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Law Enforcement: More Raids Gone Bad, Making May a Bad Month for SWAT

Two more SWAT raids gone bad in the past couple of weeks have kept the spotlight on the aggressive police units and the tactics they employ. In Polk County, Georgia, an elderly Cedartown woman was hospitalized after suffering a heart attack as a local police SWAT team and DEA agents swarmed the wrong house. In Detroit, in an incident that drew national attention, a 7-year-old girl was killed by police gunfire in a SWAT raid at the wrong apartment in a house. The SWAT team was attempting to arrest a murder suspect, so there was arguably more of a case for SWAT than in the routine drug cases we normally track in Drug War Chronicle. But the incident tragically demonstrates the potential dangers arising from such aggressive police tactics.

The two raids come before the national outrage generated by the now infamous dog-killing SWAT raid in Columbia, Missouri, has had a chance to die down. In that raid, a videotape of which went viral on YouTube, a SWAT team executing a marijuana search warrant burst into a family home and shot two dogs, killing one, before ushering the suspect's terrified wife and young daughter out of the home. All police came up with was a tiny amount of pot and a pipe.

In the Georgia raid, Helen Pruett, 76, was home alone when nearly a dozen agents entered her property with guns drawn in search of drug dealers. They were actually looking for another residence on the same property, but mistakenly -- after two years of surveillance -- hit hers.

"She was at home and a bang came on the back door and she went to the door and by the time she got to the back door, someone was banging on the front door and then they were banging on her kitchen window saying police, police," said Pruett's daughter, Machelle Holl, adding that her mother was scared to open the door until the Polk County Police Chief convinced her she was safe. "They never served her with a warrant. At that point, she said the phones were ringing with the other men that were in the yard and they realized that it was the wrong address," said Holl.

Police Chief Kenny Dodd said police realized the subject they were looking for was not there. "She made us aware that she was having chest pains and we got her medical attention. I stayed with her and kept her calm and talked with her, monitored her vital signs until the ambulance arrived," said Dodd.

Bizarrely for a wrong address raid, police said the property had been under surveillance for two years. The DEA said it is investigating how the wrong address raid address raid occurred. That didn't mollify Holl.

"They have totally made a really bad mistake. You would think that with the officers and the SWAT team and the DEA they would make sure that all of their I's are dotted, all of their T's are crossed before they go bursting into someone's home like that," said Holl. "My mother was traumatized. Even the doctor said this is what happens when something traumatic happens. He said it's usually like a death in the family or something like that just absolutely scares them half to death, and that is what has happened," said Holl.

In the Detroit raid, the SWAT team was attempting to arrest a murder suspect, making the decision about whether to use SWAT potentially more complicated than in the routine drug cases we normally track in Drug War Chronicle. But the incident tragically demonstrates the potential dangers arising from such aggressive police tactics, and it resulted in the death of a seven-year-old Aiyana Jones.

According to a statement Sunday by Assistant Detroit Police Chief Ralph Godbee, police had tracked the killer of a 17-year-old man the day before to the house. "Because of the ruthless and violent nature of the suspect in this case, it was determined that it would be in the best interest of public safety to execute the search warrant as soon as possible and detain the suspect if while we sought a murder warrant," Godbee said. "Our intelligence was accurate in this case. The suspect in Mr. Blake's death was found inside the home and arrested... But to locate him, we first had to make entry into the home. At approximately 12:40 this morning, members of the Detroit Police Special Response Team, or SRT, executed this high-risk search warrant," the assistant chief explained.

"According to our officers, and at least one independent witness, officers approached the house, and announced themselves as police. As is common in these types of situations, the officers deployed a distractionary device commonly known as a Flash Bang. The purpose of the device is to temporarily disorient occupants of the house to make it easier for officers to safely gain control of anyone inside and secure the premise," Godfree continued. "As the lead officer entered the home he encountered a 46-year-old female immediately inside the front room of the house. Exactly what happened next is a matter still under investigation, but it appears the officer and the woman had some level of physical contact. At about this time the officer's weapon discharged one round which, tragically, struck seven-year-old Aiyana Stanley Jones in the neck/head area. Officers immediately conveyed Aiyana to St. John's Hospital while others apprehended the suspect and cleared the rest of the residence."

