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Journalism 101: Everything the Drug Czar Says is Wrong

Josh Burnett at NPR has a strong article debunking the absurd cocaine shortage rumor started by the Drug Czar's office. Burnett explains that increased cocaine prices are temporary and that the Drug Czar's claims of "unprecedented" progress are just false.

Burnett reached these conclusions through an increasingly rare journalism technique known as "research." Rather than mindlessly regurgitating the government's claims of drug war success, he called police chiefs in cities with supposed cocaine shortages and asked them if anything had changed. He also spoke with ONDCP veteran John Carnevale, who, despite his extensive drug warrior credentials, conceded that the real trend in cocaine prices is a downward spiral.

Of course, the inevitable consequence of researching the Drug Czar's ridiculous claims is that the Drug Czar will accuse you of bad research:
When asked about the conflicting information found by NPR, Drug Czar John Walters dismissed it. He said his information is drawn from nationwide data collected by the Drug Enforcement Administration, which is based on undercover buys, wiretaps, informants, and local police reports.

"Now we can do it that way or we can do it where you call somebody somewhere and they say something else," Walters said. "That's not data. That's a guy."
It's cute how pissed he gets when someone starts fact-checking his outrageous statements. And it's just priceless to hear the master of argument-by-anecdote accuse someone else of missing the big picture.

The results of Burnett's investigation are inevitable anytime a reporter deliberately researches claims from the Drug Czar's office. The information disseminated by that organization is always false, usually to a dramatic extent, so subjecting them to even minimal scrutiny will reveal that they are wrong 100% of the time.

Reporters need to learn this. It must be understood that press releases from the Office of National Drug Control Policy are a true or false quiz and the correct answer is always "F." If you simply cut and paste their claims into a story you fail the test.
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Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Snitch: Informants, Cooperators, and the Corruption of Justice," by Ethan Brown (2007, Public Affairs Press, 273 pp., $25.95 HB)

When a Baltimore hustler clothing line manufacturer and barber named Rodney Bethea released a straight-to-DVD documentary about life on the mean streets of West Baltimore back in 2004 in a bid to further the hip-hop careers of some of his street-savvy friends, he had no idea "Stop Fucking Snitching, Vol. I" (better known simply as "Stop Snitching") would soon become a touchstone in a festering conflict over drugs and crime on the streets of America and what to do about it.

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In a steadily rising crescendo of concern that reached a peak earlier this year when CBS' 60 Minutes ran a segment on the stop snitching phenomenon, police, politicians and prosecutors from across the country, but especially the big cities of the East Coast, lamented the rise of the stop snitching movement. Describing it as nothing more than witness intimidation by thugs out to break the law and get away with it, they charged that "stop snitching" was perverting the American justice system.

Not surprisingly, the view was a little different from the streets. Thanks largely to the war on drugs and the repressive legal apparatus ginned up to prosecute it, the traditional mistrust of police and the criminal justice system by poor, often minority, citizens has sharpened into a combination of disdain, despair, and defiance that identifies snitching -- or "informing" or "cooperating," if one wishes to be more diplomatic -- as a means of perpetuating an unjust system on the backs of one's friends and neighbors.

At least that's the argument Ethan Brown makes rather convincingly in "Snitch." According to Brown, the roots of the stop snitching movement can be traced directly to the draconian drug war legislation of the mid-1980s, when the introduction of mandatory minimums and harsh federal sentencing guidelines -- five grams of crack can get you five years in federal prison -- led to a massive increase in the federal prison population and a desperate scramble among low-level offenders to do anything to avoid years, if not decades, behind bars.

The result, Brown writes, has been a "cottage industry of cooperators" who will say whatever they think prosecutors want to hear and repeat their lies on the witness stand in order to win a "5K" motion from prosecutors, meaning they have offered "substantial assistance" to the government and are eligible for a downward departure from their guidelines sentence. Such practices are perverse when properly operated -- they encourage people to roll over on anyone they can to avoid prison time -- but approach the downright criminal when abused.

And, as Brown shows in chapter after chapter of detailed examples, abuse of the system appears almost the norm. In one case Brown details, a violent cooperator ended up murdering a well-loved Richmond, Virginia, family. In another, the still unsolved death of Baltimore federal prosecutor Richard Luna, the FBI seems determined to obscure the relationship between Luna and another violent cooperator. In still another unsolved murder, that of rapper Tupac Shakur, Brown details the apparent use of snitches to frame a man authorities suspect knows more about the killing than he is saying. In perhaps the saddest chapter, he tells the story of Euka Washington, a poor Chicago man now doing life in prison as a major Iowa crack dealer. He was convicted solely on the basis of uncorroborated and almost certainly false testimony from cooperators.

The system is rotten and engenders antipathy toward the law, Brown writes. The ultimate solution, he says, is to change the federal drug and sentencing laws, but he notes how difficult that can be, especially when Democrats are perpetually fearful of being Willy Hortoned every time they propose a reform. The current glacial progress of bills that would address one of the most egregious drug war injustices, the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity, is a sad case in point.

