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A Possession Arrest Every 25 Seconds: The Cruel Folly of the War on Drugs [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

Nearly a half century after Richard Nixon inaugurated the modern war on drugs, to criticize it as a failure as so common as to be banal. Yet even as marijuana prohibition falls in some states, the drug war rolls on, an assembly line of criminalization and incarceration, dealing devastating blows to the lives of its victims that linger far beyond the jail or prison cell.

More than 1.25 million arrests for simple drug possession last year. (Creative Commons)
And most of its victims are not capos or kingpins, but simple drug users. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), drug possession is the single offense for which the largest number of arrests are made in the US, totaling more than 1.25 million last year, and accounting for more than three-fourths of all drug arrests.

Based on analysis of national and state-level data, as well as more than 360 interviews with drug offenders, family members, past and present government officials, and activists conducted mostly in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and New York, the 196-page report, "Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States," finds that enforcement of drug possession laws causes extensive and unjustifiable harm to individuals and communities across the country.

The long-term consequences can separate families; exclude people from job opportunities, welfare assistance, public housing, and voting; and expose them to discrimination and stigma for a lifetime. While more people are arrested for simple drug possession in the US than for any other crime, mainstream discussions of criminal justice reform rarely question whether drug use should be criminalized at all.

"Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use," said Tess Borden, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and the report's author. "These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence."

Among those interviewed was for the study was Corey, who is doing 17 years in Louisiana for possessing a half ounce of marijuana. His four-year-old daughter, who has never seen him outside prison, thinks she's visiting him at work.

The harmful consequences of a drug arrest extend far beyond prison walls (ussupremecourt.gov)
Another is "Neal," whose name was changed to protect his privacy. Also in Louisiana, he's doing five years for possessing 0.2 grams of crack cocaine. He has a rare autoimmune disorder and said he cried the day he pleaded guilty because he knew he might not survive his sentence.

Then there's Nicole, held for months in the Harris County Jail in Houston and separated from her three young children until she pleaded guilty to a felony -- her first. The conviction meant she would lose her student financial aid, the food stamps she relied on to feed her kids, and the job opportunities she would need to survive. All for an empty baggie containing a tiny bit of heroin residue.

"While families, friends, and neighbors understandably want government to take action to prevent the potential harm caused by drug use, criminalization is not the answer," Borden said. "Locking people up for using drugs causes tremendous harm, while doing nothing to help those who need and want treatment."

The report also emphasized the now all-too-familiar racial disparities in drug law enforcement, noting that while blacks use drugs at similar or lower rates than whites, they're more than two-and-a-half times more likely to arrested for drug possession and more than four time more likely to be arrested for pot possession. It's even worse in some localities, such as Manhattan, where blacks are 11 times as likely to be busted for drug possession as whites. That amounts to "racial discrimination under international human rights law," the two groups said.

Aside from the vicious cruelty of imprisoning people for years or decades merely for possessing a substance, that drug conviction -- and drug possession, even of tiny amounts, is a felony in 42 states -- also haunts their futures. Drug convicts face the loss of access to social welfare benefits, the stigma of criminality, the disruption of family life, the financial burden of paying fines and fees, and the burden of trying to find work with a felony record. And that harms society at large as well as the criminalized drug users.

And despite tens of millions of drug arrests over the past few decades, with all their collateral damage, the war on drugs doesn't achieve its avowed goal: reducing drug use. There has to be a better way, and Human Rights Watch and the ACLU have something to say about that.

report launch at National Press Club, Washington, DC, 10/12/16
"State legislatures and the US Congress should decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs. Federal and state governments should invest resources in programs to decrease the risks associated with drug use and provide and support voluntary treatment options for people struggling with drug dependence, along with other approaches," the two groups recommended.

"Until full decriminalization is achieved, officials at all levels of government should minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of current laws and practices," they added, providing detailed recommendations to state legislatures, police, prosecutors, and other state and local government entities, as well as the federal government.

"Criminalizing personal drug use is a colossal waste of lives and resources," Borden said. "If governments are serious about addressing problematic drug use, they need to end the current revolving door of drug possession arrests, and focus on effective health strategies instead."

Chronicle AM: MA Init Leads in New Poll, Iran Ponders End to Drug Death Penalty, More... (10/6/16)

We have Massachusetts legalization news today, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gets slapped down in his bid to drug test food stamp applicants, Iran's parliament ponders ending the death penalty for drugs, and more.

