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Feature: Police Officer Deaths in US Drug War a Rare Occurrence, Despite Popular Belief

Tomorrow is National Law Enforcement Memorial Day, a day to mark the service of those law enforcement officers who died in the line of duty. Fortunately for drug law enforcers, last year did not leave a lot of fallen officers to memorialize. And while it may cut against the grain of countless pop culture depictions about dangerous drug dealers, last year was not unusual.

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lioness statue, National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial (courtesy wikipedia.org)
Doing drug law enforcement is just not that dangerous. According to statistics on police line of duty deaths compiled by the Officer Down Memorial Page, only three law enforcement officers were killed enforcing drug laws last year, and those three were not undercover narcs doing drug buys or SWAT team raiders busting down doors, but DEA agents who died in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. (One officer, Michael Crawshaw of the Penn Hills Police Department in Pennsylvania, was killed responding to a drug-trade murder in which one drug trafficker killed another over a drug debt. This officer death was certainly related to the drug war; we rightly or wrongly did not include him in the count because he was responding to a murder, not a drug crime.)

By contrast, according to FBI preliminary figures, 48 law enforcement officers were "feloniously killed in the line of duty"-- none of them doing drug law enforcement. But that was less than half of the 126 line of duty officer deaths last year. Auto accidents killed 34, drunk drivers killed nine, heart attacks killed nine more, seven died after being struck by vehicles, and four died in aircraft accidents (including the three DEA officers). Duty-related illness, 9/11-related illness, and motorcycle accidents accounted for three each, two died after being shot accidentally, and one was beaten to death.

According to historical data provided to the Chronicle by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, which also compiles statistics on police line of duty deaths, last year's low death toll among officers enforcing the drug laws is not a fluke. In the decade between 1978 and 1988, an average of 6.5 officers were killed each year; in the following decade, the number was 6.2; and in the last 10 years, an average of 4.3 officers were killed each year enforcing the drug laws. The single bloodiest year for drug law enforcement was 1988, when 12 officers died.

In 2008, the number of police who died maintaining drug prohibition was seven; in 2007, it was four; it 2006, it was five; in 2005, it was four. When placed in the context of the more than 1.5 million drug arrests made in each of those years, it is clear that only one in every several hundred thousand drug arrests leads to an officer's death. During the past 10 years, the odds were less than 1 in 350,000.

But while drug law enforcement is not in itself that dangerous for police, certain police tactics raise the risk -- for both law officers and the recipients of their attention. Of the 20 officers killed enforcing the drug laws since 2005, nine were killed in drug raids and five were killed doing undercover work.

Two of the 2008 officer deaths demonstrate the risks involved in aggressive forced-entry raids. In Virginia, Chesapeake Police Detective Jarrod Brent Shivers, who also doubled as the door-rammer for the SWAT team, was killed by Ryan Frederick, who shot through a door in fear for his life in reaction to the home invasion. Frederick, who had recently been burgled, was eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison. The cops were looking for a marijuana grow, but found only Japanese maple trees which the informant apparently mistook for pot.

FBI Agent Samuel Steele Hicks died in another raid gone bad. While serving a forced entry narcotics search warrant in Indiana Township, Pennsylvania, Hicks was shot and killed by the suspect's wife, Christina Korbe, who fired blindly from a bedroom at what she later said she thought were intruders. Although Korbe was not a target in the investigation of an 18-year drug conspiracy, she has since been charged with a string of drug offenses in addition to facing a murder charge.

Aggressive law enforcement tactics, such as dynamic entries (kicking in the door) and SWAT-style assaults have also left dozens of homeowners dead. (See Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko's now famous report, "Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Policing in America and the police militarization archive at his blog, The Agitator for page after page of stomach-turning reports.)

In November 2006, undercover Atlanta narcotics officers doing a forced entry raid shot and killed 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston after the woman fired at the people breaking down her door in a high-crime neighborhood. In this case, at least, the police were held accountable, in part because their conspiracy to cover up their fabrication of evidence for a search warrant quickly unraveled. Three of them went to prison.

  • On January 6, 2008, police in Lima, Ohio, shot and killed a 26-year-old mother of six, Tarika Wilson, during a raid aimed at her boyfriend. The police shooter was eventually found not guilty for killing her.
  • The following day in North Little Rock, Arkansas, a police SWAT team raided the home of Tracy Ingle. Awakened by a ram battering his door and thinking he was under attack by armed robbers, Ingle grabbed a broken pistol to scare them off. Officers fired multiple shots, wounding him five times. He spent a more than a week in intensive care before police removed him, took him to the police station, and questioned him for five hours. He was charged with running a drug enterprise even though no drugs were found.
  • In May, Connecticut police raiding an apartment after being informed that people were smoking crack there, shot and killed Gonzalo Guizan, who was unarmed. Police said he charged at them. All they found was a crack pipe.
  • This year, at least two people, Florida grandmother Brenda Van Zweiten and Memphis resident Malcolm Shaw were killed in separate SWAT-style raids on their homes the same week in March. In both cases, police claimed the victim was armed. Whether Van Zweiten, who was raided over small-scale drug dealing out of her house, or Shaw, who was raided over simple drug possession (!) intended to attack police or were merely trying to defend themselves from intruders breaking into their homes, will never be known because they are dead.

It's not just people. Dogs also seem to be a favorite target of drug-raiding police. That has certainly become an issue in the February SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri (see related story here), which has resulted in widespread outrage after a video of the raid found its way to YouTube last week. In that incident, police executing a search warrant over alleged marijuana sales killed one dog and wounded another, and terrified the suspect's wife and child, but found only a tiny amount of weed and a pipe.

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DEA memorial for agents killed in Afghanistan
Another infamous dog-killing SWAT raid occurred in 2008 in Maryland. Cheye Calvo, the mayor of the Washington, DC, suburb of Berwyn Heights, saw his two dogs shot and killed by a Prince George's County SWAT team that burst into his home after his mother-in-law accepted delivery of a package containing marijuana. Calvo and his family were twice victimized, once by the pot traders who used his address to have their dope sent to, and again by the gung-ho, itchy trigger finger police.

It is unclear how many people were killed by police enforcing the drug laws in general or conducting drug raids in particular. Although in 1999 Congress authorized legislation requiring law enforcement agencies to submit such data, it neglected to fund the program. The incidents mentioned above are only some of the most egregious and well-publicized, but they suggest that even if doing drug raids isn't particularly dangerous for police, it is for their victims.

There is a better way, said a pair of former drug enforcement officers consulted by the Chronicle. It might be succinctly expressed as: "Chill out."

"There is no question that in the bulk of those raids, these are not folks with any history of violence, said former SWAT team member US Special Forces sergeant James Hanson, now communications director for the veterans' group Warrior Legacy Foundation. "That should be the first hurdle: Does he have a propensity for violence? Drug warrants almost never have that level of threat. The fears police claim to have are overstated."

But, he suggested, those fears can come to fruition precisely because of aggressive policing tactics. "If you dig deeper on the two or three that happened in 2008, it was the dynamic entry that triggered the violent incident," said Hanson. "Dynamic entry into a house is the most dangerous thing about it. Just wait for the guy to go to the 7-11, for goodness' sake," he exclaimed. "That way, you're not busting down doors, endangering kids, and escalating the situation."

Cops didn't used to need paramilitary squads to do drug busts, said retired LAPD detective Dave Doddridge, who had long experience enforcing prohibition. "We weren't scared, we'd go knock on doors," he recalled. We didn't need the overkill. When I first joined the department back in 1973, at roll call, they would read off the houses, and we would drive up in a patrol car and knock on the door. We managed," he said.

"I spent several years down in South Central kicking in doors and raiding homes, and probably served 50 search warrants," the former narc added. "We weren't SWAT, just a couple of narcotics detectives with our vests on, and none of us got seriously injured. There was seldom any resistance."

