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Will UNGASS 2016 Be the Beginning of the End for the War on Drugs?

This article is by Ann Fordham and Martin Jelsma, and is republished from openDemocracy. It is part a series of articles about this April's UNGASS. Further information appears below.

In April 2016, the UN will dedicate, for the third time in its history, a United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) to discuss global drug policy. The UNGASS has the potential to be a ground-breaking moment that could change the course of the international drug control system. However, political divisions and entrenched institutional dynamics have dampened hopes that it will go down in history as the beginning of the end of the war on drugs.

At the joint request of Mexico, Colombia and Guatemala, the General Assembly decided to bring forward the convention of a special session to assess "the achievements and challenges in countering the world drug problem", originally foreseen for 2019 or 2020. The three countries stated at the time that "revising the approach on drugs maintained so far by the international community can no longer be postponed", and the UN needed to exercise leadership to "conduct an in-depth review analyzing all available options, including regulatory or market measures, in order to establish a new paradigm that would impede the flow of resources to organized crime groups". An international meeting had to be convened, "capable of taking the decisions necessary to increase the effectiveness of the strategies and instruments with which the global community addresses the challenges of drugs and their consequences".

Conventional drug control wisdom has put forward the view that stopping the supply of drugs at the source would solve the 'world drug problem', but Latin American countries bear witness to the failure of this approach. Stirred into action by the futility of spending billions of dollars to fight an unwinnable and increasingly violent war on drugs, it is no surprise that political leaders from Latin America have been at the forefront of the drug policy debate. From their perspective, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, mass incarceration and the exacerbation of the social and economic vulnerability of some of society’s most marginalised groups – can no longer be justified as necessary collateral damage in pursuit of eradicating drug markets.

A growing group of Latin American and Caribbean countries are calling for a real discussion on alternative policies. In the meantime, Uruguay has moved to create the world's first national legally regulated cannabis market for recreational use, and similar initiatives have happened in the US at the state level. This opening up of the long entrenched and seemingly immovable discussion on prohibitionist drug control principles is unprecedented and has implications for global policy.

In this context, the UNGASS in April represents a critical juncture, an opportunity for an honest evaluation of global drug policy and how to address the most pressing challenges going forward. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in recognition of this rare and important opportunity, has urged member states to use the 2016 UNGASS "to conduct a wide-ranging and open debate that considers all options."

The UNGASS preparations

The initial discussions to prepare for the UNGASS were fraught with disagreements over many procedural aspects. These included difficult negotiations over the extent to which the UN Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) in Vienna would lead the process; how to strike the right balance between the UN capitals of Vienna, Geneva and New York in the preparations; how to ensure meaningful involvement of all relevant UN agencies, academia and civil society; and – last but not least – how open the debate should be: should it be restricted to a discussion of how to improve the implementation of the 2009 Political Declaration and the achievement of its targets for 2019, or should the UNGASS be an opportunity to challenge the current global drug control strategy, possibly even questioning its foundation of the three UN drug conventions?

 

These difficult negotiations, which on the surface often appeared to be arguments over procedure, reflected the deep political divisions within the international drug policy debate. The much-revered 'Vienna Consensus' continues to weaken as the divide between some governments becomes increasingly irreconcilable. A growing number of countries now believe that the traditional repressive drug control approach, based on zero-tolerance, has not worked and has led to disastrous consequences for human rights, public health, citizen security and sustainable development, and as a result it has to be modernised.

 

Some countries calling for an open and inclusive debate at the UNGASS questioned whether this could be truly achieved with a process led by the Vienna-based drug control apparatus, given that the CND, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) have all gained quite a conservative reputation over the decades. Conducting all the preparations in Vienna led to a further problem for inclusivity, given that at least 70 member states do not have permanent representation there and would therefore struggle to fully participate in the process. The point of convening an UNGASS, is that by definition all UN member states and the whole UN system should be included on a equal basis, but limiting the political negotiations on the outcomes exclusively to Vienna, means that in practice the countries and UN agencies not represented in Vienna have much less influence on the process.

In the end, the hard fought-over resolution on the procedures decided that the UNGASS "will have an inclusive preparatory process that includes extensive substantive consultations, allowing organs, entities and specialized agencies of the United Nations system, relevant international and regional organizations, civil society and other relevant stakeholders to fully contribute to the process", while the CND "as the central policymaking body within the United Nations system dealing with drug-related matters, shall lead this process", inviting the president of the General Assembly to "support, guide and stay involved in the process".

