the targeted residence. Gonzalez- Valdez Jr. later pled guilty to a litany of brutal home invasion robberies and got 27 years in federal prison.

The dead informant, Rosendo Betancourt-Garcia (Dade County)
Prosecutors investigated the killings, but got little cooperation from the SWAT team. Of the 11 officers involved in the mass killing, only four -- one from each fatal scene -- agreed to give statements to investigators, and only as long as no prosecutors were present. The other seven officers refused to give statements.

Prosecutors decided not to prosecute any of the police involved, making it clear as they did that they were frustrated by their inability to bring charges and that they believed serious police misconduct was involved. Especially damning to police was the State Attorney's Office (SAO) memorandum on the resolution of the case. The SAO report found one killing justified, but barely minced words about the rest of the lethal operation and police cooperation with investigators:

"Due to a number of unusual, counter-intuitive, suspicious and/or disturbing factors present in the other three shootings, we cannot state definitively that those shootings were legally justified. Nevertheless, because we do not have evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to disprove the version of events given by the three officers and are thus compelled to accept their testimony as truthful [bolding and italics in original],… there is insufficient evidence to prove an unlawful killing of Rosendo Betancourt-Garcia, Antonio Andrew, or Roger Gonzalez-Valdez Sr. by any of the other 10 officers involved in the events of June 30, 2011."

That claim of legal compulsion drew a scoffing rebuke from Jeanne Baker, an attorney for the ACLU of Florida. "There's no rule of law that says that the prosecutors when evaluating a case are compelled to accept as truthful the testimony of the subject of the investigation," she told Miami NBC 6 News.

The SAO report further accused the officers of lying to investigators, moving dead bodies, and possibly planting evidence. The shootings were so disturbing that the State Attorneys went so far as to say "the officers weren't necessarily innocent."

The prosecutors' outrage was palpable, but what really lit up the city was the release by NBC 6 News of a video tape from a police helicopter's infrared camera that showed a replay of the men shot multiple times, although it appeared the men had not fired a shot at the officers and actually had surrendered.

Confronted with the now public video evidence, Miami police officials went on the offensive, expressing resentment that NBC Channel 6 got access to the secret police helicopter surveillance video. Miami-Dade Police Director J.D. Patterson asked the State Attorney's Office to investigate how the video tape showing the shootings fell into the hands of reporters.

A police spokesman said the informant, Rosendo Betancourt, defied officers' orders not to go onto the property, and that the officers, hidden in the dark, said it appeared the would-be robbers were trying to reach for weapons.

But consider the case of Gonzalez-Valdez Sr. The one weapon -- fully loaded -- that was allegedly his was located a few yards from where his body was found. Police had shot him 40 times as cowered against a tree in the fetal position. Police did not explain how Gonzalez-Valdez was threatening them with a weapon yards away from him.

Police officials also complained about the release of information in a State Attorney's Office report revealing that Betancourt, had been wearing a well-disguised audio wrist watch to record conversations. Betancourt could be seen wearing the watch during a surveillance video recorded earlier on June 30, 2011, the day of the killings.

Betancourt had been given code words to signal to police that he was their informant, and the audio surveillance from his watch would have showed whether or not he did so. But the audio wrist watch somehow went missing.

"That would've been a critical piece of evidence," said Jose Arrojo, a Chief Assistant at the State's Attorney Office.

Although police managed to thwart any attempt to prosecute them, the taxpayers of Miami-Dade have not been so fortunate. In July, the city agreed to pay $600,000 to the families of three of the men to settle a deadly force lawsuit. Betancourt's family didn't settle, and their lawsuit against the city remains pending.

The Redland sting -- named after the neighborhood where it went down -- remains one of the bloodiest episodes in a city that has seen its share of questionable police killings. And it raises serious questions about police misconduct and impunity.

"Are there questions marks? Of course. There are too many questions marks," State Attorney Katherine Fernandez-Rundle admitted in an interview with Miami's NBC Channel 6.

Fernandez-Rundle said it was reasonable to conclude that based on the evidence that the officers acted with negligence and may have violated proper police procedures by shooting the men, particularly when an analysis of audio recording of the shooting proved "definitely" that six of the officers did not hear a gunshot from one of the dead men, nor did anyone find a rifle belonging to any of the men, as reported by an officer who said Jorge Lemus had a rifle.

Fernandez-Rundle also cited as another factor in her decision not to file charges a Florida appeals court decision that, she said, held "that any violation of police procedures and training is not admissible as evidence in criminal cases."

"The cops violated his civil rights," Jesse Dean-Kluger, an attorney involved in the lawsuit filed on behalf of Antonio Andrew, told the Miami New Times in 2012. Dean-Kluger argued the cops led the men into a scheme to expect an armed confrontation with drug dealers.

Deadly Operation: An Informant Comes Forward

So where did everything began in the first place? While most people snitch to avoid going to prison or for the easy money, police said Betancourt walked into a Miami-Dade robbery detail in June 2011 out of a sense of moral duty. He told a harrowing tale about being "sick and tired" of extreme violence inflicted on victims by a group of brutal home-invasion robbers.

Betancourt said the violence carried out by the men he knew personally included savage beatings, the cutting of one man's scrotum, using a hammer to pound the toes and fingers of the victims, cutting off fingers, and issuing threats to cut off childrens' fingers to force parents to reveal hidden valuables and money.

Police investigators questioned Betancourt as to how he knew so much about the crimes, Betancourt explained the men regularly sold him the stolen goods that were taken during the robberies. He identified Roger Gonzalez Valdez Sr., Jorge Lemus, Antoinio Lewis and Gonzalo-Valdez Jr. -- as the men responsible for the violent robberies Miami-Dade cops were already investigating.

Police developed a scheme to Betancourt as an informant to lure the men into a plot to rob a drug dealer's marijuana stash house in Redland, a suburb of Miami.

Attorney Matthew Leto is representing the Betancourt-Garcia family. (hlhlawfirm.com)
Between 8:00pm and 8:30pm on June 30, 2011, the men arrived at the "fake drug house" located at 18930-216th Street SW in Redland. Once the men agreed on an entry plan, they cut through a fence to reach the house -- and as they trudged closer; suddenly, police snipers, hidden among the shadows, armed with Colt M4 Commando assault rifles, stormed out from different directions in the dark to pursue the men who, now aware they'd been set up, scattered throughout the property. It is unclear if the officers commanded the men to "halt," but officers fired upon each suspect.

The first suspect killed, an armed Jorge Lemus, was shot to death while crouching down behind a vehicle. Informant Rosendo Betancourt died next in a hail of bullets. An overhead police helicopter infrared camera captured Betancourt surrendering to police with his hands up in the air. Next, police ordered Betancourt to lie on the ground, and crawl towards the officers. Betancourt complied.

The SAO report stated Sergeant Manuel Malgor then ordered Betancourt to turn over, and at this point, according to Malgor, this is when the informant got blasted 23 times -- just as it appeared to Malgor that Betancourt reached for his gun. Indeed a weapon was found in Betancourt's waistband but the lawyers representing Betancourt's family suspected the police planted the gun.

They had other questions, too. Why didn't Betancourt utter the code word assigned by police: "I'm heading to Disney World -- or help!" And what happened to the missing audio watch that Betancourt was wearing to record conversations between himself, the police and the robbers, a watch that could be clearly seen that he was wearing during the "real time" surveillance -- only a few hours before he was killed.

Aerial video footage did not actually capture Sgt. Malgor and fellow officers shooting Betancourt, thus, the prosecutors said, they "could not disprove the Sergeant's story," but they seriously questioned why the officer did not handcuff Betancourt as he laid on his stomach.

"The police let him down," a family member lamented.

Antonio Andrew was shot a dozen times while lying on the ground. Again, the officers claimed Andrew reached for a gun, although State prosecutors determined the officers gave contradictory orders.

