Race

RSS Feed for this category

Does This State Have the Worst Drug Policies in America? [FEATURE]

With endless miles of farmland shading into ever higher and drier terrain as one moves west, crossing the Missouri River and then on to the Badlands and the Black Hills, South Dakota has a certain austere beauty. Not so in its approach to drugs. When it comes to drug policy, it is one of the ugliest places in the country.

South Dakota's Badlands. The state is a pretty bad land for drug users, too. (Creative Commons)
The staunchly conservative state holds the dubious distinction of being the only state to twice defeat a medical marijuana initiative. (Activists are giving it another shot this year -- and a more wishful legalization initiative, too.) And it is being sued by the state ACLU over the forced drug testing of toddlers and arrestees alike.

South Dakota also boasts the nation's only law making ingestion -- not possession -- of a controlled substance a felony, which helps explains the reflex resort to drug testing arrestees: A positive drug test becomes a prosecutable offense. While 10 other states have ingestion laws on the books, none of them makes it a felony.

And now, a new report from the Prison Policy Initiative finds that "South Dakota jails more people per capita than any other state," that almost "half of all arrests are drug or alcohol related, compared to just 29 percent nationally," and that people of color -- in this case, primarily Native Americans -- are disproportionately arrested at a rate far above the national average.

According to the report, South Dakota jailed 2,888 people per 100,000, nearly twice the national average of 1,506, and narrowly edging out Mississippi, which had 2,814 per 100,000. (Other states that jailed more than one out of 50 of their residents were Georgia, Kansas, Kentucky, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.)

But jail is just the gateway to the incarceration complex, and when it comes to long-term stays behind bars, South Dakota displays the same sort of worrying numbers. According to the ACLU of South Dakota, the state's prison population has increased more than five-fold since 1980, a decade after the drug war began. And despite 2013 reforms designed to reduce the prison population, it stubbornly stays near an all-time high reached in 2017.

In fact, new prison admissions spiked upward by 49 percent between 2015 and 2018. These numbers are largely attributable to drug prosecutions, with nearly one in three prisoners doing time for drugs in 2019, up from one in four in 2014.

As the ACLU noted, "This increase was driven almost entirely by a rise in the number of people whose most serious offense was unauthorized ingestion of a controlled substance."

That's right -- South Dakota is spending millions of dollars to incarcerate people not for drug dealing, not even for drug possession, but for having used drugs and still having traces of them in their system.

And it's doing so in an alarmingly racially disproportionate manner. Native Americans make up only 7 percent of the state's population but constitute nearly one-third (31 percent) of the state prison population. Similarly, the state has a tiny African American population (2 percent), but black South Dakotans made up 8 percent of the prison population. The imprisonment rate for both African Americans and Native Americans was seven times that of the state's overwhelmingly white population. For the state's Latino population, the imprisonment rate was twice that of whites.

In a press release last month, the state ACLU reported that it's just as bad in the state's jails, with Native Americans making up roughly half of all jail admissions and accounting for the majority of all drug- and alcohol-related arrests in the state. The group noted that "Native Americans between ages 15 and 64 are incarcerated at 10 times the rate of white people in South Dakota."

"It's time to come to terms with the significant racial disparities that are so ingrained in our criminal legal system," said Libby Skarin, ACLU of South Dakota policy director. "This is not something that can be mitigated by solely reducing the number of arrests in South Dakota. Our elected officials need to acknowledge the realities of these racial disparities and commit to tackling them head-on."

State leaders grasp that there is a problem here. The state legislature has set up an interim study group to examine the state's approach to drug offenses, which met for the first time in August. The group includes legislators, law enforcement, court administrators, the South Dakota attorney general and the secretary of the Department of Corrections, but not public health officials or actual drug users.

The panel heard even more disturbing numbers about drug prosecutions. There were 2,104 people convicted of drug possession statewide so far this year, a more than four-fold increase from 2009, even though drug use levels have remained relatively stable over that period. That is leading panel members to wonder about the role of local prosecutors in generating such large increases in prosecutions.

"Though drug use is undoubtedly a serious issue, we can't incarcerate our way out of addiction," said the ACLU's Skarin. "The enormous amount of money South Dakota spends on jailing people for drug-related offenses is disproportionate and causes more harm than good to individuals struggling with addiction, their families and their communities."

It is for this reason that the ACLU says it is supporting initiatives such as "reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor."

Skarin explained, "Reclassifying ingestion as a misdemeanor and investing the resulting savings of state funds in diversion and treatment programs designed to combat addiction would go a long way in helping to solve the underlying problems leading to drug abuse."

Pennington County (Rapid City) public defender Eric Whitcher is on the same page as the state ACLU. He told the interim panel that 73 of his last 100 drug possession cases involved only trace or immeasurable amounts of drugs and that if such cases were not charged as felonies, his office could operate with significantly fewer felony prosecutors.

"We are an outlier," said Whitcher, speaking about South Dakota. "We are creating more felonies for the same conduct than our neighboring states. What impact does that have on their lives?"

Dropping ingestion from a felony to a misdemeanor would be a step in the right direction, but it's an awfully small step. South Dakota has a long, long way to go to get on the right side of drug policy, and no natural beauty can hide that.

Why Are Meth- and Cocaine-Related Overdose Deaths on the Increase? [FEATURE]

August 31 is International Overdose Awareness Day, overdoseday.com
Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released provisional data indicating that the country's overdose crisis peaked in late 2017 and actually declined by 5.1 percent between then and late 2018. While that is long-awaited good news, it's not great news: The annual number of drug overdose deaths was still more than 68,000, and that number is still more than a third higher than in 2014, when the overdose epidemic was already well underway.

The fever may have broken, but the patient is still in critical condition. And there is one bit of data in the CDC report that is definitely not good news: While overall overdose deaths finally began to decline, overdose deaths involving stimulants were on the increase. For cocaine, the death toll started rising in about 2012; for psychostimulants (overwhelmingly methamphetamine), the climb began a couple of years earlier.