The SWAT team was accompanied by film crews for A&E's "The First 48," a reality TV show that follows police homicide investigators in the crucial first 48 hours after a murder has been committed. The network was taping the raid for a documentary. The videotape could play a crucial role in how this case plays out, and copies of the tapes were reportedly turned over to the state police later in the week. The state police are investigating the incident.

Prominent Michigan attorney Geoffrey Fieger, who is representing the family in a civil suit filed this week, has questioned the police version of events. Saying he had obtained video footage shot by the TV show camera crew, Fieger said it showed officers rushing the house and throwing a flash grenade through a window before an officer fired into the home from the front porch.

The police account was "entirely false," Fieger said. "Of course, I have seen the videotape and the videotape vividly portrays the fact that a percussion grenade device was thrown through the front window and a shot was fired immediately from the outside from the porch," he said.

"No murder suspect was found in Aiyana's house," Fieger added. "In fact, there's an upstairs apartment next door which the police did not have a search warrant for and that is where he surrendered, they went into that house too. But he was not in Aiyana's house."

This isn't the first time the behavior of Detroit area SWAT teams has generated lawsuits. According to the Detroit Free Press's archive of stories on the Aiyana Jones killing, a civil suit is pending against Detroit SWAT for a 2007 raid at a home where children were present and a dog was killed, and another lawsuit is pending against the suburban Southfield police for a 2004 raid in which a 69-year-man was brutalized. Police in that raid found a small amount of marijuana in an adult son's dresser drawer.

Such raids have consequences. The anger is palpable in Detroit. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) has called for a federal investigation, the Rev. Al Sharpton will address Aniya's funeral, and the city council is preparing its own review. The anger is also still palpable in Columbia, Missouri, where the dog-killing pot raid continues to reverberate. On Sunday, demonstrators picketed the police station, and city council meetings for the past two weeks have been packed with citizens complaining about the raid and demanding that heads roll. The mood wasn't helped by the police department's announcement Thursday that it had investigated itself and found its actions "appropriate."

Neil Franklin is a former Maryland police officer with SWAT experience. He is also the incoming head of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP). For Franklin, SWAT has limited legitimate uses, but aggressive, paramilitarized policing has gone too far. He blames the war on drugs.

"Back in the 1970s and 1980s, we didn't use SWAT teams to conduct search warrants unless it was a truly documented violent organization," he said. "As the drug war escalated, we started using SWAT to execute drug-related warrants. When I first started as an undercover officer, the narcotics team executed the warrant, along with two or three uniformed officers, but not with the high-powered weapons and force we use today. The drug war is the reason for using these teams and the driving force behind them."

"Whatever one thinks about using SWAT tactics when looking for a murder suspect, the results in Detroit show how dangerously volatile the tactics really are," said David Borden, executive director of StoptheDrugWar.org, who is also the moving force behind the Americans for SWAT Reform web site. "There is every reason to believe that conducting a late night raid and detonating flash bang grenades led to the physical contact between the woman and the officer in which the gun discharged, killing the girl. All the more reason to avoid those tactics wherever possible, certainly for routine drug search warrants."

As the Chronicle and others, most notably, Radley Balko at Reason and The Agitator blog have reported, these aggressive drug raids gone bad are not flukes, but occur on a regular, if unpredictable, basis. As they become increasingly routine, so do the risks associated with them -- for police and citizens alike. Next week, the Chronicle will be taking a look at what can be done to begin to rein them in.

Canada: Marc Emery Extradited to United States

Canada's "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery was extradited to the US Thursday morning. He had been imprisoned in Canada for the last 10 days after Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson signed extradition papers. He is now a prisoner in a federal detention facility, where he awaits a court hearing Monday in Seattle.