For example, one officer hollered at Andrew, "Don't move your hands, and let me see your hands underneath your waistband." When Andrew obeyed the second command, an officer said Andrew made a quick movement towards his waist area. And this is when officers fired a dozen shots, killing Andrew instantly.

When a NBC Channel 6 reporter asked Assistant State Attorney Don Horn how someone can make a simultaneous move for his waistband -- when an officer said Andrew's hands were already in his waistband, Horn replied in disgust, "I don't know. It made no sense to me."

Even more disturbing, Horn wasn't able to question the officer (why) he gave obvious conflicting commands or ask the officer any other question because the officers, as mentioned earlier, would only speak to investigators if no prosecutor was present.

Roger Gonzalez-Valdez Sr. either dropped or discarded his gun as he tried to flee the scene. Police eventually found Gonzalez cowering at the base of a tree. The officer seen on the released video behind the tree with Gonzalez's "back" to him said in his statement that Gonzalez made a quick move into his waistband, a move that allegedly forced the officers to open fire, striking Gonzalez 40 times out of 50 shots fired.

But prosecutors question whether the officer had a good view of Gonzalez near the tree, as the officer claimed. "Our repeated reviews of the video caused us to question whether the officer... was even in a position to see what he saw," the attorneys wrote.

State prosecutors also said the evidence showed that officers moved Gonzalez-Valdez's body after they shot him dead. Here's why prosecutors suspected this: a black hand-held police radio was found in Gonzalez's hand.

"We have a system of justice that require apprehension, prosecution, conviction and sentencing," said attorney Justin Leto of Miami, who handled the wrongful death lawsuit for Jorge Lemus and Antoinio Andrew. "I don't see any evidence indicating these people needed to be shot on sight," Leto said.

Justin Leto's brother Matthew is representing the Betancourt family in its pending federal lawsuit.

"The police did not take care of Mr. Betancourt like they promised," said Matthew Leto.

That lawsuit appears to be the end of the story. Four men are dead -- gunned down by police in an operation more reminiscent of an elite military anti-terror raid than of what we traditionally think of as civilian law enforcement -- and there is no legal accountability. Impunity is something we criticize in heavy-handed Latin American or Middle Eastern governments, but perhaps we need to look in the mirror.

Miami, FL
United States

California Defelonization Initiative Appears Poised for Victory [FEATURE]

While the nation focuses on marijuana legalization initiatives in Alaska, the District of Columbia, and Oregon, a California initiative that would turn drug possession felonies into misdemeanors is quietly heading for a likely victory at the polls in November.

Proposition 47, the smartly named Safe Neighborhoods and Schools Act, is sponsored by two prominent California law enforcement figures, former San Diego Police Chief William Lansdowne and current San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon, and the campaign is being led by Californians for Safe Neighborhoods and Schools. It has lined up an impressive array of supporters, ranging from crime victims' groups to the Catholic Church and racial and social justice organizations.

The initiative would attempt to address the state's chronic over-incarceration problems by moving six low-level, nonviolent crimes from felony/wobblers to misdemeanors. A "wobbler" is an offense that can be charged as either a felony or misdemeanor. Among the included offenses is simple drug possession. (The others include shoplifting under $950, check forgery under $950, and petty theft or receipt of stolen property under $950.)

About 10,000 people are arrested on drug possession felonies each year in the state.

Passage of Prop 47 would also help the state get closer to meeting a looming deadline from the federal courts to shrink its prison population. A new study by the California Budget Project finds that Prop 47 would move in that direction by reducing the number of people sentenced to prison and by allowing those already serving time for such offenses to petition for resentencing in county jails.

In addition to reducing prison overcrowding, Prop 47 aims to reduce felony caseloads in the court system, thus freeing up criminal justice resources for more serious and violent crime. According to the non-partisan Legislative Analyst's Office, if the initiative passes, there would be "state and county criminal justice savings potentially in the high hundreds of millions of dollars annually."

Savings from a successful Prop 47 would be dedicated to investment in mental health and drug treatment (65%), K-12 school programs for at-risk youth (25%), and trauma recovery services for crime victims (10%). The impact could be substantial.

San Francisco's DA is a Prop 47 proponent. (wikimedia.org)
"This initiative is very important for California," said Anthony Thigpen, president of California Calls, an alliance of 31 community-based organizations across the state. "We need new safety priorities that stop wasting resources on over-incarceration and invest in treatment and prevention. It's better for state and local budgets, better for public safety and better for the health of all of our communities."

While mainly flying under the radar, Prop 47 has still managed to pick up popular support. A California Field Poll in June and July had the initiative winning with 57% of the vote. And just this week, the campaign got even better news. A Public Policy Institute of California poll released Tuesday had support for the initiative at 62%, with only 25% opposed.

It has also picked up financial support. According to the California secretary of state's office, Prop 47 campaign committees have taken in more than $3.4 million in donations (including more than $1.2 million from the Open Society Policy Center, $600,000 from the Atlantic Advocacy Fund, and several six-figure donations from individuals). And while the campaign has spent more than $2 million so far, it still has about $1.2 million in the bank right now, and will continue to fund raise to finance last-minute advertising.

If that is even necessary. Prop 47 has picked up organized opposition, in the form of the Californians Against Prop 47 campaign finance committee, but the committee, representing groups including the California Police Chiefs Association, the California Peace Officers Association, and the California Correctional Supervisors Association, has so far raised only $42,000. That doesn't buy a lot of TV ad time.

Opponents charge that Prop 47 would "release dangerous inmates," "tie judges' hands," and is "completely unnecessary" because the state's ongoing "realignment" is already shifting prisoners from the state to the county level. But the initiative's proponents rebut those charges, arguing that it "keeps dangerous criminals locked up," "prioritizes serious and violent crime," and "provides new funding for crime prevention and education."

California State Prison, Solano, and example of the state's voracious prison-industrial complex (cdcr.ca.gov)
"The reason I support this measure is simple: The more addiction and mental health services we provide to communities hardest hit by crime, the less likely another mom will find herself in my shoes. Having to tell your children that their daddy was shot and they will never see him again is something I wouldn't wish on anyone," said Dionne Wilson of Crime Survivors for Safety and Justice.

The group is a key part of the campaign and serves as a counterpoint to other crime survivors groups that oppose the initiative, such as Crime Victims United. That group has joined forces with law enforcement and the state district attorneys association to oppose Prop 47.

"When three out of four people go back to prison within three years -- and it's been that way for 30 years -- it's obvious that we need a new plan," Wilson continued. "This measure will save a ton of money that would be wasted on incarcerating nonviolent people for nonviolent crimes, which will then be reinvested into trauma care for victims, mental health services and drug treatment. I think that's what a sound public safety strategy looks like."

Prop 47 is also a response to the lack of action on the issue in Sacramento, or, more precisely, action thwarted in Sacramento. Last year, a defelonization bill sponsored by Sen. Jay Leno (D-San Francisco) passed the legislature, only to be vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown (D).

"Unable to get meaningful sentencing reform through Sacramento, this initiative is a tremendous opportunity to make responsible and significant fixes to our broken criminal justice system by allowing simple drug possession and other non-violent petty crimes to be treated appropriately as misdemeanors, avoiding the lifelong collateral consequences that go along with felony records and the unsustainable court and incarceration costs that accompany mass felonization in California," explained Lynne Lyman, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance.

Prop 47 looks well-positioned to emerge victorious in November. But we're six weeks out now, and this is when initiative campaigns tend to heat up. The opposition is going to do its best to scare Californians into voting no, but it doesn't -- yet -- have enough money to make much of a media splash. At this point, it looks like California is on the verge of taking another big step toward addressing its chronic incarceration crisis.