But the new data show a dramatic uptick in overdose deaths with stimulant involvement last year. Fatal overdoses where cocaine was mentioned were up 34 percent and those where methamphetamine was involved were up 37 percent. That's more than 14,000 people dying with cocaine in their systems and more than 10,000 dying with meth in their systems.

What is driving this spike in stimulant-involved overdose deaths? Some of it can be attributed to rising use levels for cocaine and meth, which can in turn be linked to increased supplies. Meth seizures were up dramatically last year and recent DEA reports suggest that cocaine availability has increased steadily since 2012, particularly in the south and east coast of the US. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime suggests that cocaine production and manufacture are at the highest rates ever recorded.

"There is some research to suggest that we are seeing slightly higher rates of recent cocaine and methamphetamine use compared to rates of use just a few years ago," said Sheila Vakharia, PhD, a researcher with the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA). "But increased rates of use do not always mean increased rates of addiction or overdose. Death rates are influenced by a variety of factors, including age of the user, the amount used, and other substances used, among other things."

They are also influenced by race, gender, and geographic location. A recent study looking at data from 2012 to 2015 and examining race and gender trends by drug found that white men had the highest rates of methamphetamine-involved overdose deaths more generally, while black men had highest rates of cocaine-involved overdose deaths. These racial differences persisted for women of each race as well, although their overdose rates were lower than the men in their racial groups.

"Methamphetamine-involved deaths are high on the West Coast and Midwest, while cocaine-involved deaths are high on the East Coast. We are actually seeing that in some Western states that methamphetamine is either the top drug involved in overdose deaths or among the top drugs included in overdose deaths," Vakharia noted.

"Based on the latest CDC data, Nevada’s overdose crisis has been driven by prescription opioids and methamphetamine for the past several years- in fact, methamphetamine has been the #1 drug involved in overdoses there since November 2016. Similarly, in November 2016, Oregon saw methamphetamine become the top drug involved in overdose deaths," she specified.

"Meanwhile, the East Coast is seeing the involvement of cocaine in overdoses increase as well. While no eastern state has cocaine driving their overdose crisis, places like DC are seeing fentanyl as the top driver of deaths followed by cocaine. Last year, while fentanyl contributed to the majority of overdose deaths, there were more cocaine-involved deaths than heroin or prescription opioids," Vakharia added.

It appears that it is not rising simulant use rates but the use of multiple substances that is largely driving the overall stimulant death toll upwards. A CDC report from May suggests that, from 2003 to 2017, almost three-quarters of cocaine-involved deaths involved an opioid while half of all methamphetamine involved deaths involved an opioid.

"Those CDC numbers are based on autopsy reports," said Daniel Raymond, deputy director of planning and policy for the Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC). "In a lot of cases, there are multiple drugs involved, and just because an overdose involves a stimulant, it doesn't mean it was caused by stimulants."

Overdose deaths caused by stimulants look different from those caused by opioids, Raymond noted: "Fatal stimulant overdoses come from strokes, seizures, heart attacks, and potentially overheating," he said. "It's not like an opioid overdose with respiratory depression," he said.

"Some of this may be more a reflection that we still have lots of people dying from opioid-related overdoses, and it's just that more of them are also taking meth or cocaine, but the primary cause of death is the respiratory depression associated with opioid overdoses. In a lot of the cocaine deaths, medical examiners are finding both cocaine and opioids."

"We are seeing that toxicology reports of people who died with stimulants in their systems also had fentanyl or other opioids in their system," DPA's Vakharia concurred. She then listed a number of possible explanations:

  1. "This is accidental. Cross-contamination of a stimulant with an opioid like fentanyl could have been accidental and occurred during transport or packaging, and opioid-naïve stimulant users were accidentally exposed to opioid-contaminated stimulants."
  2. "This is due to co-use of opioids and stimulants in the form of speedballs (with cocaine) or goofballs (with methamphetamine), where both are used together for the desired effect of immediately stimulating high, followed by the euphoria of the opioid."
  3. "Stimulants are being willfully adulterated with opioids by suppliers/sellers, and stimulant users naïve to opioids are overdosing because they have no tolerance. (We at DPA dispute this theory, because it makes little sense why a seller would want to kill off a customer.)
  4. "Someone might have used a stimulant and opioids at different times within the past few days, but their toxicology could be showing the recency of use."

What Is to Be Done?

The Drug Policy Alliance and the Harm Reduction Coalition have both released reports on the rise in stimulant-involved overdose deaths, Stimulant Use: Harm Reduction, Treatment, and Future Directions from the former and Cocaine, Speed, and "Overdose": What Should We Be Doing? from the latter. Raymond and Vakharia took a few minutes to address those topics, too.

"There is no naloxone for stimulant overdose," Raymond pointed out. To reduce those overdoses "is about developing harm reduction strategies and outreach specifically targeting stimulant users," he said. "We spend so much time focusing on the opioid overdose crisis that our messages are oriented toward that. If we want to start a conversation, we need to not just tack it onto the opioid messaging. Even if you're not an opioid user, we want to talk about symptoms and warning signs."

HRC has moved in that direction, said Raymond. "We did some work on stimulant overdoses, we talked to a lot of people who used stimulants, we put out a guide -- Stimulant "Overamping”"Basics -- and went with the terms people used. Using 'overamping' opened a space for conversation for people who didn't identify as heroin users. If you talk overamping instead of overdosing, stimulant users have had that experience of using too much. Part of it is really just listening to the people who use the drugs. In harm reduction, we learn from the people we work with."

"People who use stimulants need access to sterile equipment beyond syringes, since many stimulant users smoke, so we are talking about sterile smoking equipment like pipes and filters," Vakharia said. "We need to teach users how to stay safe while using -- make sure to take breaks for hydration and to eat, get enough rest. It is easy to lose track of time when you've been up for days and when you have no appetite. This also puts undue stress on your heart and can exacerbate health issues," she noted.

"For many people, we should also talk about distributing safer sex supplies, because many people engage in risky sexual practices while they are using," Vakharia continued. "We also need to educate users on the risks associated with mixing different classes of drugs and the impact it can have on your body, knowing your limits, keeping naloxone on hand in case you are using opioids too, and not using alone."