It looks like another bumper opium harvest next spring in Afghanistan. (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Another Massachusetts Poll Has Legalization Initiative Winning. A new Western New England University Polling Institute poll has the Question 4 leading a month out from election day. The poll had support at 55% among all registered voters, with 39% opposed. When it came to likely voters, the initiative's lead shrunk slightly, with 52% in support and 42% opposed.

Massachusetts ACLU Report Highlights Continuing Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests. Even after decriminalization, people continue to get arrested for marijuana offenses, especially if they're black, a new ACLU report has found. Black Massachusetts residents were 3.3 times more likely to get popped for pot than white ones even though they use it at the same rate. For marijuana sales offenses, the disparity was even more striking: Blacks were 7.1 times more likely than whites to get busted for peddling pot. "Racial disparities are a disturbing feature of our current marijuana policy. Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at 10 times the rate of white people in some counties -- despite the fact that black people and white people use marijuana at the same rate," ACLU Racial Justice Director Rahsaan Hall says in a prepared statement. "Taxing and regulating marijuana is an important step towards reducing the harm that current policies cause to people of color, particularly Black people, and it will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that can be reinvested in our communities."

Drug Testing

Federal Court Rejects Wisconsin's Bid to Drug Test Food Stamp Applicants. A federal judge in Washington has rejected a challenge from Gov. Scott Walker (R) to a federal law that blocks states from drug testing food stamp applicants. Walker had challenged the policy last year as he launched a doomed presidential bid, but the federal judge ruled that Wisconsin filed its complaint too soon, before it had actually implemented the policy, and without giving the Obama administration a chance to formally reject it.


Afghan Opium Production Expands to Near Record Levels. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday that opium production this year to one of the highest levels on record. Illicit cultivation has expanded to nearly half a million acres, making it one of the biggest years for poppy since 1994, when the UNODC began estimating the crop size. The all-time record is about 600,000 acres, reported in 2014.

Iraqi Forces Burn ISIS Opium Poppy Crop. Iraqi security forces Wednesday burned a four square acre field planted with opium poppies belonging to ISIS in Salahuddin province. The move was described as an effort to cut ISIS financing through the opium and heroin trade. Iraqi officials said ISIS used laboratories at Mosul University to process the raw opium into heroin.

Iran Moving to End Death Penalty for Drug Offenses. One of the world's leading drug executioners may be about the change its ways. A bill that would end capital punishment for drug trafficking now has the support of a majority in the parliament. If the parliament actually approves the bill, it would have to be ratified by the Guardian Council of Islamic jurists, which has opposed any relaxation of the country's death penalty regime. But executing drug smugglers "will not benefit the people or the country," said Yahya Kamalpur, deputy head of the parliamentary legal and judicial committee. Parliament "wants to eliminate the death penalty for criminals who [smuggle narcotics] out of desperation" and replace it with long prison sentences or hard labor. We are after a scientific and not emotional solution in confronting drug smugglers," he said.

Danes to Consider Bill Easing Marijuana-Impaired Driving Rules. A bill filed in the parliament this week would the country's zero tolerance policy toward drivers with marijuana in their systems in favor of a "stepladder" approach in which the penalty for driving while impaired would depend on the level of marijuana in the driver's system. Under current law, driving with marijuana in one's system can result in the loss of a driver's license for three years. That's too much for bill sponsor Jan Jorgensen of the Liberal Party. "You can actually drive pretty well, even after having smoked hash. There is obviously a limit to how much, but we believe a minimum threshold should be introduced now," he said. "The problem is that we have punished a lot of people who have not been of any danger to traffic at all, simply because they might have smoked marijuana a fortnight ago, and it still could be measured in the blood."

The Charlotte Killing That Sparked Civic Unrest Began With a Joint

The chain of events that led to the death of Keith Lamont Scott at the hands of Charlotte Metropolitan Police Department (CMPD) officers and days of civic unrest in North Carolina's largest city began with a joint, Charlotte police said Saturday.

the fateful, fatal joint (CMPD)
That makes Scott the 38th person to die in domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

In an official statement posted on the CMPD's Facebook page and during a press conference last Saturday afternoon announcing that the department was releasing some police body- and dash-cam videos of the fatal encounter, Charlotte police laid out a timeline of what occurred:

Two plain clothes officers were sitting inside of their unmarked police vehicle preparing to serve an arrest warrant in the parking lot of The Village at College Downs, when a white SUV pulled in and parked beside of them.

