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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadly Operation: An Informant Comes Forward

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miami, FL
United States

Chronicle AM: Holder Ponders Rescheduling, CT MedMJ Dispensaries Open, Honduras Prez Slams Drug War; More (9/25/14)

Holder will resign, but has some parting words on rescheduling, Rahm Emmanuel supports pot decrim, but legalization is a step too far, Connecticut dispensaries are now open for business, and more. Let's get to it:

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (wikimedia.org)
Marijuana Policy

Attorney General Holder to Resign, Says We Should Consider Rescheduling Marijuana. As he announces his resignation, Attorney General Holder has signaled that he thinks it may be time to reschedule marijuana. "It's certainly a question we need to ask ourselves, whether or not marijuana is as serious a drug as heroin, especially given what we've seen recently with regard to heroin -- the progression of people, from using opioids to heroin use, the spread and the destruction that heroin has perpetrated all around our country," Holder told Yahoo global news anchor Katie Couric. "And to see how, by contrast, what the impact is of marijuana use. Now it can be destructive, if used in certain ways, but the question of whether or not they should be in the same category is something that we need to ask ourselves -- and use science as the basis for making that determination."

Chicago Mayor Emanuel Just Says No to Legalization. Just a day after he called for marijuana decriminalization and the defelonization of drug possession, Mayor Rahm Emanuel said marijuana legalization is a step too far. He was responding to remarks from potential challenger Karen Lewis, head of the Chicago Teachers Union, who suggested legalization was "another source of revenue we ought to look at."

Medical Marijuana

Connecticut Dispensaries Now Open for Business. The state's first licensed grower sent its first shipment this week to dispensaries, which promptly began selling it to qualified patients. All six dispensaries in the state should be open this week.

SurveyUSA Poll Has Florida Initiative at 53%, Needs 60% to Win. The latest SurveyUSA poll has the Amendment 2 medical marijuana initiative with 53% of the vote, but since the initiative is a constitutional amendment, it needs 60% to pass. That's a slight drop from the last SurveyUSA poll, which had support at 56%. Importantly, while only 53% said they would vote for it, only 31% said they would vote against and 15% were undecided. If the undecideds split evenly, the initiative will squeak out a victory.

More Than 350 People Applied for Illinois Medical Marijuana Business Permits. State officials said Wednesday that more than 350 people had applied to legally grow or provide medical marijuana by the Monday afternoon deadline. Some 158 people applied as potential cultivation centers, while 211 applied to operate dispensaries. The state will grant 21 grow center permits and 60 dispensary permits by year's end, with the first legally obtainable medical marijuana available by spring 2015.

Pennsylvania Senate Passes Restrictive Medical Marijuana Bill. The state Senate Wednesday approved Senate Bill 1182, after amending it to remove the ability to vaporize the plant and removing a large number of qualifying medical conditions. The bill now goes to the House.

Drug Testing

Federal Appeals Court to Hear Arguments on Florida Welfare Drug Testing Law. The 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals has set a hearing date of November 20 for Florida Gov. Rick Scott's (R) welfare drug testing law. The state lost last December in US circuit court, with the trial judge ruling that "there is no set of circumstances under which the warrantless, suspicionless drug testing at issue in this case could be constitutionally applied." The state is appealing.

International

Honduras President Uses UN Speech to Rail Against Drug War. In a speech to the UN General Assembly Wednesday, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez lambasted international drug policies "based on waging a ceaseless war on all fronts without regard to the costs." He urged creation of a "multinational force" to fight drug cartels "just like the one that this morning, President Obama asked for to confront radical fundamentalists. Today, we talk about what is happening in other regions to children, young people, families displaced by war, violence and radical extremists," he said. "But little is said about the situation of thousands of families in the northern triangle of Central America."

Chronicle AM: WaPo Just Says No, WV Pain Clinics Using Narcs, More (9/15/14)

The Washington Post just says no to the DC marijuana initiative, the Oregon initiative sees a lively debate, the Madison, WI, police chief says legalize it, another drug war death, West Virginia pain patients are getting screened by narcs -- and paying for the privilege! -- and more. Let's get to it:

Imprisoned Vietnamese drug users working at a "rehabilitation center" in 2011 (hrw.org)
Marijuana Policy

Washington Post Counsels "No" Vote on DC Initiative. The editorial board of The Washington Post came out Sunday against DC's Initiative 71 legalizing the possession and cultivation of small amounts of marijuana. The paper noted that it had supported DC's recent decriminalization, but worried about "the rush to legalize marijuana." The paper warned that marijuana is "a dangerous drug" and "a gateway to more dangerous drugs." It also warned of "negative consequences" of legalization in Colorado, citing contentious information from the anti-legalization group Project SAM.