SWAT was originally envisioned as elite squads designed for rare but dangerous situations, such as hostage situations, barricaded suspects, or terrorist attacks. But in a case of mission creep gone mad, they are now used routinely for drug raids -- as noted above, to the tune of 50,000 or so a year.

"In a lot of these cases, because, thanks to funds from Homeland Security, they have a SWAT capability, they have to have a reason for having it," said Hanson. "Using SWAT to serve drug warrants allows them to say it's worthwhile, and overstating the potential for violence is part of that."

"SWAT definitely takes control of the situation, but that's not necessary for a family home," said Doddridge. "Maybe if there's a gang with a big drug house and they're manufacturing you should send in SWAT, but if it's a house, just send in an informant, buy the drugs, and get an arrest warrant. You don't need SWAT for that."

But the SWAT philosophy is well-entrenched in American policing. Changing that mentality, or at least reining in SWAT's overuse and abuses will be a difficult challenge. But it can be done.

In the Columbia SWAT raid case, public outrage led quickly to new restrictions on SWAT team deployments and new rules for their use executing search warrants. Similarly, public outrage in the case of Cheye Calvo, the Maryland mayor, led to the passage of the first state law in the country aimed at reining in SWAT. That law requires every department that has a SWAT team to report regularly on its activities.

"The Maryland law is a perfect example of what needs to be done," said Hanson. "There was no auditing of how many times these teams were used in dynamic entries -- nobody from the civilian side was looking at it. If we're going to ask police to serve drug warrants, we get to decide how they do it. We don't want to put police at risk, but neither do we want to put citizens at risk. There are too many instances of bad warrants, wrong addresses, or lying informants."

Doddridge, who has become a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) since he retired from the force has another idea. "We need a crack team of attorneys who are good at lawsuits to just go around and start suing like crazy," he suggested. "When they have to start worrying about paying money, that'll make them start looking over their shoulders."

Law Enforcement: Missouri SWAT Team Gets Restrictions After Outrage Over Dog-Killing Pot Raid Video

Faced with widespread public outrage and even death threats after the release of a video of a February marijuana raid in which two dogs were shot, one killed and one wounded, by SWAT team members in a family home with a young child present, the Columbia, Missouri, Police Department Monday moved to dampen the uproar. At a press conference, Chief Ken Burton announced he was immediately imposing new restrictions on the way the department serves search warrants.

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CPD web site with SWAT team section's links and pages removed
The press conference failed to assuage public anger over the raid. At a Wednesday night Police Review Board meeting frustration with the department that extended beyond the raid was evident. (Read a local press account of the meeting here.

Although the raid occurred in February, the video did not appear until last week, after homeowner Jonathan Whitworth pleaded guilty to possession of drug paraphernalia. Since then, the video has gone virulently viral and has now exceeded the one million views mark on YouTube. It shows the SWAT team pushing through the front door, aggressively entering while yelling commands and obscenities, and includes the sounds of barking and gunfire, following by the yelping of the dying and wounded dogs. The video also shows Whitworth's wife and seven-year-old son being hustled away by police, while Wentworth himself is forced to the ground with guns pointed at him.

According to the affidavit used to obtain the search warrant, Whitworth was a marijuana dealer selling high-grade pot. The affidavit cites two "truthful and reliable" snitches as saying so. It also includes the results of a search of Whitworth's trash in which police found THC residues. Despite the information in the affidavit, police found only a pipe and a small quantity of pot.

Chief Burton acknowledged that his officers had committed errors and announced six policy changes for the way the SWAT team handles search warrants. He said they were among the most restrictive SWAT policies in the country.

"The public can be assured that a similar incident is not going to happen again without somebody's head rolling because it is now the policy," Burton said. "We know what we are going to do. We're telling you how we are going to handle these things."

Here are the policy changes:

IMMEDIATE CHANGES TO COLUMBIA POLICE NARCOTIC SEARCH WARRANT SERVICE PROTOCOL

  • The Narcotics Sergeant and SWAT Commander are being removed from the decision making process on whether or not, and how, a narcotic search warrant will be served.
  • Once probable cause has been established to obtain a search warrant for narcotics, the target location will be kept under surveillance. If the surveillance is interrupted or compromised for any reason, service of a search warrant may not be authorized, or the manner in which it is served may be changed.
  • Warrant services for narcotic-related search warrants will be served within a reasonable time after the warrant is obtained, generally within 8 hours of receipt.
  • Prior to serving the search warrant, the Bureau Commander (Captain) over the area will be briefed about the warrant, and he or she will review all available intelligence related to the request, and will decide how the warrant will be served. Assessing the potential danger to officers, innocent bystanders, and suspects, along with what law enforcement purpose will be served by serving the search warrant, will be weighed in their decision.
  • All available intelligence will be used to attempt to mitigate unnecessary risk to any person. Issues such as children being present will be strong evidence that dynamic entry should not be considered except under the most extreme circumstances. SWAT Officers always have and will continue to be bound by the Columbia Police Department policy regarding any use of force.

They will, however, still shoot your dog, at least as far as this policy is concerned.

Law Enforcement: Video of SWAT Team Killing Dogs in Front of Child During Pot Raid Stirs Outrage

A February SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri, in which police shot two dogs, killing one of them, in front of a Columbia man and his terrified wife and seven-year-old child is stirring outrage months later -- after video of the raid was released this week. Police in Columbia are reporting death threats as the video goes viral and Internet message boards grow bloated with angry, outraged comments.

As of Friday morning , the YouTube video had been watched more than 500,000 times. The Columbia Tribune article linked to below contained a whopping 593 comments Thursday night, the vast majority critical of police, many downright hostile.

The SWAT team hit the home of Jonathan Whitworth, 25, with a search warrant alleging he was holding a major amount of marijuana and was a drug dealer. They found a pipe, a grinder, and a small amount of marijuana. Along the way, they shot the dogs, killing one of them, shouted profanities at the frightened family, and generally behaved as if they were Special Forces raiding a Taliban hide-out.

Police claimed they shot and killed a pit bull because it was "acting in an uncontrollably aggressive manner," but while the video shows barking, it shows no growling. No reason was given for shooting and wounding the second dog, a corgi.

According to the Columbia Tribune, police said they were unaware that a child resided at the home. Between the bad intelligence indicating they had a major drug bust and the bad intelligence regarding who lived at the target residence, the raid would seem to suggest a force gone lax in its procedures and a local judiciary inclined to rubber stamp search warrant applications.

Jonathan Whitworth was arrested on marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia charges, and recently pleaded guilty to the paraphernalia charge. Now, he can concentrate on whether to file a lawsuit against the police department. "Their focus right now is to get this behind them," said Whitworth attorney Jeff Hilbrenner said. "Obviously, this was a traumatic event for his wife and son. A final decision has not been made, but they are evaluating all of their options."

The Columbia Police say they are conducting an internal review. It is worth nothing that in 2004, Columbia voted to make adult marijuana law offenses the lowest law enforcement priority. Somebody should mention that to the police department and its out-of-control SWAT team.

Drug War Chronicle Book Review: "Opium: Uncovering the Politics of the Poppy," by Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy (2010, Harvard University Press, 256 pp., $28.95 HB)

Phillip S. Smith, Writer/Editor

For more than a decade, French researcher Pierre-Arnaud Chouvy has been cementing his reputation as one of the world's leading experts on opium and the opium trade, and now, with "Opium," he makes his work accessible to an English-speaking audience. In doing so, he reveals the long and fascinating history of the opium poppy and explores the dynamics behind the ever-mutating patterns of cultivation and distribution that mark the trade for the past century. He also explains why decades of aggressive anti-drug policies by the US and the United Nations have failed to suppress or even reduce illicit poppy production.

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Chouvy's knowledge of the trade is extensive -- he has spent years trudging around the backwaters of Asia, from Burma and Laos to Afghanistan and Pakistan -- and his grasp of its motors and contours is impressive. As he traces the 20th Century evolution of the opium trade, he also shows how damnably difficult it is to suppress the pain-relieving poppy.