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Marc Emery, on his Farewell Tour last year
Emery faces five years in prison in a plea agreement reached with prosecutors last fall. He and two of his employees, Greg Williams and Michelle Rainey, had been indicted in 2005 by a Seattle grand jury for selling pot seeds over the Internet to customers in the US. Rainey and Williams earlier reached plea agreements that allowed them to serve probationary sentences in Canada.

Emery has been a relentless campaigner for marijuana legalization and, before his arrest, plowed hundreds of thousands of dollars into the movement. The DEA infamously gloated at the time that it had brought down a major legalization advocate, a move that allowed Emery supporters to plausibly argue his arrest was politically motivated.

Emery and his supporters continue to agitate for his freedom, but now, their more immediate goal is to get him transferred to Canada to serve his sentence. That was once a standard practice for Canadians imprisoned south of the border, but the Conservative government has limited its use in recent years.

Emery supporters Thursday demonstrated in downtown Vancouver and blocked traffic. The campaign is calling for global protests Saturday in a Worldwide Rally to Free Marc Emery. For more information about how to help Emery's campaign, visit the magazine he founded, Cannabis Culture.

Latin America: Public Sees Drug Trafficking Widespread, On the Rise, Regional Polling Finds

In an analysis of 2009 polling it conducted across Latin America, Gallup has found data suggesting that illegal drug trafficking is common in communities throughout much of the region, including relatively wealthy, non-drug producing countries such as Chile and Costa Rica. In major countries such as Argentina, Brazil, and Venezuela, as well as smaller ones such as Costa Rica, Chile, Panama, and Uruguay, more than half of residents surveyed said drug trafficking or illicit drug sales were taking place in their neighborhoods.

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drug smuggling tunnel
While Mexico's bloody prohibition-related violence garners headlines, that country ranked right in the middle, with 43% saying trafficking or sales were going on. Brazil garnered the dubious honor of having the highest percentage of people agreeing that trafficking or sales were occurring, with 70% saying so, followed by Chile, with 60%.

The countries where the fewest respondents reported local drug activity were El Salvador (15%), Bolivia (19%), and Honduras (23%). In all three cases, however, the number of respondents who said they didn't know or refused to answer exceeded 50%, as it also did in Paraguay, Nicaragua, and Peru. Do they not know or are they just not saying?

Oddly, the three-year (2007-2009) trend for the neighborhood drug activity question was flatter in Mexico than elsewhere. Some 38% of Mexicans said yes in 2007, 43% in 2008, and that figure was unchanged last year. In Brazil, by contrast, yes responses jumped from 52% in 2007 to 70% last year, while Argentina went from 49% to 55% and Chile went from 42% to 51%.

When asked if drug sales were increasing in their neighborhoods, Brazil again led the way, with 74% saying yes, followed by Costa Rica (53%), Panama (47%), and Uruguay and Argentina (46%). Again, oddly, Mexico was well down the list, with only 33%. Again, Central American countries were on the low end, and again, the usefulness of the data is obscured by high numbers of people who said they didn't know or refused to answer.

"The attention drawn by Mexico's drug violence should not overshadow the reality that illicit drug trafficking is common in much of Latin America," Gallup concluded.

Canada: "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery Jailed, Ordered Extradited to US

Canadian Justice Minister Rob Nicholson Monday ordered that his country's most famous marijuana legalization advocate be extradited to the US to serve a five-year federal prison sentence. Erstwhile pot seed entrepreneur and Cannabis Culture magazine publisher Marc Emery turned himself in to authorities and is now in custody awaiting imminent extradition to the US.

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Marc and Jodie Emery (courtesy Cannabis Culture)
Emery and two employees, Michelle Rainey and Greg Williams, were arrested in Vancouver in 2005 by Canadian police acting at the behest of US authorities, who had indicted the trio in Seattle for selling pot seeds over the Internet to customers in the US. After Rainey and Williams were offered plea bargains that allowed them to stay in Canada, Emery himself pleaded guilty to one count of marijuana distribution in exchange for a five-year sentence. He had faced up to life in prison for his pot seed sales.