It's not just harm reduction that's needed, though. Other policy prescriptions could help reduce the toll.

"Medicaid expansion and policies to increase access to basic health care and mental health care, as well as substance use treatment can greatly improve the health and well-being of people who use all drugs," Vakharia said. "And whether opioids are a person's primary drug or not, expanding access to naloxone helps anyone who is using them. Similarly, expanding Good Samaritan laws that reduce barriers to calling 911 can only help."

And then there's not treating drug uses like criminals.

"Decriminalizing drugs and paraphernalia would be a huge step forward," said Vakharia. "We know that contact with the criminal justice system increases harms and also presents barriers to going into recovery, which impacts job prospects, the ability to find work, and things like that."

"Drug decriminalization is crucial," said Raymond. "Criminalization just makes everything worse. It makes people more fearful of seeking help, and ends up locking so many people up in ways such that when they leave jail or prison, they're even more vulnerable. All of our work in harm reduction takes place in this context of mass criminalization. That keeps us swimming against the tide."

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

The Drug Policy Alliance is a funder of both Drug Reporter and Drug War Chronicle.

Chronicle AM: House Moves to Protect State-Legal Marijuana, Canada OKs Pot Expungements, More... (6/21/19)

The House has passed an historic amendment to protect legal marijuana states from federal interference, the polls numbers are looking good in Florida, Canada moves forward on expunging marijuana arrest records, and more.

Expedited, free expungement of past marijuana arrests is coming to Canada. (Cannabis Culture)
Marijuana Policy

House Passes Bill to Block Federal Interference with State-Legal Marijuana. In a history-making vote Thursday, the House voted 267-165 to approve a bipartisan measure aimed at protecting state marijuana policies from federal interference. The vote came on an amendment to the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill that prohibits the Justice Department from using funds to prevent states, US territories, and the District of Columbia from implementing laws authorizing the use, distribution, possession, and cultivation of marijuana. A similar appropriations rider known as the Rohrabacher-Farr amendment has been in effect since 2014, but it only protected state medical marijuana programs, not states that have legalized marijuana for adults.

Florida Poll Has Strong Support for Legalization. A new Quinnipiac College poll has support for marijuana legalization in the Sunshine State at an "all-time high" of 65%, with only 30% opposed. The poll comes as the group Regulate Florida prepares a legalization initiative for 2020.

New York Legislature Approves Deeper Decriminalization, Expungement. After the marijuana legalization bill crashed and burned on Wednesday, the legislature hastily approved a bill that eliminate criminal penalties for public possession and use of marijuana. Possession had been decriminalized in 1978, but police would stop people in public, order them to remove the contents of their pockets, then charge them with public possession. Now they won't be able to do that. The bill also allows for the expungement of past possession convictions. The bill now goes to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who says he supports it.

Hemp

Massachusetts Regulators Ban Sales of Some Hemp Products. The state Department of Agricultural Resources has issued a policy statement that bans the sale of some hemp products, including foods infused with CBD and dietary supplements. It also prohibits CBD products that make therapeutic/medicinal claims, animal feed with hemp, and the sale of unprocessed or raw plant material to consumers. The state says it is following guidance from the Food & Drug Administration, which says introducing CBD into food products is unlawful.

Law Enforcement

Illinois Governor Signs Bill to Continue Data Collection on Police Pedestrian and Traffic Stops. Gov. JB Pritzker (D) has signed into law HB 1613, which blocks a current law requiring data collection on vehicular and pedestrian police stops from being sunsetted. Continuance of the practice maintains "an important tool for police officers and the public to identify and combat racial disparities in law enforcement," the bill says.

International

Canada Parliament Passes Bill to Pardon Pot Possession Offenders. Parliament on Wednesday approved a bill, C-93, that would allow people with marijuana possession records to be pardoned at no cost and quickly. The new bill is expected to speed the pardon process by eliminating the potential five- to 10-year wait time and waives an application fee of C$631 ($479). The bill only applies to those who have completed their sentences and have only a single possession conviction on their criminal record.

Philadelphia's Maverick Prosecutor Takes Aim at the War on Drugs [FEATURE]

Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner made waves last week by reportedly saying he is "very close" to implementing a policy that would decriminalize the possession of all drugs, but that was just the latest salvo in the former criminal defense and civil rights lawyer's war on the war on drugs.

Philadelphia's progressive District Attorney Larry Krasner (KrasnerforDA.com)
Since taking office in January 2018, Krasner has made a number of policy moves that are helping to cement his reputation as one of the country's most radical prosecutors, and he's doing it in one of America's largest cities. His progressive approach didn't come out of nowhere, though.

Krasner's decades of experience in the defense bar -- as opposed to rising through the ranks of prosecutors -- have provided him with a unique perspective on the social and racial impacts of the drug war, one deeply at odds with the law-and-order views of most DAs. For 30 years, Krasner represented the poor, the oppressed, and the brutalized, filing civil rights and police brutality lawsuits.

He often represented protestors and activists, including 400 people arrested at the 2000 Republican National Convention, AIDS activists, and members of the Black Lives Matter movement. He helped hundreds of imprisoned on false charges by a notoriously corrupt drug squad. And he sued the Philadelphia police dozens of times in civil rights and police brutality cases. This is not the career path of your average DA.

In an early sign that a new era is at hand, one of Krasner's first acts was to demand the resignations of 31l ine prosecutors and supervisors he saw as obstructionist and to see them escorted from the building to ensure they didn't take anything with them other than personal effects. Krasner said he made the quick move on the advice of Houston's reformist DA, Kim Ogg, who told him that when she gave inherited personnel two weeks' notice she would be asking for resignations, recalcitrant employees deleted massive amounts of emails, wiped hard drives, and took other steps to sabotage her efforts.

Critics called his move a purge, but for Krasner, it was lessons learned: "We had some awareness from working as attorneys in this city -- and interacting with people [in the office] -- of who was really never going to get with this program," he says. "I felt we couldn't take the risk that there might be some effort at sabotage here."