CA
United States

Chronicle AM: Joe McNamara Passes, Rand Paul Speech, OAS Drug Resolution, More (9/22/14)

Oregon's Measure 91 picks up a nice endorsement, a marijuana legalization vote in York, Maine, is snuffed out, decrim advances in the US Virgin Islands, Rand Paul tells the GOP to reach out on drug policy, Joe McNamara dies, the OAS passes a drug policy resolution, and more. Let's get to it:

Joseph McNamara in his days as San Jose Police Chief. (SJPD)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Legalization Initiative Endorsed By Former US Attorney. Former Oregon US Attorney Kris Olson today endorsed Measure 91, the Oregon marijuana legalization initiative. "I enforced our marijuana laws, and they don't work," she said. "Filling our courts and jails has failed to reduce marijuana use, and drug cartels are pocketing all the profits." Olson was US Attorney for Oregon from 1994 to 2001. Meanwhile, the Oregon State Sheriff's Association has made a $100,000 donation to the No on 91 campaign.

York, Maine, Effort to Get Marijuana Vote on Ballot Thwarted. A state court judge last Friday rejected an effort to put a local marijuana possession legalization on the ballot in York. York County Superior Court Judge Paul Fritzsche sided with town councilmen, who had rejected two citizen petitions seeking the vote. Fritzsche ruled that York cannot regulate marijuana because it is governed by state and federal law. Two other Maine towns, Lewiston and South Portland, will vote in November. The state's largest city, Portland, approved a similar initiative last year.

US Virgin Islands Decriminalization Bill Wins Committee Vote. A bill that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana was approved by the Virgin Islands Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Public Safety, and Justice last Thursday. The measure is Bill 30-0018. It would make possession of an ounce or less of weed a civil offense punishable by a fine of between $100 and $200, with the possible forfeiture of the contraband.

Medical Marijuana

Today is Deadline Day for Illinois Medical Marijuana Business Applicants. People who want to operate medical marijuana businesses have until 3 pm CDT to hand in their applications to state agencies. The Illinois Medical Marijuana Pilot Program has more information.

Drug Policy

Rand Paul Calls on Republicans to Embrace Drug Reform, Other Non-Traditional GOP Planks. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) used a speech Saturday to the California GOP convention to call on the party to reach beyond its base by embracing issues such as drug reform, privacy in personal communications, voting rights, and an anti-interventionist foreign policy. Republicans need to "show compassion for people," especially young black and brown people disproportionately affected by the war on drugs. "If you look at surveys, it's not that they're using drugs more than your kids are using drugs, it's because they're getting caught because they live in an urban environment with more patrols, they have less good attorneys, they don't have the resources, and some of the laws are still frankly wrong," he said.

Law Enforcement

Pentagon Surplus Arms Program Let Military Weapons Go to Police Forces That Abused Civil Rights. The Pentagon's program to distribute surplus military equipment to US civilian police forces allows even agencies that have been censured by the Justice Department for civil rights violations to receive lethal weaponry. The Defense and Justice Departments have apparently not been coordinating on the program, the Associated Press reports.

Obituaries

Drug Reforming Police Chief Joe McNamara Dies at 79. One of the earliest law enforcement voices for drug reform is no longer with us. Former San Jose Police Chief Joseph McNamara died last Friday at his home in Monterey, California. He is credited with bringing progressive reforms to the San Jose Police Department in the 1970s. After retiring as police chief in 1992, he went to work at the Hoover Institution, where he continued and sharpened his criticism of the war on drugs. "He was the police chief who became the most deeply involved in the drug policy reform movement," said Ethan Nadelmann, founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, who had worked with McNamara on issues for the past 25 years. "He was convinced the drug war was a total disaster and he needed to speak out about that."

International

OAS Issues Resolution on Drug Policy. At its 46th Special Session in Guatemala City last Friday, the Organization of American States passed a resolution calling for states to "regularly review the drug policies adopted, ensure that they are comprehensive and focused on the well-being of the individual, in order to address their national challenges and assess their impact and effectiveness." The resolution also called on states to develop drug policies "that prevent social costs or contribute to their reduction; and, when appropriate, reviewing traditional approaches and considering the development of new approaches, based on scientific evidence and knowledge." And it calls for states to develop comprehensive approaches that examine "the structural causes, triggers, and the multiple factors that contribute to violence and crime" with a view to taking them into account when drafting the 2016-2020 Hemispheric Plan of Action on Drugs. Click on the link to read the OAS press release.

Bill Filed to Rein in Police Militarization [FEATURE]

Concerns about the militarization of American policing have been on the increase for some time now, but have crystallized in the wake of the heavy-handed police response to the killing earlier this summer of black teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

Soldiers or police? It's the latter. (hankjohnson.house.gov)
For years, observers have noted the SWAT mission creep, where sending paramilitarized police units to deal with rare mass attacks and hostage-taking events has transmuted into the routine use of SWAT for things like serving drug search warrants. A recent ACLU report documented this trend, finding that 62% of all SWAT teams had been deployed for drug raids. And public anger over police killings -- especially of young men of color -- has been on the increase as well.

In the past decade, affairs have only accelerated as police departments around the land have availed themselves of Congress's largesse in letting them pick up surplus military equipment for free, bringing home Humvees and MRAPs, as well as all kinds of armaments and military get-up. Under the weight of all that gear, policemen who used to look like Officer Friendly have taken on the appearance of imperial storm troopers.

That has all taken place under the Pentagon's 1033 program, which allows the transfer of such equipment from war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan state and local law enforcement agencies without charge. But, critics claim, while appropriate as war materiel, much of this equipment is not suited for civilian law enforcement purposes.

Law enforcement's resort to military equipment against largely peaceful civilian protestors in Ferguson, with armored vehicles moving in to confront teenagers wearing shorts and sniper rifles aimed from turrets at local residents put the issue front and center in the national consciousness.

There were congressional hearings on the topic last week, and today, a bipartisan pair of congressmen, Reps. Hank Johnson (D-GA) and Raul Labrador (R-ID), announced that they had filed a bill to rein in the Department of Defense program that transfers surplus military equipment to state and local law enforcement agencies.

Police militarization is an attitude, too. (BCSO)
"Militarizing America's main streets won't make us any safer, just more fearful and more reticent," said Johnson in a statement announcing the bill. "Before another small town's police force gets a $750,000 gift from the Defense Department that it can't maintain or manage, it behooves us to press pause on Pentagon's 1033 program and revisit the merits of a militarized America."

The bill is HR 5478, the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act of 2014. It would:

  • Prevent transfers of equipment inappropriate for local policing, such as high-caliber weapons, long-range acoustic devices, grenade launchers, armed drones, armored vehicles, and grenades or similar explosives.
  • End incentives to use equipment in circumstances when the use is unnecessary. Under the 1033 program, local police are required to use the equipment within a year, incentivizing towns to use it in inappropriate circumstances.
  • Require that recipients certify that they can account for all equipment. In 2012, the weapons portion of the 1033 program was temporarily suspended after DOD found that a local sheriff had gifted out army-surplus Humvees and other supplies. This bill would prohibit re-gifting and require recipients to account for all equipment received from DOD.
  • Remove any reference to counterdrug operations from the program, thus ensuring that law enforcement is not incentivized to use the equipment to perform arrests of those suspected of being low-level, non-violent drug offenders.

"Our nation was founded on the principle of a clear line between the military and civilian policing," said Labrador. "The Pentagon's current surplus property program blurs that line by introducing a military model of overwhelming force in our cities and towns. Our bill would restore the focus of local law enforcement on protecting citizens and providing due process for the accused."

The bill also adds requirements to enforce tracking mechanisms that keep up with and control transfers of the equipment, implement policies ensuring that police agencies can't surplus the equipment for resale and define drones more clearly. It would also specify that the use of MRAPs, grenades, and drones is not appropriate for civilian law enforcement.

In addition to Johnson and Labrador, the bill's original cosponsors are Reps. Justin Amash (R-MI), John Conyers (D-MI), Tom McClintock (R-CA), and Jim Moran (D-VA).

The move is winning kudos from drug reform organizations.

Just what every small town police department needs. (Doraville PD)
"Very occasionally and with proper oversight and training, the use of some military equipment is appropriate -- school shootings, terrorist situations and the like," said Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. "But when it's routinely used against nonviolent drug offenders, it only serves to further strain police-community relations so vital to preventing and solving violent crime. This bill will correct some of the worst excesses of a potentially useful program hijacked by the war on drugs."