Legalization Debated in Oregon. The Salem City Club was the site of an hour-long debate last Friday over the legalization initiative, Measure 91. US Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) represented the "pro" side, while Clatsop County DA Josh Marquis represented the "con" side. Click on the title link for the flavor of the debate.

York, Maine, Initiative Still Up in Air. Will residents of York get to vote on marijuana possession legalization this year or not? The city council has rejected an initiative petition, but organizers were expected to submit a notarized version of the signatures to the town clerk, which would put the measure on the ballot. That hasn't happened yet. The Coalition for a Safer Maine only has until Friday, but the town clerk is now saying signatures may have to be re-gathered. The Coalition is considering its options. Similar initiatives are already on the ballot in Lewiston and South Portland, and Portland passes its own measure last year.

New York State Senator Says She Will Introduce Legalization Bill. Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan) said Sunday she will introduce a bill to legalize marijuana. "I will push for taxation and regulation of marijuana," she said. "I continue to work with experts around the country and to evaluate laws and regulations being put into place now." She introduced a similar bill last session that went nowhere, but she said progress on medical marijuana and factional realignments in Albany made her hopeful. "I see more hope in a Democratic majority for… pieces of legislation that weren't going anywhere," she said.

Madison, Wisconsin, Police Chief Says Legalize It. Police Chief Mike Koval came out in favor of marijuana legalization last week, saying it should be taxed and regulated, with revenues used to provide treatment for hard drug users. The war on drugs in general and on marijuana in particular has been "an abject failure," he said. "We've done such an abysmal job using marijuana as a centerpiece of drug enforcement, that it's time to reorder and triage the necessities of what's more important now," he added.

Medical Marijuana

Florida Republican County Chairs Oppose Medical Marijuana Initiative. GOP county chairs voted last Friday to oppose Amendment 2, the state's medical marijuana constitutional amendment. They worried it would lead to widespread access to marijuana. "I do not want to see Florida turned into the pot capital of the world," said Volusia County GOP chair Tony Ledbetter, in a remark typical of Republican concerns.

Drug Testing

Wisconsin's Republican Governor Comes Out for Public Benefits Drug Testing. In a tough race for reelection, Gov. Scott Walker has come out with a proposal to drug test people seeking food stamps or unemployment benefits and he is looking for a fight with the federal government over it. The notion is politically popular, but legally and constitutionally problematic. Walker's opponent, Democrat Mary Burke, has derided Walker's plan as a campaign stunt.

Pain Treatment

West Virginia Pain Clinics Using Former Narcs to Screen Patients. People seeking medical assistance at the Hope pain clinics in Beckley, Fairmont, and Kanawha City now must undergo screening by former narcotics officers -- and pay for the privilege. The clinics are charging patients $150 to be fingerprinted, photographed, drug tested, background checked, and interviewed by the former narcs. The work is doing by a private company, but some state legislators said it should be doctors -- not police -- who are reviewing and monitoring patients.

Law Enforcement

House Judiciary Committee Hearing Thursday on DEA Oversight. The House Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security, and Investigations will meet Thursday for a hearing on DEA oversight. The only scheduled witness is DEA Administrator Michele Leonhart. Click on the link for more details.

19-Year-Old City Oklahoma Woman Shot By Cops Is Year's 33rd Drug War Fatality; Boyfriend Now Charged With Murder. An Oklahoma City woman was shot and killed by police as she attempted to drive away from a drug bust and hit an officer on foot earlier this month. Karen Cifuentes, 19, becomes the 33rd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year. Cifuentes was apparently the girlfriend of passenger Juan Manuel Aguilera Perez, 24, who reportedly threw a bag of cocaine from the car as the pair fled. Perez is now charged with first degree murder, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and possession of drug proceeds ($400 in cash). Because Perez's was allegedly in the midst of the commission of a felony -- drug sales -- when police shot Cifuentes, under Oklahoma law he can -- and has been -- charged with murder in her death.

International

Parliamentary Citizen's Initiative for Marijuana Legalization Now Third Most Successful in Austrian History. A parliamentary citizen initiative asking for marijuana legalization has now been signed by 22,392 Austrians, making it the third most successful such petition in the country's history. "This huge success motivates us to organize a parliamentary hearing in order to reduce information deficits as most Austrian politicians still reject any legalization moves," said Bernhard Amann, chairman of Legalize!Österreich.