The officers observed the driver, later identified as Mr. Keith Lamont Scott, rolling what they believed to be a marijuana "blunt." Officers did not consider Mr. Scott's drug activity to be a priority at the time and they resumed the warrant operation. A short time later, Officer Vinson observed Mr. Scott hold a gun up.

Because of that, the officers had probable cause to arrest him for the drug violation and to further investigate Mr. Scott being in possession of the gun.

Due to the combination of illegal drugs and the gun Mr. Scott had in his possession, officers decided to take enforcement action for public safety concerns…

And Keith Scott ended up dead. According to his family, he was in his vehicle waiting for his son to get off the school bus. But because he was rolling a joint while waiting, and because police just happened to be engaged in an operation nearby, he caught the attention of the cops.

Even when police said they saw him hold up a gun, they used the joint-rolling as probable cause to investigate the presence of the gun. If not for marijuana prohibition, the whole unraveling of events, with dire consequences for Keith Scott, and lamentable ones for the city of Charlotte, most likely would never have occurred.

Charlotte, NC
United States

In Surprise Reversal, Democrats Call for "Pathway" to Marijuana Legalization

Meeting in Orlando Saturday ahead of the Democratic National Convention later this month, the party's platform drafting committee dropped a moderate marijuana plank it had adopted only days earlier and replaced it with language calling for rescheduling pot and creating "a reasoned pathway to future legalization."

Bernie Sanders supporters had pushed earlier for firm legalization language, but had been turned back last week and didn't have any new language going into this weekend's platform committee meeting. But on Saturday afternoon, the committee addressed an amendment that would have removed marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, as Sanders supporters had earlier sought in vain, with Tennessee Sanders delegate David King arguing that pot was put in the same schedule as heroin during a political "craze" to go after "hippies and blacks."

That amendment was on the verge of being defeated, with some committee members worrying that it went "too far" and that it would somehow undermine state-level legalization efforts, but then committee members proposed merely rescheduling -- not descheduling -- marijuana and added the undefined "pathway" language.

The amendment was then adopted on an 81-80 vote, leading to a period of contention and confusion as former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, the committee co-chair, entered a complaint that at least one member may not have been able to vote. That led to arguments between committee members and between members and non-voting observers, most of whom were Sanders supporters. The Washington Post reported that one Clinton delegate complained loudly that Sanders delegates "wanted 100% of everything."

But the new language prevailed when former Arkansas US senator Mark Pryor, a Clinton delegate, announced that while opponents of the language were unhappy that the earlier compromise language had been replaced, they weren't going to fight it.

"We withdraw the objection," Pryor said.

The marijuana amendment adopted by the platform committee reads:

"Because of conflicting laws concerning marijuana, both on the federal and state levels, we encourage the federal government to remove marijuana from its list as a Class 1 Federal Controlled Substance, providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization."

The earlier language had cited disparate racial enforcement of marijuana laws and urged support for state level "marijuana decriminalization," but only stated support for "policies that will allow more research to be done on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty."

Bernie Sanders supporters didn't get the descheduling language they wanted, but they did get a commitment to rescheduling and they got the word "legalization" in there, even if the phrase "a reasoned pathway for future legalization" is a bit mealy-mouthed.

And the Democratic Party now has marijuana legalization as part of its platform.

Orlando, FL
United States

The Outrageous Death of Ollie Lee Brooks

A poor, elderly black man with a heart condition was sitting in his room at a cheap Tulsa, Oklahoma, motel the night of May 28th, using his drug of choice, minding his own business, and not bothering anybody when police arrived at his door. Now he's dead, and his death raises questions not only of law enforcement use of force, but of race, class, and predatory policing.

Ollie Lee Brooks
As the Tulsa World reported, Ollie Lee Brooks, 64, died at the Oklahoma State University Medical Center after a pair of Tulsa police officers tased and pepper spayed him during an arrest attempt at a Super 8 Motel in east Tulsa. Police said he struggled with them when they tried to arrest him after spotting drug paraphernalia "in plain sight" in his motel room.

Brooks becomes the 22nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

He "immediately resisted arrest by actively fighting officers," the police report said. They then pepper sprayed him, but it didn't "have the desired effect," so one officer then tased Brooks, who "continued to fight," so he tased him again. At one point, Brooks broke free and ran down the stairs, but the officers tackled and cuffed him, then called medics to the scene.

The officers were not wearing body cams, and there is no surveillance video to verify their account.

But there is no reason to doubt their explanation for why they went to his room in the first place: They had gone to the motel "to search the register for guests with outstanding warrants, police spokesman Leland Ashley said."