"In light of what we all saw in Ferguson, Missouri, the American people are clamoring for law enforcement to become less militarized. Grenades, drones, and tanks may belong on the battlefield; they certainly don't have a place on US streets," said Michael Collins, policy manager at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs. "Such militarization is inextricably linked to the drug war, where SWAT teams and no-knock raids have become a routine part of drug arrests, even in the case of nonviolent offenders."

The bill is a good first step in reining in law enforcement militarization, he said.

"This legislation is a thoughtful attempt at tackling a very worrying problem -- the militarization of law enforcement," Collins said. "The Pentagon program is highly problematic because preferential treatment is given to those police forces that use their equipment to fight the drug war. This bill would end that, and move us away from a heavy-handed approach to drug policy."

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle AM -- June 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

Medical Marijuana

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

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

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

Methamphetamine

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

Opiates

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

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

Law Enforcement

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

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

Sentencing

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

International

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

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

Chronicle AM -- May 29, 2014

Minnesota becomes the 22nd medical marijuana state, the California Senate passes a medical marijuana regulation bill and a bill equalizing crack and powder cocaine offenses, a new study reports on who current heroin users are, there are a series of votes set for today to rein in the DEA, a Canadian court allows heroin-assisted treatment trials to move forward, and more. Let's get to it:

Cocaine is cocaine, whether rock or powder, and the California Senate has voted to treat it like that. (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Michigan Poll Has Support for Legalization at 42%. A Detroit News/WDIV-TV poll released today has support for marijuana legalization at 42%, with 52% opposed. The poll conducted by the Glengariff Group of Chicago surveyed 600 voters. It has a margin of error of +/ -4%. "There is a sharp difference in attitudes on marijuana legalization among voters under and over the age of 40," said pollster Richard Czuba. "And while Democratic voters support legalization of marijuana, independents and Republican voters strongly oppose legalization." Click the link for more demographic details.

Washington, DC, Initiative is Sweating the Signature-Gathering. Organizers of the DC initiative to legalize the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana -- but not the legalization and regulation of marijuana sales -- are "a little nervous" about the progress of their signature-gathering campaign. They have until July 7 to collect 22,373 valid voter signatures. They had collected some 19,000 raw signatures by Monday, but of the 16,734 that have been processed, only 5,360 have been found to be valid.

Delaware Decriminalization Bill Filed. Rep. Helene Keeley (D-Wilmington) today introduced a decriminalization bill, House Bill 371. It would make possession of up to an ounce a civil offense with a maximum $100 fine for people 21 and over. Currently, possession is a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Governor Signs Medical Marijuana Bill. Gov. Mark Dayton (DFL) today signed into law the medical marijuana bill approved earlier this month by the legislature. It allows for eight distribution centers across the state to by supplied by two medical marijuana manufacturers. The bill does not allow for the smoking of medical marijuana; but it can be vaped or eaten. Some medical marijuana groups are calling the law "overly restrictive."

California Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Regulation Bill. The state Senate yesterday approved Senate Bill 1262, sponsored by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Anaheim). It is supported by cities and law enforcement, and would impose tighter controls on dispensaries, cultivation, and recommending. A competing bill, Assembly Bill 1894, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) was expected to be voted on today. If both pass their respective houses, look for a compromise.

Drug Policy

Congress Set to Vote Today on Four Amendments to Reign in DEA. Congress is set to vote today on at least four amendments aimed at reigning in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). One would prohibit DEA from interfering in states that allow medical marijuana; another would prohibit it from blocking hemp seed imports in states that have approved hemp research; a third would prohibit it from undermining state laws that allow for hemp cultivation; and a fourth would reject a proposed $35 million increase in the DEA's FY 2015 budget.

Heroin

Today's Heroin Users Are Mainly Young, White and Not in the Big City, New Study Finds. A new research article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association finds that, unlike the heroin boom of the 1960s, most heroin users today are young white men whose opiate habits overwhelmingly started with prescription pain pills. "Our data show that the demographic composition of heroin users entering treatment has shifted over the last 50 years such that heroin use has changed from an inner-city, minority-centered problem to one that has a more widespread geographical distribution, involving primarily white men and women in their late 20s living outside of large urban areas," the authors concluded.

Law Enforcement

Minnesota Prosecutor "Sending a Message" Charges Five Teens With Murder in Teen Girl's Overdose Death. Washington County Attorney Pete Orput has charged five local teenagers with murder in the January death of a 17-year-old girl who died after taking a new synthetic hallucinogen. "We think there's a moral obligation to keep kids free of drugs," said Orput. "We're sending a message that suppliers will be held fully to account." Those charged include a 19-year-old, an 18-year-old, and three 17-year-olds. Orput said the three minors will be charged as adults. The 19-year-old is accused of being the dealer; the others bought some of the drug and shared it among themselves and the dead girl.

Customs to Curtail Searches of General Aviation Aircraft Not Crossing Borders. After loud complaints from private pilots that their domestic flights were being searched for drugs by Customs agents, the Customs and Border Protection agency (CBP) has announced it will curtail the searches. An official told National Public Radio yesterday that "his agency has heard pilots' grievances and the program is being altered so as not to needlessly affront law-abiding pilots." The Airline Operators and Pilots Association has been raising a stink about the issue for the past year, saying it has received more than 50 reports from members who recounted their encounters with law enforcement at airports.

Georgia SWAT Team Throws Flash-Bang Grenade, Burns Toddler in Drug Raid. A 2-year-old child was burned when members of the Habersham County Special Response Team deployed a "distraction device" as they executed a drug search warrant early yesterday morning. The raid came a day after a snitch made a drug buy at the home and reported no children present. The raiders got themselves a no-knock warrant and breached the door of the home. "What had happened was there was a playpen -- a Pack N Play -- that was pushed up against the door, and when they breached the door it wouldn't open up because of the Pack N Play," Sheriff Joey Terrell said. "It was just wide enough to toss the flash bang in, then they had to physically push it [Pack N Play] on out of the way to get in. That's when the team medics saw the child, stopped at the child, took the child out and began first aid. "The door that we entered was the door that we bought dope out of -- that's why entered at that door," Terrell said. "Our team went by the book. Given the same scenario, we'll do the same thing again. I stand behind what our team did," he maintained. He blames the target of the warrant. Read the whole story at the link.

Sentencing

California Senate Approves Bill to Eliminate Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity. The state Senate Wednesday approved a bill that would equalize the penalties for crack and powder cocaine sales and make it easier to get probation for either. The measure is Senate Bill 1010, introduced by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles). It now goes to the Assembly.

International

Peru Names Former Defense Minister as New Drug Czar. President Ollanta Humala has named former Defense Minister Luis Otorala as the new head of the Peruvian anti-drug agency, DEVIDA. He replaces Carman Masias. Otarola said that while eradication of coca crops will continue, greater emphasis will be placed on economic alternatives for farmers. Hardline critics said the move and the new emphasis "showed a weakening in the resolve of the government" to confront the drug trade. Peru is once again the world's leading coca and cocaine producer.

Medical Marijuana Bill Introduced in Philippines. Rep. Rodolfo Albano III has filed a medical marijuana bill in the Philippine legislature. House Bill 4477, the Compassionate Use of Medical Cannabis Bill, is intended "to provide accessible, affordable, safe medical cannabis to qualifying patients."

British Columbia Supreme Court Grants Injunction for Heroin Treatment Study to Continue. Canada's BC Supreme Court today granted an injunction for an exemption from federal drug laws for participants in the SALOME study (The Study to Assess Long-term Opioid Maintenance Effectiveness). The injunction will allow doctors in the study to continue prescribing heroin to patients for whom other treatment options have been ineffective.