Brown addresses the quickness with which police and politicians blamed the stop snitching movement for increases in crime, but calls that a "distraction from law enforcement failures." It's much easier for cops and politicians to blame the streets than to take the heat for failing to prosecute cases and protect witnesses, and it's more convenient to blame the street than to notice rising income equality and a declining economy.

While Brown doesn't appear to want to throw the drug war baby out with the snitching bathwater, he does make a few useful suggestions for beginning to change the way the drug war is prosecuted. Instead of blindly going after dealers by weight, he argues, following UCLA professor Mark Kleiman, target those who engage in truly harmful behavior. That will not only make communities safer by ridding them of violent offenders, it will reduce the pressure to cooperate by low-level offenders as police attention and resources shift away from them.

Cooperating witnesses also need greater scrutiny, limits need to be put on 5K motions, cooperator testimony must be corroborated, and perjuring cooperators should be prosecuted, Brown adds. Too bad he doesn't have much to say about what to do with police and prosecutors who knowingly rely on dishonest snitches.

"It was never meant to intimidate people from calling the cops," Rodney Bethea said of his DVD, "and it was never directed at civilians. If your grandmother calls the cops on people who are dealing drugs on her block, she's supposed to do that because she's not living that lifestyle. When people say 'stop snitching' on the DVD, they're referring to criminals who lead a criminal life who make a profit from criminal activities... What we're saying is you have to take responsibility for your actions. When it comes time for you to pay, don't not want to pay because that is part of what you knew you were getting into in the first place. Stop Snitching is about taking it back to old-school street values, old-school street rules."

Playing by the old-school rules would be a good thing for street hustlers. It would also be a good thing for the federal law enforcement apparatus. It's an open question which group is going to get honorable first.

Federal Budget: Drug Czar's Ad Campaign Takes a Hit, DC Can Do Needle Exchange, But More Funding for Law Enforcement

The Office of National Drug Control Policy's (ONDCP) National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign took a major hit as Congress finalized the fiscal year 2008 budget this week, and the District of Columbia won the right to spend its own money on needle exchange programs, but when it comes to drug war law enforcement, Congress still doesn't know how to say no. Instead, it funded increases in some programs and restored Bush administration budget cuts in others.

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less of this next year
The media campaign, with its TV ads featuring teens smoking pot and then shooting their friends or driving over little girls on bicycles, among others, saw its budget slashed from $99 million this year to $60 million next year -- less than half the $130 million requested by the Bush administration.

"It's a mixed bag for sure," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "They cut the anti-marijuana commercials, but at the same time they gave a lot of money to law enforcement. There was some trimming around the edges, but Congress didn't do anything about fundamentally altering the course of the drug war."

The Justice Department budget was the source of much, but not all, of the federal anti-drug law enforcement funding, including:

  • $2.1 billion for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), a $138 million increase over 2007, and $53 million more than the Bush administration asked for.
  • $2.7 billion in state and local law enforcement crime prevention grants, including the Byrne Justice Assistance Grants, which fund the legion of local multi-jurisdictional anti-drug task forces. That's $179 million less than in 2007, but the Bush administration had asked for only about half that.
  • $587 million for the Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) program, $45.4 million more than last year. The Bush administration had proposed cutting the program to nearly zero.

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US Capitol, Senate side
But the appropriations bill that covers ONDCP also had some money for law enforcement, namely $230 million for the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) program, $5.3 million more than this year and $10 million more than the Bush administration requested. That program, which coordinates federal, state, and local anti-drug law enforcement efforts continues to be funded despite criticism from taxpayer groups.

"It seemed all year that the Democrats would try to restore some of the cuts from previous years, and they did," said DPA's Piper. "On the one hand, the Democrats say they want to quit locking up so many people, but at the same time, they're passing out money like candy to law enforcement, and that only perpetuates the problem," he added, citing the Justice Policy Institute's recent report showing that the more money that goes to law enforcement, the more people get arrested for drug offenses, and the greater the proportion of black and brown people locked up for drug offenses.

The funding cut for ONDCP's widely ridiculed media campaign was a bright spot for DPA, which, along with the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) has been lobbying for the past three years to kill the program. The two groups were joined on the Hill this year by Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and all of them hailed the at least partial victory on media campaign funding.

In repeated federal studies, the media campaign has been found to be ineffective -- and sometimes even perverse, in that some studies have found exposure to the campaign make teen drug use more, not less, likely. Among those are a series of reports by Westat commissioned by the National Institutes on Drug Abuse and a Government Accountability Office review of the Westat studies.

"It's $60 million more than the program should be getting, but it is a significant reduction, and we're really happy with it," said Tom Angell, SSDP government relations director. "The federally funded evaluation shows it actually causes teens to use more drugs, not less. In the most objective analysis, the program is simply not working. We shouldn't be spending a dime of taxpayer money on that," he said.