Hundreds of Vietnamese Drug Users Flee Compulsory "Rehabilitation Center." At least 400 inmates at a compulsory drug treatment "rehabilitation center" escaped on Sunday after breaking down the gates of the center near Hai Phong City. Drug users in Vietnam are regularly arrested and sent to compulsory treatment programs, a practice that has been denounced by human rights groups. A local official was quoted as saying that the men had escaped to pressure authorities for "better policy." They can be held for up to three years in the treatment centers, which Human Rights Watch has called "little more than forced labor camps."

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

Oklahoma Woman Killed Fleeing Police in Drug Bust

An Oklahoma City woman was shot and killed by police as she attempted to drive away from a drug bust and hit an officer on foot earlier this month. Karen Cifuentes, 19, becomes the 33rd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

The incident occurred September 3, but didn't come to our attention until the passenger in Cifuentes' car was charged last Friday with murder in her death.

According to The Oklahoman, citing law enforcement documents, undercover police witnessed what they thought to be a drug deal in the parking lot of a liquor store. As officers approached, Cifuentes backed the car out of the parking lot at a high rate of speed, mowing down metal poles and jumping the curb as she fled.

The reporting does not make clear whether the undercover officers ever identified themselves as police.

As she drove away down a nearby surface street, she hit an officer on foot, who shot her "as she was accelerating." The reporting does not make clear whether the officer shot her before or after she hit him. An earlier report from KFOR Newschannel 4, however, says Cifuentes struck the officer first and that the officer suffered "minor injuries."

Cifuentes was apparently the girlfriend of passenger Juan Manuel Aguilera Perez, 24, who reportedly threw a bag of cocaine from the car as the pair fled. Perez is now charged with first degree murder, possession of a controlled substance with intent to deliver, and possession of drug proceeds ($400 in cash).

Because Perez's was allegedly in the midst of the commission of a felony -- drug sales -- when police shot Cifuentes, under Oklahoma law he can -- and has been -- charged with murder in her death.

Oklahoma City, OK
United States

World Leaders Call for Regulatory Alternatives to Drug Prohibition [FEATURE]

In a report released last night and in a New York City press conference this morning, a number of global leaders, including former heads of state, called for drug decriminalization and the regulation of psychoactive drug markets. Those same global leaders are meeting this afternoon with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and his deputy, Jan Eliasson.

These world leaders are members of the Global Commission on Drugs and their new report is Taking Control: Pathways to Drug Policies that Work. The commission's members include former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, former Mexican President Ernesto Zedillo, former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria, former Swiss President Ruth Dreifuss, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, Virgin Airlines founder Richard Branson, and more.

The report's executive summary lists a number of policy prescriptions, some of them quite breathtakingly bold:

  • Putting health and community safety first requires a fundamental reorientation of policy priorities and resources, from failed punitive enforcement to proven health and social interventions.
  • Focus on reducing the power of criminal organizations as well as the violence and insecurity that result from their competition with both one another and the state.
  • Take advantage of the opportunity presented by the upcoming UNGASS in 2016 to reform the global drug policy regime.
  • Rely on alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent, low-level participants in illicit drug markets such as farmers, couriers and others involved in the production, transport and sale of illicit drugs.
  • Stop criminalizing people for drug use and possession -- and stop imposing "compulsory treatment" on people whose only offense is drug use or possession.
  • Allow and encourage diverse experiments in legally regulating markets in currently illicit drugs, beginning with but not limited to cannabis, coca leaf and certain novel psychoactive substances.
  • Ensure equitable access to essential medicines, in particular opiate-based medications for pain.

In other words, decriminalize drug possession, legalize and regulate drug markets, and end the failed decades-long embrace of prohibitionism. This is a policy advance from the Commission's initial 2011 report, which, while breaking new ground in advancing the debate of drug prohibition, did not go as far as calling for efforts to regulate and legalize drugs.

Global Commission meeting in Warsaw last year, with four former presidents present. (globalcommissionondrugs.org)
"Ultimately, the global drug control regime must be reformed to permit legal regulation," said Cardoso. "Let's start by treating drug addiction as a health issue -- rather than as a crime -- and by reducing drug demand through proven educational initiatives. But let's also allow and encourage countries to carefully test models of responsible legal regulation as a means to undermine the power of organized crime, which thrives on illicit drug trafficking."