UN special sessions are rare and crucial moments in UN-level policy making and are designed to ensure a coherent UN system-wide response to global problems of major concern to the international community. This has so far been less than optimal in discussions on global drug policy. After initial slow engagement from other key UN agencies, significant contributions have now been made from UNDP, UNAIDS and the WHO. The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also submitted a comprehensive reportthat outlines the most pertinent human rights violations in relation to drug control policies, while the Human Rights Council held a high level panel in September 2015 on the topic of "the impact of the world drug problem on the enjoyment of human rights".

A Civil Society Task Force (CSTF) was convened to ensure the participation of civil society in the process. The CSTF has representatives from every region of the world, as well as representatives of the key affected populations such as people who use drugs and subsistence farmers growing drug-linked crops among others. Initially, formal recognition of the CSTF was challenging – civil society has always had to fight for visibility and access at the CND but over the last year there has been increasing support for this initiative from governments.  A major victory for the CSTF was explicit support from the president of the General Assembly, who presided over an Informal Interactive Stakeholder Dialogue in New York on the 10 February 2016 organised with the CSTF in support of the preparatory process. The calls for progressive policiesbased in principles of harm reduction, of public health and of human rights from global civil society were deafening at the event.

Shifting regional priorities

 

In terms of regional perspectives, as noted above, the impetus for pushing for another UNGASS on drugs followed growing calls for reform from across Latin America at the highest political level. In fact, the previous UNGASS meetings in 1990 and 1998 had been convened in response to similar calls from Colombia and Mexico. Around them, a group of like-minded countries is gradually shaping up around certain positions, including Ecuador, Uruguay and Costa Rica and supported by Brazil and Bolivia on some issues. Caribbean countries have long been largely absent from the debate, not least because discussions have been limited to the CND in Vienna, where few Caribbean countries are represented – although Jamaica has recently joined the chorus of dissent and the discussion on several other islands has intensified.

In terms of European, particularly European Union (EU), engagement, this has been markedly different from Latin America and reflects the fact that Europe has managed to avoid the sharpest edges of a repressive approach to drug control. European countries have not experienced to the same extent, the high human cost in terms of violence, insecurity, and mass incarceration experienced in Latin America.  Of course the context is different, but in addition, many European governments have been pragmatic, have prioritised health care, harm reduction and human rights protection. While in Europe there are some serious issues regarding the criminalisation of people who use drugs and disproportionate sentences for minor drug offences, most European countries have managed to keep a certain distance from the escalation of the war on drugs in the 1980s and 1990s in the US, Latin America and Asia. At the international level, the leadership that EU governments have shown in this regard has been critical in shifting the drug policy narrative towards public health, harm reduction and human rights principles.

On issues where common positions can be found, the EU can have a strong impact on the global debate. For example, a united EU promoted the principle of proper sequencing with respect to ensuring that subsistence farmers have sufficient access to alternative livelihoods before being forced to abandon their drug-linked crops. The EU has also demonstrated unity and commitment on harm reduction and the removal of death penalty for drug offences, although a global consensus on these issues is not yet in sight.

Unfortunately, there are also crucial areas where a strong European voice has been absent, and the EU has failed to understand or acknowledge the sense of urgency and relevance of this UNGASS. This is clearly the case with regard to the shift in priority that Latin American countries are seeking, to move away from arresting small-time dealers and chasing drug shipments towards reducing drug-related violence, organised crime and corruption instead. In a sense, this is a plea for a harm reduction policy on the supply side: the drugs market will not be “eliminated or significantly reduced” by 2019, and it is time to forget the hollow illusion of a drug-free world.

Instead, government policy could be more sophisticated and focus on mitigating the most harmful aspects of the drug trade through reducing the levels of illicit drug market-related violence, crime, insecurity and corruption. This thinking mirrors similar priority shifts that have previously taken place in Europe under the harm reduction banner, with governments taking a pragmatic approach to reduce the harms associated with drug consumption without necessarily seeking to stop the use of drugs. These harm reduction policies and programmes have significantly reduced drug-related harm such as overdose deaths, and HIV and hepatitis C prevalence among people who inject drugs.