Krasner got national attention the following month when he issued a revolutionary memo on prosecuting policies designed to "end mass incarceration and restore balance to sentencing." The memo said prosecutors must decline certain charges, namely marijuana possession and prostitution. The ban on pot prosecutions held regardless of weight, and included not charging for paraphernalia or for getting caught buying weed. The ban on prostitution prosecutions applied to anyone who had fewer than three previous prostitution convictions; those with three or more convictions could be charged and sent to a special problem-solving court set up to get prostitutes out of the life.

Philadelphia had already decriminalized small time marijuana possession in 2014, but police continued to arrest people for larger amounts and under a rarely used state law making it a crime to purchase the drug. Krasner's memo brought a further decline to already dramatically shrinking marijuana arrests numbers, mainly by ending the prosecutions for buying it.

Arrests for that offense haven't completely vanished, as police continue to make them despite knowing they won't be prosecuted, but 2018 saw a 30 percent decline in such busts. Still, racial disparities persist: Blacks made up 85 percent of all arrested pot buyers.

The memo more broadly called for plea bargains to have the lightest sentences possible under state guidelines and, most dramatically, mandated that prosecutors assess how much the defendant's incarceration would cost and why it was worth spending public money on it.

He has worked assiduously to ensure that city residents who unlawfully had cash or property seized under a city asset forfeiture program deemed unconstitutional by the court are made whole. His office is administering a $3 million fund for victims of the city's lawless practices, which saw thousands of people lose their homes, cars, cash, and other property to profit-driven policing and prosecutions.

"What happened was that there was a 'keep what you kill' approach," Krasner said. "And all that it did was incentivize prosecutors to always try to take grandma's house, always try to take a working person's car, and often to do it simply because someone's nephew did something illegal out of the basement. And the owner, who may have been at church, didn't know."

Most recently, a May 1 interview that Krasner did for Axios on HBO that will air next month was teased by with the headline "Scoop: Philly prosecutor may stop charging drug users as criminals" and this lede: "Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, one of the most progressive district attorneys in the country, told 'Axios on HBO' that he is 'very close' to implementing a policy that would relax the penalties for drug possession laws."

"One of the things we're looking at is essentially diverting all possession of drugs cases," he said in the interview. "Possession is different than dealing. It's different than carrying a bunch of drugs that you intend to sell or deliver later… We are talking about people who are using drugs, the vast majority of them suffering from addiction. I do not see value in convicting people like that, thereby making it harder for them to get a job."

The Axios interview garnered lots of attention, but Axios -- and many of the outlets that ran with the story -- oversold it as Krasner endorsing drug decriminalization. Even Krasner isn't quite ready to go that far, although it's an approach that has worked in Portugal for nearly 20 years.

Instead, Krasner spokesman Ben Waxman said late last week that Axios got the story wrong. Krasner was talking diversion, not decriminalization, Waxman said. Diversion means people charged with drug possession could enter a treatment program and, if they successfully completed it, end up with no prison time and no criminal record. Decriminalization means they wouldn't be arrested and charged in the first place. "The Axios piece really conflated a bunch of different stuff," Waxman said. "I don't think they understood the difference between diversion and decriminalization."

Axios is sticking to its guns, though. "Axios went to extraordinary lengths to clarify the specifics of this story with Krasner's team, as well as other experts, to ensure the article's accuracy given the complexity and nuances of the topic," a spokesperson wrote in a statement. "This interview was recorded on video. We stand by our reporting."

Meanwhile, drug diversion is already going on in Philadelphia -- last year almost half of the 5,458 arrests for drug possession ending up in already existing diversions programs -- so Krasner was actually talking about expanding existing programs. That's a good thing, but not nearly as sexy or sensational as drug decriminalization.Still, Larry Krasner has been a model of what a progressive prosecutor can do, and he's got time to do more. But maybe he should take a couple weeks off and visit Portugal.

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

5 Things We Now Know After 5 Years of Legal Marijuana in Colorado [FEATURE]

It's been five years since the era of legal marijuana sales began in Colorado, and that's been enough time to begin to be able to see what sorts of impact the freeing of the weed has had on the Rocky Mountain State. From the economy and the fiscal health of the state government to law enforcement and public safety, legalizing marijuana has consequences.

Denver's skyline (Creative Commons)
Thanks to marijuana sales reports and tax revenue reports from the state Department of Revenue, as well as a legislatively mandated biennial report from the Division of Criminal Justice, we can see what some of those consequences are.

1. They sure buy a lot of weed in Colorado, and the state's coffers are filling up with marijuana tax revenues. Total marijuana sales in the state were more than $683 million in 2014—the year legal sales began—and have since more than doubled to more than $1.4 billion last year. Since legalization, the amount of legal weed sold in the state has now topped $6 billion. That's created nearly 20,000 jobs, and it has also generated more than $900 million for the state government in marijuana taxes, licenses, and fees. Tax revenues have increased every year since legalization and those dollars help fund public school projects, as well as human services, public affairs, agriculture, labor and employment, judicial affairs, health care policy, transportation and regulatory affairs. Pot revenues still only account for one percent of state revenues, but every $900 million helps.

2. Marijuana arrests are way down, but black people are still getting busted disproportionately. Even though pot is legalized, there are still ways to get arrested on a marijuana charge, such as possessing more than an ounce or selling or growing unlicensed weed. Still, arrests have declined dramatically, dropping by 56 percent during the legalization era. Both possession and sales offenses declined, but arrests for unlawful production were up markedly, reflecting the state's continuing fight to eliminate the black market. The age group most likely to get busted was 18-20-year-olds, who can only legally use or possess marijuana if they have a medical card. They are getting busted at a rate 30 times that of adults. Arrests are way down among all ethnic/racial groups, but black people are still getting arrested for pot at a rate nearly twice that of whites.

3. Legalization has not led to more traffic fatalities. While the number of car drivers in fatal wrecks had marijuana in their systems has increased dramatically, the report notes that “detection of cannabinoid in blood is not an indicator of impairment but only indicates presence in the system.” Marijuana DUIs were up three percent, but fatal traffic accidents involving marijuana-impaired drivers actually decreased by five percent.

