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NYPD Facing Double-Barreled Challenge to Marijuana Practices [FEATURE]

There has been a double-barreled challenge this week to the NYPD and its heavy-handed policing. On the one hand, the department and the city are being sued in federal court over their stop-and-frisk program, which is aimed predominantly at young men of color. On the other, the NYPD is facing the glare of publicity over a new report that contends it has wasted as much as a million man-hours over the past ten years arresting low-level marijuana offenders.

March 2012 protest of NYC stop and frisk violations
Under the stop-and-frisk program, which the city touts as a crime-fighting effort, more than 531,000 people were stopped last year and nearly five million in the past decade. Some were stopped only for questioning, some had their bags or backpacks searched, some were subjected to full pat-down searches. Only 10% of those stops resulted in arrests -- including arrests for public marijuana possession after police tricked or intimidated people into pulling out their baggies (possession is otherwise decriminalized in the state) -- and only a tiny number resulted in the seizure of weapons.

The massive number of annual stop-and-frisks, five times the number a couple of decades ago, raises questions itself. But who is being stopped-and-frisked is raising even more questions and concerns. While blacks make up a quarter of the city's population, they accounted for 51% of all stop-and-frisk encounters, being stopped at a rate twice what would be expected with color-blind enforcement. Whites, on the other hand, make up 44% of the population, but accounted for only 11% of stop-and-frisk encounters.

Many of the stop-and-frisks are illegal and the enforcement is racially biased, argued attorneys in the class action lawsuit in federal court this week. In the case, which began Monday, attorneys for the plaintiffs -- people who were subjected to stop-and-frisk searches -- are seeking a court-appointed monitor to oversee changes in police practices.

They are not seeking to ban stop-and-frisk searches because they have been found legal. But US District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin, who has expressed deep concerns over the tactic in previous rulings, could order reforms. The trial could last for up to a month.

NYPD is doing illegal stops and must reform its practices, said Center for Constitutional Rights attorney Darius Charney, who is representing the plaintiffs. The stops are "arbitrary, unnecessary, and unconstitutional" and a "frightening and degrading experience" for "thousands, if not millions" of New Yorkers, Charney argued. He said plaintiffs will present "powerful testimonial and statistical evidence" that residents are stopped for no good reason.

On Monday, the first plaintiff witnesses took the stand. Devin Almonor, 16, the son of a police officer, testified that he was stopped when he was 13, handcuffed and thrown against an unmarked police car as he made his way home. David Floyd, now a 33-year-old medical student, testified that he was stopped twice without cause.

Attorneys for the city responded that in a city that large, large numbers of stop-and-frisks should not be unexpected and that the NYPD went where the crime was.

"The New York Police Department is fully committed to policing within the boundaries of the law," said Heidi Grossman, an attorney for the city. "Crime is not distributed evenly across the city. Police are given an awesome responsibility, one of which is to bring crime down and keep people safe."

Given those awesome responsibilities, a new report from the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project is raising eyebrows. The report's main finding is clear from its title: One Million Police Hours: Making 440,000 Marijuana Possession Arrests in New York City, 2002-2012. The report was authored by CUNY sociology professor Dr. Harry Levine, an expert on marijuana possession arrests, at the request of members of the city council and the state legislature.

While marijuana possession offenders typically faced only fines once they had their day in court, the report found that the arrests themselves inflicted immediate pain. Those 440,000 arrests resulted in five million hours of police custody, an average of more than 10 hours per person of being held in the city's notorious holding cells, often overnight.

"We cannot afford to continue arresting tens of thousands of youth every year for low-level marijuana possession," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights organizer with VOCAL-NY. "We can't afford it in terms of the negative effect it has on the future prospects of our youth and we can't afford in terms of police hours. It's shocking that the same mayor who has been taking money away from youth programs and cutting other social services, is wasting tens of millions of dollars locking youth up through the NYPD's marijuana arrests crusade. We need legislative action to fix this madness."

"This report shows that people arrested for marijuana possession spend an average of 12-18 hours, just in police custody, and the vast majority of those arrested are young Black and Latino men from seven to ten neighborhoods in NYC," said Chino Hardin, field coordinator and trainer with the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions. "This is not just a crisis, but a frontline civil rights issue facing urban communities of color in the 21st century. We are calling on Governor Cuomo to do the right thing, and exercise the moral and political will to address this injustice."

While Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly last fall announced changes it how the NYPD processes marijuana arrests and the number of pot possession busts have begun to decline slightly, advocates are calling on the legislature and the governor to change the state's 1977 decriminalization law to remove law enforcement's "in public view" loophole, the provision NYPD has used to great effect.

"For years, New Yorkers from across the state have organized and marched and rallied, demanding an end to these outrageous arrests. And now we learn that the police have squandered one million hours to make racially biased, costly, and unlawful marijuana possession arrests. This is scandalous," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "I’m sure we can all think of more effective things for the police to spend their time on -- imagine if NYPD committed one million hours to working with communities to stop gun violence or to pursue unsolved serious crimes. We stand with the caucus and other leaders in Albany -- both Democrats and Republicans -- in demanding reform. The hour of change is upon us, and reform is long, long overdue."

Whether it is the massive stop-and-frisk policing program or the practice of turning marijuana possession tickets into misdemeanor arrests complete with post-booking jail time and criminal records, NYPD is coming under increasing scrutiny and criticism..

New York City, NY
United States

Bloomberg Says No More Jail Stays for Minor NYC Marijuana Busts

In his final state of the city address Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people caught with small amounts of marijuana in the city will no longer be subjected to overnight stays in the city's jails, but will merely be taken to the precinct for a desk appearance and then released.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (wikimedia.org)
The move is in response to increasingly loud criticism of the city's extremely high marijuana arrest rates, which are taking place despite New York state having decriminalized pot possession more than three decades ago. The NYPD managed to get its pound of flesh from marijuana users by intimidating them into removing baggies from their pockets, then charging them with the misdemeanor of public possession of marijuana, not the infraction of simple possession, and then making them sit in holding cells for up to 24 hours.

During Bloomberg's 10-year tenure as mayor, more than 400,000 people have been arrested on pot possession charges, nearly 350,000 of them young men of color. That number has begun to decline in recent months as police have modified their practices under pressure.

"We know that there's more we can do to keep New Yorkers, particularly young men, from ending up with a criminal record," Bloomberg said. "Commissioner Kelly and I support Governor Cuomo's proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we'll work to help him pass it this year. But we won't wait for that to happen," he said.

"Right now, those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are often held in custody overnight. We're changing that. Effective next month, anyone presenting an ID and clearing a warrant check will be released directly from the precinct with a desk appearance ticket to return to court. It's consistent with the law, it's the right thing to do, and it will allow us to target police resources where they're needed most."

Drug reform and civil rights activists said it was a step in the right direction, but a small one.