Chouvy takes the reader through China's (at least temporarily) successful opium ban of the 1950s and demonstrates how the ban stimulated production just south of the border in Thailand, Laos, and Burma. Similarly, he shows how opium bans in Turkey and Iran around mid-century stimulated production in Pakistan and now Afghanistan.

Along the way, Chouvy reveals the futility of drug war approaches by unveiling the symbiotic relationship between drug economies and war economies. A trade that thrives on the poverty and underdevelopment created by violent conflict cannot be defeated militarily. Thus, the logic of the drug war is almost completely backwards, he argues.

It's not that opium bans or eradication can never work, Chouvy notes. They have worked, at least locally, whether through harsh repression, as in China in the 1950s or Burma in the 2000s, or in combination with economic development efforts, as in Thailand in the 1970s and 1980s. But to reduce opium cultivation requires alternative livelihood programs and economic and social development programs that are well-constructed, adequately funded, and long-lived because "poverty and food insecurity are the main drivers of illicit opium production."

(One could argue that demand drives production, although opium is the sort of commodity that creates its own demand, or that artificially inflated prices due to the global prohibition regime drive production, but for Chouvy, the appetite for opium and the reality of drug prohibition are givens.)

That has not generally been the case, Chouvy rather convincingly chronicles. Especially in areas dominated by US and UN drug war paradigms, the approach has been ass-backwards, with eradication done before alternative development is in place and with development assistance tied to eradication. A key issue here is sequencing. Development must come before eradication or bans, or it is unlikely to work.

Similarly, the amount of resources devoted to alternative development programs has been so paltry in comparison to resources devoted to eradication and interdiction that most programs have been doomed to failure or, at best, limited local success.

A third problem with alternative development programs is that, until recently, they have been designed as "one size fits all" without taking into account differences in poppy cultivation patterns between countries and, especially, within countries. In Afghanistan, for example, poor farmers suffering from food insecurity will supplement their wheat crops with poppy, while wealthier farmers grow poppy not out of desperation but out of the desire to gain profits. Development programs must be targeted with acute specificity to fit local needs and conditions, Chouvy writes.

But reducing illicit opium cultivation faces even more fundamental challenges. "It is necessary to identify and address the causes of poverty and food insecurity, no matter how diverse they might be, if illegal poppy cultivation is to be reduced or suppressed," Chouvy writes. "Ultimately, since illicit opium production stems from the need of farmers to cope with poverty and food insecurity, what is required in order to achieve drug supply reduction is broad and equitable economic development, especially in rural areas."

That's a tall order for a country like Afghanistan or Burma, and it demands the kind of economic, social, and political changes that may be inimical to the interests of major donor nations like the US.

With "Opium," Chouvy has made a major contribution to the literature of the poppy trade. His book needs to be read by academics, activists, policy-makers, development NGOs, and anyone else with a serious interest in the opium trade and how to deal with it.

Feature: Drug Czar Gets Grilled on "New Directions in Drug Policy" By Skeptical Solons, Activists, and Academics

Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office), testified on Capitol Hill Wednesday that the Obama administration is seeking "a new direction in drug policy," but was challenged both by lawmakers and by a panel of academics and activists on the point during the same hearing. The action took place at a hearing of the House Domestic Policy Subcommittee in which the ONDCP drug budget and the forthcoming 2010 National Drug Strategy were the topics at hand.

The hearing comes in the wake of various drug policy reforms enacted by the Obama administration, including a Justice Department policy memo directing US attorneys and the DEA to lay off medical marijuana in states where it is legal, the removal of the federal ban on needle exchange funding, and administration support for ending or reducing the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenders.

But it also comes in the wake of the announcement of the ONDCP 2011 drug budget, which at $15.5 billion is up more than $500 million from this year. While treatment and prevention programs got a 6.5% funding increase, supply reduction (law enforcement, interdiction, and eradication) continues to account for almost exactly the same percentage of the overall budget -- 64%--as it did in the Bush administration. Only 36% is earmarked for demand reduction (prevention and treatment).

Citing health care costs from drug use and rising drug overdose death figures, the nation "needs to discard the idea that enforcement alone can eliminate our nation's drug problem," Kerlikowske said. "Only through a comprehensive and balanced approach -- combining tough, but fair, enforcement with robust prevention and treatment efforts -- will we be successful in stemming both the demand for and supply of illegal drugs in our country."

So far, at least, when it comes to reconfiguring US drug control efforts, Kerlikowske and the Obama administration are talking the talk, but they're not walking the walk. That was the contention of subcommittee chair Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) and several of the session's panelists.

"Supply side spending has not been effective," said Kucinich, challenging the budget breakdown.

"Supply side spending is important for a host of reasons, whether we're talking about eradication or our international partners where drugs are flowing," replied the drug czar.

"Where's the evidence?" Kucinich demanded. "Describe with statistics what evidence you have that this approach is effective."

Kerlikowske was reduced to citing the case of Colombia, where security and safety of the citizenry has increased. But he failed to mention that despite about $4 billion in US anti-drug aid in the past decade, Colombian coca and cocaine production remain at high levels.

"What parts of your budget are most effective?" asked Kucinich.

"The most cost-effective approaches would be prevention and treatment," said Kerlikowske.

"What percentage is supply and what percentage is demand oriented?" asked Rep. Jim Jordan (D-OH).

"It leans much more toward supply, toward interdiction and enforcement," Kerlikowske conceded.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) was more old school, demanding a tougher response to Mexico's wave of prohibition-related violence and questioning the decision not to eradicate opium in Afghanistan. "The Southwest border is critical. I would hope the administration would give you the resources you need for a Plan Colombia on steroids," said Issa.

"There is no eradication program in Afghanistan," Issa complained. "I was in areas we did control and we did nothing about eradication."

"I don't think anyone is comfortable seeing US forces among the poppy fields," Kerlikowske replied. "Ambassador Holbrooke has taken great pains to explain the rationale for that," he added, alluding to Holbrooke's winning argument that eradication would push poppy farming peasants into the hands of the Taliban.

"The effectiveness of eradication seems to be near zero, which is very interesting from a policy point of view," interjected Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL).

Kucinich challenged Kerlikowske about harm reduction. "At the UN, you said the US supported many interventions, but you said that, 'We do not use the phrase harm reduction.' You are silent on both syringe exchange programs and the issue of harm reduction interventions generally," he noted. "Do you acknowledge that these interventions can be effective in reducing death and disease, does your budget proposed to fund intervention programs that have demonstrated positive results in drug overdose deaths, and what is the basis of your belief that the term harm reduction implies promotion of drug use?"

Kerlikowske barely responded. "We don't use the term harm reduction because it is in the eye of the beholder," he said. "People talk about it as if it were legalization, but personally, I haven't spent a lot of time thinking about whether to put a definition on it."

When challenged by Kucinich specifically about needle exchange programs, Kerlikowske conceded that they can be effective. "If they are part of a comprehensive drug reduction effort, they make a lot of sense," he said.

The grilling of Kerlikowske took up the first hour of the two-hour session. The second hour consisted of testimony from Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann, Brookings Institute foreign policy fellow and drugs and counterinsurgency expert Vanda Felbab-Brown, former ONDCP employee and drug policy analyst John Carnevale, and University of Maryland drug policy expert Peter Reuter. It didn't get any better for drug policy orthodoxy.

"Let me be frank," said Nadelmann as he began his testimony. "We regard US drug policy as a colossal failure, a gross violation of human rights and common sense," he said, citing the all too familiar statistics about arrests, incarceration, the spread of HIV/AIDS, and drug overdose deaths. "All of these are an egregious violation of fundamental American values."

"Congress and the Obama administration have broken with the costly and failed drug war strategies of the past in some important ways," said Nadelmann. "But the continuing emphasis on interdiction and law enforcement in the federal drug war budget suggest that ONDCP is far more wedded to the failures of the past than to any new vision for the future. I urge this committee to hold ONDCP and federal drug policy accountable to new criteria that focus on reductions in the death, disease, crime and suffering associated with both drugs and drug prohibition."