Medical Marijuana Update

Medical marijuana continues hot and heavy in state legislatures across the country, there's a petition for a patient denied access to a liver transplant in California, two federal marijuana patients in Iowa also need some help, and a new federal medical marijuana bill has been filed. And more. Let's get to it:

National

On Monday, Virginia Congressman Morgan Griffith introduced a federal medical marijuana bill. Griffith (R-VA) has filed House Resolution 4498, the Legitimate Use of Medicinal Marijuana Act. This bill would prohibit the federal government from preventing the prescription, possession, transportation, and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes in compliance with applicable state law. The bill would also reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug.

Arkansas

Last weekend, the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act initiative went signature-gathering. Hundreds of Arkansans volunteered over the weekend to collect signatures for the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act in more than 50 locations across the state. They need to collect more than 62,000 valid voter signatures by July 7 to qualify for the November ballot.

California

Last Tuesday, a medical marijuana regulation bill won an Assembly committee vote. A bill to impose regulation on the state's medical marijuana industry passed the Assembly Public Safety Committee. Assembly Bill 1894, sponsored by Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-San Francisco) would make it illegal for doctors to recommend medical marijuana for patients they have not examined, and bar prescriptions by doctors with a financial interest in a pot dispensary. It would also let the Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control enforce laws regulating marijuana and develop plans to tax it beyond the sales tax now levied, while ensuring it is grown and processed safely and in ways safe for the environment. A competing bill favored by law enforcement, Senate Bill 1262 by Sen. Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), was approved a day earlier by the Senate Business Professions and Economic Development Committee. It would regulate medical marijuana through the Department of Public Health and county health departments.

Last Wednesday, a proposal to consider allowing dispensaries in Colfax failed. Two council members voted in favor, and two voted against the motion, which would have instructed city staff to look into revising the 2009 ordinance prohibiting dispensaries in Colfax. The fifth council member abstained.

On Monday, a petition drive got underway for a patient denied access to a liver transplant because he uses medical marijuana. Stanford University Medical Center has removed Hep C and cirrhosis sufferer Richard Hawthorne from its list of people in line to get liver transplants because he uses medical marijuana to alleviate his symptoms. Stanford removed Richard from the list based on "national standards." It said: "The national protocols include factors that may lead to disqualification, which include both use of drugs and alcohol." Hawthorne uses medical marijuana with a doctor's recommendation. There were only 343 signatures on the petition to get him reinstated at press time. Click on the link to add yours.

Colorado

On Monday, a bill to make PTSD a qualifying medical condition died in a House committee. House Bill 14-1364 failed to pass the House State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee, a move decried by the Drug Policy Alliance. "It's insane that in a state with legal marijuana veterans don't have the same right as anyone else over 21 -- especially considering how many lives are at stake," said Art Way, senior Colorado policy manager for the group. "No veteran should have to risk benefits or feel stigmatized when they use medical marijuana."

Florida

On Monday, Florida sheriffs announced they would campaign against the state's medical marijuana initiative. Florida law enforcement authorities are set to begin a public awareness campaign to fight the effort to legalize medicinal marijuana, a question that will be put to voters in November. This winter, the Florida Sheriff's Association sent sheriffs across the state an email asking for their support of a resolution opposing the legalization of marijuana. A vast majority of the 67 sheriffs was in favor of fighting against any effort to legalize pot. That's a shocker.

Also on Monday, a limited CBD medical marijuana bill passed the Senate. The bill allows low-THC, high-CBD cannabis oil to be used by patients suffering seizure disorders. Senate Bill 1030, also known as the Charlotte's Web bill after a certain high-CBD strain, now heads to the House, where its fate remains uncertain as leaders there raise questions about whether an extract could be made safe enough to distribute.

Iowa

Last Thursday, a limited CBD medical marijuana bill passed the Senate. The bill gives prosecutorial immunity to people who possess cannabidiol to treat seizures. Senate File 2360 would require patients or their caregivers to obtain a state-issued license to possess the drug and must have a neurologist's prescription in order to obtain the license.

Last Friday, a call went out to seek help for two Iowa federal medical marijuana patients. Two of the last remaining federal marijuana patients are facing a bleak future as a result of their physician relocating to another state. Patients Out of Time is issuing an urgent request for a Midwestern physician to come forward and help these individuals. No physicians in Iowa have stepped up so far. The patients, Barbara Douglass and George McMahon, are two of four remaining recipients of federal marijuana for medical purposes under the now defunct Compassionate IND program. For further information please call All Byrne of Patients Out of Time, (434) 263-4484, or email at al@medicalcannabis.com.

Louisiana

On Tuesday, the state sheriff's association spoke out against a pending medical marijuana bill. Law enforcement agencies from across the state spoke out against a proposed bill to legalize medical marijuana at the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association. "As the current bill stands in Louisiana, this still does not correct the fact that it is illegal in the United States of America to possess or use marijuana," president of the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association Sheriff Tony Mancuso said. The bill, Senate Bill 541, proposed by Louisiana State Senator Fred Mills (D-St. Martin Parish), will be heard by the Committee on Health and Welfare today.

Minnesota

On Tuesday, a Senate committee approved a compromise medical marijuana bill. The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved the bill. Senate File 1641 now heads to the Senate Judiciary Committee for a Wednesday hearing. Companion legislation has also moved in the House.

Missouri

Last Wednesday, the House gave first approval to a CBD medical marijuana bill. The bill would allow the use of CBD cannabis oil by people suffering from seizures. Senate Bill 951 won first round approval by a voice vote. It needs one more vote in the House.

Montana

Last Saturday, medical marijuana supporters protested at businesses owned by the sponsor of an anti-marijuana initiative. The proposed initiative would make all marijuana illegal in Montana. About 100 people demonstrated outside Rimrock Subaru and Rimrock KIA in Billings on Saturday. Steve Zabawa, a partner with the Rimrock Auto Group, is sponsoring an initiative that would "eliminate the disparity between federal law and state law." The potential law would make any drug on Schedule One of the Federal Controlled Substances Act illegal in Montana.

Nevada

Last Wednesday, Clark County (Las Vegas) reported receiving more than 200 applications for medical marijuana businesses.A total of 206 applications for medical marijuana businesses were filed by 109 legal entities with the county's Business Licensing Department before yesterday's deadline. That total includes 90 applications for dispensaries, 70 applications for cultivation facilities, 45 for production facilities and one for an independent testing laboratory. Businesses who met today's deadline will have until May 2 to submit a zoning application and the accompanying $5,000 fee for the special-use permits needed to operate a medical marijuana establishment. The county commission plans to review and award a limited number of special-use permits at a June 5 public meeting. Businesses can apply for one of four license types.

New Mexico

Last Wednesday, the medical cannabis program's Medical Advisory Board recommended adding Alzheimer's to the list of eligible conditions. The Medical Cannabis Program's Medical Advisory Board voted unanimously Wednesday to add neurodegenerative dementia including Alzheimer's disease (AD) to the list of medical conditions eligible for the Medical Cannabis Program. The Secretary of Health will have the final decision. Medical cannabis is currently available to Alzheimer's patients in thirteen of the states that authorize its use.

Pennsylvania

On Monday, a state senator and parents of sick kids said they would sit in at the governor's office. Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County) and parents of sick children they have asked repeatedly to meet with Gov. Tom Corbett (R) to have a meaningful discussion about his opposition to a medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 770. Now, after Corbett continues to stonewall their requests, Leach and family members said they will sit-in at Corbett's office until a meeting is scheduled. "If the governor chooses to forcibly remove sick children and the parents of those children, that is up to him. But we will not voluntarily leave until a meeting is scheduled," Leach said. No word of any meeting as of today.

Rhode Island

Over the weekend, state law enforcement officials said they want to amend the medical marijuana law for "public safety" reasons. The attorney general's office and municipal police chiefs say some licensed cardholders are growing excess amounts of marijuana under a program with inadequate oversight and some caregivers and patients have become targets of home invasions. House Bill 7610, sponsored by Rep. Lisa Tomasso (D-Coventry), would reduce the number of plants patients could grow from 12 to three and add more oversight by the Department of Health. The bill had a hearing earlier this month in the House Judiciary Committee, but no vote was taken.