"Mayor Bloomberg stopped defending the indefensible and now recognizes that we cannot afford to criminalize youth of color for carrying small amounts of marijuana," said Alredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer with VOCAL-NY. "But being 'consistent with the law' means more than just issuing desk appearance tickets instead of putting people in jail. Most people targeted for these arrests only produce marijuana in plain view after being illegally searched during stop, question and frisk encounters with police. Mayor Bloomberg's support for marijuana reform is a step in the right direction but does not solve the fundamental problems with the NYPD's policing strategies."

"We agree with the mayor that there's more we can do keep New Yorkers, especially young people of color, from ending up with a criminal record," said Kyung Ji Rhee, the juvenile justice director for the Center for NuLeadership. "For instance, the mayor can direct Commissioner Kelly to immediately cease and desist NYPD’s broken 'stop and frisk' program. We must stop these mass arrests and criminalizing people for simply possessing small amounts of marijuana. And we can get the police out of our schools to end the 'schools to prison' pipeline."

"This new policy is a step in the right direction -- and it's the direct result of the ongoing campaign led by community groups in New York to end these racially biased, unpopular, unjust and expensive arrests," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Marijuana possession is the number one arrest in New York City and with this new policy change, tens of thousands of people, mostly young men of color, will no longer be held in jail overnight on for possessing small amounts of marijuana. But the arrests themselves need to end -- period. Now the legislature must act -- immediately -- to pass Gov. Cuomo's marijuana decriminalization bill. Every reasonable New Yorker supports the measure. Reform is long, long overdue."

New York City, NY
United States

Look Out, New York, It's Credico For Mayor! [FEATURE]

New York City has earned itself the sobriquet of Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World, with tens of thousands of minor pot possession arrests every year -- mostly of young men of color -- generated in good part by the city's equally infamous stop-and-frisk policing, again aimed primarily at the city's young and non-white residents. There's a man running an outsider campaign for the mayor's office there this year who wants to end all that.

Randy Credico during 2010 Senate campaign
Veteran Big Apple civil rights, social justice, Occupy Wall Street (OWS), and drug reform activist Randy Credico, who also doubles as a professional comedian, is mounting an insurgent campaign for the Democratic Party mayoral nomination, and he wants to end the city's drug war and a whole lot more, and he wants to do it now.

The inventively funny, yet deadly serious, agitprop artist has an ambitious 17-point program for his first day in office, with promises that range from going after "the biggest criminals in our city" -- the Wall Street bankers -- and reforming the city's tax code to favor the poor to rolling back privatization of city schools and reforming various city agencies.

But just beneath banksters and taxes is a vow to begin reining in the NYPD by firing Police Commissioner Ray Kelly (to be replaced with Frank Serpico) and "abolishing the NYPD’s unconstitutional policies of racial profiling, stop and frisk, domestic spying, entrapment, and its infamous (albeit unadmitted) 'quota system.'"

Central to that policing reform plank, Credico says, is reclassifying the smoking and carrying of marijuana as no longer an arrestable offense. He also vows to fire any officer who lies or perjures himself on the stand, and to bar the use of "no-knock" warrants and stun grenades "except in the case of legitimate terrorist attack."

And he wants to replace the city's Special Narcotics Office with a Harm Reduction Office, whose leadership he has offered to Drug Policy Alliance head Ethan Nadelmann. He also vows to shut down the Rikers Island prison and turn it into a treatment center and education facility with a state of the art library, and to nominate law professor Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Color-blindness, to run it.

That's quite a tall order for a first day in office, but Credico says he's up for it.

"I plan to stay up for 24 hours and get all that stuff done," he told the Chronicle.

Of course, first he has to win the Democratic Party nomination and then win the general election, and that's a pretty tall order, too. There is a bevy of candidates (polling data at the link as well) running for a shot at the prestigious post, and he is facing stiff establishment opposition in the primary, most notably from Public Advocate Bill de Blasio and the as yet officially undeclared city council Speaker Christine Quinn, who leads the other Democrats in early polls, but is in a close race with "undecided."

The Republican race includes a handful of announced or potential candidates led by former Metropolitan Transit Authority head Joseph Lhota (who still trails "undecided" by a large margin) and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is as yet unannounced. The Libertarians may also field a candidate this year, possibly former "Manhattan madam" and gubernatorial candidate Kristin Davis, and we can't forget the Rent Is Too Damn High Party, either.

"The GOP has a rich guy who just jumped in, and the Democrats have a six-pack of hacks, all getting money from the real estate interests and Wall Street and none of whom will talk about the issues," Credico explained. "The Democrats are all doing the Schumer act -- just talking about the middle class, not the poor, the homeless, the division between the rich and poor, not about drug policy. This city is virtually a police state right now."

Credico has a remedy for that: Elect him.

"I will get rid of Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, who is a combination of J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph Fouche, Napoleon's dreaded head of the secret police. Everyone is afraid of him. He's got the Red Squads going; they were infiltrating groups at Occupy Wall Street. Kelly is doing all these joint operations with the feds under the guise of fighting terrorism, and this city is crawling with undercover cops -- FBI, DEA, AFT, all running joint task forces with the NYPD. They've foiled 14 plots, all hatched by the NYPD. Ray Kelly has way too much power," the veteran activist said flatly.

"There is a lot of money not only in the prison industrial complex, but also the police industrial complex," Credico noted. "They have asset forfeiture and lots of new schemes, tons of undercover agents, who are really there to beat up on the black community. They infiltrate, demonize, and destroy lives, and this has to stop."

Credico has been active in the Occupy Wall Street moving, having been arrested five times by the NYPD, but before that, he was active in the city's minority communities for years, working to reform the Rockefeller drug laws with the William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice (in between stints flying out to Tulia, Texas, to deal with the bogus mass arrests of black men on drug charges there), and fighting stop-and-frisk. He currently is taking time out of his days to attend hearings in the criminal trial of the NYPD officer who shot and killed unarmed 18-year-old Ramarley Graham in his own bathroom as he was flushing a bag of weed down the toilet.

"I go to every one of the court dates and sit right next to his mother," he said. "This cop invaded Ramarley's house and shot him in the head for weed, but it's not an isolated incident. No cops go to jail for killing a black person, but a spit on a cop and you can go to jail for years. This is just one cop -- and he's like the Lt. Calley of the NYPD. [Editor's Note: Calley was the sole US Army officer convicted of a crime in the Vietnam War My Lai massacre.] It's not an isolated incident; it's the policy, the same policy that killed Ramarley Graham and Sean Bell and Amador Diallou. So many people have been killed by the NYPD, and it's not just the guys on the street; it's a brutal force."

Marijuana could also be a wedge issue for him, Credico said.

"I'm a committed pot smoker, and I think it should be legal, and I'm the only candidate saying it should be legal. Of course, it's up to the state legislature to do that, but I would direct the NYPD not to enforce those laws and particularly not to arrest anyone."

Under current state law, pot possession is decriminalized, but beginning with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the NYPD had a policy of turning what should have been tickets for possession into misdemeanors by either reaching in someone's pocket and removing the baggie or intimidating the person into revealing it himself, thus elevating the offense from an infraction to the misdemeanor of "public possession." Under increasing pressure over the tactic, Commissioner Kelly last year issued an order for it to stop, and arrests have declined somewhat, but still remain at unacceptably high levels.