Prior to his arrest in 2005, Emery was becoming an increasingly irritating burr under the saddle of prohibitionists on both sides of the border. He poured much of his pot seed profits into pro-pot political formations, both in Canada and across the border, agitating relentlessly for legalization as he vowed to "overgrow the government" and confronting then US drug czar John Walters when he visited Vancouver.

After Emery's arrest, then DEA administrator Karen Tandy issued a press release calling the bust a "significant blow to the US and Canadian marijuana trade, and to the marijuana legalization movement" and crowed about taking down Emery and his "propagandistic magazine."

But that was five years ago. Since then, Emery has continued to agitate for legalization, Cannabis Culture has continued to publish (albeit only online now), and he has used his own predicament as yet another tool toward his broader goal. He generated thousands of letters and phone calls to Ottawa in his support, as well as appeals from members of Parliament from all major parties.

Even on the steps of the British Columbia Supreme Court, where he turned himself over Monday morning, Emery was still talking. "I think the best thing that could happen to our movement is that the minister decides, foolishly, to extradite me. Canadians will be very, very angry and punish this government," he told reporters.

"If I'm extradited, I've told my supporters that every Conservative member of Parliament is to be hounded endlessly and unmercifully until they are defeated in the next or following elections," he said. "It's to be a life project for them as long as I am incarcerated in the United States or Canada."

Emery is seeking to serve his time in Canada, one of attorneys, Kirk Tousaw, told The Canadian Press. "The United States has already agreed to support Mr. Emery's treaty transfer back to Canada to serve his sentence here," Tousaw said. "We certainly would anticipate the minister of public safety would agree."

Emery, who has been arrested repeatedly for his marijuana activism, said he had no regrets. "I think of myself as a great Canadian -- I've worked my whole life for individual freedom in this country, I've never asked for anything in return," Emery told reporters. "And now I will be possibly handed over to the United States for a five-year sentence for the so-called crime of selling seeds from my desk to consenting adults all over the world and the United States. I'm proud of what I've done, and I have no regrets."

On Tuesday, Vancouver New Democratic Party MP Libby Davies called on Public Safety Minister Vic Toews to "stop the extradition" of Emery by allowing him to serve his sentence in Canada. American officials were agreeable to that approach, she said, but "your government has refused to cooperate." Davies pointedly added that Emery was being extradited to serve time in the US "for actions that are not worthy of prosecution under Canadian laws."

Read the latest update on the Cannabis Culture web site for more info on the continuing campaign to free Marc Emery.

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: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

The beat goes on. This week, we have a trio of ethically-challenged cops, and, of course, a crooked jail guard. Let's get to it:

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If we can't keep drugs out of the prisons, how can we keep them out of the country?
In Newark, New Jersey, a Newark police officer was indicted Tuesday by a federal grand jury for being part of a ring of people who were "stealing money and narcotics from narcotics dealers and their associates," according to the indictment. Sgt. Michael Lalley is charged with obstructing an FBI investigation and witness tampering. He is accused of asking one person to lie about a sexual relationship they had when that person was a minor. He is also accused of paying that person $60 for sex acts at his home and at a Newark police station and giving her cocaine and marijuana. He is accused of similar offenses with another woman, as well. The offenses all occurred in the 1990s.

In Salt Lake City, a former West Jordan police sergeant was arrested last Friday on charges he dealt drugs and stole seized money. Aaron Jensen, 34, is charged with distribution of a controlled substance, a second-degree felony, and two counts of misuse of public money, a third-degree felony. In one incident, Jensen was given $1,239 in cash that was seized during an arrest, but when the man was released, Jensen returned only $583. In another, he allegedly bought cocaine and heroin from two men in 2008. The two men later told investigators Jensen had contacted them earlier and said he would not arrest them if they worked as snitches for him. When Jensen was fired as a police officer, other officers cleaning his desk found several balloons of heroin and cocaine, as well as copies of the drivers' licenses for the two men from whom he bought drugs.

In Madison, Wisconsin, a state Justice Department narcotics agent pleaded not guilty last Friday to stealing drug money in an FBI sting. Agent Johnny Santiago was charged in March with theft of government property. He allegedly stole $1,100 that FBI agents planted in a vacant store he was sent to search.