Vermont

Last Wednesday, the House passed a dispensary bill that includes a study of legalization. The House gave preliminary approval to a medical marijuana dispensaries bill, endorsing an amendment that calls for a study of potential tax revenue from legalizing and taxing pot. Senate Bill 247 has already passed the Senate, but has to go back for concurrence with changes made in the House.

On Wednesday, the Senate approved the bill. It will now be sent to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has expressed support for the measure. Senate Bill 247, sponsored by Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), will eliminate the cap on the number of patients who are allowed to access medical marijuana dispensaries. The measure will also increase possession limits for dispensaries, allow them to deliver medical marijuana to patients, and permit naturopaths to certify patients for the program.

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

Chronicle AM -- April 30, 2014

There was marijuana talk on Capitol Hill yesterday, a Vermont dispensary bill passes the Senate, Georgia's governor signs a welfare drug testing bill, a California drugged driving bill dies, and -- oh, yeah, we spent $7.5 billion to reduce Afghan opium production and got squat. And more. Let's get to it:

The US spent $7.5 billion to reduce Afghan opium cultivation. Now Afghanistan produces more than ever. Go figger. (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

NIH Head Tells Congress Marijuana is a Gateway Drug. Dr. Nora Volkow, the director from the National Institutes of Health warned House lawmakers Tuesday against legalizing marijuana use, saying it could act as a gateway drug. Volkow told the House Energy and Commerce Committee's Oversight and Investigations subpanel studies show that changes to brain chemistry after alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana use can prime users for harder drugs. Despite Volkow's claims, the gateway theory is widely discredited.

Treasury Secretary Defends Marijuana Banking Guidelines.Treasury Secretary Jack Lew on Tuesday defended the Obama administration's guidelines to banks conducting transactions with legal marijuana sellers as congressional Republicans questioned whether the guidance amounts to tacit federal approval of a drug illegal in most states. Lew's comments came at hearing of the House Appropriations Committee subcommittee on financial services, where Chairman Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) accused the administration of providing a "rubber stamp" to drug dealers. Lew disagreed: "Without any guidance, there would be a proliferation of cash-only businesses, and that would make it impossible to see when there are actions going on that violate both federal and state law and that... would be a real concern," Lew said. "We thought that the clarity, bringing it into daylight, was a better solution." Congress should write a law to establish a policy, he added.

New York City Conference Today and Tomorrow Marks 70th Anniversary of LaGuardia Commission Report. A major one-and-a-half day conference at the New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) to discuss marijuana and broader drug policy reform gets underway today. The conference commemorates the 70th anniversary of one of the nation's first systematic studies to address many of the myths about marijuana, The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York, published in 1944. The NYAM published report concluded that "the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated," but marijuana prohibition has stood largely intact for seventy years -- until now. Click on the link for more details.

Medical Marijuana

Vermont Senate Approves Medical Marijuana Dispensary Improvement Bill. The Vermont Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a bill that will expand access to medical marijuana for qualified patients. It will now be sent to Gov. Peter Shumlin, who has expressed support for the measure. Senate Bill 247, sponsored by Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), will eliminate the cap on the number of patients who are allowed to access medical marijuana dispensaries. Currently, only 1,000 total patients are able to access dispensaries. The measure will also increase possession limits for dispensaries, allow them to deliver medical marijuana to patients, and permit naturopaths to certify patients for the program. The bill was amended by the House to initiate two studies: one to explore the possibility of adding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a qualifying condition for the state's medical marijuana program, and one to evaluate the potential impact of making marijuana legal for adults and regulating it similarly to alcohol.

Louisiana Medical Marijuana Bill Excites Law Enforcement Opposition. Law enforcement agencies from across the state spoke out against a proposed bill to legalize medical marijuana at the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association today. "As the current bill stands in Louisiana, this still does not correct the fact that it is illegal in the United States of America to possess or use marijuana," president of the Louisiana Sheriffs' Association Sheriff Tony Mancuso said. The bill, Senate Bill 541, proposed by Louisiana State Senator Fred Mills (D-St. Martin Parish), will be heard by the Committee on Health and Welfare today.

Virginia Congressman Introduces Federal Medical Marijuana Bill. Rep. Morgan Griffith (R-VA) has filed House Resolution 4498, the Legitimate Use of Medicinal Marijuana Act. This bill would prohibit the federal government from preventing the prescription, possession, transportation, and distribution of marijuana for medical purposes in compliance with applicable state law. The bill would also reclassify marijuana from a Schedule I drug to a Schedule II drug.

Drug Testing

Georgia Governor Signs Bill to Drug Test Some Welfare Recipients. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal (R) signed legislation on Tuesday requiring some applicants for food stamps and welfare benefits to undergo a drug test. Under the measure, House Bill 772, testing could be required if authorities have a "reasonable suspicion" of drug use. A person failing the test would temporarily lose benefits, although their children could receive assistance through another adult. Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, called the legislation "shameful" and said it violated the constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

Drugged Driving

California "Per Se" Drugged Driving Bill Dies in Committee. A bill that would have made the presence of tiny amounts of marijuana metabolites per se evidence of impaired driving was killed in the Assembly Public Safety Committee Tuesday. Assembly Bill 2500, sponsored by Assemblyman Jim Frazier (D-Antioch), was opposed by California NORML, whose head, Dale Gieringer, called it "a solution in search of a problem."

Law Enforcement

Bogus Highway Drug Search Yields $100,000 Settlement for Star Trek Fan. A Star Trek fan returning home from a convention on I-70 Illinois when he was stopped and searched by a Collinsville, Illinois, police officer has settled a lawsuit against the department for $100,000. Terrance Huff, who is also a documentary filmmaker, sued over the stop. After the 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals refused to throw out the lawsuit, Collinsville settled. Click on the link for the whole juicy, sleazy story.

Colorado Bills That Would Have Removed Kids from Parents Suspected of Drug Use Die. The state Senate approved, but then rejected two bills that attempted to expand the definition of child abuse to include even attempts at drug use and/or possession. The bills were Senate Bill 177 and Senate Bill 178. They were opposed by a coalition of groups including the Drug Policy Alliance, the ACLU of Colorado, and National Advocates for Pregnant Women.

Prescription Opiates

FDA Defends Approval of Zohydro. FDA Commissioner Margaret A. Hamburg, MD, defended the agency's approval of the powerful opioid Zohydro ER (hydrocodone bitartrate) extended-release capsules, explaining that its highest dose is no more potent than the highest strengths of the opioid OxyContin ER (oxycodone) extended-release and extended-release morphine, in an FDA blog posted yesterday. Dr. Hamburg explained that with the drug approval, it is unlikely that opioid prescribing will change significantly or use by patients with pain. Zohydro ER is approved for the management of pain severe enough to require daily, around-the-clock, long-term opioid treatment and for which alternative treatment options are inadequate. "Addressing the opioid crisis by focusing on a single opioid drug will simply not be effective," she stated. "Instead we must focus our collective attention and energy on the key drivers of the problem, which include excessive prescribing, illegal activity by a small number of providers, improper disposal of unused medications, and insufficient prescriber and patient education."

Sentencing

California Fair Sentencing Act to Eliminate the Disparities Between Crack and Powder Cocaine Sentencing Passes its First Committee. The California Fair Sentencing Act (Senate Bill 1010), authored by Senator Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), passed its first hurdle in the Senate Committee on Public Safety by a 4-2 vote. The bill will correct the disparity in sentencing, probation and asset forfeiture guidelines for possession of crack cocaine for sale versus the same crime involving powder cocaine that has resulted in a pattern of racial discrimination in sentencing and incarceration in California. SB 1010 now moves on to the Appropriations Committee.

Bill to Up Meth Trafficking Penalties Passes New York Senate. The state Senate Monday passed legislation, cosponsored by Senator David J. Valesky (D-Oneida), that would increase the penalties for manufacturing methamphetamine. The measure, Senate Bill 3639, increases sentences by moving various meth manufacture and distribution offenses up one notch on the state's felony crime sentencing scheme.