You read that right: Police in Tulsa are going around to motels and hotels and checking guest lists against their lists of people wanted for warrants. Or at least they're going to some motels and hotels and doing that. Like motels in minority neighborhoods that attract a non-wealthy clientele. There are no reports of police running warrant checks at the Tulsa Hilton Garden Inn or the Tulsa Marriott Courtyard.

This looks to be a race- and class-based predatory policing practice, targeting the poor, who often have arrest warrants not just for alleged crimes but for the crime of being unable to pay fines for past offenses. It has the same sort of stench about it as the now well-known predatory policing in Ferguson, Missouri, that culminated in massive civil unrest after the killing of Michael Brown nearly two years ago.

And a list of outstanding warrants for dangerous felons is one thing, but that's not what the Tulsa police officers were carrying. Instead of keeping society safe from criminals, the officers were essentially acting as bill collectors.

Ollie Lee Brooks was on the list not for being an escaped fugitive or a dangerous criminal, but for an $874 bench warrant in connection with an DUI/open container charge from Okmulgee County in 1991. (It had been a $642 warrant, but a $201 "collections fee" and other fees had been added in 2012.) That DUI/open container charge was never prosecuted, and Brooks had had several run-ins with the law since then (he was last arrested in 1999), yet somehow that warrant was still on the books, was reissued in 2005, and had never been served.

(In a Friday press conference, Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said it wasn't the Okmulgee warrant, but a 2015 Tulsa warrant for failure to pay a jaywalking fine. In either case, the point remains that cops acting as bill collectors, went after Brown, and now he's dead.)

The comments section of the initial Tulsa World article contains numerous messages from Tulsans who knew him as a sometimes homeless man who frequented a custard shop and who also picked up occasional work in landscaping and odd jobs. Here's one:

I knew this man as "Richard". He slept behind a dumpster at 61st and Sheridan several years ago when I worked for my parents business, Custard King Frozen Custard. I used to give him free custard and talk to him. I even bought him a pair of shoes and some clothes one time. Actually he's a pretty nice guy! This is very sad news indeed and serves as a warning that police have no hesitation about shocking the hell out of you and killing you. I was told that he had just gotten out of the hospital a few weeks ago with a heart condition. My father talked with him recently. He would occasionally stop by their business. Several years ago, I tried to help this guy out. I am totally shocked because I never knew him as a violent guy. He just frequented our area sometimes. He told us he had a son which he helped with tree work sometimes. He was always very friendly to us.

Another comment:

Ollie used to come to our store and buy a sirloin steak with all the fat on it. We wouldn't see him for awhile and he would just show up. Friendly guy, mannerly, sometimes you could tell he had been drinking and sometimes he appeared to be under the influence but before he got sick he had a tree trimming business and did some landscaping on the side so he wasn't a complete bum. It is sad that this is how he left this Earth and how he will be remembered.

Let's recap here: An elderly black man living on the margins of society manages to scrape enough money together to get a motel room to do his thing in peace, the police run a warrant check on the guests at the motel, they find a trivial warrant, they discover evidence of another criminal offense (drug possession), a struggle ensues, and Ollie Brooks is dead.

Police Chief Jordan said Friday that the two officers involved had been suspended with pay, but had been returned to active duty the day before and had done nothing wrong. But there's something very wrong indeed with a criminal justice system that generates results like this.

And speaking of things being wrong, just a few days ago, AlterNet published "May Was One of the Worst For Drug War Deaths in Recent Memory," which listed seven people killed by police enforcing the drug laws that month. Ollie Lee Brooks wasn't on that list, not because he didn't deserve to be, but because the Tulsa Police didn't bother to publicly announce his death at their hands.

News of his death came only when the Tulsa World ran a story after an affidavit for a search warrant for his room after his death was officially filed last Wednesday. When asked by a reporter whether the department should have notified the media and the public that someone had died after an encounter with police that involved physical force, Jordan said, "In hindsight, after today, yeah, I probably would. Yes, sir."

Brooks' family has retained legal counsel. But he's still dead.

Chronicle AM: CA MJ Ticket Race Disparities Persist, Bolivians Protest New US Law, More... (6/1/16)

Two presidential candidates get "A" grades on marijuana policy, racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement persist in Los Angeles even in the age of decriminalization, Bolivians protest a new US drug trafficking law that extends Uncle Sam's reach, and more.