"That's a step in the right direction," said Bruce Mirken, communications director for MPP. "The drug czar's ad campaigns have been largely based on misinformation and exaggeration, and anything that reduces that is a good thing. Since the drug czar has shown he has no interest in doing appropriate and factual drug education, the ideal funding level would be zero, but we're getting closer," he said.

"At its height, the ad campaign was getting $200 million a year, and now we've got it down to $60 million," said DPA's Piper. "Thankfully, Rep. Serrano and the other Democrats had the courage to cut this stupid and ineffective campaign. We've been lobbying to kill it outright, but it's really hard just to cut a program, let alone kill it in one fell swoop. We have to do it in baby steps," he said.

Congressional concern over ONDCP media operations also manifested itself in another section of the appropriations bill that restricts it and other federal agencies from producing video news releases (designed as "prepackaged news stories" for local TV news programs) unless they are clearly labeled as being funded by that agency. In a GAO report examining ONDCP video news releases, the government watchdog agency qualified them as "covert propaganda."

Also as part of the omnibus appropriations bill, the District of Columbia has won the right to spend its own money on needle exchange programs, which it had been barred from doing by congressional conservatives. But Congress did not go so far as to undo the 1998 rider authored by then drug warrior Rep. Bob Barr that blocked the District from enacting a medical marijuana law approved by the voters.

All in all, as Piper said, "a mixed bag." Drug reformers win a handful of battles, but the drug war juggernaut continues full ahead and federal money rains down on drug war law enforcement like a never-ending shower. And those federal funds seed the state and local drug war machine where most of the action takes place.

"Congress needs to stop paying the states to do bad things," said Piper. "The drug war perpetuates itself because the states don't have to pay the full costs; the feds subsidize it, so the states have little incentive to reform. But the vast majority of drug arrests are by the states, and they should have to pay the full cost for police and prisons and all those expenses associated with the drug war. Until that happens, it's going to be hard to get reform at the state level; that's why it's so sad the Democrats are undoing some of those cuts that Bush made."

Drug Treatment: Federal Budget Provides Same Funding or Small Increases for Treatment, Prevention Programs, But Reduces Safe and Drug-Free Grants Program

As part of the half-trillion dollar omnibus appropriations bill approved by Congress this week and expected to be signed shortly by President Bush, drug treatment and prevention funding was approved with small changes from last year. Most treatment and prevention programs saw level funding or small increases, with the exception of the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities grants program, which took a significant hit.

Under the spending measure, drug and alcohol education, prevention, treatment and research programming will receive the following amounts:

  • The Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment (SAPT) Block Grant will receive $1.7587 billion, funding roughly level to FY 2007 and the President's budget request.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (CSAT) will receive $399.8 million, $895,000 over FY 2007 and $52 million over the President's budget request.
  • The Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) will receive $194.12 million, a $1.2 million increase over 2007 and $37.6 million over the President's request.
  • The Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities (SDFSC) State Grants program will receive $294.76 million, a cut of $51.7 million from last year's funding but $194.7 million over the President's FY 2008 budget request.
  • The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) will receive $1.001 billion, $2 million over FY 2007 and $1 million more than the President's budget request.
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) will receive $436.26 million, a $674,000 million increase over last year's funding and approximately $700,000 less than the President's budget request.

While the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities grant program was slashed to just under $300 million, that is still almost $200 million more than the Bush administration requested. Other areas of the federal drug budget changed too -- see feature story this issue for further information.

Congress Just Says No to Anti-Drug Propaganda

It looks like Congress will be giving Drug Czar John Walters a big lump of coal for Christmas this year. A major congressional spending bill slashes funding for anti-drug advertising down to $60 million for next year, a 40% reduction from this year's $99 million. Try as he might to spin the failure of his advertising campaign, the Drug Czar is just going to have to face facts: everyone knows the ads don't work and Congress is on pace to kill the program entirely within a few years.

For those who've been paying attention, it comes as no surprise that Congress is defunding the Drug Czar's propaganda campaign. A report by the Government Accountability Office not only found that the ads are ineffective, but actually concluded that kids who saw them were slightly more likely to try drugs!

Unfortunately, there's nothing you can do to make the Drug Czar understand that his ads are crap. Literally, the simple act of criticizing the ads actually makes him think they're working. Look what he said about this just last week:
I find it somewhat amusing that pro-pot activists lobby every year to cut funding for this program - they must be worried that it's working too well!
Really? So according to the Drug Czar, anyone who opposes the ads is a pro-pot activist who is afraid that they work too well. But in real life, the ad budget is getting torn to shreds by the U.S. Congress because they know the program sucks.
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Feature: Latest Teen Drug Use Numbers Out -- White House Claims Success, Critics Say Not So Fast

The latest annual Monitoring the Future survey of teen drug use was released Tuesday. It showed a continuing gradual decline in overall teen drug use, thanks largely to reduced marijuana and methamphetamine use rates, but a rebound in ecstasy use and increasing popularity of prescription pain relievers. While the White House and the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) lauded the findings as validating their anti-drug strategy, that position had plenty of critics.

