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Drug War Chronicle
(formerly The Week Online with DRCNet)

Issue #418 -- 1/13/06

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


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"Raising Awareness of the Consequences of Drug Prohibition"

Phillip S. Smith, Editor
David Borden, Executive Director

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Table of Contents

    Georgia's Southeast Asian Community Stands Up to Meth Madness
    For several dozen hard-working South Asian immigrants and their families in northwest Georgia, the American dream has turned into a nightmare.
    In an act of political expediency against a background of tabloid hysteria over links between marijuana and mental illness, the Blair government has proclaimed that it may well reclassify marijuana back to Class B. Or maybe not.
    Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito is not the libertarian kind of conservative jurist, and his record on issues relating to drug policy tilts decidedly in the direction of government power. The reach of the Interstate Commerce Clause, which underpins federal drug prohibition, is potentially an important exception. But the nominee provided too little information for anyone to do much besides guess.
    Last year's Supreme Court decision in the Booker and Fan Fan cases threatened to draw retaliation from Congressional hardliners in love with harsh sentencing. But a new study has found that for crack cocaine offenses, at least, most people are still getting very harsh sentences.
    Another pair of drug-dealing prison guards, a drug-dealing small-town cop, a drug-dealing big city cop, and a really big time, big city drug-dealing cop make the news this week.
    Arguing that Congress intended to severely punish crimes involving guns and drugs, a three-judge panel from the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver found no problem with a 55 year sentence the trial judge had issued under protest.
    New Jersey's 2004-2005 legislative session ended with a bill to allow judges to waive a previously mandatory six-month drivers license suspension for any drug offense passing. But bills to reduce the size of "drug free school zones" and legalize needle exchange failed to make it through.
    Attempts by Gov. Frank Murkowski and Alaska’s law enforcement establishment to recriminalize marijuana have been slapped down multiple times, but still they come back to try again.
    Alcohol, not illicit drugs, poses the greatest date rape risk, according to a study whose results were published this week in the New Scientist.
    For the second time in five years, Albanian police have arrested farmers growing industrial hemp, and for the second time in five years, an Albanian judge has told the cops to knock it off.
    A campaign pledge by Bolivian president-elect and coca grower Evo Morales to decriminalize the leaf's cultivation could place him directly at odds with US policy in the country. For once US diplomats in Bolivia are walking softly.
  12. WEB SCAN
    NORML Animation, Budapest Drug Policy Dialogue
    Events and quotes of note from this week's drug policy events of years past.
    Showing up at an event can be the best way to get involved! Check out this week's listings for events from today through next year, across the US and around the world!

(Chronicle archives)

1. Feature: Federal Meth Precursor Sting Targeting South Asian Convenience Stores Draws Protests, ACLU Intervention

For several dozen hard-working South Asian immigrants and their families in northwest Georgia, the American dream has turned into a nightmare. Caught up in the federal government's war on methamphetamine, they now face years in prison followed by deportation for selling legal products -- from cold medicine to matches to antifreeze -- to undercover informants who claim they told them they were going to use the products to home cook methamphetamine.

In a case federal prosecutors call Operation Meth Merchant, a grand jury handed down indictments in June charging 49 people and 16 companies with illicitly supplying methamphetamine precursor chemicals. Of those 49 people, 47 are Indian, with many sharing the same last name, Patel. In an area of Georgia where 75% of convenience stores are run by whites, the sting almost exclusively targeted Indians. Of the 24 stores targeted, 23 were Indian-owned.

photo appears courtesy Alka Roy

The prosecutions have raised eyebrows from the beginning. According to the indictments, the informant entered the targeted convenience stores, purchased completely legal items that could be used in home meth cooking, and then made comments like "I need this to finish a cook" to store clerks. Federal prosecutors argue that listening to such comments indicates that the clerks or store owners were thus aware that the legal products were going to be used for an illicit purpose and thus guilty of federal drug law violations punishable by up to 25 years in prison.

But there is a problem with that. Many of those indicted speak little or no English, and even the ones who do are unlikely to be up to date on the latest slang developed by methamphetamine cooks and users.

The sting started producing a backlash from the beginning with coverage in the New York Times and a call to arms from the Drug Policy Alliance last summer. The ACLU got involved in November and is now helping to represent two defendants, and industry and South Asian associations have joined the cause. But in scenes depressingly reminiscent of the early trajectory of the now infamous Tulia, Texas, drug bust, where dozens of people went to prison based on the perjured word of an itinerant undercover cop before justice was eventually achieved, some of those charged in Operation Meth Merchant have already pleaded guilty to charges they barely understood and now face years in prison followed by deportation.

"I have already watched people plead guilty to these charges, and they needed translators in court because they couldn't understand what the judge was saying," said Deepali Gokhale, campaign organizer for Raksha, a Georgia-based South Asian community association. "How are we to believe that they understood the coded slang of the undercover informant? Imagine you are in France, you barely know the language, or perhaps not at all, and someone comes up to you and starts talking in French drug slang. This is just bizarre," she told DRCNet.

Even the judges in the cases are having to have the meth-making slang explained to them, according to court documents, leading one defense attorney, McCracken Poston, to question why immigrants with limited English language abilities were supposed to know terminology sitting judges didn't know. "They're having to tell the court what that means," Poston said. "But they're assuming that the clerks know what it means. I think in most cases they had no idea," he told the Associated Press last weekend.