Cannabis policy and UN treaties

 

Another example is the lack of EU engagement in the debate about global cannabis policy developments, the result of the absence of a common EU position on cannabis and huge national policy variations. Demonstrating an ostrich-like denial regarding cannabis policy developments in the Americas but also at local levels within the EU, the EU common position for the UNGASS underscores the need to “maintain a strong and unequivocal commitment to the UN conventions” and that there is “sufficient scope and flexibility within the provisions of the UN Conventions to accommodate a wide range of approaches to drug policy”. In addition, the issue of drug control is a low political priority as the EU currently has it hands full with the refugee crisis and existential threats around the euro and the future of European integration.

A game-changing difference between this UNGASS and the preceding ones is the fact that the position of the US has fundamentally changed. No longer among the hardliners, the US has acknowledged, both at the UN but also more recently domestically, that the over-reliance on incarceration has failed. In August 2013, US Attorney General Eric Holder admitted that mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences were ‘draconian’ and that too many Americans had been imprisoned for too long for no good law enforcement justification. He made it clear that the status quo was unsustainable and damaging. In 2015, President Obama began a process to commute the sentences of around 6,000 federal drug offenders. In early 2016 the congressional task force created to examine overcrowding in the federal prison system, recommended the repeal of federal mandatory minimum sentences for drug offences. Different legislative initiatives have been tabled, including the Smarter Sentencing Act, which would cut many mandatory minimums for drug offences in half.

The domino effect of cannabis regulation at state level makes the US less sure-footed of condemning other countries for not stringently adhering to a zero-tolerance approach. Cannabis regulation for recreational use is outside of the scope of the current UN treaty framework for drugs, creating a significant problem for the US since it undermines its credibility to continue defending the conventions as they stand. The big question is whether this will lead to the US accepting more flexibility in policy areas that have been explored elsewhere. These include initiatives such as decriminalisation, drug consumption rooms or the regulation of coca in Bolivia, all policy options that the US currently opposes.

UNGASS outcomes: change of course

 

The past several years have seen significant changes in the global drug policy landscape representing a trend towards more humane and proportional responses based on health, human rights and development principles. To some extent, the UNGASS will acknowledge those advances and thereby consolidate the significant change of course that is happening in various regions of the world. Perhaps the most significant advance will be on the issue of access to controlled medicines – an area that has long been de-prioritised in favour of a focus on repressive, law enforcement-led approaches to reduce the illicit drug trade. Most drugs included in the schedules of the UN conventions also have important medical purposes, and several appear on the WHO “List of Essential Medicines”.  However, the availability of opiate painkillers like morphine for example, has been dramatically low in most developing countries due to overly strict regulations reflecting over-riding concerns about diversion and addiction rather than a need to ensure access to pain relief.

Unfortunately, other areas of progress remain stilted. Russia, alongside several Asian and Middle Eastern countries, has played hardball in the negotiations, effectively putting the brakes on the shifting discourse. The negotiations are driven by consensus, making it unlikely that contested policies in the field of harm reduction, or reforms like decriminalisation, despite being widely accepted and propounded by all relevant UN agencies, will be explicitly recommended in the UNGASS outcome document. Likewise, a clear condemnation of the death penalty for drug offences is probably going to be blocked by a small group of countries. The prophecy that allowing the CND to take full control over the UNGASS preparations would undermine progress towards a more system-wide coherent UN drugs policy seems to be being borne out. Negotiations about the UNGASS outcomes have taken place mostly in ‘informal’ sessions in Vienna, dominated by a minority of member states and from which civil society is excluded from participating or even observing.

For the General Assembly, an obvious priority for this UNGASS would be how to align UN drug policy with the recently adopted new global framework of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but negotiations in Vienna carry on as if they are negotiating another CND resolution. Submissions from other member states, UN agencies and civil society calling for a recognition of the failure of repressive responses and highlighting the need to connect the drugs issue with the agreed UN priorities for the future of the planet have so far not been reflected in successive drafts of the UNGASS outcome document.  The general tone of these drafts is very much ‘business-as-usual’.

At present, few countries are willing to openly acknowledge the existence of structural deficiencies with regard to UN system-wide coherence, the institutional architecture and the legal treaty framework. No easy solutions are available for reforming the foundations of the global control system and consensus will be hard to find, but a continued denial of the reality of the on-going policy trends and the resulting tensions with the treaty system will not make them disappear. In fact, to do so will hinder the much-needed evolution of the UN drug control system and its ability to adapt to the realities of today. Towards this end, it could be helpful if the UNGASS outcome leads to the convening of an advisory group or an expert panel to think through different scenarios for the future evolution of the system, especially in the lead up to the next important moment in 2019 when member states will have to agree a new global action plan on drugs, hopefully more in line with the broader set of UN priority goals for the next decade.