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George Bush with drug czar Walters and NIDA chief Nora Volkow
The MTF survey, now in its 33rd year, is conducted by the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research. It surveys 50,000 8th-, 10th-, and 12th-graders nationwide.

According to the survey, the proportion of 8th graders using any illicit drug at least once in the past year was 13.2%, down from 14.8% in 2006. Tenth- and 12th-graders reported annual prevalence rates of 28.1% and 35.9%, respectively, both down less than one percentage point from the previous year. Only the reported decrease among 8th-graders was statistically significant.

Among the drugs whose use decreased in the past year were marijuana, amphetamines, methamphetamines, Ritalin, and what MTF referred to as "crystal methamphetamine," or smokable meth, or ice. Pot remains the most popular of all illicit drugs, used within the past year by 10% of 8th-graders, 25% of 10th-graders, and 32% of 12th-graders, but its use among 8th-graders declined a statistically significant 1.4% compared to 2006. Tenth-graders showed a tiny decline, while use remained steady among 12th-graders.

According to MTF, amphetamine use peaked in the mid-1990s and has declined steadily ever since, while crystal meth reached its lowest use levels since 1992 this year. Eight percent of seniors reported using amphetamines in 2007, while 1.6% reported using crystal. Ritalin, a prescription amphetamine used to treat Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, has seen its use decline gradually since first being measured in 2001. This year, between 2% and 4% of students surveyed reported using it outside medical supervision. Methamphetamine use also continues a slow decline, dropping by about two-thirds in all grades since it was first measured in 1999. Less than 2% of students reported using meth in the past year.

"Because this drug has such great potential for abuse and dependence, we are encouraged to see its popularity wane among teenagers," Johnston said.

But while pot and amphetamine use were down, a number of other drugs held steady, including cocaine, crack cocaine, LSD, other hallucinogens, heroin, other narcotics, Oxycontin specifically, Vicodin specifically, sedatives, and tranquilizers. Fewer than 5% of seniors reported using cocaine or psychedelics, fewer than 2% reported using crack or LSD, and fewer than 1% reported using heroin.

Some 6% of seniors reported using sedatives, and the same number reported using tranquilizers, while 9% reported using narcotics other than heroin. Five percent used Oxycontin, a slight, but statistically insignificant increase since it was first measured in 2002, and 10% of seniors reported using Vicodin. For most of these drugs, use levels are hovering at or near recent peaks.

The one drug showing an increase in use is ecstasy, with 4.5% of seniors reporting using it this year, up from 4.1% last year. But that is still only half the use level reported in 2001, the highest year since reporting started on the drug in 1995.

"These prevalence rates are not very high yet but there is evidence here of this drug beginning to make a comeback," Johnston said. "Young people are coming to see its use as less dangerous than did their predecessors as recently as 2004, and that is a warning signal that the increase in use may continue."

MTF and the Bush administration repeatedly compared this year's figures to those in 1996, when teen drug use was at a recent peak. That made for some impressive claims, such as MTF's that annual prevalence among 8th-graders "was 24% in 1996 but has fallen to 13% by 2007, a drop of nearly half." But the figures are much less impressive when compared to 1991, the first year listed in the MTF survey tables. For all three grades, drug use levels were higher this year than then.

Still, MTF, the president, and his drug czar all saw the glass half full. "The cumulative declines since recent peak levels of drug involvement in the mid-1990s are quite substantial, especially among the youngest students," said University of Michigan Distinguished Research Scientist Lloyd Johnston, the principal investigator of the MTF study.

"The most encouraging statistic relates to the use of methamphetamine, which has plummeted by an impressive 64 percent since 2001," President Bush said. "One exception to this trend is a rise in the abuse of certain prescription painkillers," he added. "This is troubling, and we're going to continue to confront the challenge, and the overall direction is hopeful."

Walters and ONDCP also put the best face possible on the numbers. The agency's web site now boasts a web page touting the findings as vindicating the anti-drug strategy and featuring a series of charts showing drug use declines.

But there were plenty of skeptics. "While it is certainly good news that teen use of illegal drugs appears to be falling, almost this entire decline is because fewer teens are using marijuana," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Teen use of hard drugs like cocaine and heroin has remained steady, and illegal use of many prescription drugs is increasing. The Bush Administration needs to look at the whole picture of students' behaviors and advance pragmatic strategies that hold the health, safety and well being of young people as the bottom line."

While drug use can be problematic, said Piper, responding to it with arrests is not the answer. "Drug abuse and the problems associated with drug addiction can be difficult to recover from but students may never recover from arrest and imprisonment for drug law violations, which generally mean the permanent loss of eligibility for federal student financial aid and serious impediments to employment. The number of people who use illegal drugs fluctuates from year to year, regardless of what the government does. What doesn't change is many Americans' lack of access to effective drug treatment."