Bolivian coca farmers don't consider themselves drug traffickers. (justice.gov/dea)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Policy Project Updates Guide to Presidential Candidates, Adds Third Parties. MPP has released an updated version of its voters' guide to include Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Both received "A+" grades from the group. Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump got a "C+," while the two remaining contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, received a "B" and an "A," respectively. MPP called this "the most marijuana-friendly field of presidential candidates in history."

In Los Angeles, Racial Disparities in Marijuana Enforcement Persist. A new analysis from the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance finds that even in the era of decriminalization, blacks in Los Angeles are much more likely to be ticketed for pot possession than whites or Latinos. Although pot use was "similar across racial and ethnic lines," blacks were nearly four times more likely than whites to be ticketed and about 2 ½ times more likely than Latinos to be ticketed.

Maine Legalization Effort Gets Organized Opposition. A new coalition aimed at defeating the state's legalization initiative has formed. The group, Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, says it represents parents, health experts, clergy, and police. Its spokesman is Scott Gagnon, chair of the Maine affiliate of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the brainchild of leading pot prohibitionist Kevin Sabet.

Law Enforcement

Oklahoma Reserve Deputy Who Mistakenly Killed Drug Suspect Gets Four Years in Prison. Former reserve deputy Robert Bates, who fatally shot unarmed drug suspect Eric Harris in April 2015 after he said he mistakenly drew his handgun instead of his stun gun, was sentenced to four years in state prison Tuesday. The killing raised the veil on favoritism and corner-cutting in the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office and led to an indictment of Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who resigned last November.


Bolivians Reject New US Drug Trafficking Law. Political and social leaders, peasants, and coca growers rejected the new US Transnational Drug Trafficking Act, signed into law by President Obama last month. According to the Congressional Research Service, the act criminalizes the manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance "by individuals having reasonable cause to believe that such a substance or chemical will unlawfully be imported into the United States…" On Tuesday, hundreds of people marched through the city of Santa Cruz to protest the law, which they said could target coca growers, and President Evo Morales warned that Bolivia is not a US colony and added that coca is part of the country's cultural patrimony.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

Frustrated Marijuana Legalizers Head for the White House

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.

A demonstration headed by the DC Cannabis Campaign and Weed for Warriors is set for the White House Friday after the Obama administration failed to respond to the groups' requests for "higher level consultations" following an initial meeting with White House staffers last month.

Headed by longtime DC political gadfly Adam Eidinger, the DC Cannabis Campaign is the group behind the District's successful 2014 marijuana legalization initiative. The campaign's White House demonstration last month led to that initial meeting and to the campaign's call for further meetings.

Weed for Warriors is a group dedicated to working with the Veterans Administration to ensure that vets "have the freedom to use medical marijuana as a recognized medical alternative to harmful psychiatric drugs."

Organizers are saying the event won't be a smoke-in, but it will come close. "This will be an unpermitted event with mass cannabis consumption and escalated civil disobedience," demonstration promotional materials say.

"Support veterans risking arrest!" the groups say. "They will lead a mass die-in calling for an end to the war on drugs."

The groups are calling on the Obama administration to deschedule -- not reschedule -- marijuana before the president leaves office in January. But they are also clear that the ultimate goal is ending prohibition.

"You should understand our protests are not just for medical research into cannabis, but ending cannabis prohibition once and for all," the DC Cannabis Campaign said in its letter to the White House earlier this month. "You have the opportunity to heal the national wound of unjust cannabis policies that have always targeted minorities, hurt patients and corrupted policing in America for nearly 80 years."

The date, May 20, is no accident. It's the birthday of arch-prohibitionist Harry J. Anslinger, who, as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for decades in the mid-20th Century, was a founding father of the modern war on drugs. The protestors note that Anslinger built support for pot prohibition by resorting to racist and xenophobic justifications, as Anslinger's own words make clear:

"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others."

"… the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races."

"Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death."

"Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."

"Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing."

"You smoke a joint and youre likely to kill your brother."

"Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind."

The bigotry and racism behind Anslinger's attack on marijuana have remained embedded in prohibition, with black people being arrested at a rate nearly four times that of whites. And five million people have been arrested on marijuana charges since President Obama has been in office -- nearly 90% of them for simple possession.

"Given the compelling and staggering facts as to why these failed cannabis policies harm Americans, we are sure you can understand why we cannot tolerate your inaction on these important issues any longer," the groups said in their letter to the White House. "We simply cannot stand on the sidelines and watch while everyday more Americans are harmed by what is clearly racist and unconstitutional failed drug policies. This is why we are requesting a formal response regarding the above from your administration before May 20th."

