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Federal Appeals Court Rules Safe Injection Sites Illegal, Most Think Marijuana Is Safer than Alcohol, More... (1/13/21)

A federal appeals court has put the kibosh on a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site, a Michigan prosecutors says no more magic mushrooms prosecutions, and more.

Preparing to inject at the Vancouver safe injection site. A federal appeals court rules we can't do that here. (vcha.ca)
Marijuana Policy

New Survey Finds Majority of Americans View Marijuana as Less Dangerous Than Alcohol. Survey data published in the journal Addictive Behavior finds that a majority of Americans believe marijuana has less potential for abuse than either alcohol or prescription drugs. "This study found that more than half of respondents perceived CBD, THC, hemp, and marijuana as having medical use," the authors wrote. "They also perceived the potential for abuse of CBD, THC, hemp, and marijuana as significantly less than potential for abuse of commonly prescribed anti-anxiety and pain medications." As for alcohol: "A majority of the public perceives THC and marijuana as grouped together with prescription medications rather than with illicit substances and as having more medical value and less abuse potential than alcohol," the researchers wrote.

Psychedelics

Michigan Prosecutor Will No Longer Try Cases Involving Marijuana, Magic Mushrooms, Other Entheogens. New Washtenaw County (Ann Arbor) prosecutor Eli Savit on Tuesday unveiled two policy directives explaining that he will do longer prosecute criminal cases involving the possession of marijuana, magic mushrooms, and other entheogens. Savit pointed to the disproportionate consequences for people of color as being a factor in his decision, and he also cited the medical benefits of both marijuana and natural psychedelics. He also clarified that cultivation of magic mushrooms for personal use will not be prosecuted.

Asset Forfeiture

South Carolina Supreme Court to Hear Asset Forfeiture Appeal on Wednesday. The state Supreme Court will hear a case challenging the constitutionality of civil asset forfeiture. Last year, a lower court ruled the practice unconstitutional, but prosecutors quickly appealed. Now, the Institute for Justice, a leading national advocate of ending civil asset forfeiture, is on the case. "Tomorrow, the court has an opportunity to put an end to civil forfeiture once and for all," said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Robert Frommer, who will argue the case. "Lower courts have rightly found that civil forfeiture is unconstitutional, and we're confident that the state supreme court will agree."

Harm Reduction

Third Circuit Court of Appeals Rules Safe Injection Sites Violate Federal Law. The Third Circuit ruled Tuesday that it is a federal crime to open a supervised injection site or "consumption room" for illegal drug use. Local nonprofit Safehouse planned to open the nation's first such consumption room in the City of Philadelphia, where individuals would be invited to inject heroin and use other drugs under supervision. But the Third Circuit ruled that doing so "will break the law" because Safehouse knows and intends that visitors to its consumption room will have a significant purpose of using illegal drugs. In agreeing with the government's interpretation of the Controlled Substances Act, the Court explained that, "[t]hough the opioid crisis may call for innovative solutions, local innovations may not break federal law."

International

Mexico Publishes Regulations for Medical Marijuana. The Mexican government on Tuesday published the regulations for medical marijuana supply in the country. The move comes three years after the country passed a law permitting the use of medical marijuana. Under the regulations, there will be space to research marijuana's medical applications and for the development of marijuana-based pharmaceuticals.

Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty to Criminal Charges Over Oxycontin, House to Vote on Legal Pot This Week, More... (12/1/20)

It's now legal to possess and grow your own marijuana in Arizona, the House Rules Committee takes up the MORE Act on Wednesday, Purdue Pharma pleads guilty to three federal criminal charges, and more.

Marijuana Policy

House Rules Committee Takes Up Marijuana Legalization Bill Tomorrow Ahead of Looming Floor Vote. The House Rules Committee takes up the MORE Act (HR 3884) tomorrow, paving the way for a House floor vote on the bill later this week. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) sent the bill to the Rules Committee with some modifications, the most significant of which revolve around taxation. The bill originally imposed a 5% tax on marijuana products, but Nadler has amended the bill to remove that language and replace it with a scheme that would allow increases in the tax rate until it reaches 8%.

Arizona Marijuana Legalization Now in Effect. Marijuana is now legal in the state. It became so after the state secretary of state certified the election results, affirming that Prop 207 indeed passed. It is now legal to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and up to five grams of concentrates and to grow up to six plants for personal use. The legal, regulated marijuana market won't be in effect until sometime next year.