"It is also just ridiculous to assume that the people selling these products are responsible for what their customers are going to do with them," Gokhale said. "And why were these particular stores targeted when the products they're selling are available anyway? You could find the stuff at the convenience store across the street, you can buy it at Walmart. It's more than hard to believe that people making meth are only buying the things they need at Indian-owned stores," she said.

Gokhale was suggesting that the targeting of Indians constituted selective prosecution -- prosecutions based on race or national origin -- which is forbidden by the Constitution. That is what drew the attention of the ACLU, too. "There are too many unanswered questions about the validity of evidence against these store clerks for the prosecutions to go forward in good conscience," said Christina Alvarez, a staff attorney with the group's Drug Law Reform Project when it announced it was joining the case in November. "We have launched a full investigation to determine the extent of police misconduct in this ill-conceived operation."

ACLU Drug Law Reform Project attorneys this week told DRCNet they could not speak to the facts in the case because they are now representing two of the defendants. But if the group is successful in arguing selective prosecution, it could result in the dismissal of charges in the case.

Federal prosecutors deny any wrongdoing and say the operation was aimed not at Indian merchants but at cracking down on the meth problem. "The United States Attorney's Office prosecutes cases based on the evidence and the law, not the defendant's race, ethnicity or last name," Patrick Crosby, a spokesman for US Attorney David Nahmias, said Sunday in a statement. "We continue working to resolve the dozens of individual cases that are part of the Meth Merchant investigation."

Still, the case is drawing the attention of Indian organizations far beyond Georgia. "To us, anyway, this looks like an example of selective enforcement against a vulnerable immigrant community and we are working to raise awareness of this wrong and provide support to the community," said Deepa Iyer, executive director of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, a national organization dedicated to the full and equal participation of South Asians in US political and cultural life. "We've been reaching out to the South Asian community at large to provide information about what is going on and to create national awareness of these prosecutions," she told DRCNet. "Along with the South Asian Network in Los Angeles, we put out a statement to make clear this is an issue that goes beyond Georgia and affects the entire South Asian community."

photo appears courtesy Daniel Berger, ACLU
"The South Asian community itself is very tightly connected, and there is a lot of solidarity," said Raksha's Gokhale. "A bunch of organizations have signed on to endorse the campaign."

And now, supporters of the Meth Merchant victims have opened a new front in the struggle to quash the prosecutions. Last Sunday, more than 300 people gathered in front of a shopping mall in Decatur, Georgia, to protest the operation. Speaker after speaker denounced the busts as discriminatory and unfair amid signs proclaiming "Stop the Prosecution!" and Hindi civil rights chants that translate to "Against every oppression and injustice, we will fight."

"We are not coming from a criminal background," Upendra Patel, president of Georgia's Asian-American Convenience Store Association, told the crowd. "We have thousands of years of culture and civilization, and we do not know what this drug is about. Putting some innocent people behind bars is not going to solve the drug problem."

"Ours is but the latest community targeted and blamed in the drug war, a war that has corrupted our institutions to the point where we are willing to send innocent people to prison for the sake of politics and creating a false sense of security," said Raksha executive director Aparna Bhattacharyya.

"It was a great rally," said Gokhale. "We had a lot of people there and got a lot of media attention, and it was really, really empowering for these people. This was our first public outcry, so we were really focused on the South Asian community, but we are working with other immigrant and people of color communities. We had several African-American speakers come out to support us, and we've gotten some support from the Latino community, but for people to come out protest anything is scary for people these days if they're not citizens. But I think we got our message out that we are not going to stand for racial targeting."

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2. Feature: Cannabis Causing Schizophrenia in British Marijuana Policy

In 2004, the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, responding to the recommendations of its own advisory commission, downgraded marijuana from a Class B to a Class C drug and began treating most pot possession cases with on-the-spot warnings instead of arrest. Now, in an act of political expediency against a background of tabloid hysteria over links between marijuana and mental illness, the Blair government has proclaimed that it may well reclassify marijuana back to Class B. Or maybe not.

In March, Home Secretary Charles Clarke, whose predecessor, David Blunkett, made the initial decision to downgrade marijuana, asked the government-appointed Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD) to revisit its earlier recommendations, a task it completed in November. Home Secretary Clarke has the new recommendations in hand, but has not divulged whether the ACMD is recommending a return to Class B. He has said he will announce his decision any day now.

If marijuana is returned to Class B, smokers and possessors will be subject to arrest instead of warnings, and sellers will face up to 14 years in prison, as opposed to five years under Class C. That puts some 3.6 million pot users in England and Wales at risk of more serious legal consequences. In 2004, before reclassification occurred, some 13,000 Britons were arrested for marijuana possession; last year, that number dropped to 600.

Clarke hinted strongly last week that he favored returning marijuana to Class B. In an interview with the Times of London, he said he is "very worried" about links between marijuana and mental illness. He added that the change in the law had confused people and that the general public suffered from an "alarming" lack of knowledge about the health dangers of drug use.

"Whatever happens after this," said Clarke, "let me reveal one recommendation of the advisory committee, which they make very, very strongly, which is a renewed commitment to public education about the potential affects of the consumption of cannabis, and the legal status of cannabis. That is well made, and I will accept it. People do not understand the impact of the consumption of cannabis well enough, and what the legal consequences of consuming cannabis are."

While youths behaving as if marijuana were legal and brazen street vendors in places like Brixton caused grumbling among police and segments of the general public and chattering classes, it appears that a combination of political one-upmanship with the opposition Conservatives and carefully cultivated concern over mental health and marijuana is driving Clarke and the Blair government. Against a trickle of scientific studies finding limited associations between marijuana and mental illness amplified by a tabloid press into a drumbeat of hair-raising stories with titles like "Cannabis 'Caused My Son's Illness'" and "Cannabis Brain Fear," Clarke raises his concerns.