That formal response didn't happen, so Friday's demonstration at the White House is happening.

Chronicle AM: Racial Disparities in CO Pot Arrests Persist, NH Decriminalization Moves, More... (5/11/16)

A new poll has good news for Florida's medical marijuana initiative, pot decriminalization is one Senate vote away in New Hampshire, and more. 

Marijuana Policy

Colorado Racial Disparities in Teen Marijuana Arrests Worsen After Legalization.  Teen marijuana arrests actually increased after legalization in Colorado, and so did racial disparities among those arrested, according to a new state report.  White juvenile arrests dropped by 8%, while Latino arrests increased by 29% and black arrests increased by 58%. Among adults, marijuana arrests have decreased by nearly half, but racial disparities among those arrested grew slightly worse. In 2012, black people got busted at a rate almost double that of whites; in 2014, the rate was almost triple.

Florida Poll Has Majority Support for Legalization, Overwhelming Support for Medical Marijuana. A new Quinnipiac University poll has support for pot legalization at 56% and support for medical marijuana at 80%. Legalization isn't on the immediate horizon in the Sunshine State, but a medical marijuana initiative will be on the November ballot. A similar initiative was defeated in 2012 with 58% of the vote; it needed 60% to win because it was a constitutional amendment.

New Hampshire House Passes Decriminalization Bill. The House Wednesday voted 289-58 to approve Senate Bill 498, which was amended in committee to include provisions that would decriminalize the possession of up to a quarter ounce of marijuana.  The bill now goes back to the Senate for approval. 


Myanmar Opium Farmers Call for End to Eradication Until Alternatives are Found. The 4th Annual Myanmar Opium Farmers' Forum ended Monday with a call for recognition of the struggles of poppy farmers and no crop eradication without alternative development programs in place: "We grow opium because we are poor and do not have other livelihood opportunities to feed our families and send our children to school, as well as for medicinal and traditional uses. We are not involved in the drug trade, we are not criminals, and we are not commercial farmers. Some of us also grow it for traditional and medicinal uses. It is important to differentiate between small-holder farmers like us, and those people who grow opium commercially and/or who invest in it," the farmers said.  "The government should not carry out any force eradication of our opium fields unless and until they have provided access to sustainable crop substitution programmes and alternative livelihoods to our communities. Eradication should especially not take place during the harvest season. By that time we have already invested a lot and also cannot grow another crop anymore that season." Myanmar is the world's second leading producer of opium, behind Afghanistan. 

February's Drug War Deaths

The war on drugs continues to exact a lethal toll, with drug law enforcement-related deaths occurring at a pace of just under one a week so far this year. There were three in January, and four more last month, bringing this year's toll so far to seven.

Of the February killings by police, one was of an unarmed white man, one was of an unarmed black man, and two were of armed black men. In all four cases, police shooters claimed they feared for their lives. In the cases of the three black men killed in the drug war, protests broke out after each killing. That didn't happen with the white guy, though.

The unarmed white man allegedly struggled with an arresting officer, the unarmed black man was holding a cell phone mistaken for a weapon, one armed black man was shot fleeing from police in disputed circumstances, and the other was shot by police as he wore a holstered weapon.

Where the war on drugs intersects with the American obsession with firearms possession, the bodies fall fast. None of the victims actually fired at an officer, but officers' fears of being shot impact the way they approach their duties, and the results are deadly -- even when there's not actually a real gun around.

Here's the February death toll:

On February 5, San Antonio police Officer John Lee shot and killed Antronie Scott, an unarmed black man, after an officer trying to arrest him said he mistook a cell phone in Scott's hand for a weapon. Scott, who was wanted on drug possession and weapons warrants, was being tracked by two detectives, who radioed the uniformed officer to make the arrest.

According to My San Antonio, at a press conference the following day, Police Chief William McManus explained that: "Officer Lee stated that he feared for his life when he discharged a single round" and the shooting happened "in the blink of an eye."

Audio of the incident confirms that Lee shouted, "Show me your hands!" and then shot within seconds. Lee told McManus he though Scott was holding a gun, but it turned out to be a cell phone.

There is no video of the incident because San Antonio police are not yet equipped with body cameras and the officer's dashcam had an obstructed view.

The killing sparked angry protests organized by activist Alvin Perry and Scott's family the following week.

"Just like my shirt says, 'Will I be next?' Anyone one of us could be next," said Perry. "Things like this have happened in San Antonio, but it's been swept under the rug or overlooked."