"Health-based approaches to drug policy routinely prove much less expensive and more effective than criminalization and incarceration," said former Mexican President Zedillo. "Decriminalization of drug consumption is certainly crucial but not sufficient. Significant legal and institutional reforms, both at the national and international levels, are needed to allow governments and societies to put in place policies to regulate the supply of drugs with rigorous medical criteria, if the engines of organized crime profiting from drug traffic are to be truly dismantled."

The Commission's report today is only the latest evidence of growing global momentum for fundamental drug policy reforms. After the Commission's 2011 report, sitting Latin American heads of state, including Presidents Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia, Otto Perez Molina in Guatemala, and José Mujica in Uruguay, as well as then-President Felipe Calderón in Mexico, for the first time made drug reform a major topic at the Summit of the Americas in April 2012 in Cartagena, Colombia.

That was followed 13 months later by an Organization of American States report, commissioned by the heads of state of the region, calling for consideration of drug legalization along with other possible scenarios as a potential policy alternative. And late last year, Uruguay broke new ground, becoming the first country in the world to legalize and regulate marijuana commerce.

All of this has created a big push for a new look at global drug prohibition during the UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs set for 2016. The last UNGASS, in 1998, was dominated by rhetorical calls for a "drug-free world" and ended with unrealistic goals of suppressing illicit drug production (which, of course, have not been met), but the Commission and the global political leaders whose voices it echoes are working to use the next UNGASS to advance a frankly and radically reformist alternative.

Celebrity Commission member Richard Branson (Wikimedia/David Shankbone)
"We can't go on pretending the war on drugs is working," said Richard Branson. "We need our leaders to look at alternative, fact-based approaches. Much can be learned from successes and failures in regulating alcohol, tobacco or pharmaceutical drugs. The risks associated with drug use increase, sometimes dramatically, when they are produced, sold and consumed in an unregulated criminal environment. The most effective way to advance the goals of public health and safety is to get drugs under control through responsible legal regulation."

American drug reformers liked what they were hearing.

"When the Commission released its initial report just three years ago, few expected its recommendations to be embraced anytime soon by current presidents," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "But that's exactly what happened, with Colombian President Santos and Guatemala President Perez-Molina speaking out boldly, former Mexican President Calderon calling on the United Nations to reassess the prohibitionist approach to drugs, and Uruguayan President Mujica approving the first national law to legally regulate cannabis. Meanwhile, one Commission member, former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, has opened up the drug policy debate in West Africa, recruiting some of the region's most distinguished figures," he noted.

"The import of the Commission's report lies in both the distinction of its members and the boldness of their recommendations," Nadelmann continued. "The former presidents and other Commission members pull no punches in insisting that national and global drug control policies reject the failed prohibitionist policies of the 20th century in favor of new policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights. There's no question now that the genie of reform has escaped the prohibitionist bottle. I'm grateful to the Commission for the pivotal role it has played in taking drug policy reform from the fringes of international politics to the mainstream."

"With polling having shown consistent majority voter support for legalizing marijuana in the US for several years now, it's been clear that this is a mainstream issue in this country," said Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority. "Now this group of world leaders has not only put marijuana legalization on the table for serious consideration on the global stage, but has gone even further by suggesting that ending the prohibition of other drugs should be considered as a way to better protect public health and safety. The hope now is that these forward-thinking recommendations by so many respected former heads of state will encourage current officials to modernize their nations' policies."

The Global Commission on Drugs is showing the path forward to more enlightened drug policies. Now it's up to citizens to push for reform from the bottom up, and it's up to national and international leaders to start making those changes at the national and international level.

New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM: Massive Marijuana Poll, Saudis Behead Four for Drugs, CA Defelonization Init, More (9/4/2014)

Massive marijuana poll has good news, Cornhuskers ponder legalization "problems," another Florida medical marijuana poll is out, a California defelonization initiative quietly advances, another drug war death, Saudis behead four people for drug trafficking, and more. Let's get to it:

Another poll suggests marijuana is becoming normalized. (Sandra Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance)
Marijuana Policy

Massive Online Polling Survey Finds 58% Support for Legalization. The online polling data company CivicScience has released the results of a massive, two-year online poll that asked more than 450,000 US adults whether they would "support or oppose a law in your state that would legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana like alcohol." Some 39% said they strongly supported, and another 19% said they somewhat supported the idea. That's 58% for legalization. Support is even higher in the last three months, with 61% of recent respondents saying they favored legalization. The results are music to the ears of Marijuana Majority head Tom Angell. "This huge poll is yet another indication that marijuana legalization is officially a mainstream issue. With ending prohibition polling better with voters than most elected officials do these days, it'll be really interesting to see which 2016 contenders realize that supporting marijuana reform is good politics and which still don't get it," he said.