The latest numbers reveal "disturbing trends," said the Marijuana Policy Project."This new survey documents the complete, utter failure of current government policies on marijuana," said Aaron Houston, the group's director of government relations, citing higher use levels for most drugs compared to 15 years ago.

Perhaps most disturbing, Houston noted, are misunderstandings regarding the dangers of drugs shown in this survey, particularly among the youngest teens surveyed. For example, 50.2% of 8th-graders saw "great risk" in smoking marijuana occasionally -- more than saw great risk in trying crack or powder cocaine, trying LSD, or in drinking nearly every day. Twelfth graders were more likely to disapprove of occasional marijuana use than of binge drinking (having five or more drinks at one sitting) once or twice every weekend.

"Drug czar John Walters touts minor, short-term improvements, but deliberately ignores the big picture," Houston said. "Over the long haul, teen drug use is up, not down. As a parent, I don't want any kids smoking marijuana. It's truly scary that the White House has convinced millions of teens that drugs that can literally kill them are safer than marijuana. We're pursuing policies whose costs will be paid in lives."

Appalachian State University criminal justice and criminology professor Matthew Robinson, coauthor of "Lies, Damned Lies, and Drug War Statistics," a work highly critical of ONDCP's manipulation of data, also had some choice words for the drug czar. "The recent claims by ONDCP with regard to the 2007 MTF study are misleading and do not tell the whole story about youth drug use in America," he said.

"First, ONDCP's online summary of the MTF features a very short-term focus from 2001 to 2007," Robinson noted. "As in its annual strategy reports, ONDCP downplays long-term drug use trends. In fact, the ONDCP website depicts only four figures, all showing declines. ONDCP does acknowledge increases in some drugs (e.g. Oxycontin), but it does not depict these increases in figures. Instead, as in its Strategy reports, ONDCP highlights drugs like meth and steroids," he said.

"Second, some of ONDCP's claims are misleading. For example, it says Ecstasy use is down 54% since 2001, when in reality it is essentially unchanged since 1996. Since Ecstasy use increased from 1998 to 2001, the long term trend is unchanged."

Even ONDCP's own materials show it is failing to accomplish its mission, Robinson noted. "ONDCP offers a slideshow on its website which summarizes some of the main findings from MTF. The slideshow proves that the drug war has not been effective at reducing drug use among young people over the long term. This is important because ONDCP's Performance Measures of Effectiveness demonstrate that ONDCP intends to consistently reduce drug use, something it has simply not done," he pointed out.

And while some drugs, such as LSD and marijuana showed decreases, Robinson said, more potentially harmful drug use is increasing. "The use of prescription drugs is consistently up among 12th-graders since 1991. While other drugs are down (e.g., LSD), this raises the possibility that young people have not stopped using drugs but rather have just switched to drugs that are lying around in their parents' homes. Ironically, these prescription drugs are more addictive and potentially dangerous to young people. "

Robinson also scolded ONDCP for taking credit even for reductions in alcohol and tobacco use, noting that the office claims its fight against illicit drugs causes such decreases. "Of course, ONDCP offers no evidence that reductions in alcohol use and tobacco use among young people have anything to do with the drug war, and that is because they don't have any," Robinson said. "In fact, the most consistent declines in drug use of all drugs depicted in the slideshow are for tobacco, a drug against which we are not waging a war; instead we are using honest educational campaigns combined with efforts to restrict legitimate businesses from selling tobacco products to kids. It is dishonest and wrong for ONDCP to take credit for these declines. "

The bottom line, said Robinson, is that after forty years of modern drug war, illicit drug use trends are virtually unchanged. "Drugs are just as available now as they were in 1992, in spite of increasing spending every year on the supply side portion of the drug war. In other words, this is just further proof that ONDCP is failing to meet its drug war goals of reducing use and availability of drugs," Robinson charged. "The president of the United States says the war on drugs is fought against an 'unrelenting evil that ruins families, endangers neighborhoods, and stalks our children.' If this is true, ONDCP's drug war is failing to keep this evil at bay. In spite of the spin, its own data prove it."

Come back the same time next year for the next episode of "Spinning MTF."

Law Enforcement: Snitch in Deadly Atlanta Raid Case Sues

A man who made a career out of snitching on his neighbors for profit is suing the Atlanta Police Department and the city, claiming he lost his job after the November 2006 drug raid that left 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston dead. The professional informant, Alex White, claims police held him for hours against his will, hoping he would help them cover up their misdeeds in the fatal raid.

Atlanta narcotics officers told a judge a confidential informant had told them cocaine was being sold and stored at Johnston's residence, but no such informant existed. They went to White after the fact to try to cook up support for their fable.

A frightened White instead went to the FBI and spent seven months in protective custody while working with federal prosecutors building a case against the three officers involved. All three officers were charged in the case. Two have pleaded guilty to state manslaughter and federal civil rights charges and are set to report to prison this month. A third awaits trial.

White, 25, had made up to $30,000 a year snitching on drug offenders, his attorney, Fenn Little, Jr. told the Associated Press. He is seeking compensation for lost wages as well as punitive damages. White's life has been "essentially ruined" because of the case, and he will now have to find a new line of work, Fenn added.