In Albuquerque, a Metro Detention Center guard was arrested Tuesday after he was caught carrying heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana, and tobacco as he showed up for work. Guard Anthony Kennedy went down following a two-week investigation after jail administrators got a tip he might be bringing contraband into the jail. It is unclear what the formal charges will be at this point.

Prohibition: Drug War is a Failure, Associated Press Reports

In a major, broad-ranging report released Thursday, the Associated Press declared that "After 40 Years, $1 Trillion, US War on Drugs Has Failed to Meet Any of Its Goals." The report notes that after four decades of prohibitionist drug enforcement, "Drug use is rampant and violence is even more brutal and widespread."

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The AP even got drug czar Gil Kerlikowske to agree. "In the grand scheme, it has not been successful," Kerlikowske said. "Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified."

The AP pointedly notes that despite official acknowledgments that the policy has been a flop, the Obama administration's federal drug budget continues to increase spending on law enforcement and interdiction and that the budget's broad contours are essentially identical to those of the Bush administration.

Here, according to the AP, is where some of that trillion dollars worth of policy disaster went:

  • $20 billion to fight the drug gangs in their home countries. In Colombia, for example, the United States spent more than $6 billion, while coca cultivation increased and trafficking moved to Mexico -- and the violence along with it.
  • $33 billion in marketing "Just Say No"-style messages to America's youth and other prevention programs. High school students report the same rates of illegal drug use as they did in 1970, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says drug overdoses have "risen steadily" since the early 1970s to more than 20,000 last year.
  • $49 billion for law enforcement along America's borders to cut off the flow of illegal drugs. This year, 25 million Americans will snort, swallow, inject and smoke illicit drugs, about 10 million more than in 1970, with the bulk of those drugs imported from Mexico.
  • $121 billion to arrest more than 37 million nonviolent drug offenders, about 10 million of them for possession of marijuana. Studies show that jail time tends to increase drug abuse.
  • $450 billion to lock those people up in federal prisons alone. Last year, half of all federal prisoners in the US were serving sentences for drug offenses. [Editor's Note: This $450 billion dollar figure for federal drug war prisoners appears erroneous on the high side. According to Department of Justice budget figures, funding for the Bureau of Prisons, as well as courthouse security programs, was set at $9 billion for the coming fiscal year.]

The AP notes that, even adjusted for inflation, the federal drug war budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon asked for in his first federal drug budget.

Harvard University economist Jeffrey Miron told the AP that spending money for more police and soldiers only leads to more homicides. "Current policy is not having an effect of reducing drug use," Miron said, "but it's costing the public a fortune."

"President Obama's newly released drug war budget is essentially the same as Bush's, with roughly twice as much money going to the criminal justice system as to treatment and prevention," said Bill Piper, director of national affairs for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance. "This despite Obama's statements on the campaign trail that drug use should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue."

"For the first time ever, the nation has before it an administration that views the drug issue first and foremost through the lens of the public health mandate," said economist and drug policy expert John Carnevale, who served three administrations and four drug czars. "Yet... it appears that this historic policy stride has some problems with its supporting budget."

Of the record $15.5 billion Obama is requesting for the drug war for 2011, about two thirds of it is destined for law enforcement, eradication, and interdiction. About one-third will go for prevention and treatment.

The AP did manage to find one person to stick up for the drug war: former Bush administration drug czar John Walters, who insisted society would be worse if today if not for the drug war. "To say that all the things that have been done in the war on drugs haven't made any difference is ridiculous," Walters said. "It destroys everything we've done. It's saying all the people involved in law enforcement, treatment and prevention have been wasting their time. It's saying all these people's work is misguided."

Uh, yeah, John, that's what it's saying.

Afghanistan: Fungus Afflicts Poppy Crop, Farmers Blame US, NATO

Opium production in Afghanistan could be reduced by as much as a quarter this year because a fungal disease is afflicting the crop, UN Office on Drugs and Crime head Antonio Maria Costa told the BBC Wednesday. Farmers are quick to point the finger at the US and NATO, although evidence that the disease is anything but a natural phenomenon is lacking.