Although it is clear that the so-called ‘Vienna consensus’ has been breaking apart for some time and there is a growing desire to find viable policy alternatives to repression and punishment, there are still powerful countries and entrenched bureaucracies that are staunchly opposed to any kind of reform. The divisions between member states but also between UN agencies on this issue have become too visible to ignore and the UNGASS is a perfect opportunity for an honest assessment of the performance of the international drug control system and the options for a change of course.

Given the high human cost of the damaging approaches pursued to date, many people around the world have high hopes that governments will not squander this opportunity. And yet, to what extent the UNGASS can really live up to these hopes remains to be seen. The latest dynamics in Vienna do not bode well, as bureaucratic machinations, political complacency and exclusion seem to rule the process. The lack of vision, inclusivity and commitment to finding new solutions to many of the challenges that remain must be strongly condemned, especially given the urgency expressed by those countries that called for this moment in the first place.

This article was written by Ann Fordham of the International Drug Policy Consortium and Martin Jelsma of the Transnational Institute. It is published as part of an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and CELS, an Argentine human rights organisation with a broad agenda that includes advocating for drug policies respectful of human rights. The partnership coincides with the United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drugs.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Sticky-fingered cops keep getting themselves in trouble, and more. Let's get to it:

In Miami, a Miami-Dade narcotics bureau detective was arrested last Friday for pocketing some of the money seized in a drug raid. Detective Armando Socarras, 30, was part of a group of police officers who raided a motel and seized $17,400 in suspected drug cash. But when he got back to the station, Socarras only reporting seizing $16,100, keeping $1,300 for himself. When confronted by colleagues, he said he took the money "for personal reasons." He is charged with theft. 

In Whiteville, North Carolina, a state prison guard was arrested Sunday for allegedly brining synthetic cannabinoids into the prison at Whiteville and selling them to inmates. Guard William Katrell Jacobs, 29, is charged with possession with the intent to manufacture, sell or deliver a synthetic cannabinoid (F), delivering a synthetic cannabinoid (F), maintaining a place for a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance in prison/jail, and possession of a weapon on state property/courthouse. Authorities found a gun in his vehicle when they searched it after his arrest.

In Cincinnati, a former Mount Vernon police detective pleaded guilty last Friday to stealing drugs and money from the departmental evidence room and having one of his snitches sell the dope. Matthew Dailey, 45, a sergeant who was in charge of the evidence room, admitted stealing the drugs, but claimed he did so because he was strung out on Percocet due to an injury received in the line of duty. He copped to one count of extortion and agreed to repay $8,000 to the department. His sentencing date has not yet been set, but he's looking at up to 20 years in federal prison.

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.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A pair of Louisiana deputies on a DEA task force are accused of moonlighting as drug dealers, a sticky-fingered Miami narc goes down, and more. Let's get to it:

In Amite City, Louisiana, two Tangipahoa Parish Sheriff's Office narcotics officers were arrested last Wednesday on drug distribution charges. Deputies Karl Newman and Johnny Domingue are accused of being members of a drug distribution conspiracy operating in neighboring St. Tammany Parish. Newman is charged with conspiracy to distribute cocaine and abuse of office, while Domingue was hit with 18 counts of principal to distribute Schedule I drugs and conspiracy. Both deputies worked closely with a DEA drug task force.

In Miami, a Miami-Dade Police narcotics bureau detective was arrested last Friday on charges he pocketed $1,300 in cash seized during a street-level drug sales bust. Detective Armando Socarras, 30, went down after detectives seized $17,400 in suspected drug money, but he reported seizing only $16,100. He has been charged with grand theft and suspended without pay.

In Farmington Hills, Michigan, a state prison guard was arrested Monday after he was caught selling prescription drugs near a high school. Michigan Department of Corrections officer Lawrence Tylutki went down after police set up surveillance on him after receiving a tip. Tylutki was busted after selling more than 250 pills, including Adderall and Xanax, to an informant for $1500. After cops arrested him, they found another 290 pills in his car. He is now charged with six unspecified felonies. 

Chronicle AM: "Baby Bou Bou" Wins $3.6 Million Settlement, Pill Testing Battle Looms Down Under, More... (2/29/16)

Justice at last for Baby Bou Bou, Minneapolis decriminalizes, Ohio lawmakers resort to more drug war, Iran executes all the males in a village for drugs, Australian harm reductionists pledge to open a pill testing center at festivals despite government opposition, and more.