In 2011, there were some 50,000 marijuana possession arrests in the city, nearly 80% of them of people of color. Nearly one-quarter (12,000) were youth aged 16 to 19, and of those, 94% had no prior criminal records.

And it's not just marijuana, Credico said.

"There should be no more prosecutions for drug possession," he said. "They should be going after the real criminals, the guys on Wall Street. They don't have to go up to Harlem and Washington Heights, the real big barracudas are right down here."

The city's criminal justice system is rotten to the core, he said.

"This is like Tulia, this is like the South," he moaned. "The criminal justice system here is a black box where blacks and Latinos go in and disappear into the penal system. The cops are white, the judges are white, the prosecutors are white -- only the Bronx has a rainbow coalition of prosecutors -- the rest are white, and they're going after black people in this city."

Many of those busted ended up in Rikers Island or the Tombs, often after first spending hours or days crammed into precinct holding cells.

"Rikers Island is like Alcatraz for poor people on minor drug offenses," said Credico. "It's all Mickey Mouse; there's no Hannibal Lectors there. They need to turn it into a university for poor people. And no one is talking about the Tombs. I've been there. There are lots of junkies in there going through withdrawals, filthy toilets, people penned in like cattle. No one will talk about that, or about the hundreds of precincts with their holding cells."

Unsurprisingly, Credico doesn't think much of his establishment opposition.

"Christine Quinn is Bloomberg in drag wearing a red wig," he declared, "and de Blasio supported stop-and-frisk. He was also Hillary's hit man when she was running for the Senate, and derailed Grandpa Munster Al Lewis's campaign then."

Lhota, who has recently made noises about legalizing marijuana, "looks like a weed head," Credico snorted. "But I actually smoke it."

Now, Credico has to go through the process of qualifying as a Democratic candidate, smiting his foes within the party, and then taking on the Republican challenger in the general election. His first official campaign task will be to complete a month-long signature-gathering drive in late spring to qualify for the primary.

"I'll be on talk shows -- people all over the place are asking for interviews -- making some ads and some YouTube videos, and they'll be interesting and funny. It will be a very entertaining campaign. We have buttons coming out soon, we have the web site, there are people who will be putting ads in the Nation," he explained.

"Drug reformers are interested in my campaign, and I've got tons of volunteers from the stop-and-frisk campaigns and people from OWS," he said. "I'm getting a lot of attention right now."

Credico, of course, is a long-shot, but even if he doesn't become the next mayor of New York, to the degree that his campaign shines a light on the problems in the city's criminal justice system and forces other candidates to address them, he will be judged a success.

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares 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.)

New York City, NY
United States

First Drug War Death of the Year

[Editor's Note: For the past two years, we have been tracking all reported deaths directly attributable to drug law enforcement activity in the US, including the border. We continue to do so this year. If you have information about a death we haven't included, please contact us. Remember, we are only tallying those deaths directly attributable to drug law enforcement -- for an example of a close call that didn't make the list, see the latter part of the article below.]

Well, that didn't take long. A Tampa, Florida, man was shot and killed by undercover police officers during a drug sting last Wednesday night. Robert Early Gary, Jr., 31, becomes the first person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement activities this year.

According to our tally, 55 people died in US domestic drug law enforcement operations in 2011 and 63 last year. Read our report on last year's toll here.

Police told the Tampa Bay Tribune Gary was shot and killed by an undercover deputy who was buying drugs when Gary tried to rob him of the money he was carrying. Sheriff's Colonel Donna Lusczynski said the two began fighting and fell down a stairwell. The deputy lost his handgun in the struggle, and as the men fought for the weapon, it discharged several times.

Two backup deputies were nearby. Lusczynski said the deputies told Gary to drop the gun, and when he failed to comply, they shot him.

"They saw the deputy in a fight for his life and they shot the suspect," she said.

The undercover deputy, who remains unnamed, was injured, but not shot. He was evaluated and released at a local hospital Wednesday night.

People at the scene and Gary's relatives took issue with the police account.

"There was no reason to shoot him down," said his stepfather, Dallas Gillyard, outside a nearby home where a crowd of people had gathered. "Was it because of his previous record or the color of his skin?" Gillyard asked.

Gillyard accused the police of lying about what happened. "He wasn't going to rob anybody," Gillyard said. "If he would do anything, he would give you something. If you're going to tell a lie, tell me elephants fly, too," Gillyard said. "Every time (police) kill somebody, it's justified."

In an earlier account, WTSP TV reported that residents of the area, a poor, mixed race neighborhood known colloquially as "Suitcase City," said the killing was just the latest incident of racial profiling in a neighborhood where police harass residents constantly.

"This is a deliberate act. You don't shoot someone six or seven times. It's just not right. It's uncalled for," said one witness.

The three deputies involved have been placed on administrative leave while the incident is investigated, which is standard practice when a deputy discharges a weapon.

Five days earlier, police in Philadelphia shot and killed a North Philly man in an incident with distinct drug prohibition overtones even though it doesn't qualify for our tally of killings directly related to drug law enforcement.

According to Philadelphia police, they were investigating an armed robbery when they encountered Darrell Banks, 47, who they said matched the description of the suspect. Banks allegedly took off running, and police claim he pointed at object at them when they tried to stop him. An officer shot him once; he died a short time later at Temple University hospital.

Police didn't find a weapon, but said they recovered "a small amount of drugs" at the scene, which could explain why Banks, who had a previous record that included drug charges, was trying to avoid them.

"He had no gun on him," said Terra Banks, his niece. "He had his cell phone!" She told NBC 10 News he left behind 10 children and six grandchildren. "We want justice," said Terra. "We want the cop who did this to be brought to justice!"

The Philadelphia police Internal Affairs unit is currently investigating the shooting.

In both Tampa and Philadelphia, the dead persons were black males. Black males were also disproportionately represented among the tally of drug war deaths in 2011 and 2012.

Tampa, FL
United States

NY Governor Cuomo Calls for Marijuana Law Reform

In his State of the State address Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called on the legislature to reform the state's marijuana laws. Marijuana possession has been decriminalized in the state since 1977, but New York City has emerged as the nation's marijuana arrest capitol because the NYPD habitually charges small-time offenders with "open view" possession -- a misdemeanor -- after intimidating them into pulling their baggies out of their pockets.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/andrew-cuomo-200px.jpg
Andrew Cuomo
More than 600,000 people have been arrested for pot possession in New York in the past 15 years, most of them in New York City. The NYPD arrested some 50,000 people for "open view" possession in 2011 alone, 85% of them black or brown, mostly young men.

Cuomo attempted to push forward a reform bill last year, but that effort was stalled in the state Senate despite being supported by NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelley, all five New York City prosecutors, and numerous others.