The current wave of Reefer Madness revolves around research purporting to show that marijuana can cause psychotic reactions in genetically predisposed populations and that it is linked to the appearance or early onset of schizophrenia. But Trevor Turner, consultant psychiatrist at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, and vice president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, succinctly laid out the problems with those claims to the Independent. "First, there has been no increase in schizophrenia in this country despite a massive increase in cannabis smoking. Second, there is no evidence that cannabis-growing populations such as Jamaica have a higher incidence of psychosis. Third, you can show an association [between the drug and the illness] but you can't show a cause."

Even Robin Murray, professor of psychiatry at the Institute of Psychiatry, who has sounded the loudest warnings about cannabis, downplayed tabloid-inspired fears. "It is obviously ridiculous to say everyone who smokes cannabis is going to become psychotic. Even in our studies of adolescents, 90% of those who smoked cannabis did not go on to develop psychosis." Murray, in fact, told the Independent pot should be legalized. "By not legalizing it you bring the law into disrepute among the young and you criminalize an activity that is harmless for the great majority of people. It is poisoning society."

"It is all badly reported nonsense," said the Transform Drug Policy Foundation's Steve Rolles of the mental health claims. "It comes in cycles. The 'new evidence' isn't really anything startling: If young people smoke tons of the strong stuff, they are at higher risk of some mental health problems -- no surprise -- and this is fully acknowledged by the ACMD in its initial report. This is really just part of the ongoing research and it happens to be in the media spotlight because of the political fuss over reclassification."

But if even the scientists most concerned about marijuana do not want to see it reclassified, Labor still had to worry about the Conservatives. In the run-up to last year's election, both parties battled for the prized "tough on crime" sobriquet. Under pressure on the right, Labor could burnish its credentials by turning the screws on pot-smokers. But this week, new Conservative leader David Cameron, who has publicly acknowledged past drug use himself, took the oomph of out that tactic by saying the Tories would not attack Labor for leaving cannabis at Class C.

Paul Flynn
Clarke's and Labor's maneuvering was met with more scorn than concern by British advocates for enlightened policies. "This is just another bid by politicians on the make for a favorable headline by appearing to be tough on drugs," said Labor Member of Parliament Paul Flynn, a longtime supporter of reforming drug laws. "When is anyone going to be intelligent on drugs? It's another distraction strengthening the lethal myth that the criminal justice system can solve the drug problems," he told DRCNet.

"This is all political smoke and mirrors," said Transform's Rolles. "Before the election, the government was scared of being called soft on drugs, so it referred cannabis classification back to the ACMD, which is set up to advise on such issues, and which made the initial recommendation to reclassify cannabis to a Class C drug in 2004."

Chris Davies

Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament Chris Davies, a long-time drug legalization proponent, told DRCNet money would be wasted making criminals of people doing no harm to others. "The use of all drugs carries dangers, but the government would be better off spending money on health education than prosecutions," he said. "We have been making criminals of cannabis users for the past 50 years and the policies have achieved nothing. Ministers are putting the health of cannabis users at risk by refusing them honest information and forcing them to buy cannabis from criminal dealers."

Now, after raising such a public hubbub over the possibility of reclassification and leaving Labor open to ridicule for its u-turn on pot policy, it seems likely that Clarke will have to make a u-turn on his u-turn, thus coming full circle back to where he started.

"The information we have, as well as some leaks, suggests the ACMD has not called for a re-reclassification," Rolles said. "If, as seems likely, this turns out to be true, it seems very unlikely that they will reverse because it would be going against expert advice and appear transparently political," he wagered.

"If the government is stupid enough to do it anway, they will get hammered by the press and the public alike. The move to downgrade cannabis was seen as sensible and progressive and enjoyed public support, except for the usual suspects," Rolles told DRCNet. "The problem was poor information and a bungled implementation that left the public confused over exactly what the changes really meant."

"A decision to reclassify would fly in the face of the recommendations of the government's own advisory council," said Davies. "Very heavy use of cannabis can damage those people who may be genetically prone to mental illness but very heavy use of whisky will kill you."

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3. Feature: Alito Hearings Yield Inconclusive but Mostly Bad Forecasts for Drug War Issues

This week's Senate Judiciary Committee hearings on the nomination of Judge Samuel Alito to the US Supreme Court shed more heat than light on the nominee and his views on critical legal and constitutional issues. In an era where such hearings have devolved more into political theater with senators posturing and nominees trying to reveal little, that is to be expected.

Judge Alito

Judge Alito's personal history and judicial record make it clear that he is a conservative jurist, and not the libertarian variety of conservatism. A member of the Federalist Society, Alito served in the Reagan administration Justice Department as an assistant to the Solicitor General, then became a drug-fighting US Attorney in New Jersey. Since 1990, he has sat on the US 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals. Unlike President Bush's previous two nominees to the Supreme Court, new Chief Justice John Roberts and failed candidate Harriet Miers, Alito's years on the bench have provided a track record on which to assess his judicial philosophy.

On criminal justice issues, Alito has consistently come down on the side of police and prosecutors. According to a graphic analysis prepared by the Washington Post, in cases involving criminal law, search and seizure, and sentencing, Alito sided with the prosecution in 28 of 32 cases. In nine of those cases, he sided with prosecutors even when the majority of the court did not.