"Baby Bou Bou" before and after a Georgia SWAT team raided his home. (Family photos)
Marijuana Policy

North Dakota Legalization Activists Hand In Revised Initiative. Organizers of a marijuana legalization initiative that was earlier rejected by state officials resubmitted their proposal last Friday. The secretary of state now has about one month to review the petition and draft a summary that could be used during the signature gathering process.

Minneapolis Softens Pot Penalties. The city council voted last Friday to reducing small-time pot possession from a misdemeanor to a petty misdemeanor. Petty misdemeanors are not crimes under state law because they are not punishable by jail time. The move is more symbolic than anything, since pot possession is already a petty misdemeanor under state law.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia House Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Expansion, But Still No Legal Source. The House Monday approved House Bill 722, adding seven new conditions to the list of those qualifying to use CBD cannabis oil. But much to the dismay of bill sponsor Rep. Allen Peake (R-Macon), the bill does not allow for cannabis cultivation in the state. To obtain their medicine, patients must thus resort to violating federal law by importing the medicine. The bill now goes to the Senate.

Maryland House Approves Medical Marijuana Expansion Bill. The House last Friday approved House Bill 104, filed by Del. Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County). The bill would allow midwives, nurses, podiatrists, and dentists to certify patients for medical marijuana. The bill has no immediate practical implications because there are not yet any dispensaries open in the state. The bill now heads to the Senate.

New Mexico Reveals Names, Addresses of Medical Marijuana Growers, Sellers. The state Health Department has posted on its website the names and addresses of non-profits licensed to grow and sell medical marijuana in the state. The move is in response to a Freedom of Information Act request in a lawsuit brought by a reporter and a public interest group.

Law Enforcement

Family of Infant Injured in Georgia Drug Raid Wins $3.6 Million Settlement. The family of "Baby Bou Bou" Phonesavanh, who was burned by a flash bang grenade during a misbegotten, failed drug raid in Cornelia in May 2014, has been awarded $3.6 million in damages. No police were charged in the raid, which hit the wrong home. The infant's medical bills are estimated at $1 million. The Georgia county where the raid took place refused to pay them.

Sentencing

Ohio Bill to Heighten Punishments for Drug Dealers is Moving. The measure, House Bill 171, would lower the threshold for labeling someone "a major drug offender" from 250 grams of heroin to 100 grams. It passed the House last year and is currently in Senate committee hearings. The Office of the Ohio Public Defender and the ACLU of Ohio are opposing the measure, arguing that is just another criminalizing response to what should be viewed as a public health and safety issue.

International

Poll Finds Strong Majority of Canadians Support Pot Legalization. A new Globe & Mail poll has support for legalization at 68% nationwide, with majority support (55%) even in the conservative-leaning prairie provinces. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to legalize it and has called on former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair to come up with the best model for legalization. The poll found Canadians split on home cultivation, with 49% in favor and 48% opposed.

Iran Executed Every Adult Male on Drug Charges in One Village. Iranian Vice President for Women and Family Affairs Shahindokht Molaverdi told the semi-official Mehr news agency last week that every adult male drug crimes were rampant in some areas, including "a village in Sistan and Baluchistan province where every single man was executed." Molaverdi pointed to the executions as an example of the government failing to deal with drug trafficking in its southern regions and said Tehran needs to better support the families of those executed. "Their children are potential drug traffickers as they would want to seek revenge and provide money for their families,” she said. "There is no support for these people. We believe if we do not support these people, they will be prone to crime."

Australian Festival Pill Testing Battle Heightens. Harm reductionists seeking to reduce deaths and injury among music festival goers are planning an unsanctioned pill testing scheme and will result to civil disobedience if necessary. The New South Wales government today reaffirmed its opposition to the pill testing pilot project, but activists said they will go ahead with a van staffed with toxicologists and shielded from police by barriers of supporters who will risk arrest to protect the testers from prosecution. The project is still months away from being implemented, though. 

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Sleazoid LAPD cops get nailed on sex charges, an Ohio drug task force officer gets nailed and hangs himself, a Kentucky special deputy gets charged (again) in a drug trafficking scheme, and more. Let's get to it:

In Los Angeles, two former LAPD officers were arrested last Wednesday on charges they extorted sexual favors from four women they had arrested on drug charges. James Christopher Nichols and Luis Gustavo Valenzuela face multiple counts of forcible rape, rape under color of authority, oral copulation under color of authority, and oral copulation by force. The pair of officers had been investigated for "luring women into cars and forcing them to perform sex acts" in 2013, but that investigation only gained traction when multiple women came forward. They are now looking at up to life in prison.