Cuomo noted the discrepancy in the law between public and private possession and called on solons to enact legislation to decriminalize the possession of up to 15 grams of pot in either private or public. The governor cited the negative impacts of mass marijuana arrests, including criminalization, stigmatization, wasted resources, and racial disparities.

"It's not fair, it's not right. It must end, and it must end now," he demanded.

Mass marijuana arrests are "not worth it in dollars, in stigma or in impact. In order to fix the inequity in the law while still recognizing that possession in public is different from possession in one's home, the Governor will propose legislation that makes 'open view' possession of marijuana in amounts of 15 grams or less a violation punishable by a fine," he said in prepared remarks.

That's what drug reformers, community activists, and civil liberties and racial justice activists wanted to hear.

"We cannot have the same laws applied differently to different groups of people when the dividing line is race," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The governor’s proposal is an essential step towards bringing greater fairness and equity to both our drug laws and policing practices in our state. The criminalization of our young people must end -- the legislature must now act now to pass the governor’s bill."

"I hope [Republican conference leader] Senator Skelos and the entire legislature heard Governor Cuomo loud and clear when he said it's time to end marijuana arrests that 'stigmatize and criminalize' young people of color, which have been one of the leading consequences of stop and frisk," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, a civil rights organizer for VOCAL-NY. "Governor Cuomo is right that these arrests mean more than a night in jail -- they can have lasting effects on a person's access to jobs, housing and a better future."

"With stop and frisk and needless criminalization, too many of our young people are swept up in the criminal justice system. Governor Cuomo’s reform proposal is a critical step towards a brighter future for our youth," said  Kyung Ji Kate Rhee of the Center for NuLeadership. "Instead of wasting money on these arrests, we should be investing in community development and resources that are far more effective at guiding our youth in the choices they make towards fulfilling their best potential."

Now, let's see if the legislature is listening.

Albany, NY
United States

Who Was Killed in America's Drug War Last Year? [FEATURE]

For the past two years, Drug War Chronicle has been tracking all the US deaths directly attributable to domestic drug law enforcement, including the border. You can view the 2011 deaths here and the 2012 deaths here.Soon, we will hand our findings out to criminal justice and other professionals and then issue a report seeking to identify ways to reduce the toll. In the meantime, we can look at the raw numbers from last year and identify some trends.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/wendell-allen-200px.jpg
A New Orleans police officer was indicted for killing Wendell Allen during a drug raid in March. (family photo)
Before we begin, though, it's important to note our resource and data limitations, as well as explaining what gets included and what doesn't. We depended largely on Google news alerts for "officer shoots" or "officer kills" and their variations (trooper shoots, deputy shoots, police shoot, etc.) We can't claim that the list is exhaustive -- some initial reports never mention drugs, although they were involved; some others may have slid through the cracks. (Our tally includes several cases where people collapsed and died during or immediately after being arrested; the drug link became apparent only weeks or months later when toxicology reports came back. We could have missed others.)

We also used fairly tight criteria for inclusion. These deaths had to have occurred during drug law enforcement activities. That means people whose deaths may be at least partially blamed more broadly on drug prohibition (overdoses, AIDS and Hepatitis C victims, for example) are not included. Neither are the deaths of people who may have been embittered by previous drug law enforcement operations who later decide to go out in a blaze of glory, nor the deaths of their victims.

It's only people who died because of drug law enforcement. And even that is something of a grey area. One example is traffic stops. Although they ostensibly are aimed at public safety, drug law enforcement is at least a secondary consideration and, sometimes, as in the case of "pretextual stops," the primary consideration, so we include those deaths when it looks appropriate. Another close call was the case of a Michigan father accused of smoking marijuana and reported to Child Protective Services by police. He was shot and killed in a confrontation with police over that issue. We included him even though it was not directly drug law enforcement that got him killed, but the enforcement of child custody orders related to marijuana use. It could be argued either way whether he should not have been included; we decided to include him.

Because we are a small nonprofit with limited resources, we have been unable to follow-up on many of the cases. Every law enforcement-related death is investigated, but those findings are too often unpublished, and we (I) simply lack the resources to track down the results of those investigations. That leaves a lot of questions unanswered -- and some law enforcement agencies and their personnel, and maybe some others, off the hook.

We attempted to provide the date, name, age, race, and gender of each victim, but were unable to do so in every case. We also categorized the type of enforcement activity (search warrant service, traffic stops, undercover buy operations, suspicious activity reports, etc.), whether the victim was armed with a firearm, whether he brandished it, and whether he shot it, as well as whether there was another type of weapon involved (vehicle, knife, sword, etc.) and whether the victim was resisting arrest or attempting to flee. Again, we didn't get all the information in every case.

Here's what we found:

In 2012, 63 people died in the course of US domestic drug law enforcement operations, or one about every six days. Eight of the dead were law enforcement officers; 55 were civilians.

Law Enforcement Deaths

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/officer-victor-soto-velez.jpg
Officer Victor Soto-Velez was ambushed in Camuy, Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in June.
Law enforcement deaths began and ended the year. The first drug war death, on January 4, was that of Ogden, Utah, police officer Jared Francom, who was serving on the Weber-Morgan Metro Narcotics Strike Force when he was shot and killed during a "knock and enter" SWAT-style raid on a suspected marijuana grower. Five other officers were also shot and wounded, as was the homeowner, Matthew Stewart, who is now charged with his killing and faces a death sentence if convicted.

The last drug war death of the year, on December 14, was that of Memphis police officer Martoiya Lang, who was shot and killed serving a "drug-related search warrant" as part of an organized crime task force. Another officer was wounded, and the shooter, Trevino Williams, has been charged with murder. The homeowner was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

In between Francom and Lang, six other officers perished fighting the drug war. In February, Clay County (Florida) Sheriff's Detective David White was killed in a shootout at a meth lab that also left the suspect dead. In April, Greenland, New Hampshire, Police Chief Michael Maloney was shot in killed in a drug raid that also left four officers wounded. In that case, the shooter and a woman companion were later found dead inside the burnt out home.

In June, Puerto Rican narcotics officer Victor Soto Velez was shot and killed in an ambush as he sat in his car. Less than two months later, Puerto Rican police officer Wilfredo Ramos Nieves was shot and killed as he participated in a drug raid. The shooter was wounded and arrested, and faces murder charges.

Interdicting drugs at the border also proved hazardous. In October, Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Ivie was shot and killed in a friendly fire incident as he and other Border Patrol agents rushed to investigate a tripped sensor near the line. And early last month, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was killed when a Mexican marijuana smuggling boat rammed his off the Southern California coast. Charges are pending against the smugglers.

Civilian Deaths

Civilian deaths came in three categories: accidental, suicide, and shot by police. Of the 55 civilians who died during drug law enforcement operations, 43 were shot by police. One man committed suicide in a police car, one man committed suicide in his bedroom as police approached, and a man and a woman died in the aftermath of the Greenland, New Hampshire, drug raid mentioned above, either in a mutual suicide pact or as a murder-suicide.