Medical Marijuana: DEA Threatens San Francisco Dispensary Landlords, Dispensaries Sue, Conyers to Hold Hearings

In a reprise of a tactic first used against Los Angeles and Sacramento area dispensaries, the DEA this week sent letters to dozens of owners of buildings leased to San Francisco dispensaries warning them that their buildings could be seized. Dispensary operators responded by filing suit in federal court to stop the agency, and a high-ranking congressman has promised to hold hearings on the matter.

Medical marijuana has been legal in California since 1996, and currently, hundreds of dispensaries are operating in the state to provide marijuana to patients qualified under the state's admittedly loose law. DEA raids and federal prosecution have failed to blunt their growth, and the landlord letters are only the latest wrinkle in the agency's war on the will of California voters.

"By this notice, you have been made aware of the purposes for which the property is being used," said a copy of the letter sent to San Francisco landlords, signed by the special agent in charge of the DEA's San Francisco office, Javier Pena. "You are further advised that violations of federal laws relating to marijuana may result in criminal prosecution, imprisonment, fines and forfeiture of assets."

The letter gave no deadlines.

San Francisco once had as many as 40 dispensaries, although only 28 have applied for licenses under a city regulatory process that began in July. But dispensaries may also be linked to other buildings where medical marijuana grows or storage take place.

"The feds do as they please... (and) they've done it before," San Francisco Supervisor Ross Mirkarimi told the San Francisco Chronicle, adding he would not be surprised at a crackdown. "I would only hope they would coordinate with local law enforcement and that they are aware of the new regulatory system we have in place, and are sensitive to it."

Dispensary operators, however, were not quite so sanguine. A previously little known industry grouping, the Union of Medical Marijuana Providers, last week joined the Los Angeles area Arts District Healing Center in filing a federal lawsuit charging the DEA with extorting landlords. The lawsuit seeks an injunction to bar the DEA from sending any more threatening letters.

Dispensary operators and their supporters are also looking forward to hearings on the issue in the House Judiciary Committee. In response to complaints from California, last Friday, committee chair Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) announced he would hold hearings on the issue.

"I am deeply concerned about recent reports that the Drug Enforcement Administration is threatening private landlords with asset forfeiture and possible imprisonment if they refuse to evict organizations legally dispensing medical marijuana to suffering patients," Conyers said in a statement. "The committee has already questioned the DEA about its efforts to undermine California state law on this subject, and we intend to sharply question this specific tactic as part of our oversight efforts."

"When I saw Representative Conyers statement regarding the DEA's abuse of their power in order to thwart California's law, I knew that our legal efforts were beginning to pay off," said James Shaw, executive director of the Union. "The DEA has alienated too many citizens with their heavy-handed 'above the law tactics' for too long. We welcome all the support we can find in our efforts to ensure our rights are protected."

Steven Schectman, the Union's chief counsel, said he has contacted Representative Conyers' office in order to provide his staff copies of the litigation that was filed in both state and federal Court. "I am hopeful we can support the Judiciary Committee in any way possible. As a result of our research and investigation of the DEA's threatening letter campaign, in preparation of our litigation, we have become the most knowledgeable group, outside the DEA, who best understands the scope and import of their tactics. We are here to help."

Feature: Pressure Mounts on Congress As Supreme Court, Sentencing Commission Both Act to Cut Crack Cocaine Sentences

Both the US Supreme Court and the US Sentencing Commission acted this week to redress inequities in the sentencing of federal crack cocaine defendants, but changes in sentencing will be only marginal unless Congress acts to amend or undo the minimum sentences it has mandated for crack. Several bills to do so are pending, but Congress has yet to act on them.

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Karen Garrison, with picture of sons Lawrence & Lamont, innocent students convicted for crack and powder cocaine conspiracy (picture from sentencingproject.org)
Still, the harsh crack cocaine sentencing policies that have been in place for more than two decades took a one-two punch this week. On Monday, the Supreme Court upheld a sentencing decision by a federal district court judge to sentence a crack defendant to a sentence well below the federal sentencing guidelines. The following day, the Sentencing Commission announced that its earlier decision to scale down crack sentences would apply to nearly 20,000 federal inmates doing time on crack charges.

In the Supreme Court, the justices voted 7-2 to allow federal judges discretion to sentence offenders to prison terms well below the punishment range set by federal sentencing guidelines. The ruling came in a pair of cases, Kimbrough v. US and Gall v. US. The decisions offer important guidance to federal judges who have been wrestling with sentencing issues since the Supreme Court in 2005 held that federal sentencing guidelines were no longer mandatory, but only advisory.

In the first case, the trial judge sentenced convicted crack dealer Derrick Kimbrough to 10 years for his drug offense even though the guidelines called for a 14-to-17 1/2 year sentence. That judge called the guidelines "ridiculous" and "clearly inappropriate" when applied to Kimbrough. A federal appeals court in Richmond vacated the sentence, declaring that a sentence so far beneath the guidelines was unreasonable. But the Supreme Court disagreed.