Nebraska Legislature to Consider "Problems" of Colorado Marijuana Legalization. Next Monday, the legislature's Judiciary Committee will hear testimony on LR 520, a resolution "to gather information about the developing problems that law enforcement is encountering since the State of Colorado legalized the sale and recreational use of marijuana." The Marijuana Policy Project is encouraging legislators to examine all the results of legalization in Colorado, not just the "problems."

Medical Marijuana

New Florida Poll Has Medical Marijuana Initiative Coming Up Just Short. A new Florida Decides poll has a majority in favor of the Measure 2 medical marijuana initiative, but not the supermajority needed to pass a constitutional amendment. The poll had support at 57%, but 60% is needed. But the poll also had 17% undecided, and if only a fraction of the undecided break in favor of the initiative, it could win. Another poll earlier this week had support at 64%.

Law Enforcement

Ohio Man Kills Himself During Marijuana Garden Raid Stand-Off. An Ashville, Ohio, man shot and killed himself after a two-hour stand-off at a property where he was growing marijuana Tuesday evening. Timothy Sturgis, 42, becomes the 32nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

Sentencing

California Defelonization Initiative Quietly Awaits Opposition. An initiative that would reduce petty drug (and other) offenses from felonies to misdemeanors, Proposition 47, is qualified for the November ballot and is now quietly waiting for a backlash to emerge. It polled at 57% in June and has $3 million in the bank. Opponents have raised only $8,000. But there are still two months left.

International

Saudi Arabia Beheads Four Foreigners for Drug Trafficking. Three Syrians and an Iranian were executed by beheading for drug trafficking offenses, the Saudi Interior Ministry said. The three Syrians were executed for smuggling "a large quantity of banned amphetamine pills" into the kingdom, and the Iranian was beheading for smuggling "a large quantity of hashish." That makes 45 executions in Saudi Arabia so far this year. It's not clear how many were for drug offenses, but the Saudis also executed four people for hash offenses last month.

Guyana Rastafaris Call for National Marijuana Commission. The Guyana Rastafari Council has called for the creation of a National Marijuana Commission. "Among the resolutions passed at the Council's last General Meeting held at the F.E. Pollard Primary School on August 24, was a call on the Government of Guyana to immediately implement the mandate of the last CARICOM Heads of Government meeting, that each CARICOM member state sets up a National Marijuana Commission to complement the Regional Marijuana Commission to look at decriminalizing marijuana for medical, religious and recreational purposes," the council said.

Ohio Man Kills Self During Marijuana Farm Raid Standoff

An Ashville, Ohio, man shot and killed himself after a two-hour standoff at a property where he was growing marijuana Tuesday evening. Timothy Sturgis, 42, becomes the 32nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Columbus Dispatch, citing police sources, local authorities were working with the state Bureau of Criminal Investigation's Marijuana Eradication and Clandestine Lab unit when a state helicopter spotted pot plants growing on Sturgis's property just outside Ashville.

Three detectives from the Pickaway County Sheriff's Office and the US 23 Major Crimes Task Force approached the property on foot when a spotter saw a man in dark clothing run into the woods. As the detectives drew nearer, they said Sturgis popped out of the wood, pointed an AK-47 rifle at his head, and said he was going to kill himself.

It didn't happen right away. Police said Sturgis called a friend, who in turn called Sturgis's parents, and the parents worked with law enforcement to try to achieve a peaceful end to the standoff. But at 8:17pm, detectives and deputies reported hearing a single shot. They then found Sturgis's body.

Police found seven pot plants growing in a field, 18 more growing in a basement, as well as bags and bottles of processed marijuana. They also found a variety of firearms. All 10 weapons found were found propped near windows in the house on the property, except for the one found beside Sturgis's body.

Ashville, OH
United States

Chronicle AM: Santa Fe Decriminalizes, New Drug Czar Nominated, NYC Heroin Deaths Rise, More (8/29/14)

Santa Fe decriminalizes, no medical marijuana for Alzheimer's in New Mexico, NYC heroin deaths at 10-year high, new drug czar nominated, another drug war death, and more. Let's get to it:

Michael Botticelli has been nominated to be the new head of ONDCP, the drug czar's office. (whitehousedrugpolicy.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Santa Fe Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession. In a surprise move, the Santa Fe city council voted Wednesday night to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The move came after the Drug Policy Alliance and Progress Now New Mexico undertook a successful signature drive to put a decriminalization initiative on the ballot. Rather than have it go to a vote, the city council simply approved the ordinance instead.