In Delaware, Ohio, a former Reynoldsburg police officer was arrested last Thursday on charges he was peddling various drugs. Officer Tye Downard, 43, a veteran SWAT officer and member of the department's drug task force, was accused of making more than 20 drug deliveries to another person since October and was charged with possession with intent to distribute and distribution of a controlled substance. Early Monday morning, he committed suicide at the jail where he was being held.

In Louisville, Kentucky, a former Bullitt County special deputy was arrested last Friday as part of a bust of six people charged with distributing large amounts of cash and more than a ton of marijuana from Bullitt County. Chris Mattingly is accused of being the head of a drug cell that coordinated with a drug cartel operation in Riverside, California. He is charged with marijuana and methamphetamine distribution offenses, and he is also accused of plotting to kill a drug task force member investigating him. He was earlier indicted last October after being arrested with $237,000 in cash in California and has been in jail ever since.

In Tucson, Arizona, a former Customs and Border Patrol officer was sentenced last Wednesday to eight years in federal prison after pleading guilty to conspiring to smuggle marijuana and accepting bribes to let loads of pot through. Johnny Acosta was a port of entry inspector at the Douglas, Arizona, port of entry. He had attempted to flee to Mexico last October, but was caught by the FBI at the International Bridge in Nogales.

Chronicle AM: Supreme Court Takes Up CO Legalization, DEA Can't Keep Track of Evidence, More... (2/19/16)

The Supreme Court will decide if the case against Colorado can go forward, Ohio pot legalizers call it quits for now, Detroit dispensaries are facing a crackdown, a New Jersey bill would criminalize pregnant women who use drugs, and more.

Where did the drugs go? (justice.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Supreme Court Hears Case Against Colorado Legalization Today. The nation's highest court is deciding whether to take up a challenge against the state's legal marijuana law from neighboring Nebraska and Oklahoma. The death of Justice Antonin Scalia last weekend could alter the balance. If the court splits conservative vs. liberal, that would mean a 4-4 vote on the case. In regular cases that would mean that lower court rulings would hold. But the Supreme Court has "original jurisdiction" when states sue each other, meaning that there are no lower court rulings, raising the question of what would happen next.

Ohio Legalization Initiative Campaign Calls It Quits. The group, Legalize Ohio 2016, says it has put its signature gathering drive on hold because it doesn't have any money. The group's political action committee, Ohioans to End Prohibition, had only $268 in the bank. The group has some 80,000 signatures, but needs more than 300,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. It says it will instead concentrate on supporting the Marijuana Policy Project's medical marijuana initiative.

Medical Marijuana

Detroit Dispensary Boom Faces Looming Crackdown. The Motor City is now home to more than 200 dispensaries, but an ordinance that goes into effect March 1 is likely to put some of them out of business. The new ordinance insists that dispensaries must be at least a thousand feet from schools, parks, churches, libraries, and other dispensaries, and an unknown number are not going to be in compliance. Don't expect immediate raids, though; dispensary owners will have a chance to apply for licenses, and police said they would give dispensaries some time to comply before moving against them.

Asset Forfeiture

Illinois County Sued for Asset Forfeiture "Racketeering." Three people have filed a federal lawsuit against the Kane County Sheriff's Office alleging it is running a racketeering enterprise by stopping drivers, falsely arresting and searching them, and seizing their cash and cars for the benefit of the county. The suit also names three deputies, including one -- Sgt. Hain -- who is also employed by a private company, Desert Snow, that trains police to prolong traffic stops, conduct searches without warrants or consent, and aggressively seize assets. The plaintiffs allege they were stopped, searched, and had several thousand dollars in cash seized, and that they were booked into the county jail overnight, but never charged with a crime. They were released the next day. Police found no drugs or other suspicious items. The plaintiffs are seeking compensatory and punitive damages

Law Enforcement

Justice Department Inspector General Rips DEA Over Evidence Handling Procedures. The DEA isn't properly documenting, tracking, and relocating the drugs it seizes, compromising the security of the drugs and undermining their usefulness as evidence in court, the inspector general said in findings released Thursday. In nearly one out of every 10 cases, DEA could not even find the tracking documents that are supposed to account for the drugs. "Gaps in the formal documentation of the chain of custody for drug exhibits can compromise the security of the drugs and jeopardize the government's ability to use the evidence in court proceedings," the IG said. The IG also found that more than half of all seizures, DEA forms did not list the amount of drugs seized, making it impossible to know if they had been tampered with. The inspector general made nine recommendations in total to improve the oversight of DEA drug seizures, all of which the agency agreed to address.