Nadelmann identified four problems with current drug strategy:

  • The drug war's flawed performance measures;
  • The lop-sided ratio between supply and demand spending in the national drug budget;
  • The lack of innovation in the drug czar's proposed strategies;
  • The administration's failure to adequately evaluate drug policies.

"They want to move toward a public health model that focuses on reducing demand for drugs, but no drug policy will succeed unless there are the resources to implement it," said Carnevale. "Past budgets emphasizing supply reduction failed to produce results, and our drug policy stalled -- there has been no change in overall drug use in this decade."

Carnevale noted that the 2011 ONDCP budget gave the largest percentage increase to prevention and treatment, but that its priorities were still skewed toward supply reduction. "The budget continues to over-allocate funds where they are least effective, in interdiction and source country programs."

"The drug trade poses multiple and serious threats, ranging from threats to security and the legal economy to threats to legality and political processes," said Felbab-Brown, "but millions of people depend on the illegal drug trade for a livelihood. There is no hope supply-side policies can disrupt the global drug trade."

Felbab-Brown said she was "encouraged" that the Obama administration had shifted toward a state-building approach in Afghanistan, but that she had concerns about how policy is being operationalized there. "We need to adopt the right approach to sequencing eradication in Afghanistan," she said. "Alternative livelihoods and state-building need to be comprehensive, well-funded, and long-lasting, and not focused on replacing the poppy crop."

"Eradication in Afghanistan has little effect on domestic supply and reduction," said Kucinich. "Should these kinds of programs be funded?"

"I am quite convinced that spending money for eradication, especially aerial eradication, is not effective," replied Carnevale. "The point of eradication in Colombia was to reduce the amount of drugs coming into the US, but I see no such effect."

"We're dealing with global commodity markets," said Nadelmann. "If one source is knocked out, someone else will pop up. What's missing is any sort of strategic analysis or planning. If you accept that these drugs are going to be produced, you need to manage it to reduce the harms."

"The history of the last 20 years of the cocaine and heroin trade shows how much mobility there is in cultivation and trafficking," said Reuter. "What we do has a predictable effect. When we pushed down on trafficking in Florida, that lead to increases in Mexico. The evidence is striking that all we are doing is moving the trade."

Times are changing in Washington. What was once unassailable drug war orthodoxy is not under direct assault, and not just from activists and academics, but among members of Congress itself. But while the drug czar talks the happy talk about "new directions in drug policy," the Obama administration -- with some notable exceptions -- looks to still have a drug policy on cruise control.

Law Enforcement: Drug Cops Kill Two in Drug Raids in Florida and Tennessee

At least two US citizens were killed in their own homes by American police enforcing the war on drugs in a 48-hour period late last week. One was a 52-year-old white grandmother; the other was a 43-year-old black man. Both allegedly confronted home-invading officers with weapons; both were shot to death. No police officers were injured.

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Brenda Van Zwieten
The combination of widespread gun ownership in the US and aggressive drug war policing is a recipe for tragedy, one that is repeated on a regular basis. Gun owners commonly cite protecting themselves from home-invading robbers as a reason for arming themselves, while police cite widespread gun ownership as a reason they need to use SWAT-style tactics, breaking down doors and using overwhelming force against potential shooters. That homeowners would pick up a weapon upon hearing their doors broken down is not surprising, nor is it surprising that police are quick to shoot to kill "suspects" who may pose a threat to them.

The first killing came Thursday morning in North Memphis, when a Bartlett, Tennessee, police narcotics squad serving a search warrant for drug possession -- not sales, manufacture, or possession with intent to sell -- shot and killed Malcolm Shaw, 43, after breaking into his home. Police said they knocked on Shaw's door several times and identified themselves as police before entering the home.

Police said Shaw emerged from a room and pointed a gun at plainclothes officer Patrick Cicci. Cicci fired once, killing Shaw. Cicci is on administrative leave pending an internal investigation.

While the Bartlett Police investigation is ongoing, that didn't stop the Shelby County District Attorney's Office from announcing Monday that Cicci will not be prosecuted. Cicci's killing of the homeowner was "apparent justifiable use of deadly force in self defense," a spokesman said.

Bartlett police said that while the Bartlett narcs conducting the raid were not in uniform, their gear clearly identified them as law enforcement. They wore "high-visibility vests" marked "POLICE" in several spots, police said.

The killing of the well-known neighborhood handyman led to the formation of a crowd hostile to police outside his home. Bartlett police on the scene had to call Memphis police to do crowd control.

Memphis police complained that the Bartlett narcs had not followed law enforcement protocols requiring them to notify the local agency when they were operating in its jurisdiction. They said they were notified only as the raid commenced, and that moments later, they got a request for an ambulance at the address, and moments after that, they got a request that they send a couple of police cruisers for crowd control.

Timothy Miers, who said he was Shaw's brother, accused police of being trigger-happy. "How you gonna go in serving a warrant and shoot somebody?" Miers asked. "They already had their finger on the trigger."

The sense of disbelief over the killing was shared by members of the crowd gathered outside Shaw's home. Many complained about the officers' actions.

"My heart fell to the ground," one neighbor said.

"We can't believe it," said another. "Malcolm out of all people."

Family members expressed confusion about the shooting, saying Shaw was not a person they would have expected to threaten officers. "They say he had a gun," said Miers. "My brother doesn't have no gun."

Friends of Shaw said the same thing. "I ain't never seen him with no gun," said Arvette Thomas, a friend of Shaw.

Shaw never bothered anyone, neighbors said. "I think it's wrong to just kill him like they did," said a neighbor, "because he wouldn't hurt a fly."

Less than 48 hours later, members of a Broward County Sheriff's Office SWAT team and its Selective Enforcement Team in Pompano Beach, Florida, shot and killed Brenda Van Zweiten, 52, during a drug raid on her home. Police had developed evidence that drugs were being sold from the residence, and obtained a search warrant. After allegedly identifying themselves as police, they broke through a sliding glass door to a bedroom and arrested Van Zweiten's boyfriend, Gary Nunnemacher, 47, on charges of possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana. Van Zweiten was in a different bedroom, and was shot and killed by deputies when she emerged holding a handgun. According to police, she refused to put down her weapon, so they shot her.

Police reported finding one gram of heroin, four grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, marijuana plants, 40 generic Xanax tablets, $550 cash, two shotguns, and a rifle. Family members said Van Zweiten had a prescription for Xanax, but was not a drug dealer. But police had earlier in the day arrested three people leaving the home who they say had bought drugs there -- although police did not say from whom.

After Van Zweiten's killing, police were unrepentant. "When you approach a police officer with a loaded weapon and don't put the weapon down, there's going to be consequences," sheriff's spokesman Mike Jachles said. "It's unfortunate, but I'd rather be talking about a dead suspect than a dead cop."

Van Zweiten's brother, Bill George, said his sister had recently received threats and was afraid of break-ins. "It was an unlawful shooting," he said. "She's 98 pounds. She was just trying to protect herself. I would come out of my room with a gun too."

As news of Van Zweiten's death spread, friends, neighbors, and family members expressed dismay and disbelief. They called the incident a "set up" and said the blonde grandmother was affectionately called "Mom" by many who knew her for using her home as a neighborhood hangout to keep kids off the streets. Dozens of people gathered in her yard near a flower-bedecked cross put up as a memorial.

"Look at these people," said George. "She helped so many of these young people."

"She was like a second mom to me," said Michael Miller, 18. "She would take in anybody."

"There was no reason for this," said son Rob Singleton, 32.

Van Zwieten had no criminal history involving drugs or violence, state records show.

George said that Van Zweiten had reason to fear intruders because she had been threatened recently by a man accused of stealing watches and rings that were part of a shrine to two of her four sons, who had died within the past three years, one in a traffic accident, one of a drug overdose. She had just installed an alarm system last week, George said. "She was scared."