NORML Endorses Alaska, DC, Oregon Legalization Initiatives. The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) has officially endorsed all three marijuana legalization initiatives on statewide (or District-wide) ballots this fall. "NORML's board of directors endorses these cannabis legalization measures. All three support basic tenets of reform. They differ slightly in scope and implementation based on local considerations of law, customs and polled public sentiment," the group said. Both the Oregon and Alaska initiatives envision a legalize, tax, and regulate scheme, while, because of peculiarities in local law, the DC initiative only legalizes the possession and cultivation -- but not the sale and taxation of -- small amounts of marijuana.

Alaska Conference of Mayors Opposes Legalization Initiative. The Alaska Conference of Mayors announced Thursday it had voted to oppose Measure 2, the state's marijuana legalization initiative. The mayors' group is also kicking in $5,000 to the opposition campaign. The group expressed concerns over public safety, increased enforcement costs (?), and possible effects on youth.

Medical Marijuana

New Mexico Overrides Advisory Board, Denies Medical Marijuana for Alzeimer's. The Secretary of Health yesterday denied a petition to add Alzheimer's disease to the list of qualifying medical conditions for medical marijuana. The Medical Cannabis Advisory Board had unanimously recommended that Alzheimer's be added. Click on the link to read some reactions.

Georgia Medical Marijuana Study Committee Holds First Hearing. The Georgia Medical Cannabis Joint Study Committee held the first of five scheduled public hearings at the state capitol yesterday. The hearings are aimed at drafting legislation to allow for the use of medical marijuana for epilepsy and other conditions. Click on the link for more details.

Drug Policy

White House Nominates Acting Drug Czar to Head ONDCP. The White House has nominated acting drug czar Michael Botticelli to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP). Botticelli, a recovering alcoholic, has been acting drug czar since March, when his predecessor, Gil Kerlikowske, left to take over Customs and Border Protection. Prior to coming to ONDCP in 2012 to serve as Kerlikowske's deputy, he headed the Massachusetts Bureau of Substance Abuse Services.

Heroin

New York City Heroin Overdose Deaths at Ten Year High. Some 420 people in New York City died of heroin overdoses last year, the highest figure since the 438 recorded in 2003, according to data released Thursday by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. After peaking in 2003, the number of heroin deaths declined steadily, bottoming out at 209 in 2010. Since then, they have been steadily increasing.

Law Enforcement

Armed Orlando Man Killed in SWAT Drug Raid is Year's 31st Drug War Death. Members of Orlando SWAT team serving a drug search warrant shot and killed an armed man this morning. The man, who is as yet unnamed, becomes the 31st person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year. According to the Orlando Sentinel, citing police sources, the SWAT team hit an apartment on Orange Blossom Trail about 8:00am. At least two members of the SWAT team opened fire on the man as he pointed his weapon at them.

Orlando SWAT Team Kills Armed Man in Drug Raid

Members of an Orlando, Florida SWAT team serving a drug search warrant shot and killed an armed man this morning. The man, who is as yet unnamed, becomes the 31st person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to the Orlando Sentinel, citing police sources, the SWAT team hit an apartment on Orange Blossom Trail about 8:00am. At least two members of the SWAT team opened fire on the man as he pointed his weapon at them, according to Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings.

"In these situations, they have to make a split-second decision to protect themselves," Demings said.

While police have not released the man's name, they described him as having "a violent past" and said he was a convicted felon.

Demings said the man did not fire his weapon, but did point it at officers.

Orlando, FL
United States

Puerto Rico Drug Agent Dies of Drug Raid Wounds

A Puerto Rico police officer shot during a drug investigation last week has died. Agent Geniel Amaro Fantauzzi becomes the 30th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to El Nuevo Dia, Fantauzzi died Monday afternoon after being shot the previous Tuesday.

Fantauzzi, 35, a member of the Humaco Drug Division, was on a raid with four other agents at the April Gardens complex in Rio Piedra when he was hit by several bullets fired by one William Vazquez Tirado.

One other agent was wounded, but the wounds are not life-threatening.

It's not clear what happened to Vazquez Tirado.

Rio Piedras, PR
United States

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