Five people died in police custody after ingesting packages of drugs. They either choked to death or died of drug overdoses. One man died after falling from a balcony while fleeing from police. One man died in an auto accident fleeing police. One Louisville woman, Stephanie Melson, died when the vehicle she was driving was hit by a drug suspect fleeing police in a high-speed chase on city streets.

The Drug War and the Second Amendment

Americans love their guns, and people involved with drugs are no different. Of the 43 people shot and killed by police, 21 were in possession of firearms, and in two cases, it was not clear if they were armed or not. Of those 21, 17 brandished a weapon, or displayed it in a threatening manner. But only 10 people killed by police actually fired their weapon. Merely having a firearm increased the perceived danger to police and the danger of being killed by them.

In a handful of cases, police shot and killed people they thought were going for guns. Jacksonville, Florida, police shot and killed Davinian Williams after he made a "furtive movement" with his hands after being pulled over for driving in a "high drug activity area." A month later, police in Miami shot and killed Sergio Javier Azcuy after stopping the vehicle in which he was a passenger during a cocaine rip-off sting. They saw "a dark shiny object" in his hand. It was a cell phone. There are more examples in the list.

Several people were shot and killed as they confronted police with weapons in their own homes. Some may have been dangerous felons, some may have been homeowners who grabbed a gun when they heard someone breaking into their homes. The most likely case of the latter is that of an unnamed 66-year-old Georgia woman shot and killed by a local drug task doing a "no knock" drug raid at her home. In another case from Georgia, David John Thomas Hammett, 60, was shot and killed when police encountered him in a darkened hallway in his home holding "a black shiny object." It was a can of pepper spray. Neither victim appears to have been the target of police, but they're still dead.

Police have reason to be wary of guns. Of the eight law enforcement officers killed enforcing the drug laws last year, seven were killed by gunfire. But at least 22 unarmed civilians were shot and killed by police, and at least four more were killed despite not having brandished their weapons.

It's Not Just Guns; It's Cars, Too

In at least seven cases, police shot and killed people after their vehicles rammed police cars or as they dragged police officers down the street. It is difficult to believe that all of these people wanted to injure or kill police officers. Many if not most were probably just trying to escape. But police don't seem inclined to guess (which might be understandable if you're being dragged by a moving car.)

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Danielle Misha Willard, a relapsed heroin user, was shot by West Valley, UT police in a parking lot in November. (facebook.com)
Race and Gender

Getting killed in the drug war is mostly a guy thing. Of the 63 people killed, only six were women, including one police officer. One was the Georgia homeowner, another was the Louisville woman driver hit by a fleeing suspect, a third was the unnamed woman who died in the Greenland, New Hampshire raid. Other than the Memphis police officer, only two women were killed because of their drug-related activities.

Getting killed in the drug war is mostly a minority thing too. Of the 55 dead civilians, we do not have a racial identification on eight. Of the remaining 47, 23 were black, 14 were Hispanic, nine were white, and one was Asian. Roughly three out four drug war deaths were of minority members, a figure grossly disproportionate to their share of the population.

Bringing Police to Justice

Many drug war deaths go unnoticed and un-mourned. Others draw protests from friends and family members. Few stir up public outrage, and fewer yet end up with action being taken against police shooters. Of the 55 civilians who died during drug law enforcement activities, charges have been filed against the police shooters in only two particularly egregious cases. Both cases have generated significant public protest.

One is the case of Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old black teenager from the Bronx. Graham was chased into his own apartment by undercover NYPD officers conducting drug busts on the street nearby. He ran into his bathroom, where he was apparently trying to flush drugs down the toilet, and was shot and killed by the police officer who followed him there. Graham was unarmed, police have conceded. A small amount of pot was found floating in the toilet bowl. Now, NYPD Officer Richard Haste, the shooter, has been indicted on first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, with trial set for this coming spring.

The other case is that of Wendell Allen, 20, a black New Orleans resident. Allen was shot and killed when he appeared on the staircase of a home that was being raided for marijuana sales by New Orleans police. He was unarmed and was not holding anything that could be mistaken for a weapon. Officer Jason Colclough, the shooter, was indicted on manslaughter charges in August after he refused a plea bargain on a negligent homicide charge. When he will go to trial is unclear.

Criminal prosecutions of police shooters, even in egregious cases, is rare. Winning a conviction is even less unlikely. When Lima, Ohio, police officer Joe Chavalia shot and killed unarmed Tanika Wilson, 26, and wounded the baby she was holding in her arms during a SWAT drug raid in 2008, he was the rare police officer to be indicted. But he walked at trial

It doesn't usually work out that way when the tables are turned. Ask Corey Maye, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for killing a police officer who mistakenly entered his duplex during a drug raid even though he argued credibly that he thought police were burglars and he acted in self defense. It took 10 years before Maye was able to first get his death sentence reduced to life, then get his charges reduced to manslaughter, allowing him to leave prison.

Or ask Ryan Frederick, who is currently sitting in prison in Virginia after being convicted of manslaughter in the 2008 death of Chesapeake Det. Jarrod Shivers. Three days after a police informant burglarized Frederick's home, Shivers led a a SWAT team on a no-knock raid. Frederick shot through the door as Shivers attempted to break through it, killing him. He argued that he was acting in self-defense, not knowing what home invaders were on the other side of the door, but in prison he sits.

Both the Graham and the Allen cases came early in the year. Late in 2012, two more cases that would appear to call out for criminal prosecutions of police occurred. No charges have been filed against police so far in either case.

On October 25, undocumented Guatemalan immigrants Marco Antonio Castro and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar were shot and killed by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who shot from a helicopter at the pickup truck carrying them as it fled from an attempted traffic stop. Texas authorities said they thought the truck was carrying drugs, but it wasn't -- it was carrying undocumented Guatemalan immigrants who had just crossed the border. Authorities said they sought to disable the truck because it was "traveling at reckless speeds, endangering the public." But the truck was traveling down a dirt road surrounded by grassy fields in an unpopulated area. The Guatemalan consulate and the ACLU of Texas are among those calling for an investigation, and police use of force experts from around the country pronounced themselves stunned at the Texas policy of shooting at vehicles from helicopters. Stay tuned.

Two weeks later, undercover police in West Valley, Utah, shot and killed Danielle Misha Leonard, 21, in the parking lot of an apartment building. Leonard, a native of Vancouver, Washington, had been addicted to heroin and went to Utah to seek treatment. Perhaps it didn't take. Police have been extremely slow to release details on her killing, but she appears to have been unarmed. An undercover police vehicle had boxed her SUV into a parking spot, and the windshield and both side windows had been shattered by gunfire. Later in November, in their latest sparse information release on the case, police said only that she had been shot twice in the head and that they had been attempting to contact her in a drug investigation. Friends and family have set up a Justice for Danielle Willard Facebook page to press for action.

Now, it's a new year, and nobody has been killed in the drug war so far. But this is only day two.

Marijuana Legalization "OK," Says Jimmy Carter

Former President Jimmy Carter said he was fine with marijuana legalization during a Tuesday CNN forum. Carter supported marijuana decriminalization during his presidency in the mid-1970s, but now is prepared to go a step further.