International

OAS Drug Commission Meeting Underway. The Inter-American Drug Abuse Control Commission (CICAD) of the Organization of American States (OAS) yesterday inaugurated its 55th Regular Session where it discussed, among other issues, policies related to micro-trafficking and the agenda of the Special General Assembly the hemispheric institution will hold in September in Guatemala, which will be dedicated exclusively to the Global Drug Problem in the Americas. The agenda of the CICAD meeting also includes discussions on alternatives to incarceration for drug dependent offenders and others in conflict with the law for reasons related to drugs, and the challenges and impacts surrounding the regulation of cannabis, with special attention to initiatives of this type in some States of the United States, as well as Uruguay. The meeting takes place between today and Thursday, May 1 at OAS headquarters in Washington, DC, and is being chaired by Colombia. Click on the link for more details.

Singapore Bans New Synthetic Drugs Effective Tomorrow. Synthetic drugs that mimic the effects of controlled drugs like methamphetamine and heroin, will become illegal and attract the same penalties beginning May 1. While it is now legal to possess these drugs, the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) has the power to seize them to restrict their circulation. There are currently 11 types of compounds under the Fifth Schedule of the Misuse of Drugs Act, with over a hundred specific examples listed. Beginning in May, drugs listed under the Fifth Schedule will then be re-classified as Class A controlled drugs. This means that those convicted of abusing them may be jailed up to 10 years and fined up to S$20,000. Those found guilty of trafficking such substances will face a minimum of five years' jail and five strokes of the cane.

US Spent $7.5 Billion to Stop Afghan Opium, Got Squat, New Report Says. A new report from Washington's Afghanistan war watchdog has found that the US spent $7.5 billion in efforts to reduce Afghan opium cultivation, but that opium cultivation there is at an all-time high. The report is the latest quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstuction. Opium-poppy cultivation takes up 209,000 hectares (516,230 acres) of land in Afghanistan, a 36% increase since 2012. Afghanistan is by far the world's largest opium producer.

Chronicle AM -- April 28, 2012

Medical marijuana continues to be contested terrain, a legalization bill gets a hearing in Boston, hemp is on the move in Hawaii and New York, New Zealand cracks down on its regulated synthetic drugs, and more. Let's get to it:

New Zealand is taking regulated synthetic drugs off the shelf until they can be proven "low risk." (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Colorado Bill Would Seal Past Marijuana Convictions. Marijuana convictions that predate current Colorado law could be sealed under a bipartisan proposal being floated inside the Capitol -- a move that could potentially impact thousands of Coloradans. The proposal, sponsored by Sens. Jessie Ulibarri (D-Westminster) and Vicki Marble (R-Fort Collins), allows anyone convicted of a marijuana offense that would now be legal under Amendment 64 to have their records sealed. Also, a draft of the bill says that a person convicted of "any other marijuana offense" beyond the scope of Amendment 64 would also be allowed to file a petition with a district attorney to have their record sealed. If the district attorney does not object, the court would then be required to seal the conviction record.

Massachusetts Legislators Hear Legalization Bill. The Joint Committee on Judiciary held a well-attended and well-covered hearing on a marijuana legalization measure, House Bill 1632, Thursday. No vote was taken.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act Initiative Goes Signature-Gathering. Hundreds of Arkansans volunteered over the weekend to collect signatures for the Arkansas Medical Cannabis Act in more than 50 locations across the state. They need to collect more than 62,000 valid voter signatures by July 7 to qualify for the November ballot.

Florida Sheriffs to Fight Medical Marijuana Initiative. Florida law enforcement authorities are set to begin a public awareness campaign to fight the effort to legalize medicinal marijuana, a question that will be put to voters in November. This winter, the Florida Sheriff's Association sent sheriffs across the state an email asking for their support of a resolution opposing the legalization of marijuana. A vast majority of the 67 sheriffs was in favor of fighting against any effort to legalize pot. That's a shocker.

Iowa Federal Marijuana Patients in Danger of Losing Access After Their Doctor Leaves the State. Two of the last remaining federal marijuana patients are facing a bleak future as a result of their physician relocating to another state. Patients Out of Time is issuing an urgent request for a Midwestern physician to come forward and help these individuals. No physicians in Iowa have stepped up so far. The patients, Barbara Douglass and George McMahon, are two of four remaining recipients of federal marijuana for medical purposes under the now defunct Compassionate IND program. For further information please call All Byrne of Patients Out of Time, (434) 263-4484, or email at al@medicalcannabis.com.

Montana Medical Marijuana Supporters Protest at Businesses Owned By Sponsor of Proposed Anti-Marijuana Initiative. Supporters of medical marijuana protested outside two of the businesses co-owned by the sponsor of a proposed initiative that would make all marijuana illegal in Montana. About 100 people demonstrated outside Rimrock Subaru and Rimrock KIA in Billings on Saturday. Steve Zabawa, a partner with the Rimrock Auto Group, is sponsoring an initiative that would "eliminate the disparity between federal law and state law." The potential law would make any drug on Schedule One of the Federal Controlled Substances Act illegal in Montana.

Pennsylvania Legislator and Parents of Sick Kids Plan Sit-In at Governor's Office. Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Montgomery County) and parents of sick children said Monday they have asked repeatedly to meet with Gov. Tom Corbett (R) to have a meaningful discussion about his opposition to a medical marijuana bill, Senate Bill 770. Now, after Corbett continues to stonewall their requests, Leach and family members said they will sit-in at Corbett's office until a meeting is scheduled. "If the governor chooses to forcibly remove sick children and the parents of those children, that is up to him. But we will not voluntarily leave until a meeting is scheduled," Leach said.

Rhode Island Cops Want to Amend Medical Marijuana Law for "Public Safety" Reasons. Law enforcement officials are pushing to amend Rhode Island's medical marijuana law to address what they say are public safety problems, but patient advocates say the changes would jeopardize access to medicine. The attorney general's office and municipal police chiefs say some licensed cardholders are growing excess amounts of marijuana under a program with inadequate oversight and some caregivers and patients have become targets of home invasions. House Bill 7610, sponsored by Rep. Lisa Tomasso (D-Coventry), would reduce the number of plants patients could grow from 12 to three and add more oversight by the Department of Health. The bill had a hearing earlier this month in the House Judiciary Committee, but no vote was taken.

Hemp

Hawaii Hemp Bill Passes Legislature. Last week, Hawaii legislators approved a bill that will focus on the study of hemp as a biofuel feedstock and phytoremediation resource. The bill, House Bill 1700, authorizes the dean of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources at the University of Hawaii-Manoa to establish a two-year industrial hemp remediation and biofuel crop research program. It does have quite a few strict stipulations to prevent undesired consequences.

New York Hemp Bill Introduced. Growing industrial hemp for research purposes would be legal in New York under a bill proposed last week by a pair of Southern Tier lawmakers. An amendment to the federal farm bill this year allowed for hemp research programs in states that allow industrial hemp growth. The New York bill, Senate Bill 7047 is sponsored by Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo (D-Endwel), and Sen. Tom O'Mara (R-Big Flats).

Drug Policy

Big Congressional Drug War Hearings This Week. This week, both chambers of Congress will hold major hearings on the drug war. On Tuesday, April 29, at 10:00am there will be joint subcommittee hearing entitled "Confronting Transnational Drug Smuggling: An Assessment of Regional Partnerships," held by the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure's Subcommittee on Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation. These Committees will hear from General John F. Kelly, USMC Commander of Southern Command, at the Department of Defense, and Luis E. Arreaga Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, at the Department of State. On Wednesday, April 30, at 10:00am, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing entitled, "Oversight of the Drug Enforcement Administration." The sole witness is the head of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), Administrator Michele M. Leonhart. Click on the link for more details.