4. Use rates are up slightly among adults, but not among teens. The number of adults who reported using marijuana in the past 30 days has increased by 2 percent, with nearly one-fifth of men reporting past month use. That's almost double the number of women reporting past month use. These are high rates of use compared to the nation as a whole, but the state has always had relatively high use rates, even dating back before legalization. (There is a chicken and egg question here: Do Coloradans like to smoke pot because weed is legal or is weed legal because Coloradans like to smoke pot?) But what about the kids? Well, the kids are alright. Marijuana use rates among middle and high school students have been unchanged since legalization, and so have graduation rates.

5. Emergency room visits linked to marijuana increased. Some 575 people presented to hospitals with marijuana-related problems back in 2000, but that number jumped to more than 3,500 by 2016. Emergency room visits and calls to poison control centers were both up. It's important to note, however, that the vast majority of marijuana-related ER visits are related to panic or anxiety reactions and end with the patient eventually calming down and going home. Marijuana ER visits are not life-The rise is also likely a function of new, naive users, especially of edibles, biting off more than they can chew.

ACLU Files Lawsuit Against San Francisco Cops for Targeting African-Americans in Drug Busts [FEATURE]

San Francisco's Tenderloin is a heavily populated, racially mixed neighborhood in the heart of one of America's iconic progressive cities. Yet when the San Francisco Police Department and the DEA targeted the neighborhood to crack down on drug dealing between 2013 and 2015 as part of "Operation Safe Schools," the only people they managed to roll up were black.

hustling in the Tenderloin (SFPD surveillance video screen grab)
When 37 black defendants -- and no defendants of any other race -- got hauled away, nobody noticed. That is until the defendants started showing up looking for federal public defenders. The federal public defenders noticed, and they began making noise about racial disparities and selective enforcement of the drug laws.

Their charges only grew louder with the posting in 2015 of undercover police surveillance video to YouTube revealing a police officer muttering "fucking BMs," police code for black males, as he monitored a group of young men on the street. The video also apparently showed an undercover informant turning down drugs being offered by an Asian woman to instead buy drugs from a black woman.

In January 2017, 12 of those charged in the operation won a discovery motion from a judge who found there was "substantial evidence suggestive of racially selective enforcement" in their arrests. Instead of allowing the proceedings to continue so a full accounting of police conduct could occur, prosecutors instead dropped the charges.

At the time, the presiding judge, US District Court Judge Edward Chen, made clear that while he was granting the dismissals because they were in the best interest of the defendants, he was concerned that doing so would prevent the allegations of police bias from being aired.

"These are serious issues, serious allegations regarding claims of discriminatory enforcement patterns," Chen said. "I think the defendants in this case have raised a very substantial prima facie case that, at the very least, raises some serious questions that would warrant a response and a full airing of the issues."

Now, a year and a half later, the ACLU of Northern California on Thursday filed a federal civil lawsuit on behalf of six of those rolled up in the busts. The lawsuit alleges the plaintiffs were targeted because of their race and cites a survey of Tenderloin drug users to bolster its case. That survey found racial diversity among Tenderloin drug sellers. About half were black, but 20 percent were Latino and 17 percent were white.

The lawsuit is "an opportunity to hold the actors in the San Francisco Police Department and the city itself accountable for the police department's longstanding practices of engaging in racially discriminatory law enforcement," said ACLU attorney Novella Coleman, who is representing the plaintiffs.

It's also about financial relief for the plaintiffs, Coleman allowed. "The court will determine how to monetize that," she said.

Not an Anomaly

Racially biased policing is nothing new in San Francisco. In fact, as Ezekiel Edwards, director of the national ACLU's Criminal Law Reform Project, pointed out in a post announcing the lawsuit, the city has the dubious honor of setting precedent for the idea that law enforcement targeting people based on their race is unconstitutional. In an 1886 case, Yick Wo v. Hopkins, the city attempted to deny laundry permits to Chinese people while granting them to non-Chinese. Such an action could only be explained by the city's "hostility to the race and nationality" of the applicants, a violation of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection under the law.

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the evidence that the city's penchant for targeting non-whites for harsher treatment remains intact just keeps piling up. Numerous studies in the past few years have documented racially biased policing practices, including a 2002 ACLU report on SFPD racial profiling and a city-commissioned study by a national expert on biased policing.

Those studies uncovered a range of bias-related problems and made concrete recommendations for reform. Those were ignored. As the rotten policing practices festered, more reports detailing racial and ethnic disparities across the criminal justice system came out in 2013 and 2015.

Then, in 2015, as "Operation Safe Schools" was winding down, SFPD was hit by a new scandal when officers were caught exchanging racist text messages. Some used the N-word, others referenced cross burnings. Officers were caught calling black residents "savages," "wild animals," and "barbarians," and one officer told his sergeant "All n[ -- ] must fucking hang." Another officer sent a text with an image of a white man spraying a black child with a hose above the caption "Go be a n -- somewhere else."

That finally got the attention of city fathers -- as well as the Obama-era Justice Department. The city district attorney convened a Blue Ribbon Panel on Transparency, Accountability, and Fairness in Law Enforcement that documented SFPD's history of racially disparate enforcement and concluded that it was "in urgent need of important reforms." In 2016, the Justice Department weighed in with its own report finding that the department still engaged in racially biased policing, especially around traffic stops and police use of deadly force.

It's Not Just San Francisco

The ACLU's Edwards concisely makes the case that San Francisco is no exception when it comes to racially biased policing:

"Unequal treatment by race is commonplace among police departments large and small in cities across a range of ideological leanings. This is the reason for the racial profiling lawsuits filed in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Maricopa County, Arizona. This is the motivation, prior to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, for Justice Department consent decrees seeking to end racially discriminatory police practices in Seattle, Los Angeles County, New Orleans, Baltimore, Newark, East Haven CT and Ferguson MO. This is why the ACLU has found racial disparities in marijuana possession arrests across the country, in drug possession arrests more broadly, in stops and frisks in Boston, in seatbelt enforcement in Florida, and in arrests for low-level offenses in Minneapolis."

When will things ever change?