Jimmy Carter (wikimedia.org)
He told CNN host Suzanne Malvaux that he was "in favor" of states taking steps to free the weed. "I think it's OK,” Carter said. "I don't think it's going to happen in Georgia yet, but I think we can watch and see what happens in the state of Washington for instance, around Seattle, and let the American government and let the American people see does it cause a serious problem or not."

Carter's comments came as marijuana legalization has become a front burner issue like never before in the wake of the decision by voters in Colorado and Washington to move away from pot prohibition. Now, with marijuana possession by adults already legal in those two states, all eyes are on Washington, waiting to see how the Obama administration will respond to efforts by state officials to craft a system of regulations for marijuana commerce.

The former president also suggested that continued marijuana prohibition contributed to high incarceration rates, especially among racial minorities.

"It's a major step backward, and it ought to be reversed, not only in America, but around the world," Carter said, suggesting that the US should look to Portugal, which decriminalized as drug possession in 2000, as a model.

The Carter critique of marijuana prohibition and the war on drugs in general is little surprise. Not only did he favor decriminalization in the wake of the Shafer Commission report, which was commissioned and then ignored by his predecessor, Richard Nixon, in 1972, but he has since gone on to become an increasingly vocal critic of drug prohibition and proponent of marijuana law reform.

US drug policy has "destroyed the lives of millions of young people," Carter said at a September forum, and he appeared last week in the drug war documentary Breaking the Taboo again arguing that the US drug war has failed both domestically and internationally.

Marijuana is Now Legal in Washington State! [FEATURE]

As of today, Thursday, December 6, 2012, marijuana possession is legal in the state of Washington. Under the I-502 initiative passed by the state's voters last month, adults 21 and older can now legally possess up to an ounce of marijuana (or 16 ounces of marijuana-infused edibles) without fear of arrest or criminal prosecution.

King 5 news report (nwcn.com)
The date comes just one day after the 80th anniversary of the end of alcohol Prohibition and could mark the beginning of the end for marijuana prohibition in the United States. Colorado voters also legalized marijuana, and it will be legal to possess an ounce there -- and grow up to six plants -- sometime between now and January 5, the last day the governor has to ratify the November election results.

Alaska had been the only state to allow the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But, citing the state constitution's privacy protections, Alaska courts found that right only existed in the privacy of one's home.

Emboldened by the popular vote in Colorado and Washington, legislators in at least four states so far have now filed or will soon file marijuana legalization bills, with more to follow. And in states where the initiative process is allowed, activists are chomping at the bit in a race to be the next to legalize it at the ballot box (although they may want to wait for 2016, when the presidential race increases liberal turnout). And a spate of public opinion polls released since the election show support for legalization nationwide now cracking the 50% barrier.

While the federal government may attempt to block efforts to tax and regulate legal marijuana commerce in the two states, it cannot block them from removing marijuana offenses from their criminal codes. Nor can it make them reinstate them. News reports have noted that the federal government has no plans to intervene in Washington state's legalization today.

I-502 isn't a free for all. It remains a criminal offense to grow or distribute marijuana, and the state-licensed producers and stores for legal cultivation and sales and regulations governing them are a year away. There is no way in the meanwhile to legally buy marijuana. You can't smoke it in public (though that proscription is unlikely to hold for today at least), or drive in a vehicle with a lit joint (an offense equivalent to open container laws). If you live or work on federal property, you are still subject to federal drug laws. And if you're under 21, you're out of luck.

But, those caveats aside, pot possession is legal today in Washington, with sales and production coming, and that's a big deal.

"Washington state and Colorado made history on Election Day by becoming not just the first two states in the country -- but the first political jurisdictions anywhere in the world -- to approve the legal regulation of marijuana," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "The only way federal marijuana prohibition is going to end is by voters and legislators in other states doing just what folks in those two states just did."

"This is incredibly significant," said freshly minted Marijuana Policy Project communications director Mason Tvert, who just took the job after leading the Colorado Amendment 64 campaign to victory. "This is having a major impact on public perceptions and is showing that times are changing and a majority of people in various areas are ready to take these steps."

"This is the single most important event that has occurred in 75 year of marijuana prohibition," said Keith Stroup, founder and currently counsel for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. "The change in the perception of what is possible has been dramatic. Now, elected officials and state legislatures all over the country are honestly considering the option of tax and regulate where before November that was generally perceived as a radical proposal."

The election results are shifting the parameters of the discussion, the silver-haired attorney and activist said.

"Several states are considering full legalization now, and that makes decriminalization sound like a moderate step, which could work in a lot of Southern and Midwestern states where they're perhaps not quite ready yet to set up a regulated market," Stroup pointed out. "The context of the public policy debate has totally changed as a result of Colorado and Washington. It's as dramatic as anything I've witnessed in my lifetime."

While reformers are elated, author and marijuana scholar Martin Lee had a slightly more sober assessment.

"It's way too early to tell whether I-502 in Washington state signals the death knell of marijuana prohibition in the United States," said Lee, who recently published Smoke Signals: A Social History of Marijuana -- Medical, Recreational, and Scientific.

"The cultural momentum in the United States favors marijuana legalization, but the political response, thus far, has been lagging," Lee noted. "Political change can sometimes happen very quickly -- think of the sudden demise of Soviet Bloc Communism after the Berlin Wall unexpectedly toppled in 1989. Swift, dramatic change seems possible with respect to cannabis prohibition, which is based on lies and could collapse like a house of cards. But powerful political interests in the United States -- in particular law enforcement -- have long benefited from the war on drugs and they are reluctant to throw in the towel."

Lee also raised the specter of law enforcement retaliation, especially against some of its easiest targets.

"My biggest concern is that the new state law in Washington will do little to prevent or discourage law enforcement from selectively targeting and harassing young people, especially young African-Americans and Latinos. Racial profiling is endemic in Washington state and throughout the United States," he said.

"It's also disconcerting that I-502 includes a zero tolerance provision for under 21-year-old drivers, who could be punished severely if blood tests show any trace of THC metabolites (breakdown products) in their system. Because THC metabolites can remain in the body for four weeks or longer, blood and urine tests for marijuana can't measure impairment. What's to stop law enforcement in Washington from randomly testing and arresting minority youth under the guise of public safety?"

It remains to be seen just how the DUID provision will work out, either for young drivers or for drivers over 21, who face a presumption of impaired driving if THC levels are over a specified standard. The record from other states with either zero tolerance or per se DUID laws suggest they make little difference in DUID arrest rates, perhaps because of probable cause standards needed to conduct blood tests or the time and complexity involved in doing so.

Regardless of valid concerns, the fact remains that the wall of marijuana prohibition in the US has just had a huge hole punched in it. And the margins of victory in Colorado and Washington -- each initiative won with 55% of the vote -- leave breathing room for activists in other states to consider not including such controversial provisions, which were seen by proponents as necessary to actually win the vote.