"The district court properly homed in on the particular circumstances of Kimbrough's case and accorded weight to the Sentencing Commission's consistent and emphatic position that the crack/powder disparity is at odds with [the federal sentencing law]," wrote Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg for the majority.

In her opinion in Kimbrough, Justice Ginsburg noted the ongoing controversy over the crack-powder cocaine sentencing disparity -- it takes 100 times as much powder cocaine as crack cocaine to trigger mandatory minimum sentences -- and wrote that judges could keep that in mind when sentencing crack defendants. "Given all this," she wrote, "it would not be an abuse of discretion for a district court to conclude when sentencing a particular defendant that the crack/powder disparity yields a sentence greater than necessary."

In the second case, Brian Gall had been sentenced to probation for his role in an ecstasy distribution ring while he was a college student. The judge in the case cited Gall's brief participation in the scheme and his law-abiding life since then in departing from the sentencing guidelines, which called for three years in prison. That sentence was vacated by a federal appeals court in St. Louis, which held that Gall's punishment was unreasonably light. The sentencing judge must show extraordinary circumstances to justify such a sentence, the appeals court held. That's not necessary, the Supreme Court held.

"An appellate court may take the degree of variance into account and consider the extent of deviation from the guidelines, but it may not require 'extraordinary' circumstances or employ a rigid mathematical formula," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority.

The appeals court "failed to give due deference to the district court's reasoned and reasonable sentencing decision," Stevens wrote.

Taken together, the two Monday decision create a new, tougher standard for appeals courts to overturn judges' sentencing decisions. Now, the appeals court must find that a particular sentence is unreasonable and that the judge abused his or her discretion in evaluating the factors that led to that sentence.

"The cases are the clearest and strongest rulings to date that federal trial judges can exercise their discretion to take their sentencing responsibilities seriously again," said Carmen Hernandez, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense lawyers (NACDL). "There is no doubt left that an inappropriate guidelines calculation is open to challenge -- individually, as imposed in a particular case, and categorically, where the Commission has not followed Congress' command that a sentence be 'sufficient, but not greater than necessary.'"

"At a time of heightened public awareness regarding excessive penalties and disparate treatment within the justice system, today's ruling affirming judges' sentencing discretion is critical," said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. "Harsh mandatory sentences, particularly those for offenses involving crack cocaine, have created unjust racial disparity and excessive punishment for low-level offenses."

"This decision makes it clear that federal judges have a right to vote their conscience and ignore sentencing guidelines that are racist, unfair or cruel," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The ruling will reduce racial disparities in the criminal justice system and hopefully send a message to federal prosecutors that they should stop wasting resources on nonviolent, low-level crack cocaine offenders and focus on taking down organized crime syndicates instead."

On Tuesday, it was the Sentencing Commission's turn to take a whack at crack sentences. In November, the commission amended the crack sentencing guidelines to reduce average sentences from 10 years and one month to eight years and 10 months, but a key question for activists, reformers, and prisoners and their families was whether the change in the guidelines would be retroactive. On Tuesday, the commission announced they would be.

"Retroactivity of the crack cocaine amendment will become effective on March 3, 2008," the commission said. "Not every crack cocaine offender will be eligible for a lower sentence under the decision. A federal sentencing judge will make the final determination of whether an offender is eligible for a lower sentence and how much that sentence should be lowered. That determination will be made only after consideration of many factors, including the Commission's direction to consider whether lowering the offender's sentence would pose a danger to public safety. In addition, the overall impact is anticipated to occur incrementally over approximately 30 years, due to the limited nature of the guideline amendment and the fact that many crack cocaine offenders will still be required under federal law to serve mandatory five- or ten-year sentences because of the amount of crack involved in their offense."

"At its core, this question is one of fairness," said one commission member, Judge William K. Sessions III of the United States District Court in Vermont. "This is an historic day. This system of justice is, and must always be, colorblind."

With retroactivity, some 19,500 currently imprisoned crack offenders will be able to apply for sentence reductions. According to the commission, eligible prisoners can expect an average sentence reduction of 17%, and some 3,800 prisoners will be eligible for but not assured of release by the end of 2008. But, the commission emphasized, reductions will ultimately be up to sentencing judges, who will have wide discretion in deciding who will be granted leniency.

Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he was pleased with the commission's action. "Nearly 20,000 nonviolent, low-level drug offenders will be eligible for a reduction in the excessive prison terms they received in the past because of the unacceptable disparity in the sentencing guidelines between crack cocaine and powder cocaine offenses," Kennedy said. "Those who break the law deserve to be punished, but our system says that punishment must be proportionate and fair. The current sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine is neither."