By the week after that, Scott's family had filed a federal lawsuit against Officer Lee, the police department, and the city of San Antonio. The lawsuit charges that "no reasonable police officer and/or law enforcement officer given the same or similar circumstances would have initiated such a vicious and unwarranted attack on Mr. Scott within a second of directing Mr. Scott to show his hands."

The lawsuit also cited department policy, which allows police too much discretion in use of lethal force.

Chief McManus moved to fire Officer Lee, placing him on "contemplated indefinite suspension" as the first step toward termination.


On February 21, a Seattle police officer shot and killed armed black man Che Taylor, 47, after they encountered him apparently selling drugs while they conducting surveillance in the Wedgewood neighborhood.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, citing police accounts, officers spotted Taylor wearing a holstered handgun and, knowing he was barred from carrying firearms because of a past felony conviction, swooped in to arrest him as he stood beside the passenger window of a parked car. When officers tried to detain him, he allegedly refused to show his hands and lower himself to the ground as police ordered. So one officer opened fire on him.

The Seattle Police made available dashcam video of the shooting, but it does not clearly show Taylor's actions before he is shot. It does show two police officers armed with rifles approaching an apparently oblivious Taylor, who jerks his head up as they draw near, and then appears to be trying to comply with their contradictory demands -- "Hands up!" and "Get on the ground!" -- before being shot repeatedly by one of the officers.

While police said Taylor was trying to reach for his holstered handgun, the video doesn't show that. It does show the second officer opening fire on Taylor as soon as he (the officer) comes around the car, in what looks an awful lot like a summary execution.

The officer has been identified as Michael Spaulding. This wasn't his first killing. In 2013, he shot and killed a mentally ill man after slipping and falling, arguing that he no choice but to defend himself. That killing was ruled as justified by a King County inquest. The following year, he signed onto a desperate lawsuit to block Justice Department-mandated police use-of-force reforms.

The alternative weekly The Stranger consulted with several veteran police officers who criticized police for issuing contradictory demands and said that, contrary to the police account, he was complying with police orders. One, recently retired from the Kings County Sheriff's Office, who asked not to be identified had this to say:

"From the angle presented, I cannot draw any type of conclusion [about whether the shooting was justified]," he said. "If those officers had body cameras, it would be a lot easier." They were not wearing body cams.

"If they know they're dealing with a person that's armed," he said, "then you want to come in with force showing."

The way officers rush toward the car with their guns out is "standard stuff... That looks pretty textbook."

"From what I saw, he was told to get down, and he was getting down. And while he was down, I don't know what prompted them to shoot... He's getting down. But we can't tell if he's getting all the way on the ground."

"He was obeying commands," the former officer said. "And it looks like the other officer was going in to take control of him, when the officer with the rifle began to shoot."

Here's the video:



On February 26, a Pennington County, South Dakota, sheriff's deputy shot and killed Abraham Mitchell Fryer, an unarmed white man. According to the Rapid City Journal, citing police sources, Deputy Robert Schoeberl pulled over Fryer, who was wanted on drug charges, in Rapid Valley just before midnight. Within moments, Fryer was dead, with the Journal reporting that "the shooting apparently came after the two men had fought."

Both men were transported to a local hospital, where Fryer was pronounced dead. Deputy Schoeberl was treated for unspecified injuries and released.

Police were quick to release Fryer's criminal history, calling it "extensive," and noting that he was wanted for failure to appear on marijuana possession, drug possession, and possession with intent to distribute charges in neighboring Meade County. He was also wanted by federal authorities on a weapons charge, but was unarmed at the time he was killed.

The shooting is under investigation by the state Department of Criminal Investigation, which is expected to issue a report within 30 days.


On February 29, Raleigh, North Carolina, police Officer J.W. Twiddy shot and killed Akiel Denkins, an armed black man, after a foot chase. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, Twiddy was attempting to arrest Denkins on outstanding felony drug charges when Denkins took off running.

Police and witnesses agreed that the pursuit began outside a business on East Bragg Street, in a heavily African-American neighborhood, but disagreed on much else. According to a preliminary report from Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown, Twiddy caught up with Denkins behind a nearby house and grabbed him. As the pair struggled, Denkins allegedly pulled a handgun from his waistband and "began to move it toward Officer Twiddy," the report said.