Perhaps the most searing case was that of Doe v. Groody, where New Jersey police on a drug raid strip searched the wife and 10-year-old daughter of a drug suspect although the search warrant did not specify they were to be searched. The family sued police, and the 3rd Circuit Court, then headed by current Homeland Security head Michael Chertoff, ruled in favor of the family. Alito dissented, arguing that police had not violated the family's rights.

Alito's ruling in Groody didn't go over well with Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Leahy challenged Alito not only on the strip-search case but on another case, Baker, where Alito held that police could detain and search a mother and three teenager children when they arrived at the home of her adult son that was being searched. "The only reason I bring up these two cases, it seems in both of them you went beyond the four corners of the search warrant, and you settled all issues in a light most favorable -- the majority in the opinion didn't, but you did -- in a light most favorable to law enforcement. In fact, in Baker, the majority said that," Leahy charged. "And I worry about this, because I always worry that the courts must be there to protect individuals against an overreaching government. In this case, your position in the minority was that you protected what the majority felt was an overreaching government. Am I putting too strong an analysis on that?"

"I do think you are, Senator," Alito replied, defending his rulings.

Kennedy zeroed in on the strip-search case. "As a result of your judgment in this case and... we have the kind of conduct against this 10-year-old which she will never forget," said Kennedy. "Why, Judge Alito?," he asked dramatically.

"Senator, I wasn't happy that a 10-year-old was searched," Alito responded, adding that the search was carried out by a female officer. "And I don't think there should be a Fourth Amendment rule -- but, of course, it's not up to me to decide -- that minors can never be searched. Because if we had a rule like that, then where would drug dealers hide their drugs? That would lead to greater abuse of minors."

Alito also dissented when the 3rd Circuit ruled state officials had violated defendants' right to a speedy trial, and when his colleagues ruled that a US District Court was authorized to reduce a convict's sentence under the federal sentencing guidelines. Again, he dissented when the 3rd Circuit held that a defendant should be granted habeas corpus because the state had not proved the defendant's intent beyond a reasonable doubt.

Neither has Alito been a friend to prisoners. According to the Washington Post analysis, in six cases he heard regarding prisoners, he ruled against them every time. In one case where his colleagues struck down a ban on prisoners in long-term maximum security units from receiving newspapers or magazines, Alito dissented. The ban was within the prison's legal authority, he wrote.

On the other hand, if Alito had been sitting on the Supreme Court when it heard the Raich medical marijuana case, there might have been a more favorable outcome. It was three conservatives, after all, who voted in the minority in favor of states' rights and limits to the reach of the Commerce Clause (the doctrine used to declare federal supremacy over California's medical marijuana law), Chief Justice Rehnquist and Associate Justices Thomas and O'Connor. In a case similarly pitting states' rights against federal power under the Commerce Clause, Alito dissented from a majority opinion holding that Congress has the power to ban machine guns. In his dissent, Alito emphasized "the system of constitutional federalism."

That opinion came in for scrutiny at the hearings, too, but with little revealed. Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-CA), more concerned with preserving the reach of federal power on a range of liberal issues than defending her state's right to protect medical marijuana patients, grilled Alito on the topic, as did fellow Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), who asked, "What about the commerce clause? Raich came to the court a couple of years ago... You talked about the commerce clause being settled."

Alito's response provided little clue to how an Alito tenure might affect such issues: "Well, it depends on which commerce clause cases you are talking about," he posited. "Certainly, the initial commerce clause cases that moved away from the pre-New Deal understanding of the commerce clause have been on the books for a long time."

Alito seems likely to be confirmed as the next US Supreme Court justice. If past rulings are an indication of what is to come, then don't expect the drug war to find much in the way of checks and balances from this nominee. The Commerce Clause could be an exception, and if so it could be a big one. But the hearings leave observers able to do little more than speculate about that.

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4. Feature: In the Wake of Booker, Some Small Relief for a Small Fraction of Federal Crack Cocaine Offenders

Last year's Supreme Court decision in the Booker and Fan Fan cases, where the high court held that federal sentencing guidelines would no longer be mandatory but only advisory, threatened to cause an explosion on Capitol Hill. Mass incarceration-loving congressmen worried darkly that tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders would not get enough time in prison if federal judges were allowed the least bit of leeway in deciding sentences. What was needed was a "fix" for Booker to ensure that low-level drug offenders got the hammering they deserved, with no opportunity for bleeding heart judges to let things like the defendant's personal history or the circumstances of the crime get in the way of decades in prison.

Southern Correctional Institution, Troy, NC
A study of sentencing decisions in federal crack cocaine cases released this week by The Sentencing Project suggests those worries were, for the most part, overheated. In a very small sample of some 24 cases in which judges wrote sentencing memoranda to explain their sentencing decisions, the study found that the crack offenders were still doing long prison sentences, but that those sentences were less than those called for in the federal guidelines.

More than 5,400 people were sentenced on federal crack charges in 2003, the last year for which statistics are available. In one of the drug war's most notorious inequities, those offenders are subject to the 100:1 disparity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine cases. Under the guidelines, five grams of crack will get you a five-year sentence, while it takes a pound of powder cocaine to earn the same penalty.

"Our study clearly shows that judges are still handing down severe sentences," said Sentencing Project analyst and study coauthor Ryan King. "Any fear of a new leniency in the criminal justice system because of Booker is unfounded. If you look at the cases we examined, the average sentence for a crack offense was 11 years," he told DRCNet. "But what these cases show is that in many cases the sentencing guidelines don't take into account the circumstances of the offense or the history of the offender. Now, judges can take these things into account and calibrate the sentences in a slightly more just fashion."