As veteran activist Stroup put it, despite the contentiousness and the sops to the opposition, for marijuana activists, "This is a great time to be alive. I wish folks like Mezz Mezrow, Louis Armstrong, and Allen Ginsberg, who helped form LEMAR (Legalize Marijuana), then Amorphia, which morphed into NORML, could have been around to see this."

While Stroup took a moment to look backward, DPA's Nadelmann was looking forward.

"Now, the race is on as to who will be first to leapfrog the Dutch and implement a full legal regulatory system for marijuana:  Washington, Colorado or Uruguay!” he told the Chronicle.

WA
United States

Law Enforcement Call on DOJ to Respect State Marijuana Laws [FEATURE]

Tuesday morning, former Baltimore narcotics officer Neill Franklin delivered a letter signed by 73 current and former police officers, judges, prosecutors, and federal agents to Attorney General Eric Holder at the Justice Department in downtown Washington , DC, urging him not to ignore the wishes of voters in Colorado and Washington state who voted to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana.

LEAP leader Neill Franklin delivers letters to the Justice Department. (leap.cc)
Franklin is the executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), which supported Amendment 64 in Colorado and Initiative 502 in Washington. Both measures won with 55% of the vote in this month's elections.

"As fellow law enforcement and criminal justice professionals we respectfully call upon you to respect and abide by the democratically enacted laws to regulate marijuana in Colorado and Washington," the letter said. "This is not a challenge to you, but an invitation -- an invitation to help return our profession to the principles that made us enter law enforcement in the first place."

The Obama administration's response to the legalization votes could help define its place in the history books, LEAP warned.

"One day the decision you are about to make about whether or not to respect the people's will may well come to be the one for which you are known. The war on marijuana has contributed to tens of thousands of deaths both here and south of the border, it has empowered and expanded criminal networks and it has destroyed the mutual feeling of respect once enjoyed between citizens and police. It has not, however, reduced the supply or the demand of the drug and has only served to further alienate -- through arrest and imprisonment -- those who consume it," the letter said.

"At every crucial moment in history, there comes a time when those who derive their power from the public trust forge a new path by disavowing their expected function in the name of the greater good. This is your moment. As fellow officers who have seen the destruction the war on marijuana has wrought on our communities, on our police forces, on our lives, we hope that you will join us in seeking a better world," the letter concluded.

The LEAP letter is only the latest manifestation of efforts by legalization supporters to persuade the federal government to stand back and not interfere with state-level attempts to craft schemes to tax and regulate marijuana commerce. Members of the Colorado congressional delegation have introduced legislation that would give the states freedom to act, while other members of Congress, notably Reps. Barney Frank (D-MA) and Ron Paul (R-TX), have called on the Obama administration to "respect the wishes of voters in Colorado and Washington." Frank and Paul are cosponsors of a pending federal legalization bill.

"We have sponsored legislation at the federal level to remove criminal penalties for the use of marijuana because of our belief in individual freedom," Frank and Paul wrote in a letter to President Obama last week. "We recognize that this has not yet become national policy, but we believe there are many strong reasons for your administration to allow the states of Colorado and Washington to set the policies they believe appropriate in this regard, without the federal government overriding the choices made by the voters of these states."

"We seem to be at a turning point in how our society deals with marijuana," said Franklin Tuesday. "The war on marijuana has funded the expansion of drug cartels, it has destroyed community-police relations and it has fostered teenage use by creating an unregulated market where anyone has easy access. Prohibition has failed. Pretty much everyone knows it, especially those of us who dedicated our lives to enforcing it. The election results show that the people are ready to try something different. The opportunity clearly exists for President Obama and Attorney General Holder to do the right thing and respect the will of the voters."

"During his first term, President Obama really disappointed those of us who hoped he might follow through on his campaign pledges to respect state medical marijuana laws," continued Franklin. "Still, I'm hopeful that in his second term he'll realize the political opportunity that exists to do the right thing. Polls show 80% support for medical marijuana, and in Colorado marijuana legalization got more votes than the president did in this most recent election."

"From a public safety perspective, it's crucial that the Obama administration let Colorado and Washington fully implement the marijuana regulation laws that voters approved on Election Day," added LEAP member Tony Ryan, a retired 36-year Denver Police veteran. "There's nothing the federal government can do to force these states to arrest people for marijuana possession, but if it tries and succeeds in stopping the states from regulating and taxing marijuana sales, cartels and gangs will continue to make money selling marijuana to people on the illegal market. Plus, the states won't be able to take in any new tax revenue to fund schools."

At a Tuesday noon press conference, Franklin and other LEAP members hammered home the point.

"LEAP members have spent the majority of their careers on the front line of the war on drugs and have seen the failure of prohibition," he said. "We call now to end prohibition and embrace a new drug policy based on science, facts, and the medical field."

Former Seattle police chief Norm Stamper told the press conference the war on marijuana was essentially a war on youth, especially minority youth, that sours police-community relations.

"I have come to believe that the war on marijuana has made enemies of many law-abiding Americans, especially many young, black, Latino, and poor Americans," Stamper said. "The law and the mass incarceration behind it have set up a real barrier between police and the community, particularly ethnic communities."

Legalization and regulation will help change that negative dynamic, Stamper said.

"This frees up police to concentrate on violent, predatory crimes, those crimes that really scare people, drive property values down, and diminish the quality of our lives," he said. "We're convinced that by working with the community, including those victimized by these laws, we can build an authentic partnership between police and the community and create true community policing, which demands respect for local law enforcement. By legalizing we have a chance to significantly reduce race and class discrimination. Watch what we do, we will use these states as a laboratory, and the sky will not fall."

"I joined this movement when I was made aware the war on drugs was a war on our community," said Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP. "Instead of being protected, we were being targeted. We don't feel like the police are protecting us; instead, they have declared war on our young men and women. The amount of resources being used in this war to divide the community is why we have so many incidents between law enforcement and our community. We know that come Friday and Saturday night there will be a ring of law enforcement personnel ringing our community looking to make those low-level drug arrests."

"I believe the regulation and legalization of marijuana is not only long overdue, but will make our communities safer," Huffman continued. "I am very hopeful that our president, who has some experience of his own with marijuana use, which didn't prevent him from becoming a strong leader, will see the light and get rid of these approaches that do nothing but condemn our people to a life of crime because they have felonies and are no longer employable. Instead of treating them like criminals, maybe we can treat them like people with health problems."

The Obama administration has yet to respond substantively to this month's victories for marijuana legalization. Nothing it says or does will stop marijuana from becoming legal to possess (and to grow in Colorado) by next month in Washington and by early January at the latest in Colorado, but it could attempt to block state-level attempts to tax and regulate commercial cultivation and distribution, and it has some months to decide whether to do so. Tuesday's letter and press conference were part of the ongoing effort to influence the administration to, as Franklin put it, "do the right thing."