Singleton showed reporters inside the house, including the small bedroom where she was shot. A large puddle of blood remained on the floor, and the walls and ceiling were splattered with blood -- from his mother's head, he said. "She was probably running into the closet and trying to hide," he said.

As is all too typical in such raid, police also totally trashed the house. As the Sun-Sentinel reported: "Much of the interior of the three-bedroom house looked as if it had been hit by a tornado... Drawers were pulled from dressers, clothes were scattered, a bed was overturned, food and crockery had been knocked from kitchen cabinets." The shrine to her dead sons was also destroyed, Singleton said.

Two Broward County Sheriff's Office detectives are on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. They have not been named.

Law Enforcement: Drug Cops Kill Two in Two Days in Drug Raids in Florida and Tennessee

At least two US citizens were killed in their own homes by American police enforcing the war on drugs in a 48-hour period late last week. One was a 52-year-old white grandmother; the other was a 43-year-old black man. Both allegedly confronted home-invading officers with weapons; both were shot to death. No police officers were injured. Brenda Van Zwieten The combination of widespread gun ownership in the US with aggressive drug war policing is a recipe for tragedy, one that is repeated on a regular basis. Gun owners commonly cite protecting themselves from home-invading robbers as a reason for arming themselves, while police cite widespread gun ownership as a reason they need to use SWAT-style tactics, breaking down doors and using overwhelming force against potential shooters. That homeowners would pick up a weapon upon hearing their doors broken down is not surprising, nor is it surprising that police are quick to shoot to kill "suspects" who may pose a threat to them. The first killing came Thursday morning in North Memphis, when a Bartlett, Tennessee, police narcotics squad serving a search warrant for drug possession -- not sales, manufacture, or possession with intent to sell -- shot and killed Malcolm Shaw, 43, after breaking into his home. Police said they knocked on Shaw's door several times and identified themselves as police before entering the home. Police said Shaw emerged from a room and pointed a gun at plainclothes officer Patrick Cicci. Cicci fired once, killing Shaw. Cicci is on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. While the Bartlett Police investigation is ongoing, that didn't stop the Shelby County District Attorney's Office from announcing Monday that Cicci will not be prosecuted. Cicci's killing of the homeowner was "apparent justifiable use of deadly force in self defense," a spokesman said. Bartlett police said that while the Bartlett narcs conducting the raid were not in uniform, their gear clearly identified them as law enforcement. They wore "high-visibility vests" marked "POLICE" in several spots, police said. The killing of the well-known neighborhood handyman led to the formation of a crowd hostile to police outside his home. Bartlett police on the scene had to call Memphis police to do crowd control. Memphis police complained that the Bartlett narcs had not followed law enforcement protocols requiring them to notify the local agency when they were operating in its jurisdiction. They said they were notified only as the raid commenced, and that moments later, they got a request for an ambulance at the address, and moments after that, they got a request that they send a couple of police cruisers for crowd control. Timothy Miers, who said he was Shaw's brother accused police of being trigger-happy. "How you gonna go in serving a warrant and shoot somebody?" Miers asked. "They already had their finger on the trigger." The sense of disbelief over the killing was shared by members of the crowd gathered outside Shaw's home. Many complained about the officers' actions. "My heart fell to the ground," one neighbor said. "We can't believe it," said another. "Malcolm out of all people." Family members expressed confusion about the shooting, saying Shaw was not a person they would have expected to threaten officers. "They say he had a gun," said Miers. "My brother doesn't have no gun." Friends of Shaw said the same thing. "I ain't never seen him with no gun," said Arvette Thomas, a friend of Shaw. Shaw never bothered anyone, neighbors said. "I think it's wrong to just kill him like they did," said a neighbor, "because he wouldn't hurt a fly." Less than 48 hours later, members of a Broward County Sheriff's Office SWAT team and its Selective Enforcement Team in Pompano Beach, Florida, shot and killed Brenda Van Zweiten, 52, during a drug raid on her home. Police had developed evidence that drugs were being sold from the residence, and obtained a search warrant. After allegedly identifying themselves as police, they broke through a sliding glass door to a bedroom and arrested Van Zweiten's boyfriend, Gary Nunnemacher, 47, on charges of possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana. Van Zweiten was in a different bedroom, and was shot and killed by deputies when she emerged holding a handgun. According to police, she refused to put down her weapon, so they shot her. Police reported finding one gram of heroin, four grams of crack cocaine, marijuana, marijuana plants, 40 generic Xanax tablets, $550 cash, two shotguns, and a rifle. Family members said Van Zweiten had a prescription for Xanax, but was not a drug dealer. But police had earlier in the day arrested three people leaving the home who they say had bought drugs there -- although police did not say from whom. After Van Zweiten's killing, police were unrepentant. "When you approach a police officer with a loaded weapon and don't put the weapon down, there's going to be consequences," sheriff's spokesman Mike Jachles said. "It's unfortunate, but I'd rather be talking about a dead suspect than a dead cop." Van Zweiten's brother, Bill George, said his sister had recently received threats and was afraid of break-ins. "It was an unlawful shooting," he said. "She's 98 pounds. She was just trying to protect herself. I would come out of my room with a gun too." As news of Van Zweiten's death spread, friends, neighbors, and family members expressed dismay and disbelief. They called the incident a "set up" and said the blonde grandmother was affectionately called "Mom" by many who knew her for using her home as a neighborhood hangout to keep kids off the streets. Dozens of people gathered in her yard near a flower-bedecked cross put up as a memorial. "Look at these people," said George. "She helped so many of these young people." "She was like a second mom to me," said Michael Miller, 18. "She would take in anybody." "There was no reason for this," said son Rob Singleton, 32. Van Zwieten had no criminal history involving drugs or violence, state records show. George said that Van Zweiten had reason to fear intruders because she had been threatened recently by a man accused of stealing watches and rings that were part of a shrine to two of her four sons, who had died within the past three years, one in a traffic accident, one of a drug overdose. She had just installed an alarm system last week, George said. "She was scared." Singleton showed reporters inside the house, including the small bedroom where she was shot. A large puddle of blood remained on the floor, and the walls and ceiling were splattered with blood -- from his mother's head, he said. "She was probably running into the closet and trying to hide," he said. As is all too typical in such raid, police also totally trashed the house. As the Sun-Sentinel reported: "Much of the interior of the three-bedroom house looked as if it had been hit by a tornado... Drawers were pulled from dressers, clothes were scattered, a bed was overturned, food and crockery had been knocked from kitchen cabinets." The shrine to her dead sons was also destroyed, Singleton said. Two Broward County Sheriff's Office detectives are on administrative leave pending an internal investigation. They have not been named.

Feature: Chronicle of an Offensive Foretold -- The Occupation of Marja, Afghanistan

America's twin wars without end -- the war on drugs and the war on terror -- continue to play out in the heart of Southwest Asia as the Obama administration beefs up US troop levels, but tries new tactics in its battle against the opium poppy and the Taliban insurgency grown wealthy off the drug trade. Eradication is out -- at least for now -- and interdiction and going after Taliban-linked drug lords is in.

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opium field in Marja (from unodc.org)
The thousands of new troops are to provide the muscle to wrest and hold territory from the Taliban. The new drug strategy is designed to win over Afghan farmers long enough for economic development projects to take hold once the troops and their NATO and Afghan Army counterparts secure key areas.

One of those is Helmand province in the south, producer of more than half of all the opium poppies in Afghanistan. If Helmand were an independent country, it would be the world's largest opium producer. Most of Helmand's opium is produced in the Helmand River valley, whose largest town, Marja (pop. 80,000), is a commercial hub for the opium and heroin trade. It is also the main Taliban stronghold in the province.

The Taliban generates anywhere from $100 million to $450 million a year in revenues with which it can buy lots of shiny new weapons and pay lots of impoverished Afghans to pick up arms against the foreigners and their "puppet regime" in Kabul. (With the total Afghan opium and heroin economy valued at $3 billion to $4 billion a year, clearly, a lot of people other than the Taliban are profiting from the trade as well.)