Based on the results of the study, the study's authors concluded, "There is no need for a Booker "fix" since judges appear to be imposing harsh penalties in serious cases, but distinguishing these from those cases in which the defendant is less culpable."

That was a position that earned no argument from defense attorneys. "We don't need a Booker 'fix'," said Jack King of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "What we need is to get rid of the mandatory minimum sentences, so judges can sentence fairly on the facts of the case rather than just the weight of the drugs."

Even under the post-Booker system, most crack offenders see no sentence reductions. According to the Sentencing Project, three-quarters of them have the bottom end of their sentences limited by mandatory minimums.

"Judges may have a little more discretion as a result of Booker," said Jack King, "but they can't go below statutory minimums. A lot of judges see the mandatory minimums as too high in many cases, and regret having to sentence people so severely."

"Mandatory minimums are still an obstacle," agreed Ryan King, "and that is something that still needs to be addressed in policy reform. Booker permitted judges to depart from the guidelines to bring sentences down to a more reasonable range, but because they can't do anything about mandatory minimums, judges are still having to hand down more severe sentences than they would like."

Beyond addressing mandatory minimum sentences, said King, the obvious thing to do is redress the disparity in sentences for crack and powder cocaine offenses. Indeed, in addition to recommending that there is no need for a congressional "fix" for Booker, this week's Sentencing Project report recommended that "Congress should reconsider the crack/powder cocaine sentencing disparity in order to expand the range of cases in which judges can consider individual case characteristics."

For some observers, sentencing reforms are necessary, but not sufficient. "Booker allows judges some discretion to depart downward from the sentencing guidelines, but their discretion is very limited and you still have people serving terribly long sentences," said Nora Callahan, director of The November Coalition, a drug reform group focused on the plight of federal prisoners. "The sentencing structure is terrible, the amount of time the guidelines recommend for drug offenses is just crazy, and then you have mandatory minimums, too," said Callahan.

"People keep talking about whether we need to 'fix' sentencing, but by the time you get to that point, you're screwed anyway. Sentencing reforms are trying to fix things on the back end, but we need to be looking at the front end. The root of the problem is policing," she said. "All this time, we've been running around saying how bad it was that discretion had moved from judges to prosecutors, but that discretion has really moved even further, to the police and their informants, who decide who to arrest and what charges they will face. Sentencing reform is only half of the discussion. We have to be talking about policing reform, too."

The US Sentencing Commission has expressed similar concerns. In a November 2004 report, "Fifteen Years of Guidelines Sentencing," the commission noted that police knowledge of sentencing guidelines and predictable sentences allows law enforcement to "[manipulate a] defendant's sentencing exposure during the investigation phase." The commission called this "a significant source of continuing disparity in the federal system" and gave an example of how it might work: "For example, rather than arrest a drug seller when his crime first becomes known, police could choose to make additional purchases until the quantity of drugs involved reaches the amount needed to trigger the sentence the police believe appropriate."

The whole system needs a harsh spotlight cast upon it, said Callahan. "We have created a system where the police and the prosecutors hold real power and the judges are basically just clerks, and it all happens in the dark. Did Congress intend to let police capitalize on drug crime in every town in America, let people deal drugs until the police think they have a heavy enough charge, and effectively determine how long they will be in prison?" Callahan asked.

"If we are going to fix this, there has to be transparency in policing and prosecutions. The police can't keep making secret deals with informants. Prosecutors can't do plea bargains behind closed doors," she continued. "We're already the surveillance society -- we have cameras recording us walking across the street, going to the 7-11, even in changing rooms in stores. If we can videotape dressing rooms, we can and should videotape these secret deals. If they can't stand the light, what does that tell us? Did they threaten to put his mama in prison? Did they beat him? Let's roll the tape."

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5. Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Another pair of drug-dealing prison guards, a drug-dealing small-town cop, a drug-dealing big city cop, and a really big time, big city drug-dealing cop make the news this week. Just another week of the same old same old. Let's get to it:

In Missoula, Montana, a former guard at the Montana State Prison pleaded was charged January 3 with attempted possession of marijuana, heroin, and methamphetamine with the intent to distribute and with being a drug user in possession of a firearm. Michael Short, 50, a five-year veteran guard, was indicted on federal charges that he tried to buy and distribute a quarter-pound of pot, a half-ounce of meth, and two grams of heroin while employed at the prison in Deer Lodge. While federal prosecutors would not say the drugs were destined for the prison, Warden Mike Mahoney told the Missoulian that the investigation leading to Short's arrest began within the prison. Short resigned from his post in July. Although he faces 30 years in prison, he was released "under supervision."

In Greenville, South Carolina, prison guard Leon Rhodes was arrested January after being busted with "a quantity of green plant material in excess of 28 grams which tested positive as marijuana," according to his arrest warrant. He faces four counts: possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute, conspiracy to distribute, distribution, and furnishing contraband to prisoners. He was nailed after a joint investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division and the South Carolina Department of Corrections. The Perry State Prison guard currently resides at the Greenville County Detention Center.

In Bunkie, Louisiana, city police officer Bryan Bordelon, 27, has been jailed without bail since January 6 after state police seized approximately $10,000 worth of drugs at his residence. Bordelon went down after the town police chief and mayor asked the state police to look into allegations of misconduct against Bordelon and another, unnamed officer involving a juvenile. He is charged with possession of narcotics with the intent to distribute, illegal possession of a stolen firearm, and possession of a firearm with an obliterated serial number.