New Jersey Bill Would Criminalize Drug Use By Pregnant Women. A trio of Democratic Assembly members have introduced Assembly Bill 774, which would make using drug while pregnant a felony crime. Advocates for pregnant women called the bill "blatantly discriminatory" and said it will deter pregnant women from seeking prenatal care and drug treatment. They also said it was aimed at poor women.

International

Report Criticizes Use of Private Contractors in Colombia Aerial Coca Fumigation. A new report from the United Kingdom's Swansea University analyzes the role of private contractors and finds their primary benefit to the governments involved -- Colombia and the US -- are "secrecy and lack of accountability." "The ineffective policy is of dubious legality, causes damage to people and the environment, and would, if carried out by US military forces, imply the direct involvement of the US in Colombia's civil war, thereby triggering the application of international law as it applies to armed conflict," the report found. Still, aerial fumigation achieved "strategic objectives" of the two governments by displacing rural populations from areas of insurgent influence.

Chronicle AM: WA Drug Task to Disband, Cites Legalization; Harm Reduction Bills Advance in FL, NM, More... (2/18/16)

Even South Carolinians want drug policy reform, a Washington state drug task force calls it quits after marijuana legalization, harm reduction measures advance in Florida and New Mexico, and more.

With marijuana legal, drug task forces are having to reassess. (Darrin Frisby Harris/DPA)
Marijuana Policy

Oregon House Passes Marijuana Fine-Tuning Bill. The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to approve House Bill 4014, one of three bills this session aimed at fine tuning the state's marijuana legalization program. The bill removes residency restrictions for owning cannabusinesses, reduces some penalties for marijuana offenses, and adjusts licensing requirements to fit the needs of small farms, among other provisions.

Medical Marijuana

Arkansas Attorney General Approves Medical Marijuana Initiative. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (R) has certified the popular name and title of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment of 2016. Now, initiative backers can begin the process of gathering some 85,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the November ballot.

Asset Forfeiture

Iowa Legislature Punts on Asset Forfeiture Reform. A subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday took up Senate File 2166, which would have ended civil asset forfeiture in the state, but after a contentious hearing, the subcommittee voted to simply study the issue and develop recommendations for addressing it next year.

Drug Policy

Poll Finds South Carolinians Surprisingly Open to Drug Reforms. According to a a new poll released by the Drug Policy Alliance, a large majority of South Carolina's notably conservative primary voters supports ending mass incarceration, even across party lines. A substantial majority, furthermore, supports decriminalizing drug possession. Some 70% said they considered reducing incarceration rates an important issue and 59% said they favored decriminalizing drug possession.

Drug Testing

Maine Moves to Make It Easier for Employers to Do Drug Testing. The Department of Labor is calling on lawmakers to streamline the approval process for employee drug testing policies and to implement a program to train managers to spot drug-related impairment in the workplace. The proposal comes as an amendment to LD 1384, which is the subject of a Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee work session today.

Harm Reduction

Florida Needle Exchange Bill Advances. The House Health and Human Services Committee Wednesday unanimously approved House Bill 81, which would create a pilot program to establish needle exchange programs in Miami-Dade County. The bill now heads for a House floor vote. Companion legislation in the Senate, Senate Bill 242, also awaits a floor vote.

New Mexico Legislature Approves Overdose Prevention Bills. A pair of bills that would allow individuals and organizations to possess and distribute the opioid reversal drug naloxone (Narcan®) have passed out of the legislature and are headed for the governor's desk. The measures are House Bill 277 and Senate Bill 262.

Law Enforcement

Washington State Drug Task Force to Disband, Cites Marijuana Legalization, Funding Cuts. The East Side Narcotics Task Force is going out of business in June after a quarter-century of fighting drug offenses. "The member agencies did an evaluation of the task force and its mission, and what we decided was that the task force had run its course and that due to a variety of challenges, it was time to sunset the task force and look at other options," Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett explained. One of those challenges was marijuana legalization: "When the state law changed, it made us pause and take a look at our mission," Mylett said. "When I arrived in Bellevue (in April 2015), the police chiefs were already discussing how marijuana laws were changing the whole drug trade landscape." He also complained that federal grants to fund such task forces were declining.