Washington, DC
United States

Chronicle Book Review Essay: Two Faces of the Drug War

Cornbread Mafia: A Homegrown Syndicate's Code of Silence and the Biggest Marijuana Bust in American History (2012, Lyons Press, 375 pp., $24.95 HB)

Operation Fly Trap: LA Gangs, Drugs, and the Law, by Susan Phillips (2012, University of Chicago Press, 174 pp., $18.00 PB)

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It's a long way from the Bluegrass Country of central Kentucky to the bungalowed ghettos of South Central Los Angeles, and it's an even greater distance culturally than geographically. In the first locale, the white descendants of Catholic distillers turned moonshiners tend their crops in hidden hollows, distrust of police by now second nature. In the second, the black descendants of post-World War II factory workers scramble to survive in a post-industrial landscape, slinging crack and dodging gang violence, with the police viewed as little more than an occupying force.

Cornbread Mafia and Operation Fly Trap focus on two groups of people separated by time, race, and culture, but united by a common adversary: the repressive apparatus of the drug war. Cornbread Mafia tells the story of some bad ol' good ol' boys who made Kentucky synonymous with top-grade domestic marijuana production in the '80s and who generated the largest domestic grow op bust ever, while Operation Fly Trap tells the story of a small group of LA cocaine suppliers and crack dealers in the early '00s who were wrapped up and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences in a pioneering use of innovative policing and prosecutorial strategems.

While both books critically address the interaction of groups of socially-defined criminals with a  law enforcement complex grown up to feed off them, they feel and read quite differently. Cornbread Mafia is written by a journalist with an intimate knowledge of Lebanon, Kentucky and surrounding Marion County, and it reads like a true crime thriller, full of hillbilly noir and great and crazy tales, except that unlike most of the genre, it is sympathetic to and gives voice to the deviant "others." It's the kind of dope tale you pick up and don't put down until you're done.

It centers on a 1987 Minnesota pot cultivation operation that was busted when an early snowfall killed the surrounding corn hiding it. Organized by Marion County grower and trafficker Johnny Boone, the massive Minnesota grow was the largest ever busted, and by the time the feds had unraveled things, some 70 Kentuckians had been indicted. Although not a one of them rolled over on his peers, many of them went away for long stretches, sentenced under new RICO laws designed to bring the pain to the backwoods pot scofflaws. Boone himself did 15 years.

But that bust and the indictments that followed -- much ballyhooed, of course, by back-patting DEA officials, federal prosecutors, and state law enforcement honchos -- were a long way down a road that wound back to those Prohibition era moonshiners -- Lebanon's location as hot spot on the 1950s and 1960s chitlin circuit, where black performers including a skinny guitarist named Jimi Hendrix performed, and the return of reefer-exposed Vietnam War vets in the 1960s and 1970s.

I recall traveling to Washington, DC, to attend the annual 4th of July smoke-in in 1978. Before DC legends Root Boy Slim & the Sex Change Band played their set, a gangly man in a suit bearing a down home accent took to the stage, introduced himself as Kentucky lawyer and legalization advocate Gatewood Galbraith, and threw large colas of weed into the crowd, yelling, "This is the real Kentucky Bluegrass!" I didn't have a clue then, learned about Galbraith and the Appalachian pot growing scene over the intervening years, but didn't really know the back story about the whole Kentucky scene. Now, thanks to Cornbread Mafia, I feel like I do, and Higdon tells it with grace and empathy.

It's a story that isn't over. Once Johnny Boone got out of federal prison, he couldn't help but return to his old ways. In 2008, he got busted growing 2,400 plants in a neighboring county. Facing life in federal prison as a three-striker, Boone vanished. The feds still haven't found him.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/operation-fly-trap.jpg
Operation Fly Trap, on the other hand, is written by an academic, published by an academic press, and reads like it. Granted, ethnographer Susan Phillips knows her stuff -- she spent years working in the neighborhood before even embarking on this project -- and she brings heart and passion to her writing, crafting a compelling and fascinating narrative, but it can still be heavy going at times. Still, even if sometimes wrapped a little too tightly in academic-speak, Phillips is exposing and addressing vital issues of race, class, and the structuring of criminality, and her critique is important and incisive.

Operation Fly Trap, a project of a multi-agency, state-federal joint task force aimed at gang suppression, drew its name from Tina Fly, the central figure in a crack cocaine operation in two Bloods-controlled South Central neighborhoods. Before it was done, it had wrapped up two dozen people from the tightly knit community, many from the same families, and sent them off to long federal prison sentences under anti-gang sentencing enhancements.

Like military commanders patting themselves on the back over the accuracy of their weapons, law enforcement and prosecutors congratulated themselves on the "precision" of their strike against the Tina Fly operation and the surgical removal of the cancer from the community.

But Phillips calls into question both the success of the operation and the means used to conduct it, and along the way, shines a bright light on the ways in which the impoverishment of communities like South Central and their ravaging by both criminals and those sent to catch them is a matter of public policy -- not merely personal pathology, the narrative offered up by all those men in suits at their press conferences.

Indeed, it is the situation that is pathological when the very criminals being hunted are the community's pillars, its breadwinners, and when their removal does not remove criminality, but enhances it. That pathology is only enhanced by the ongoing struggle between the community's criminals and the police, the use of snitches who sow mistrust and suspicion on the street, and by our refusal as a polity to do anything but keep reproducing those conditions that generate such predictable outcomes.

Phillips also documents how, as criticism of the mass incarceration of non-violent drug offenders grew ever louder, the use of anti-gang policing and prosecutions only intensified. "Operation Fly Trap was an attempt to make [mass incarceration] more palatable by recasting nonviolent drug offenders as intimately related to the lethal violence of gangs," she writes. Along with drug sentencing reform and new gang legislation, the Fly Trap task force "represented a need to re-present the drug war as healthy and justifiable."

It's worth noting that although the Fly Trap defendants were pursued under the banner of the war on gangs, they charges for which they were prosecuted were drug charges. And Operation Fly Trap was by no means unusual. In fact, Phillips notes, more than 5,000 gang investigations were mounted nationally between 2001 and 2010, resulting in 57,000 arrests and 23,000 convictions. With sentencing reforms having taken some of the bite out of the federal crack laws, the gang enhancements allow prosecutors to still hold the threat of decades of prison over the heads of those rounded up.

Cornbread Mafia and Operation Fly Trap focus in on different episodes of our perpetual war against the criminality we create through drug prohibition. Both are exceptionally useful in providing what is too often missing in drug policy discussions: the broader context. Journalist Higdon basically gives us a history of Marion County and situates those back woods pot criminals squarely within it, while ethnographer Higdon lays out the stark landscape of black LA, emphasizes how public policy decisions have created that landscape, and shows how other public policy decisions -- around economic policy, education, access to health and mental health services, incarceration as a response to social problems -- have created a milieu where Operation Fly Trap can be recreated in perpetuity.

Read Cornbread Mafia because it's a rollicking gas, but read Operation Fly Trap, too, because it's an eye-opening, sobering look at the whole penalization industry we're created to deal with the unruly underclasses we've created.

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