In Buffalo, former Narcotics Detective Rene Gil is heading to federal prison for 21 on cocaine distribution charges for being part of a family drug-dealing operation. Although he faced up to 20 years, Gil got a sweet deal for ratting out two other corrupt narcs who were later convicted of planting evidence and stealing from drug suspects.

In Chicago, former Chicago Police Officer John Smith was sentenced to 24 years in federal prison January 5 for stealing cocaine from the police evidence room, selling it to drug dealers, and then claiming his new, extravagant lifestyle came from winning big in Los Vegas. Smith maintained his innocence at the sentencing hearing, but US District Judge Elaine Bucklo was not impressed, noting he used more than $1 million in drug deal profits to buy property, luxury cars, and expensive gifts for mistresses. He was found guilty of drug conspiracy, money laundering, tax evasion, and filing false statements on tax returns. Among items seized from Smith was a $177,000 Rolls-Royce.

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6. Sentencing: Federal Appeals Court Upholds Mandatory 55-Year Sentence for Man Who Sold Marijuana While Armed

A three-judge panel from the US 10th Circuit Court of Appeals Monday found no problem with sentencing 27-year-old Salt Lake City resident Weldon Angelos to 55 years in prison for selling marijuana while armed. It upheld the mandatory minimum sentence issued under protest by US District Court Judge Paul Cassell, arguing that the draconian sentence reflected Congress' intent to severely punish crimes involving guns and drugs.

Angelos was convicted in 2003 of three counts of selling marijuana while carrying a pistol in an ankle holster. He was not accused of firing or even brandishing the weapon, merely having it on him when the deals went down. The amount of marijuana involved was 1 1/2 pounds. Married with two daughters and the owner of a fledgling rap music record label, Angelos had no prior convictions.

Prosecutors originally indicted Angelos on only one count of selling pot while armed, but when he refused a plea bargain, they went back to the grand jury and re-indicted him. This time he was charged with four counts. Under federal law, the first conviction on such a count garners a five-year mandatory minimum sentence, with each additional count bringing another 25-year mandatory minimum sentence to be served consecutively.

At Angelos' sentencing, Judge Cassell said sentencing laws forced him to impose a sentence that was "unjust, cruel, and irrational." On appeal, the case was joined by four former US attorneys general and 160 other former Justice Department officials and federal judges who filed an amicus brief calling Angelos' sentence "contrary to the evolving standards of decency which are the hallmark of our civilized society" and a violation of the Eighth Amendment's prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

Those evolving standards of decency apparently haven't made it past the front door of the federal courthouse in Denver, though. The appeals court panel not only rejected both decency and the constitutional claims, it went out of its way to accuse Angelos of crimes for which he was not convicted.

"Although the district court concluded that Angelos's sentence was disproportionate to his crimes, we disagree," the court said. "In our view, the district court failed to accord proper deference to Congress's decision to severely punish criminals who repeatedly possess firearms in connection with drug-trafficking crimes, and erroneously downplayed the seriousness of Angelos' crimes."

The three-judge panel said it took prosecutors at their word that Angelos was deeply involved in drug, gun, and gang activity, even though he was never charged with the crimes to which prosecutors referred. Prosecutor Robert Lund told the panel Angelos was "suspected" of trafficking a ton of pot, and Lund's word -- not a jury verdict -- was good enough for them. "Although it is true that Angelos had no significant adult criminal history, that appears to have been the result of good fortune rather than Angelos' lack of involvement in criminal activity," said the ruling, written by Judge Mary Beck Briscoe.

If someone ever needed to make the argument that "the law" and "justice" are not synonyms, he need look no further.

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7. Sentencing: New Jersey Legislature Passes Bill to End Mandatory Driver License Suspensions for Drug Offenders

Acting on the last day of the 2004-2005 legislative session, both the New Jersey Senate and the Assembly passed a bill that would allow judges to not suspend the licenses of people arrested on drug charges. The Drug Policy Alliance, which worked on the measure, called it "a big victory."

Under current New Jersey law, license revocations of at least six months (and up to two years) are mandatory upon conviction of any drug offense, no matter how minor or whether the offense had anything to do with driving or highway safety. The bill, which passed this week and is expected to be signed by Acting Gov. Codey, allows judges to waive the suspension under "compelling circumstances." The language of the bill describes those circumstances as "extreme hardship" and no alternative means of transportation.

The legislature failed, however, to act on two other drug reform measures, a bill that would reduce the size of "school zone" sentencing enhancement areas from 1,000 feet to 200 feet, and a bill that would allow needle exchange programs to operate in the state. The needle exchange bill had passed the Assembly, but was stalled all of 2005 in the Senate Health Committee. In a last-minute maneuver to get the bill enacted, Sen. Nia Gill used senatorial privilege to hold several critical gubernatorial appointments hostage in an effort to force Gov. Codey to act. But Codey refused, the appointments were lost, and the needle exchange bill now has to start over.

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8. Marijuana: Bill to Recriminalize Marijuana in Alaska Introduced and Moving

Thanks to the state constitution and the state Supreme Court that interpreted it, Alaska is the only state in the nation where marijuana possession in the privacy of one's home is not a crime. Republican Governor Frank Murkowski and the state's law enforcement establishment hate this state of affairs and are moving again this year to recriminalize marijuana possession, despite being slapped down in the legislature last year and the courts the year before.

Murkowski's vehicle for recriminalization is Senate Bill 74, which not only makes marijuana possession even at home a crime again, but also increases penalties for use and possession. Possession of more than four ounces of marijuana -- the amount currently allowed at home -- would become a felony, while possession of less than four ounces would be a misdemeanor.