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anti-opium posters, Nejat Center, Kabul
Costa said the fungus may have infected half the country's poppy crop. He added that opium prices had increased by about 50% in the areas affected.

Afghanistan produces more than 90% of the world's illicit opium. Increasing prices could mean increased revenues for Taliban insurgents, Costa suggested. The Taliban is sitting on large stockpiles of opium left from record levels of production in the last few years.

The fungus is appearing primarily in Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the heartland of both the Taliban and current Afghan opium production. US and NATO forces are about to launch major offensives in the area to try to clear and secure it. In a bid to win popular support in the region, the US has backed away from previously supported eradication campaigns, choosing instead to target drug traffickers linked to the insurgents. In the Bush administration, some officials had argued for the use of aerial spraying of herbicides, but that was rejected.

Still, some farmers think the US and NATO are poisoning their crops. Farmer Haji Mohammad in Nawzad told the BBC that he had seen a dramatic reduction in the amount of opium he was able to harvest. He described the fungus as an "aerial spray." He said his poppy harvest had shrunk 990 pounds last year to nine pounds this year.

"[It]... has affected my wheat cultivation and my chickens and other animals as well," he said. "The powder sprayed has a white color and I think it is chemical and if you squeeze it in your hand, water comes out of it."

Other farmers in the region also said they had seen a white substance on their crops. They, too, reported extensive crop damage and that livestock had been affected.

But Costa denied that the West was using biological warfare in Afghanistan. "I don't see any reasons to believe something of that sort," he said. "Opium plants have been affected in Afghanistan on a periodic basis."

Feature: The Global Marijuana Marches, Part II

Last Saturday saw the second phase of the Global Marijuana March. While the May Day marijuana marches two weeks ago appeared to be concentrated in North America, last Saturday it was the turn of the Europeans and Latin Americans to take center stage.

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Buenos Aires (Mike Bifari in front row, wearing green)
Known variously as the Global Marijuana March, the Million Marijuana March, the World Marijuana March, or, more informally, International Weed Day, the actions in cities around the globe are designed to advance the cause of marijuana legalization and celebrate the global cannabis culture.

From nerve centers at Cures Not Wars in New York City, Cannabis Culture magazine in Vancouver, and the European NGO Coalition for Safe and Effective Drug Policies (ENCOD) in Brussels, activists in more than 320 cities across the planet took the local initiative in the own communities. In some places, particularly Canada and New Zealand on May 1 and Rome and Latin America last Saturday, marchers came out in the thousands, while in others, including small communities and college campuses across the US, the number was in the dozens or possibly the hundreds.

During the first phase of the Global Marijuana March, the largest turnout was in Toronto, where an estimated 20,000 people rallied for legalization and to free "Prince of Pot" Marc Emery. (See related story here.) That turnout was exceeded this week in Rome, where an estimated 30,000 people marched and, quite possibly, in Mexico City, where no crowd estimates were made, but where video of the march shows a multitude of marchers filling the street for block after block. Buenos Aires, meanwhile, was the scene of another large turnout, with organizers there estimating the crowd at 8,000.

The march in Rome, while the largest world-wide this year, was smaller than usual, said Alberto Sciolari of the group Mefisto, which organized the event. "This year, we didn't allow techno sound systems on trucks, just some reggae, to enhance specifically cannabis awareness among participants and to avoid problems with young people possibly using chemical drugs and not caring about cannabis," he said. "So the march was smaller, but we were happier."

While Sciolari reported no problems with police at the march, there have been lots of problems with police for Italian pot smokers recently, and the march addressed that issue. "It was dedicated to the victims of prohibition, of which we've had so many in recent times," he said. "We also had a press conference with relatives of some of the victims Saturday morning."

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New York (courtesy Andrew Seidenfeld)
By contrast, turnouts were smaller in Northern Europe this year, reported ENCOD's Joep Oomen. "There were about 150 people in Brussels, 500 in Paris, and 1,000 in Amsterdam," he said, laying the blame on cold, chilly weather.