This article was produced by Drug Reporter, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Chronicle AM: Senate Passes Opioid Bill, CA Cops Face Racial Profiling Charges, More... (10/4/18)

Congress sends an omnibus opioids bill to the president's desk, the DEA has another Colombia scandal, the San Francisco police and Los Angeles sheriff's deputies face charges of racial profiling, and more.

Congress has sent an omnibus opioids bill to the president's desk. (Creative Commons)
Medical Marijuana

Florida Judge Blocks Medical Marijuana License Process. A Tallahassee judge Wednesday agreed to block state health officials from moving forward with the application process for medical marijuana licenses. Leon County Circuit Court Judge Charles Dodson two months ago had found the state's licensing cap "directly contradicts" the amendment legalizing medical marijuana in the state and had set a Wednesday deadline for either health officials or the legislature to resolve deficiencies in the law. When that didn't happen, Dodson issued a verbal order halting the application process.

Utah Medical Marijuana Initiative Backers Reach Deal With Legislative Leaders, LDS Church Representatives, and Utah Medical Association. Backers of the Utah medical marijuana initiative joined other organizations and lawmakers at a press conference Thursday to announce they have reached an agreement on an alternative medical cannabis law that will be enacted in a special session following the election. Proposition 2 will still appear on the 2018 ballot, but it will no longer determine the final outcome for Utah medical cannabis patients. Instead, a compromise medical marijuana bill will be enacted during a special session after the 2018 election,

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Senate Overwhelmingly Approves Sweeping Opioids Bill. The Senate Wednesday approved a sweeping opioids package on a 98-1 vote. The bill now goes to the desk of President Trump. The omnibus opioids bill combines dozens of smaller proposals and expands and reauthorizes programs and policies across the federal government, as well as creating new programs aimed at treatment, prevention, and recovery. One portion of the bill likely to have a big impact requires US postal inspectors to screen packages shipped from overseas -- mainly from China -- for fentanyl. The bill passed the House last week.

Law Enforcement

DEA Colombia Staff Facing Three Separate Misconduct Probes. At least three DEA agents based in Bogota have left in recent months amid separate investigations into alleged misconduct. One is accused of using government resources to hire prostitutes. Ironically, that agent, Robert Dobrich, the agency's top-ranking official in Latin American, was brought in in 2015 in the wake of a scandal about agents participating in sex parties with prostitutes. A former DEA agent assigned to Colombia, Jose Irizarry, is being investigated for passing information on to drug cartels. Irizarry resigned after his activities in Cartagena were curtailed earlier this year. Meanwhile, Dobrich's deputy, Jesse Garcia, is accused of having a sexual relationship with a subordinate.

ACLU Sues San Francisco Police Over Racially Motivated Drug Arrests. The ACLU of Northern California has filed a lawsuit on behalf of six black people arrested during anti-drug operations in the Tenderloin between 2013 and 2015. The six were among 37 arrested in the stings -- every one of whom was black -- and federal public defenders raised concerns over selective enforcement. The lawsuit cites a survey of Tenderloin drug users that found about half were black, but 20% were Latino and 17% were white. Charges against 12 of those arrested were dropped in January 2017 after a judge found there was "substantial evidence suggestive of racially selective enforcement, but the dropping of the charges meant a full accounting of police misconduct never happened.

Los Angeles County Deputies Accused of Racially Profiling Hispanics in I-5 Traffic Stop Drug Searches. LA County deputies stopped thousands of Latinos on the I-5 freeway in hopes of making their next drug bust, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. The sheriff's Domestic Highway Enforcement Team seized lots of drugs, but it also searched the vehicles of more than 3,500 drivers who had no drugs or other illegal items, the overwhelming majority of them Latino. Some of the teams' drug busts have been thrown out of federal court as the credibility of deputies came under fire and judges found they violated the rights of motorists by conducting unconstitutional searches. The Times examined data from every traffic stop done by the team from 2012 through 2017 -- more than 9,000 of them -- and found that Latinos accounted for 69% of stops, and that two-thirds of Latinos had their vehicles searched, compared to less than half of other drivers. Though Latinos were much more likely to be searched, deputies found drugs or other illegal items in their vehicles at a rate that was not significantly higher than that of black or white drivers. The sheriff's department said racial profiling "plays no role" in the deputies' work.

International

Canada Drug User, Advocacy Groups Call for Opioid Decriminalization. Some 93 groups representing drug users assembled in Edmonton this week have called for the federal government to move toward decriminalizing opioids. The coalition is calling for Ottawa to expand legal access to safe drugs for people with substance use disorder, decriminalize possession of all drugs for personal use, and expand the availability of harm reduction services.

Ohio Initiative Would End Prison for Drug Possession [FEATURE]

Progressive voters in battleground Ohio will have one more reason to head to the polls next month. Not only do they have a chance to put a Democrat in the governor's mansion and reelect US Senator Sherrod Brown, but they also will have the opportunity to enact a dramatic sentencing reform that will keep thousands of non-violent drug offenders out of prison and help inmates currently serving time for drug possession get back into their communities sooner.

Issue 1, the smartly named Neighborhood Safety, Drug Treatment, and Rehabilitation Amendment, would:

  • Reclassify drug possession offenses as misdemeanor crimes, except for drug possession or trafficking offenses currently categorized as first-, second- or third-degree felonies;
  • Prohibit jail sentences for drug possession until an individual's third offense within 24 months;
  • Allow inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to reduce their sentences up to 25 percent for completing rehabilitative, work or educational programming;
  • Apply cost savings from reduced prison expenses to drug treatment programs and crime victim services.

That's right, passage of Issue 1 would effectively defelonize drug possession in the Buckeye State. At least 16 states have already taken similar steps to ratchet down the drug war, including California, New York, and neighboring Pennsylvania. And now, thanks to local grassroots organizing backed by some big outside money, Ohio could be next.

It could use the help. The state's prison population has hovered around 50,000 for nearly two decades after rising dramatically during the height of drug war repression in the 1980s and 1990s, and nearly a quarter of inmates are doing time for drug offenses. Unsurprisingly, Ohio suffers the same sort of racial disparities as the rest of the country, with blacks more than five times as likely to be imprisoned as whites, and Latinos nearly twice as likely. The state's resort to mass incarceration costs it around $2 billion a year in corrections costs.