The Senate Finance Committee heard amendments to the bill Tuesday in an unannounced hearing, and committee co-chair Lyda Green (R-Wasill) told the Associated Press she expected the bill to pass out of committee Thursday. Once that happens, it will go to a floor debate and a Senate vote. Green also said she would not delay action in order to hear expert testimony. Such testimony helped derail the bill last year.

Murkowski and his allies are using the "not your father's marijuana" argument to suggest that today's marijuana is so much more dangerous than the weed of yesteryear that its dangerousness would override the state constitution's privacy provisions that have so far sheltered home use and possession. They also argue that another Alaska state court decision requiring police to provide evidence that someone is growing more than enough marijuana for four ounces in order to get a search warrant for a grow is hampering law enforcement.

"This is going to allow the troopers to turn back the clock to where we were a couple of years ago, to allow them to get search warrants, to stop the commercial marijuana growing."

Coincidentally, Gov. Murkowski this week complained that Alaska was the subject of ridicule because of national controversy over drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge (he's for it) and the $50 million "bridges to nowhere" linking thinly-populated islands to the mainland (he's for them, too). He has proposed a two-year public relations effort to improve the state's image. But with support for marijuana legalization continuing to climb, sneaking bills through the legislature or wildly exaggerating modern marijuana's dangers might be tactics that could backfire.

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9. Europe: Leading British Date Rape Drug is Alcohol, Study Finds

Alcohol, not illicit drugs, poses the greatest date rape risk, according to a study whose results were published this week in the New Scientist. The study analyzed blood and urine samples from more than a thousand date rape victims in the United Kingdom who were examined soon after the alleged assaults occurred. Only 2% of the samples contained sedatives, the study found.

"Everyone thinks that Rohypnol is a problem," said Michael Scott-Ham of the UK's Forensic Science Service in London. "But alcohol is by far the biggest problem."

Alcohol leaves the system within 12 hours of ingestion, so Scott-Ham and colleague Fiona Burton then focused on the 391 victims who had been examined within that period. Of that sample, the researchers found that nearly one-third (32%) of victims had consumed enough alcohol to either pass out or suffer memory loss, while another 24% had consumed enough alcohol to be legally drunk.

The full study will be published in the Journal of Clinical Forensic Medicine later this year.

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10. Europe: Albanian Hemp Farmers Freed as Judge Rules It's Not Marijuana

For the second time in five years, Albanian police have arrested farmers growing industrial hemp, and for the second time in five years, an Albanian judge has told the cops to knock it off.

In the latest case, five villagers were jailed for two weeks for growing marijuana before being freed. When they were arrested, Interior Minister Sokol Olldashi appeared on a popular Albanian TV show to crow about busting a ton of weed, Reuters reported. He had no comment this week.

Industrial hemp is easily distinguished from marijuana by its appearance. Hemp is a tall, stalky, fibrous plant, while marijuana (cannabis sativa or indica) is a shorter, bushier plant. Hemp contains no significant levels of THC, the psychoactive ingredient in marijuana.

"I never imagined I would be pictured in the newspapers as the head of an international drug ring. It's one of those things that makes you cry and laugh at the same time," said Martin Pellumbi of the Shkrel area farmers' association.

Last time this happened, a police drug expert lost her job. This time around, the Albanian government may have to pay. The hemp field was a project of the British development aid agency Partnership for Growth, whose fields were also victimized in the 2001 bust. The group told the BBC it lost $100,000 in the last raid, for which it has not been reimbursed. Now it is preparing to sue for lost earnings as a result of this raid. Sadly, it also said it will reconsider its decision to encourage hemp production.

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11. Latin America: US Seeking Talks with Bolivia's Morales on Coca, Trade

US diplomats are walking softly when it comes to relations with Bolivian president-in-waiting Evo Morales. Elected with the most overwhelming popular mandate in recent Bolivian history, the coca grower leader campaigned in part on a platform of decriminalizing the production of the leaf -- a pledge that puts him directly at odds with US policy in the country. But while US diplomacy toward Bolivia has traditionally been carried out as if the US owned the place, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon was singing a different tune Tuesday.

Instead of bluster, Shannon said he sought dialogue on coca and other contentious issues. "We want to have the opportunity to enter a dialogue with the president-elect and his government to better understand how we can move ahead with this relationship," Shannon told reporters in Brazil while on a visit to the continent. Bolivia and the US had long cooperated on coca, he said. "We are going to have to talk with the new government to understand how we can move ahead with this process," said Shannon.

coca seedlings
The conciliatory talk comes amid fears in Washington that Morales could form a left-leaning alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez -- who has warned of US efforts to undermine or overthrow Morales -- and Cuban leader Fidel Castro, as well as concern that liberalizing the coca crop could result in more leaf being diverted into the black market. Washington's jitters are doubtless not helped by Morales' peripatetic travel schedule since his election. The casually-clad indigenous leader has visited Europe, South Africa, and perhaps most troubling to the US, China, where he discussed strengthening trade relations with the Asian economic giant. He will also visit Argentina and Brazil before returning to Bolivia for his January 22 inauguration.

While Morales has vowed to decriminalize coca production, particulars have yet to emerge. He is expected to change portions of the US-drafted, much-criticized Law 1008, the country's coca law to allow for greater cultivation and to change its provisions not granting the presumption of innocence to persons accused of drug crimes. He has also vowed to attempt to amend the 1961 United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs to remove the coca plant from its list of prohibited substances.