International

Saudis Execute Two Yemenis for Smuggling Hash. Yemeni citizens Ahmed Mubarek and Abdul Salam al-Jamali were executed in the Saudi border city of Jazan Wednesday after being convicted of smuggling hashish into the kingdom. Saudi Arabia has already executed 62 people this year, putting it on a pace to exceed last year's 153 executions, the highest number in two decades. It's not clear how many people have been executed for drug offenses.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

A massive bust of corrupt prison guards in Georgia, drug prosecutions halted over sleazy police tactics in Waco, a San Antonio cop gets his hand slapped for stealing from citizens, and more. Let's get to it:

In Waco, Texas, drug prosecutions were put on hold last Thursday after a narcotics detective was accused of putting false information in a police report. Waco Police Detective David Starr allegedly made false claims in a report and an affidavit from Starr regarding a February 2015 drug case. The report claimed the bust resulted from "interdiction" operations conducted by the Waco Police, but Starr later admitted the bust arose from a confidential informant and that he was ordered to misleadingly word the reports. Now, the Texas Rangers are investigating and hundreds of drug cases are at risk. "Unfortunately, as a further result of this unacceptable conduct, I will be forced to dismiss certain cases while an investigation into this matter is conducted," the McLennan County prosecutor said.

In Atlanta, 46 current and former prison guards and staff were arrested by the FBI last Thursday as the result of a two-year undercover operation targeting "staggering corruption within Georgia Department of Corrections institutions," as federal prosecutors put it. Among those arrested were five members of an elite squad charged with targeting drug dealing in the prisons. The guards and staff are accused of smuggling liquor, drugs, cell phones and other contraband into the prisons, as well as facilitating drug deals involving multiple kilos of cocaine and meth on both sides of the prison walls.

In Boston, a Bridgewater state prison guard was arrested Tuesday after state police set up an undercover heroin deal. Stephen Lebreux, 40, sold heroin to undercover officers on multiple occasions while off-duty and not at the prison. He is charged with heroin trafficking.

In San Antonio, a San Antonio police officer was sentenced last Thursday to three years' probation for stealing marijuana, a rifle, and thousands in cash from a local couple. Officer Konrad Chatys had responded to a domestic dispute between the couple when he took the items. As he did so, he told them he was "letting them get away with too much already." Chatys must also pay restitution to the couple.

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

It's jail and prison guards gone wild this week! Most did their misdeeds for profit, but at least one did hers for love. Let's get to it:

In New York City, a Rikers Island jail guard was arrested Sunday on charges she smuggled marijuana in to an inmate and had sex with him. Guard Nicole Bartley, 30, went down when a drug-sniffing dog stationed at the prison alerted on her. She said the inmate "played me for a fool."

In Fort Bend, Texas, a Fort Bend County sheriff's jail guard was arrested Monday for smuggling illegal drugs into the jail. Naveed Muhammed Islam, 19, went down after an internal investigation into allegations of a crooked guard at the jail. He is charged with bringing prohibited substances into a correctional facility, a third-degree felony.

In Charlotte, North Carolina, two former sheriff's officers and two prison guards pleaded guilty Tuesday to a drug dealing conspiracy in which 14 others have already pleaded guilty. The crew went down after undercover officers posed as members of a drug-dealing operation looking for crooked cops to aid their cause. Former Northampton County sheriff's captain Jason Boone and former lieutenant Jimmy Pair, Jr., both pleaded guilty to drug conspiracy and bribery charges. The two prison guards were not named.

In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, a former Anamosa State Prison guard was sentenced last Wednesday to four years in federal prison for smuggling drugs, cell phones, and other contraband in to prisoners. Garrett Barton, 29, admitted not only to smuggling contraband, but also to being high while armed as a tower guard. He copped to one count of a Hobbs Act extortion under color of official right (accepting bribes).

In Memphis, four Shelby County deputy jailers were sentenced last Friday after being caught up in a sting involving smuggling what they thought was Oxycontin into the jail. Anthony Thomas got one month in prison, and Marcus Green, Brian Grammer, and Torriano Vaughan were sentenced to a year and a day. The four went down after an inmate alerted officials of the guards' willingness to subvert the law, and officials then set up the sting.

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