The initiative is the brainchild of the Ohio Organizing Collaborative, a coalition of 20 community organizations, faith institutions, labor unions, and policy groups across the state, and its Ohio Safe and Healthy Communities campaign. Its aim is to reduce mass incarceration and racial disparities in the criminal justice system and increase access to drug treatment. Issue 1 would "invest in proven treatment for addiction instead of more spending on bloated prisons," explained campaign manager Amanda Hoyt.

While the initiative is homegrown, the funding for it is coming mainly from out-of-staters. Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has kicked in $1 million, and Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz's Open Philanthropy Project ponied up another $1 million. George Soros's Open Society Policy Center provided $1.5 million, while California businessman Nicholas Pritzker and his wife Susan added another $60,000. Of the $4.8 million raised by the campaign, all but $19,000 came from out of state.

"Relying on incarceration to solve addiction and the conditions that drive lower-level crimes actually doesn't make communities safer, and it results in huge expenses to taxpayers with devastating impact to individuals, families, and entire communities," said Ana Zamora, criminal justice manager at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, in a statement.

Issue 1 will "put taxpayer dollars to better use by reducing reliance on prisons to address certain nonviolent offenses, including drug use and possession," Zamora added.

The opposition to Issue 1 isn't nearly as deep-pocketed, but it represents much of the state's criminal justice and Republican political establishment. No opposition political action committees have reported donations, but groups such as the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, the Ohio Common Pleas Judges' Association, the Association of Municipal and County Court Judges of Ohio, the Buckeye State Sheriff's Association, and the Ohio Association of Chiefs of Police have all come out against Issue 1.

And while Democratic gubernatorial candidate Richard Cordray has endorsed Issue 1, current Republican Gov. John Kasich, GOP gubernatorial candidate Mike DeWine, all the Republicans running for statewide office, and the state Republican Party itself have all announced their opposition.

"Unfortunately, Issue 1 is a one-sided proposal that will weaken the tools available to our elected representatives, county prosecutors, and judges to make and enforce laws. It will eliminate important incentives to encourage drug treatment for the addicted, and allow the drug dealers who prey on addiction to freely roam the streets," said former secretary of state Ken Blackwell in rhetoric typical of the opposition.

Other opponents resorted to hyperbolic "sends the wrong message" arguments. "The message to children is that these drugs are not dangerous; the message to drug dealers is that doing business in Ohio is low-risk," warned Louis Tobin, executive director of the prosecutors' association, and Paul Pfeifer, executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, in their official argument.

It must be noted that Issue 1 defelonizes only drug possession -- not drug distribution.

There has been no polling to determine what kind of support the measure has, at least none announced publicly. Will an energized Democratic base carry the day for Democrats and Issue 1 in a closely divided state on Election Day? That remains to be seen, but all those millions in campaign funds should help buy plenty of TV ads and influence voters in these final weeks. Stay tuned.

Chronicle AM: Coalition to Fight House "Drug War" Provision, Colombia Coca Crop at Record High, More... (9/20/18)

A provision in the House opioid bill that would let the attorney general set sentences for synthetic drug offenses generates opposition, Colombia's coca production was at record levels last year, the DEA has okayed the import of Canadian marijuana for research purposes, and more.

Colombia peasand farmer in his coca field. (DEA)
Marijuana Policy

New Jersey Governor Calls for Sheriff's Resignation After Racist Weed Comments. Gov. Phil Murphy (D) is calling for the resignation of Bergen County Sheriff Michael Saudino after a tape emerged of him making racist comments about black people around the topic of marijuana legalization. Although Saudino's remarks were made back in January just after Murphy's inauguration, a recording of them just went public on Wednesday. Here's what he said, referencing Murphy's inaugural address: "He talked about the whole thing, the marijuana, sanctuary state…better criminal justice reform. Christ almighty, in other words, let the blacks come in, do whatever the fuck they want, smoke their marijuana, do this do that, and don’t worry about it," Saudino said. "You know, we’ll tie the hands of cops."

Medical Marijuana

DEA Gives Green Light for Canadian Company to Import Research Marijuana to US. The DEA has granted permission to Canadian marijuana producer Tilray, Inc. to export medical marijuana to California for scientific research purposes. The Food and Drug Administration also signed off on the deal. The marijuana is headed for Dr. Fatta Nahab, an associate professor of neuroscience at the University of California San Diego medical school.

Drug Policy

Left-Right Coalition Builds to Block House Opioids Bill's "Drug War" Provision. As the House and Senate seek to reconcile their versions of bills to address the nation's opioid crisis, groups on the left and right are uniting behind an effort to undo an especially egregious provision in the House version of the bill. Organizations such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch are joining forces with right-leaning groups like FreedomWorks and the American Conservative Union to remove language that would give the attorney general the power to create a special category for synthetic drugs such as fentanyl and set penalties for those who make or sell them. That would essentially put sentencing policy for those drugs in the hands of the attorney general. "We don’t want any attorney general to have this kind of power," said Jasmine Tyler, advocacy director for the Human Rights Watch US Program. "But I think specifically when we have an attorney general who is so out of touch with this century’s expert thinking on these issues, there should be red flags for that."

International

UNODC Says Colombian Coca Cultivation at All-Time High. The amount of acreage devoted to coca growing in Colombia increased 17% last year to hit a new record high, the UN Office of Drugs and Crime said Wednesday. Some 423,000 acres were under cultivation last year, UNODC said, the largest figure since the UN began keeping records. That will produce more than 920 metric tons of cocaine, a US government report earlier this year said. The figures come as new conservative Colombian President Ivan Duque prepares to attack the drug trade, likely including aerial fumigation of crops with glyphosate. "Our goal in the next four years is to have concrete results," he said Wednesday. "So we can at least eradicate more than 70 percent of what we have today."

Chronicle AM: Colombia Moves Backwards on Drug Policy, NYPD Pot Arrests Now Halted, More... (9/4/18)

Colombia's new president moves resolutely backward on drug policy, New York City's era of mass marijuana possession arrests is over, the California legislature has been busy, and more.