Because of the weakness of the Afghan state and the relatively small NATO and US military presence in Helmand up until now, the area has been largely under Taliban control for the past several years. Occasional Western military sweeps have driven the Taliban from different locales, but only temporarily. Once the troops pass through and once local inhabitants realize the government and the West have not come through on their promises of assistance and development, let alone a permanent presence, the Taliban reassert control.

The much ballyhooed Marja offensive now underway is designed to be different. This time, commanders say, the military occupation will be followed in short order by a "government in a box," a quick rolling out of Afghan police and officials accompanied by the provision of services and development and economic assistance. Once the military succeeds in driving the Taliban from Marja, the rapid-fire creation of a government presence will ensure that the local population switches loyalties from the insurgents to the national government.

Some 15,000 US, NATO, and Afghan Army forces are now one week into assault on Marja, a According to all accounts, the operation is going as expected, with Western and allied Afghan forces slowly occupying the town block by block. They raised the Afghan flag over Marja's central market Wednesday.

While the fighting is going as planned and the immediate result -- driving the Taliban from Marja -- is not in doubt, it hasn't been a cakewalk. While the local Taliban leadership and an unknown number of fighters fled before the fighting began, hundreds of fighters stayed behind to harass the incoming troops. NATO commanders report encountering a town laced with booby traps and bombs (IEDs), and soldiers have come under attack from machine gun and sniper fire. At least nine Western troops have been killed in the fighting so far, with Thursday being the bloodiest yet, with four killed.

And despite US commander Gen. Stanley McCrystal's repeated commitment to avoiding civilian casualties in order to squelch Afghans' anger at the death of their fellow citizens at the hands of foreign invaders, civilian casualties have occurred. At least 15 civilians have been killed, including 12 -- five children, five women, and two men -- were killed early on in a NATO missile strike. Three more died after being shot by NATO forces during an engagement with the Taliban.

Not everyone is buying Western assurances that this time will be any different than before. In an interview with the London newspaper The Independent, Afghanistan's "most famous woman," parliament member Malalai Joya, voiced deep skepticism about the operations aims and its impact on Afghan civilians.

"It is ridiculous," said Joya. "On the one hand they call on Mullah Omar to join the puppet regime. On another hand they launch this attack in which defenseless and poor people will be the prime victims. Like before, they will be killed in the NATO bombings and used as human shields by the Taliban. Helmand's people have suffered for years and thousands of innocent people have been killed so far."

Joya proved prescient on that count, with the NATO missile strike and shootings mentioned above and with repeated press accounts of the Taliban in fact using civilians as human shields. Reports have come of insurgent fighters shooting at troops from the second floor of a building while their family members stand on the third floor in a bid to either prevent retaliation against the shooter or to score propaganda points in the event Western forces kill or injure civilians.

She also scoffed at Allied claims that the West won't abandon Afghan civilians after the military surge. "They have launched such offensives a number of times in the past, but each time after clearing the area, they leave it and the Taliban retake it. This is just a military maneuver and removal of Taliban is not the prime objective."

Analysts who spoke to the Chronicle this week provided a decidedly mixed assessment of the offensive and what comes next. "That this is going well tactically is important progress," said Vanda Felbab-Brown, an expert on drugs and insurgencies at the Brookings Institution and author of the just published [and soon to be reviewed here] "Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs." "You have to remember that there have been a number of operations in Helmand where even tactically, we were losing because they were so under-resourced. Whether it will be a strategic success remains to be seen."

It isn't all up to the West, she noted. "What complicates things is that a lot of the outcomes aren't necessarily in the hands of NATO or the West, but will instead depend on the quality of the Afghan government," said Felbab-Brown. "This government-in-a-box plan has its drawbacks and flaws, but it is better than nothing. At least now there is some effort."

Watching the offensive unfold, Sanho Tree, international drug policy analyst for the Institute for Policy Studies, was reduced to quoting the ultimate realpolitiker, Henry Kissinger, on Vietnam. "As early as 1969, Kissinger wrote in the journal Foreign Affairs: 'We fought a military war; our opponents fought a political one. We sought physical attrition; our opponents aimed as psychological exhaustion. In the process we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose; the conventional army loses if it does not win,'" Tree recited.

"This was a well-publicized invasion," Tree pointed out. "The leadership disappeared, but they'll be back to fight when the odds are better."

The Taliban weren't the only ones to take advantage of the warnings of a coming attack, said Raheem Yaseer of the University of Nebraska-Omaha Center for Afghan Studies. "The drug lords are very efficient," he said. "I'm sure they are all in safe havens now. NATO talked about the attack for so long that they've had time to take care of their commodities and themselves. The war on drugs part of this has not been very successful so far because of these warnings -- and these people are smart."

The offensive could cause some temporary disruptions of the drug trade in the area, Tree said, but was unlikely to make a major dent. "The lesson from the rest of the world is that these things don't really make much difference. Last year, it was a different 'opium capital,' next year, there will be another one."

The drug trade keeps shifting," agreed Yaseer. "When one place comes under attack, they go elsewhere. They buy the people, they buy the police; they will be the last to be affected."

"This won't have a great impact on the drug trade," said Felbab-Brown. "Marja doesn't determine what happens in Afghanistan -- that depends on interdiction and rural development, which is hard and takes a lot of time."

The ability of Western and Afghan government forces to conquer Marja was never in doubt. But the big question is whether they can build on the military success to turn the region into a bastion of support for the government, eliminate the insurgent threat once and for all, and continue to wage war on the opium poppy.

"Time will tell," said Tree. "Sequencing is key to a lot of this, and in terms of the drug stuff, sequencing is everything. That was the big argument with the advocates of eradication. They said eradicate first, then talk, but that was completely backwards. Now, with the hands-off policy for opium cultivation, you need to just let the prices fall, and people will switch to other crops, but that will only work until opium supplies shrink and prices go up again. So there is probably a one- or two-year window of opportunity to roll in infrastructure and install clean governance. You have to thread a lot of needles in a very short time, and the history of US involvement in Afghanistan doesn't suggest the odds are good."

"There will be a real temptation on the part of the West to define good government as suppressing poppies, but that could be just the opposite of how Afghans see it -- they will want to see economic development to replace their losses first," she said. "There will be a temptation for us to go for planting bans and suppression, but I don't think that's a model we should really be after. If a few months from now we decide it has stabilized and we try to prevent the harvest, people will be quite unhappy."

It's not a coincidence that the population is being somewhat receptive to the foreign troops, she said. "The troops are walking through poppy fields, not destroying them. The message is that the US is focusing on interdiction and development. If we eradicate later, that will result in great political destabilization.

"The Taliban have a lot of sympathizers there," said Yaseer. "The people are disillusioned with the government because for so long it couldn't do anything. And a lot of families have people on the payroll of the Quetta Shura [the now Pakistan-based Taliban led by Mullah Omar]. By some accounts, they were paying each household $700 a month. But now the pressure is on them to quit the Taliban."

Rapid economic and security development is key, said the Afghan scholar. "Destroying the poppy fields will help, but then you have to have an alternative ready," he said. "You can distribute food, help them grow wheat, provide fertilizer, things like that."

Taliban hard-liners will leave the area voluntarily to live to fight another day, Yaseer said, but unless an effective state presence is in place, they will come back. "The promises have to be kept and the aid has to move in immediately," he said. "They have to move in humanitarian assistance, reconstruction projects, sustenance for the people. And it has to be isolated from neighboring provinces where the Taliban will infiltrate back in from if those routes are not protected."

The military battle of Marja is winding toward its inevitable conclusion. Now, the battle for the hearts and minds of its residents is about to get underway. Meanwhile, the opium trade hiccups with minor disruptions, but lives on largely untouched, and the West remains mired in a land war in Asia fighting the twin ephemera of a war on an abstraction (terrorism) and a war on an inert substance (opium).