"The Sentencing Commission made the tough but fair decision to remedy injustice, showing courage and leadership in applying the guideline retroactively. Clearly, justice should not turn on the date an individual is sentenced," said Julie Stewart, president and founder of Families Against Mandatory Minimums. "Retroactivity of the crack guideline not only affects the lives of nearly 20,000 individuals in prison but that of thousands more -- mothers, fathers, daughters and sons -- who anxiously wait for them to return home," said Stewart.

But while both the Supreme Court and the Sentencing Commission have acted to reduce the harsh and disparate sentences meted out to crack offenders, congressionally-imposed mandatory minimum sentences for such offenses mean that these actions will only have a marginal impact on the length of sentences and the federal prison population. Only Congress can adjust those mandatory minimum sentences.

As one commission member, Judge Ruben Castillo of the US District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, noted, the commission has recommended since 1995 that Congress act to redress the sentencing disparity. "No one has come before us to justify the 100-to-1 ratio," Judge Castillo said, referring to the provision of federal law that imposes the same 10-year minimum sentence for possessing 50 grams of crack and for possessing 5,000 grams of powder cocaine.

Four bills have been introduced in Congress to reduce the crack/powder cocaine disparity -- two by Democrats and two by Republicans. Two of the bills, introduced by Republican Senators Jeff Sessions from Alabama and Orrin Hatch from Utah, reduce the disparity but do not eliminate it. The third bill, introduced by Democratic Senator Joe Biden from Delaware, would completely eliminate the disparity. The Senate is expected to have hearings on the legislation in February. Democratic Representative Charles Rangel from New York has introduced the only bill on the House side that would eliminate the disparity by equalizing the sentences for crack and powder cocaine at the current level of powder. The Senate is set to have hearings on the issue early next year. No hearings have been scheduled in the House, and supporters of eliminating the disparity say House Democrats are ignoring the issue.

"The biggest obstacle to eliminating the racist crack/powder disparity is not the Bush Administration or law enforcement, it's the House Democratic leadership," said Piper, who noted that House Democratic leaders had reportedly barred committees from dealing with the issue. "While the Supreme Court, the Sentencing Commission and Senate Democrats and Republicans push forward with reform, House Democrats won't even have hearings on the issue. Their silence on this issue is sending a signal to communities across the country that they don't care about reducing racial disparities."

Press Release: North Dakota’s Licensed Hemp Farmers Appeal Federal Court Decision

[Courtesy of Vote Hemp] FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: December 12, 2007 CONTACT: Adam Eidinger: 202-744-2671, adam@votehemp.com or Tom Murphy 207-542-4998, tom@votehemp.com North Dakota’s Licensed Hemp Farmers Appeal Federal Court Decision BISMARCK, ND – Two North Dakota farmers, who filed a federal lawsuit in June to end the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration’s (DEA) ban on commercial hemp farming in the United States and had their case dismissed on November 28, have filed a notice of appeal today in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Lawyers working on behalf of the farmers, Representative David Monson and Wayne Hauge, are appealing a number of issues. In particular, the lower court inexplicably ruled that hemp and marijuana are the “same,” as the DEA has contended, and thus failed to properly consider the Commerce Clause argument that the plaintiffs raised — that Congress cannot interfere with North Dakota’s state-regulated hemp program. Scientific evidence clearly shows that industrial hemp, which includes the oilseed and fiber varieties of Cannabis that would have been grown pursuant to North Dakota law, is genetically distinct from the drug varieties of Cannabis and has absolutely no recreational drug effect. Even though the farmers' legal battle continues, the lawsuit prompted the DEA to respond to the North Dakota State University (NDSU) application for federal permission to grow industrial hemp for research purposes, which has languished for nearly a decade. University officials, however, say it could cost them more than $50,000 to install 10-foot-high fences and meet other strict DEA requirements such as high-powered lighting. NDSU officials are reviewing the DEA’s proposal, and Vote Hemp is hopeful that an agreement can be reached before planting season gets under way. If an agreement between the DEA and NDSU is reached and ultimately signed, it would pave the way for agricultural hemp research and development in North Dakota. Such research is key to developing varieties of industrial hemp best suited for North Dakota’s climate. “We are happy this lawsuit is moving forward with an appeal,” says Eric Steenstra, President of Vote Hemp, a non-profit organization working to bring industrial hemp farming back to the U.S. “We feel that the lower court’s decision not only overlooks Congress’s original legislative intent, but also fails to stand up for fundamental states’ rights against overreaching federal regulation. Canada grows over 30,000 acres of industrial hemp annually without any law enforcement problems. In our federalist society, it is not the burden of North Dakota’s citizens to ask Congress in Washington, D.C. to clear up its contradictory and confusing regulations concerning Cannabis; it is their right to grow industrial hemp pursuant to their own state law and the United States Constitution,” adds Steenstra. Vote Hemp, the nation's leading industrial hemp advocacy group, and its supporters are providing financial support for the lawsuit. If it is ultimately successful, states across the nation will be free to implement their own hemp farming laws without fear of federal interference. More on the case can be found at: http://www.VoteHemp.com/legal_cases_ND.html.
Location: 
Bismarck, ND
United States

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