In Buenos Aires, an Argentine cannabis community energized by last year's court rulings invalidating the law against marijuana possession (Congress has yet to draft a new one), left its traditional rallying spot at Parque Planetario and took to the streets, marching first to the Plaza de Mayo, home of the presidential palace, then down Avenida de Mayo to Congress.

"This last march was historic, nothing will be the same after this incredible demonstration," said a jazzed Mike Bifari, one of the organizers and speakers at the rally. "We were tired of just sitting there and doing nothing; we wanted our voices to be heard. And this march was so big and energetic, like never before, because there were so many groups organizing the rally and people were coming from all over the province of Buenos Aires, as well as from the popular neighborhoods in the city itself."

Speakers honored the dead, including Edith "La Negra," a famous Argentine pot smoker and Jack Herer, said Bifari. "It was like his spirit was there telling us all the benefits of our lovely plant," he said.

The theme in Buenos Aires was "stop the raids against our brothers, stop the police from arresting people for marijuana, and release our brothers in prison," Bifari said. While Congress dawdles in writing a new pot law, "We suffered a few raids these last few months, mainly in the interior of the country," he said.

"One thing that everybody agrees on is that the law must catch up with us because it can't stop our growing healthy cannabis movement, especially now that we know how to gain the streets when we need to."

In Mexico City, where the annual march celebrated its 10th anniversary, thousands packed the Zocalo before marching between the towers of downtown. Organized by AMECA (the Mexican Association for Cannabis Studies) and nearly a dozen other groups and collectives, marchers called for legalization of the weed, not the pseudo-decriminalization passed by the government last year.

"We are at a conjunctural moment," said AMECA's Leopoldo Rivera Rivera, citing the prohibition-related violence plaguing Mexico even as the US -- the largest market by far for illicit Mexican drugs -- appears headed toward relaxing its drug laws.

In Rio de Janeiro, about 1,500 marched for marijuana legalization on May Day, reported Luiz Guanabara of Psicotropicus. Marches took place in other Brazilian cities last Saturday, except for Fortaleza, where a judge blocked the march as an "apology for crime."

And so, another year's worth of Global Marijuana Marches have come and gone. Will next year be the year people take to the streets to celebrate landmark advances in marijuana legalization in the US? Stay tuned.

Southeast Asia: Not Executing Drug Offenders Sends Wrong Signal, Singapore Says

An official of one of the world's leading drug executioner states has justified its mandatory death penalty for drug trafficking by saying to do otherwise would send the wrong signal to "drug barons." The state is Singapore, the authoritarian city-state on the tip of the Malay Peninsula, and the official was Law Minister K Shanmugam.

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Singapore Anti-Death Penalty Campaign flyer featuring Yong Vui Kong case
Shanmugam made his remarks to the Straits Times Sunday when asked about the case of Malaysian Yong Vui Kong, 22, who was sentenced to death for smuggling 47 grams of heroin in 2007. His case has attracted international attention from human rights groups and is now before the Singapore Court of Appeal.

It would be wrong if drug smugglers got off too cheaply because of mitigating factors like youth or motherhood, he said. "We are sending a signal to all the drug barons out there: Just make sure you choose a victim who is young, or a mother of a young child, and use them as the people to carry the drugs into Singapore," the minister said.

In March, Yong's attorney argued before the appeals court that the mandatory death penalty for trafficking more than 15 grams of heroin was unconstitutional because it gave judges no discretion to consider mitigating factors. But the government responded that the sentence was in line with the law passed by Singapore's legislature.

According to a report on the death penalty for drug offenses from the International Harm Reduction Association, more than 400 people have been executed in Singapore since 1991, the majority for drug offenses. Drug executions accounted for 76% of all executions there from 1994 to 1999, and Singapore has been executing drug offenders at a rate of about 20 a year for the past decade.

It's worth it, said Shanmugam. The death penalty had been critical for suppressing drug trafficking and use in the city-state, and unlike most countries, it had not lost the war on drugs. "But you won't have human rights people standing up and saying: 'Singapore, you have done a great job, having most of your people free of drugs,'" he said.

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