Law Enforcement: Maryland Bill Would Ban SWAT Teams for Misdemeanors

Maryland state Sen. C. Anthony Muse (D-Prince Georges) has filed a bill, SB 30, that would prohibit Maryland police forces from conducting SWAT team raids on homes where the only suspected offense is a misdemeanor. The bill also requires county prosecutors to sign off on SWAT team search warrant applications before they are submitted to judges.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
The bill is only the latest fallout from a July 2008 raid by the Prince Georges County Sheriff's Department SWAT team at the home of Berwyn Heights Mayor Cheye Calvo. The SWAT team was after a marijuana-filled box that had been delivered to that address, but subsequent investigation revealed that the mayor and his family were victimized in a smuggling scheme that used Fedex to ship drugs and knew nothing about the box, which had already been intercepted by police before being left on the family's porch. Mayor Calvo and his mother-in-law were cuffed and detained, and the two family dogs were shot and killed by SWAT team members.

Last year, the raid -- and the Prince Georges Sheriff's Department's refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing -- led Sen. Muse to file the first bill in the nation to try to rein in aggressive SWAT teams. That bill, which required extensive reporting requirements on SWAT team deployments and results, passed into law and took effect January 1.

Muse's current bill had a hearing Tuesday in the Judicial Proceedings Committee. Law enforcement officials from across the state showed up to complain that the bill would add unnecessary steps to the warrant review process and threaten the safety of SWAT team officers. No vote was taken.

The Year on Drugs 2009: The Top Ten US Domestic Drug Policy Stories

As 2009 prepares to become history, we look back at the past year's domestic drug policy developments. With the arrival of a highly popular (at least at first) new president, Barack Obama, and Democratic Party control of the levers of power in Congress, the drug reform gridlock that characterized the Bush years is giving way to real change in Washington, albeit not nearly quickly enough. A number of this year's Top 10 domestic drug stories have to do with the new atmospherics in Washington, where they have led, and where they might lead.

But not all of them. Drug reform isn't made just in Washington. Under our federal system, the 50 states and the District of Columbia have at least some ability to set their own courses on drug policy reforms. In some areas, actions in the state legislatures have reflected trends -- for better or worse -- broad enough to earn Top 10 status.

And Washington and the various statehouses notwithstanding, movement on drug reform is not limited to the political class. Legions of activists now in at least their second decade of serious reform work, a mass media that seems to have awakened from its dogmatic slumber about marijuana, a crumbling economy, and a bloody drug war within earshot of the southwestern border have all impacted the national conversation about drug reform and are all pushing politicians from city councilmen to state legislators to US senators to rethink drug prohibition.

For drug reformers, these are interesting times, indeed. Herewith, the Top 10 domestic drug policy stories of 2009:

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marijuana plants (photo from US Fish and Wildlife Service via Wikimedia)
Marijuana Goes Mainstream

Wow. This year has seen the US enter the beginnings of a sea change on policies and attitudes toward the recreational use of marijuana. The first hint that something had changed was the Michael Phelps bong photo non-scandal. When the multiple Olympic gold medal winner got outed for partying like a college student, only one corporate sponsor, fuddy-duddy Kellogg, dumped him, and was hit by a consumer boycott -- and arguably by falling stock prices -- in return. Otherwise, except for a deranged local sheriff who tried fruitlessly to concoct a criminal case against somebody -- anybody! -- over the bong photo, America's collective response basically amounted to "So what?"

Post-Phelps it was as if the flood gates had opened. Where once Drug War Chronicle and a handful of other publications pretty much had the field to ourselves, early this year, the mass media began paying attention. Countless commentaries, editorials and op-eds have graced the pages of newspaper and those short-attention-span segments on the cable news networks, an increasing number of them calling for legalization. The conversation about freeing the weed has gone mainstream.

The sea change is also reflected in poll numbers that, for the first time, this year showed national majorities in favor of legalization. In February, a Zogby poll showed 44% support nationwide -- and 58% in California. By late spring, the figures were generally creeping ever higher. An April Rasmussen poll had support for "taxation and regulation" at 41%, while an ABC News/Washington Post poll found 46% supported "legalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use." Also in April, for the first time, a national poll showed majority support for legalization when Zogby showed 52% saying marijuana should be "legal, taxed, and regulated." In July, a CBS News poll had support for legalization at 41%.

In October, a Gallup poll had support for legalization at 44%, the highest ever in a Gallup survey. And a few weeks ago an Angus-Reid poll reported 53% nationwide supported legalization. Legalizing pot may not have clear majority support just yet, but it is on the cusp.

Marijuana law reform was also a topic at statehouses around the country this year, although successes were few and far between. At least six states saw decriminalization bills, but only one passed -- in Maine, which had already decriminalized possession of up to 1.25 ounces. This year's legislation doubled that amount. And then there were legalization bills. Two were introduced in the 2009 session, in California and Massachusetts, and two more have been pre-filed for next year, in New Hampshire and Washington. Both the California and Massachusetts bills got hearings this year, and the California bill is set for another hearing and a first committee vote in the Assembly in two weeks. In Rhode Island, meanwhile, the legislature voted this year to create a commission to study marijuana law reform; it will report at the end of January.

And then, finally, there is the excitement and discussion being generated by at least three separate marijuana legalization initiative campaigns underway in California. Oaksterdam medical marijuana entrepreneur Richard Lee's Tax Cannabis 2010 initiative has already announced it has sufficient signatures to make the ballot. Time will tell if the others make it, but at this point it is almost certain that voters in California will have a chance to say "legalize it" in November.

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medical marijuana dispensary, Ventura Blvd., LA (courtesy wikimedia.org)
Medical Marijuana: The Feds Butt Out and the Floodgates Begin to Swing Open

During his election campaign, President Obama promised to quit siccing the DEA on medical marijuana patients and providers. In February, new Attorney General Eric Holder announced there would be no more federal raids if providers were in compliance with state law, and pretty much held to that promise since then. In October, the Justice Department made it official policy when it issued a policy memo reiterating the administration's stance.

The new "hands off" policy from Washington has not been universally adhered to, nor has it addressed the issue of people currently serving sentences or facing prosecution under Bush administration anti-medical marijuana initiatives, but it has removed a huge looming threat to growers and dispensary operators and it has disarmed a favored (if intensely hypocritical) argument of medical marijuana foes that such laws should not be passed out of fear of what the feds would do.

Meanwhile, California rolls right along as medical marijuana's Wild West. Like countless other localities in the Golden State, the city of Los Angeles is grappling with what to do with its nearly one thousand dispensaries. The issue is being fought city by city and county by county, in the state courts and in the federal courts. And while the politicians argue, dispensary operators are creating political facts on the ground as their tax revenues go into hungry state and local coffers.

This year also marked the emergence of a medical marijuana industry infrastructure -- growers, grow shops, dispensaries, educational facilities, pot docs -- beyond California's borders, most notably in Colorado, where the dispensary scene exploded in the wake of the removal of the federal threat, and in Michigan, where last year's passage of a medical marijuana law has seen the creation of the Midwest's first medical marijuana industry.

While medical marijuana is legal in 13 states (and now, the District of Columbia), it remains difficult to win victories in state legislatures. There were medical marijuana bills in at least 18 states, but only two -- Minnesota and New Hampshire -- were approved by legislatures, and they were vetoed by prohibitionist governors. Bills are, however, still alive in six states -- Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin -- with New Jersey and Wisconsin apparently best positioned to become the next medical marijuana state. In Rhode Island, which already approved a medical marijuana law in 2007, the legislature this year amended it to include a dispensary system.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The Reflexive Prohibitionist Impulse Remains Alive -- Just Ask Sally D

Despite evident progress on some drug reform fronts, a substantial number of Americans continue to hold to prohibitionist values, including a number of state legislators. The legislative response to the popularity of the fast-acting, short-lived hallucinogen salvia divinorum is the best indicator of that.