The era of New York City as the world's marijuana arrest capital has come to an end. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

California Lawmakers Pass Bill that Will Support Local Cannabis Equity Programs to Increase Representation in the Industry by Persons from Communities Most Harmed by Cannabis Prohibition. The legislature has approved Senate Bill 1294, which helps create equity in the cannabis industry through the distribution of grants to localities offering assistance to persons most harmed by cannabis prohibition and generational poverty. SB 1294 will offer grants to localities with existing equity programs -- such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Sacramento, and San Francisco -- to support them as they offer equity-qualifying applicants and licensees business loans and grants, regulatory compliance and technical assistance, and licensing fee waivers. SB 1294 reflects a nationwide movement to ensure that this growing industry is representative and accessible to all persons, no matter their financial or criminal history background. Advocates, entrepreneurs, and local governments now call on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign this important measure.

Delaware Governor Signs Marijuana Expungement Bill Into Law. Gov. John Carney (D) last Friday signed into law Senate Bill 197, which "provides mandatory expungement eligibility to individuals who were convicted of the possession [of one ounce or less], use or consumption of marijuana prior to Delaware's decriminalization of these offenses." The provision only applies to people who have no other criminal convictions on their records.

New York City Change in Marijuana Arrest Policy Now in Effect. As of Saturday, the NYPD is no longer arresting people for small-time marijuana use or possession in most cases. The city arrested more than 10,000 people on such charges last year. Officials said the change came because the arrests had nothing to do with public safety and were racially disproportionate. "Our new policy, we're going to see a humongous drop in people in communities of color being arrested for marijuana," NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison said. "And that was one of the whole goals of this whole new policy."

New Psychoactive Substances

DEA Makes Synthetic Cathinone Schedule I Substance. The DEA last Friday announced it was placing the synthetic cathinone N-Ethylpentylone into Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act. This is a temporary scheduling action good for up to 24 months, during which time research will be conducted to see if the drug should be permanently scheduled. DEA said the drug was linked to 151 deaths in the US since 2015.

Sentencing Policy

California Lawmakers Pass Bill Giving Judges the Power to Set Aside Ineffective and Punitive Five-year Sentence Enhancement. The legislature last Friday gave final approval to Senate Bill 1393, which would restore judicial discretion to the application of a five-year sentence enhancement for each prior serious felony on a person's criminal record. Current law requires judges to add an additional five-years to cases, even when the judge believes that the punishment is unjust and unwarranted. If signed into law, judges would have maximum flexibility during the penalty phase of a trail to impose, or not impose, the additional five-years. A coalition of people who are directly impacted, their families, service providers, and advocates now call on Gov. Jerry Brown (D) to sign this important measure.

International

Colombian President Moves to Recriminalize Drug Possession. President Ivan Duque announced on Sunday measures to give police the power to seize personal use quantities of drugs that had previously been legalized. "This week will sign the decree through which, in development of the police code 02 of the 2009 legislative act, we will give the authorities tools to confiscate any dose of drugs or hallucinogens in the streets of Colombia, and thus face the root of micro-trafficking problems," said Duque. The measures would appear to contradict rulings by the country's Constitutional Court, which in 2012 approved the decriminalization of small amounts of cocaine and marijuana for personal use.

Drug War Issues

Criminal JusticeAsset Forfeiture, Collateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Court Rulings, Drug Courts, Due Process, Felony Disenfranchisement, Incarceration, Policing (2011 Drug War Killings, 2012 Drug War Killings, 2013 Drug War Killings, 2014 Drug War Killings, 2015 Drug War Killings, 2016 Drug War Killings, 2017 Drug War Killings, Arrests, Eradication, Informants, Interdiction, Lowest Priority Policies, Police Corruption, Police Raids, Profiling, Search and Seizure, SWAT/Paramilitarization, Task Forces, Undercover Work), Probation or Parole, Prosecution, Reentry/Rehabilitation, Sentencing (Alternatives to Incarceration, Clemency and Pardon, Crack/Powder Cocaine Disparity, Death Penalty, Decriminalization, Defelonization, Drug Free Zones, Mandatory Minimums, Rockefeller Drug Laws, Sentencing Guidelines)CultureArt, Celebrities, Counter-Culture, Music, Poetry/Literature, Television, TheaterDrug UseParaphernalia, Vaping, ViolenceIntersecting IssuesCollateral Sanctions (College Aid, Drug Taxes, Housing, Welfare), Violence, Border, Budgets/Taxes/Economics, Business, Civil Rights, Driving, Economics, Education (College Aid), Employment, Environment, Families, Free Speech, Gun Policy, Human Rights, Immigration, Militarization, Money Laundering, Pregnancy, Privacy (Search and Seizure, Drug Testing), Race, Religion, Science, Sports, Women's IssuesMarijuana PolicyGateway Theory, Hemp, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Marijuana Industry, Medical MarijuanaMedicineMedical Marijuana, Science of Drugs, Under-treatment of PainPublic HealthAddiction, Addiction Treatment (Science of Drugs), Drug Education, Drug Prevention, Drug-Related AIDS/HIV or Hepatitis C, Harm Reduction (Methadone & Other Opiate Maintenance, Needle Exchange, Overdose Prevention, Pill Testing, Safer Injection Sites)Source and Transit CountriesAndean Drug War, Coca, Hashish, Mexican Drug War, Opium ProductionSpecific DrugsAlcohol, Ayahuasca, Cocaine (Crack Cocaine), Ecstasy, Heroin, Ibogaine, ketamine, Khat, Kratom, Marijuana (Gateway Theory, Marijuana -- Personal Use, Medical Marijuana, Hashish), Methamphetamine, New Synthetic Drugs (Synthetic Cannabinoids, Synthetic Stimulants), Nicotine, Prescription Opiates (Fentanyl, Oxycontin), Psilocybin / Magic Mushrooms, Psychedelics (LSD, Mescaline, Peyote, Salvia Divinorum)YouthGrade School, Post-Secondary School, Raves, Secondary School