Bolivia's ability to act independently of US wishes will depend to a large degree on the success of the trade and aid talks Morales has been undertaking on his recent travels. The US provides $150 million a year in aid to Bolivia, one-third of which is for drug enforcement. If Morales can find replacements for the US assistance, it will be that much easier for him to act.

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12. Web Scan: NORML Animation, Budapest Drug Policy Dialogue

NORML animation about Samuel Caldwell, the first person jailed for violating the 1937 Marijuana Tax Stamp Act, the beginning of marijuana prohibition in the United States

Report on an "Informal Drug Policy Dialogue" in Budapest, sponsored by the Andreas G. Papandreou Foundation and the Transnational Institute

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13. Weekly: This Week in History

January 14, 1937: A private federal cannabis conference takes place in room 81 of the Treasury Building in Washington, DC, leading up to enactment of federal marijuana prohibition later that year.

January 14, 2003: A high profile pain prosecution ends with a whimper when California prosecutors dismiss all remaining charges against Dr. Frank Fisher.

January 15, 1963: President Kennedy establishes the Advisory Commission on Narcotic and Drug Abuse, with Judge E. Barrett Prettyman as chair.

January 15, 1997: Milahhr Kemnah, an AIDS patient visiting the Cannabis Cultivators Club in San Francisco, becomes the first person to buy medical marijuana in California following passage of Proposition 215.

January 16, 1919: The 18th Amendment (alcohol prohibition) is declared ratified and is scheduled to take effect in one year.

January 16, 1920: At midnight, the 18th Amendment becomes law, making alcohol illegal.

January 16, 1980: Paul McCartney is arrested by Japanese customs officials at Tokyo International Airport when they find two plastic bags in his suitcases containing 219 grams of marijuana (approximately 7.7 ounces). Concerned that McCartney would be refused a US visa under immigration laws if convicted and be unable to perform in an upcoming Wings concert in the US, Sen. Edward Kennedy called first secretary of the British Embassy D.W.F. Warren-Knott on January 19. McCartney is released and deported on January 25.

January 18, 1990: Mayor Marion Barry of Washington, DC, is arrested after hidden cameras record him smoking crack cocaine with ex-girlfriend Hazel Diane "Rasheeda" Moore in her room at the Vista Hotel.

January 19, 1999: Twenty heavily armed officers from the Placer County sheriff's department in northern California raid the home of Steve and Michele Kubby.

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14. Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

Please submit listings of events concerning drug policy and related topics to [email protected].

January 13-15, Basel, Switzerland, "Problem Child and Wonder Drug: International Symposium on the occasion of the 100th Birthday of Albert Hofmann." Sponsored by the Gaia Media Foundation, visit for further information.

January 21, 9:00am-noon, San Diego, CA, "The War on Drugs 101," forum with Ethan Nadelmann. Sponsored by St. Paul's Cathedral and A New PATH (Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing), at St. Paul's Cathedral, 2728 6th Ave., admission free. Visit for further information.

January 21, 4:00pm-3:00am, Brickell, FL, "8th Annual Medical Marijuana Benefit Concert," benefit for Florida NORML hosted by Ploppy Palace Productions and Tobacco Road. At Tobacco Road, 626 South Miami Ave., admission $10, 21 years or over with ID, visit or e-mail [email protected] for further information.

January 28-29, Toronto, CA, "Peace Summit II & Social Weedend," cannabis conference sponsored by Puff Mama, contact Matt Mernagh at [email protected] or (905) 704-1170 for further information.

February 3, Oakland, CA, NORML Winter Benefit Party, at the Oakland Sailboat House, Late Merritt. Admission $60, advance reservations required, visit for information.

February 9-11, Tasmania, Australia, The Eleventh International Conference on Penal Abolition (ICOPA), coordinated by Justice Action. For further information visit or contact +612-9660 9111 or [email protected].

February 16, 8:00pm, New Paltz, NY, "Know Your Rights" forum, screening of "Busted: The Citizen's Guide to Surviving Police Encounters," Q&A with attorney Russell Schindler and a speaker on racial profiling. Sponsored by New Paltz NORML/SSDP, Student Union Building, Room 100, admission free, refreshments served. For further information, visit or contact [email protected], (845) 257-2687 or (646) 246-8504.

March 29, 6:00pm, New York, NY, "Drug Policy for the Union Man," forum for members of the Local 375 District Council 37, presented by LEAP, DPA, CJPF and ReconsiDer. At 125 Barkley St., two blocks north of Old World Trade Center, contact Mike Smithson at (315) 243-5844 or [email protected] for further information.

March 30, 8:00pm, Los Angeles, CA, MPP Party at the Playboy Mansion, tickets $500, visit for further information.

April 5-8, Santa Barbara, CA, Fourth National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics. Sponsored by Patients Out of Time, details to be announced, visit for updates.

April 9, noon-6:00pm, Sacramento, CA, "Cannabis at the Capitol," medical marijuana rally sponsored by the Compassionate Coalition. At the California State Capitol, west steps, visit or contact Peter Keyes at (916) 456-7933 for info.

April 20-22, San Francisco, CA, National NORML Conference, visit for further information.

April 30-May 4, Vancouver, BC, Canada, "17th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm," annual conference of the International Harm Reduction Association. Visit for further information.

June 3, 1:00-11:00pm, Amsterdam, The Netherlands, 10th Legalize! Street Rave Against the War on Drugs. Visit or contact Jonas Daniel Meyerplein at +31(0)20-4275626 or [email protected] for info.

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