"While still struggling with Mr. Denkins, Officer Twiddy drew his duty weapon and fired multiple shots as Mr. Denkins continued to move the firearm in his direction," the report said. "After the first shots were fired, Officer Twiddy felt Mr. Denkins' hand or arm make contact with his duty weapon. Officer Twiddy, fearing that Mr. Denkins was either going to shoot him or attempt to take his duty weapon, stepped back and fired additional shots at Mr. Denkins, who still had the firearm in his hand."

But the report clashes with accounts from witnesses. Denkins' former basketball coach, M.M. Johnson, said he talked to numerous people who were on the street when Denkins got shot.

"They said he took off running," Johnson said. "Everybody that was standing out there was talking about it. Ain't nobody said nothing about a struggle. They said he took off running and the police officer fell and started busting (shooting) because he couldn't catch him."

A preliminary autopsy report showed that Denkins was hit by four bullets -- one in his chest, one on his left forearm, one on his right upper arm, and one on his right shoulder. But the report does not say whether any of the shots came from behind.

Joe Jabari, owner of the building where the pursuit began, said he heard "a lot of people" say Denkins had been shot in the back and that he was "absolutely shocked" at the police chief's report.

"This kid came to me many times, saying, 'I wish I didn't have a felony charge because I need to change,' " he said. "He was trying, honest to God he was trying. That day, I don't know what happened. I'm not defending nobody, but some of these kids feel like they have no choice."

Denkins had previous drug convictions and was out on $10,000 secured bond after being charged in October with two counts of selling or delivering cocaine and one count of felony possession of cocaine with intent to sell or deliver. He had failed to show up for a court date, and an arrest warrant had been issued days before he was killed.

After the shooting, neighborhood residents broke into spontaneous protest, chanting "No Justice, No Peace," and later that evening, a small group gathered around "an anti-police sign with an expletive" that was hoisted on a utility pole.

Denkins' funeral last Friday was attended by more than 200 people, with "people wearing baggy jeans, red bandanas and anti-police T-shirts mingled with people wearing smart suits," as ABC News put it.

"Justice will be served whether we know it or not. Not by men, not by a judge but by the ultimate Supreme Court, Jesus Christ," said friend Aaron Cummings.

Officer Twiddy has been placed on administrative leave while the State Bureau of Investigation looks into the matter.

Chronicle AM: El Chapo Captured, ME Gov's Race-Tinged Remarks Draw Outrage, More... (1/8/16)

Mexican authorities have recaptured the fugitive head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Maine's Tea Party governor goes racial on drugs, while other New England states move toward drug reforms, and more.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, arrested today in Mexico
Medical Marijuana

Missouri Medical Marijuana Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. An initiative from New Approach Missouri has been approved for circulation by the secretary of state's office. The group is seeking 250,000 raw signatures to ensure it meets the requirement of 160,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. The campaign estimates it will cost $800,000 for paid signature gathering and is trying to raise funds now.

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire House Passes Asset Forfeiture Reform. The GOP-controlled House Thursday approved a bill that would divert money garnered through civil asset forfeiture away from law enforcement and into the state's general fund. The bill would also require a criminal conviction before seized property can be permanently forfeited and it would provide protections for "innocent owners." The bill is House Bill 636. It now goes to the Senate.

Drug Policy

Maine Governor Says Black Out-of-State Drug Dealers Are "Impregnating Young White Girls." During a town hall meeting on Wednesday night, Gov. Paul LePage (R) was asked about how he was tackling substance abuse in Maine. What was his response? "These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty -- these types of guys -- they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home." He then elaborated: "Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road." He is catching lots of flak for his comments.

Massachusetts House Votes to Repeal Mandatory Driver's License Suspension for Drug Offenders. The House voted Thursday to repeal a state law mandating automatic driver's license suspensions for people convicted of drug offenses -- whether they were driving or not. About 7,000 people have their licenses suspended for drug offenses each year, imposing significant barriers to social reentry for drug offenders. "This vote shines a bright light on our state's evolving understanding of drug policy, and emphasizes our ongoing need to advance an approach to criminal justice and drug law reform that prioritizes treatment and rehabilitation over harmful punitive measures that impede Massachusetts residents from successfully reentering and re-engaging their communities," said Rep. Tom Sannicandro, Chair of the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Caucus. The bill now goes to the Senate.


El Chapo Captured! Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto announced on his Twitter feed this morning that Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, fugitive head of the Sinaloa Cartel had been recaptured in his home state of Sinaloa. He had escaped from a Mexican federal prison last July. That was his second prison break. He also escaped from a Mexican federal prison in 2001 and eluded capture for more than a decade. Not this time. Guzman heads what is arguably the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world.

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