Drug Testing

Georgia Leaders Consider Expanding Drug Testing of Public Benefits Recipients. Gov. Nathan Deal (R) said Monday he was exploring a plan that would require drug tests those who apply for unemployment benefits, and would set aside funding for treatment programs if they fail. The move would require legislative approval in 2015 as well as signoff by the US Department of Labor. He also hinted he would sign House Bill 772, which would require drug testing for some food stamp recipients. He said he believes it strikes a "delicate balance" between helping the neediest and protecting taxpayer dollars, though he would not say definitively whether he would sign the measure into law. He has until Tuesday to decide.

International

New Zealand Backpedals on Regulating Synthetics; Will Pull Drugs Off Shelves Until Proven Safe. All synthetic drugs will be pulled off the shelves within two weeks until individual testing has proven each brand is "low-risk," the government has announced. Citing reports of severe adverse reactions and the government's inability to determine which of the regulated synthetics are causing them, Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne said he would introduce emergency legislation to remove the remaining 41 allowed synthetics from store shelves until they are tested. "I will bring to Parliament amending legislation to put this measure in place, to be introduced and passed through all stages under urgency on May 8 and come into force the day after receiving the Royal Assent," he said.

Israeli MP Admits Regularly Smoking Marijuana. Meretz lawmaker Tamar Zandberg said she occasionally smokes marijuana, which is illegal, in an interview Friday. Zandberg is one of the most outspoken proponents of legalizing cannabis in the Knesset, together with MK Moshe Feiglin (Likud Beytenu), who says he has never used the drug. "Like everyone else, I smoke sometimes. I'm not a criminal and I'm not a delinquent," she said.

Poppies Bloom in Egypt's Sinai. A sharp slump in tourism is rippling across the southern Sinai, where resorts catering to foreigners line the Red Sea coast, and as a result, Bedouins are turning to the opium poppy to make a living. The Christian Science Monitor has an in-depth report; just click on the link.

Mexican Vigilantes Must Turn in Weapons By May 10. Mexican authorities and leaders of the self-defense groups who have been battling the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar) drug cartel in the western state of Michoacan for more than a year have signed an agreement spelling out the timetable for the militias to disarm. The self-defense groups must begin surrendering their guns, which include AK-47 and AR-15 assault rifles, on Monday and completely disarm by May 10, officials said. The militia leaders inked the disarmament deal Friday in a meeting at the headquarters of the 43rd Military Zone in Apatzingan, Michoacan, the largest city in the crime-ridden Tierra Caliente region.

Brazil Marchers Demand Legalization. Brazilian police said about 2,000 people gathered in downtown Sao Paulo Saturday in a demonstration demanding the legalization of the production and sale of marijuana in Latin America's largest country. Several of the demonstrators were smoking marijuana cigarettes while carrying posters reading "Legalize Marijuana Now," and "Marijuana is Medicine." Police say the demonstration was peaceful. No arrests have been reported.

Chronicle AM -- April 25, 2014

An Oregon congressman fights to end federal marijuana prohibition, a DC congresswoman vows to fight for decrim in the District, a Brooklyn DA gets support for his stance on small-time pot charges, some Philly narcs escape justice, and more. Let's get to it:

DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton will stick up for District decrim. (wikipedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon Congressman Launches Ad Campaign to End Federal Marijuana Prohibition. US Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) today began an advertising campaign to win support for ending federal marijuana prohibition. Blumenauer is a cosponsor of House Resolution 499, the Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2014. "Our marijuana laws don't work and cost the government billions," he said. "Federal drug law says that marijuana is more dangerous than meth or cocaine, and that is false."

DC Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton Vows to Defend District Marijuana Reforms from Congressional Republicans. In an effort to stop what could be the first step to overturn the District of Columbia's local marijuana decriminalization legislation, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) has announced she will testify at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee's Subcommittee on Government Operations in May on the District's newly-passed decriminalization law. Norton said that she was surprised to learn of a hearing that will single out the District's locally passed law. "It is appropriate for Congress to examine how the Obama administration will enforce the federal prohibition on marijuana in jurisdictions that have legalized or decriminalized it, as the subcommittee has done in two hearings this Congress," Norton said. "It is also appropriate to examine whether the federal marijuana prohibition preempts such local laws, but no local officials were called to testify at those hearings. It is inappropriate to hold a hearing on the local marijuana laws of only one jurisdiction, the District of Columbia, when 18 states have decriminalized marijuana, 21 states have legalized medical marijuana and two states have legalized marijuana. There is nothing that distinguishes the District from these states except for Congress's illegitimate power to overturn the democratically enacted local laws of the District." Congress has 60 days to attempt to block the DC decriminalization law.

Brooklyn DA's Decision to Stop Prosecuting Small-Time Marijuana Cases Garners Support. Today, Brooklyn elected officials, community groups, and advocates rallied on the steps of Borough Hall to support District Attorney Ken Thompson's proposal to stop prosecuting people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. A memo outlining DA Thompson's proposal, shared with the press, states that when the police make a low-level marijuana arrest and the defendant has no criminal record or a minimal criminal record, "there will be a presumption that such case will be immediately dismissed." Click on the link for more reaction to Thompson's move.

Child Psychiatry Group Opposes Legalization. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) has released a policy statement opposing efforts to legalize marijuana. Instead, "AACAP supports efforts to increase awareness of marijuana's harmful effects on adolescents and improve access to evidence-based treatment, rather than emphasis on criminal charges, for adolescents with cannabis use disorder. AACAP also urges careful monitoring of the effects of marijuana-related policy changes on child and adolescent mental health. Together, these efforts may help with the prevention of teen marijuana use during a critical period of ongoing brain maturation."

Medical Marijuana

Minnesota Medical Marijuana Bill Wins Senate Committee Vote. The long, strange saga of Minnesota medical marijuana continues. The Senate Committee on Health, Human Services and Housing today approved Senate File 1641, which would give patients with certain medical conditions access to a limited amount of marijuana. The measure now goes to the Senate Rules Committee.

Law Enforcement

Philadelphia's "Tainted Justice" Narcs Avoid Criminal Prosecution, Could Get Jobs Back. After years of investigation, federal and local prosecutors have decided not to file criminal charges against four Philadelphia narcotics officers accused of lying about evidence on search warrants and stealing from corner stores during raids. One of the officers was also accused of sexually assaulting three women. Sources familiar with the investigation said authorities cited weak witnesses and a lack of evidence as factors in their decision not to bring charges. The officers -- who were at the heart of a scandal that shook the department five years ago -- now face possible disciplinary action from the Police Department. But it is likely they will soon be placed back on the street and even awarded lost overtime pay. The officers were the subject of a 2009 series by the Philadelphia Daily News that won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The series, "Tainted Justice," detailed dozens of narcotics cases in which officers were alleged to have stolen, lied, and mistreated suspects. Click on the link for the whole sleazy story.

Wisconsin Becomes First State to Require Outside Agency Involvement in Investigating Deaths in Police Custody. Gov. Scott Walker (R) has signed into law Assembly Bill 409, under which Wisconsin will become the first state in the nation to require outside investigation when people die in police custody. The new law is the result of years of activism on the part of family members and a Milwaukee-Journal Sentinel investigation into five years of in-custody deaths in Milwaukee. Despite circumstances of detainees' deaths, officers were typically quickly cleared of wrongdoing.

Connecticut Bill to Shrink "Drug Free Zones" Dies. Legislation to reduce the size of "drug free zones" around schools died quietly in the Education Committee on Thursday. Senate File 609 failed on an 11-17 vote with no discussion. The bill's failure is frustrating for proponents who have sought the legislation for years. The proposal has twice been endorsed by the state's nonpartisan Sentencing Commission. The bill made it as far as a floor debate in the House last year, but was shelved when support began to wane among Democrats.

International

Drug Decriminalization Coming to Malta? Maltese Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said Thursday that a proposed drug law reform his government is working on will be "significantly broader" than previous failed reform efforts and hinted broadly that it would include drug decriminalization. But details remain sketchy, so stay tuned.

Drug War Issues

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