The DEA has been reviewing salvia for five years, and has yet to determine that it needs to become a controlled substance, but that hasn't stopped some legislators from trying to ban it. Appalled by YouTube videos that show young people getting very high, legislators in 13 states have banned or limited sales of the herb.

This year, four more states joined the list. The good news is that legislators in seven other states where salvia ban bills were introduced had better things to do with their time than worry about passing them.

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drug testing lab
"We Must Drug Test Welfare and Unemployment Recipients!"

In another indication that the drug warrior impulse is still alive and well -- as are its class war elements -- legislators in various states this year continued to introduce bills that would mandate suspicionless drug testing of people seeking unemployment, public assistance, or other public benefits. Never mind that Michigan, the only state to pass such a law, saw its efforts thrown out as an unconstitutional search by a federal appeals court several years back.

Such efforts exposed not only public resentment of benefits recipients, but also a certain level of ignorance about the way our society works. A common refrain from supporters was along the lines of "I have to get drug tested for my job, so why shouldn't they have to get drug tested?" Such questioners fail to understand that our system protects us from our government, but not from private employers.

But if welfare drug testing excited some popular support, it also excited opposition, not only on constitutional grounds, but on grounds of cost and elemental fairness. In the four states where drug testing bills were introduced -- Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri and West Virginia -- none of them went anywhere. But even in an era when drug reform is in the air, such bills are a clear sign that there will be many rear-guard battles to fight.

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unjust, but also unaffordable
Rockefeller Drug Law and Other State Sentencing Reforms

Reeling under the impact of economic downtowns and budget crises, more and more states this year took a second look at drug-related sentencing policies. Most notable of the reforms enacted at the state level this year were reforms in New York's draconian Rockefeller drug laws, which went into effect in October. Under this newest round of Rockefeller drug law reforms, some 1,500 low-level drug offenders will be able to seek sentence reductions, while judges gain some sentencing power from prosecutors, and treatment resources are being beefed up. But still, more than 12,000 will remain in Empire State prisons on Rockefeller drug charges.

New York wasn't the only state to enact sentencing reforms this year. This month, New Jersey legislators passed a bill giving judges the discretion to waive mandatory minimum sentences for some drug offenses. Last month, Rhode Island mandatory minimum reforms went into effect. Earlier this year, Louisiana finally acted to redress the cruel plight of the "heroin lifers," people who had been sentenced to life without parole for heroin possession under an old state law. A new state law cut heroin sentences, but did not address the lifers. As a result, some lifers remained in prison with no hope of parole while more recent heroin offenders came, did their time, and went. Now, under this year's law, the lifers are eligible for parole.

Sentencing reforms are also in the works in a number of other states, from Alabama to California and from Colorado to Michigan. In some cases, reform legislation is in progress; in others, legislators are waiting for commissions to report their findings. In nearly every case, it is bottom-line budget concerns rather than bleeding heart compassion for the incarcerated that is driving the reforms.

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PolitickerMD cartoon about the Berwyn Heights raid
Swatting SWAT

It was only one bill in one state, and all it required was reporting by SWAT teams of their activities, but the Maryland SWAT bill passed this year marked the first time a state legislature has moved to rein in aggressive paramilitary-style policing. More precisely, the bill requires all law enforcement agencies that operate SWAT teams to submit monthly reports on their activities, including when and where they are used, and whether the operations result in arrests, seizures or injuries.

In took an ugly incident involving the mayor of a Washington, DC, suburb to make it happen. Marijuana traffickers sent a load of pot to the mayor's address to avoid having police show up on their doorstep in the event something went wrong, but something did go wrong, and police tracked the package. When the mayor innocently carried the package inside on returning home, the SWAT team swooped, manhandling the mayor and his mother-in-law and killing the family's pet dogs. The cops were unapologetic, the mayor was apoplectic, and now Maryland has a SWAT law. A new bill just filed in Maryland would take it further, requiring police to secure a judge's warrant before deploying a SWAT team.

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shrine to San Malverde, Mexico's ''narco-saint,'' Culiacan, Sinaloa
America Finally Notices the Drug War Across the River

While Congress and the Bush administration got serious about Mexico's bloody drug wars in 2008, passing a three-year, $1.4 billion anti-drug aid package for Mexico and Central America, it was not until this year that the prohibition-related violence in Mexico really made the radar north of the border.

It only took about 11,000 deaths (now up to over 16,000) among Mexican drug traffickers, police, soldiers, and innocent bystanders to get the US to pay attention to the havoc being wreaked on the other side of the Rio Grande. But by the spring, Washington was paying attention, and for the first time, one could hear mea culpas coming from the American side. Mexico's drug violence is driven by demand in the US, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano echoed.

But just because Washington admitted some fault didn't mean it was prepared to try anything different. And while the Mexican drug wars brought talk of legalization -- especially of marijuana -- what they brought in terms of policy was the Southwest Border Counternarcotics Strategy, which is basically mo' better drug war.

Mexico's drug wars show no signs of abating, and the pace of killing has accelerated each year since President Felipe Calderon sent in the army three years ago this month. The success -- or failure -- of his drug war policies may determine Calderon's political future, but it has for the first time concentrated the minds of US policymakers on the consequences of prohibition south of the border.

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syringes -- better at the exchange than on the street
Congress Ends Ban on Needle Exchange Funding, Butts Out of DC Affairs

After a decade-long struggle, the ban on federal funding for needle exchange programs ended this month with President Obama's signature on an omnibus appropriations bill that included ending the federal ban, as well as a similar ban that applied to the District of Columbia. The bill also removed a ban on the District implementing a medical marijuana law passed by voters in 1998.

Removing the funding ban has been a major goal of harm reduction and public health coalitions, but they had gotten nowhere in the Republican-controlled Congresses of the past decade. What a difference a change of parties makes.

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Jim Webb at 2007 incarceration hearing (photo from sentencingproject.org)
Questioning the Drug War: Two Congressional Bills

The US Congress has been a solid redoubt of prohibitionist sentiment for decades, but this year saw the beginning of cracks in the wall. Two legislators, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA) introduced and have had hearings on bills that could potentially challenge drug war orthodoxy.

Engel's bill, the Western Hemisphere Drug Policy Commission Act, which has already passed the House, would set up a commission to examine US eradication, interdiction, and other policies in the Western Hemisphere. While Engel is no anti-prohibitionist, any honest commission assessing US drug policy in the Americas is likely to come up with findings that subvert drug war orthodoxy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Webb's National Criminal Justice Commission Act of 2009 comes at the issue from a much more critical perspective. It calls for a top-to-bottom review of a broad range of criminal justice issues, ranging from sentencing to drug laws to gangs and beyond, with an emphasis and costs and efficacy. Webb's bill remains in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but has 35 cosponsors. Webb has already held hearings on the costs of mass incarceration and the economic costs of drug policy, and even more than Engel's bill, the Webb bill has the potential to get at the roots of our flawed national drug policy.

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Sen. Durbin at May hearing on crack sentencing
The Crack/Powder Cocaine Sentencing Disparity

The 100:1 disparity in the quantities of crack needed to earn a mandatory minimum federal prison sentence versus the quantities of powder cocaine needed to earn the same sentence has been egregiously racist in its application, with roughly 90% of all federal crack offenders being non-white, and pressure has been mounting for years to undo it. It hasn't happened yet, but 2009 finally saw some serious progress on the issue.

The move to reform the sentencing disparity got a boost in June, when Attorney General Holder said it had to go. The next month, a House Judiciary Committee subcommittee passed the Fairness in Cocaine Sentencing Act of 2009. The bill is now before the House Judiciary and Energy and Commerce Committees.

On the Senate side, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced a companion bill in October, the Fairness in Sentencing Act. It hasn't moved yet, but thanks to a decade-long effort by a broad range of advocates, all the pieces are now in place for something to happen in this Congress. By the time we get around to the Top 10 of 2010, the end of the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity better be one of the big stories.

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