Virginia Legislative Working Group Issues Report Outlining Path to Legalization. A working group on marijuana legalization requested by the legislature issued its report Monday and concluded that the end of pot prohibition "cannot be created quickly." First, the state needs to invest in data collection, craft new regulations, and undertake a public education campaign, the report said. That pushes legalization down the road: "Setting up an adequate regulatory structure will require a significant up-front investment, in time, patience, and budgetary resources," the report reads. The report sets an 18-24-month timeline for legalization and up to five years before there is a fully developed legal marijuana industry.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

Purdue Pharma Pleads Guilty to Federal Criminal Charges Over Oxycontin Role in Opioid Crisis. OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma pleaded guilty Tuesday to one count of conspiracy to defraud the United States and violate the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, as well as two counts of conspiracy to violate the Federal Anti-Kickback Statute. The move came after a plea deal agreed to in October that also includes a historic $3.544 billion fine and a $2 billion criminal forfeiture. The company will now be dissolved and its assets used to incorporate a "public benefit company" designed to serve the public, not the company's bottom line.

How the 6th Amendment Helped a Texas Man Overturn His Meth Trafficking Conviction [FEATURE]

Criminal Court & Legal Affair Investigative Journalist Clarence Walker can be reached at [email protected].

A Fifth Circuit appeals court reversed a recent drug conviction against an Austin, Texas man based on the prosecutor's  illegal use of an "out-of-court" hearsay statement made by a snitch who told a DEA agent that the defendant had purchased a substantial amount of methamphetamine from another person. Federal prosecutors never brought the snitch forward to testify at trial that Coy Jones had, in fact, done a drug deal. Instead, prosecutors allowed a DEA agent to testify to the jury that the snitch had told the agent that the deal had gone down, and that Jones was in possession of big-time dope. The appeals court mandate in Jones case was issued on May 19, 2019. 

Federal District Judge Sam Sparks erred by allowing certain testimony in the Coy Jones case. (UScourts.gov)
Following four days of testimony, a jury in the Western District of Texas in Austin convicted Coy Jones in October 2017. On January 29, 2018, federal judge Sam Sparks gave Jones, a Native American, 30 years in a federal joint for methamphetamine trafficking and gun-related charges as a result of an alleged witness (the snitch) -- who never appeared in court, and whom Jones never got a chance to confront and cross-examine, as required by law under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution.

The Confrontation Clause of the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution provides that "in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall enjoy the "right" to be confronted by the witnesses against him." Under the statute, accused defendants are given the opportunity to face prosecution witnesses against them in order to dispute the witnesses' testimony. This guarantee applies to both statements made in court, including statements made outside of court that are offered as evidence during trial. 

In a lengthy ruling, the Fifth Circuit said: "The government has therefore failed to meet its burden to show harmless error as to Jones' conviction for possession with intent to distribute 500 grams or more of methamphetamine and possession of a firearm." Here, the court added, "the inadmissible evidence was highly incriminating. Jones denied possessing the drugs and no drugs were found in his possession and no officer witnessed a drug transaction on May 3,2017.

Attorney Santosh Aravind successly appealed Coy Jones' conviction.
"We hold that Jones' rights under the Confrontation Clause were violated when a law enforcement officer testified, he knew Jones had a large amount of methamphetamine because of what the officer was told by a confidential informant. We therefore vacate Jones convictions and the related revocation of his supervised release and remand for a new trial,” the Fifth Circuit panel said. 

A DEA agent testified in open court about what the snitch allegedly told him about Jones meeting up with another narcotics dealer, which amounted to unsubstantiated hearsay. Although police never saw Jones purchase drugs, they and prosecutors relied on the words of the undercover snitch who said he made calls to other individuals who, in turn, told him the transaction had taken place. So, at this point, the government used double hearsay to convict Coy Jones.

"Everyone deserves the right to confront their accusers in court," retired criminal defense attorney Craig Washington told Drug War Chronicle.

But no such confrontation took place in this case. Federal prosecutors Matt Harding and Daniel Guess argued the use of "out-of-court" hearsay testimony by the informant was only to explain the officers" investigative tactics during the investigation.

Fifth Circuit judges concurred that the trial judge in Jones' case shouldn't have allowed prosecutors to elicit the snitch's hearsay testimony from the DEA agent about what he was told concerning the alleged drug purchase that Jones supposedly made with another suspect.

When Jones attorney Santosh Aravind objected at trial to the snitch's testimony and other detailed information the officers received from the missing witness against Jones, the judge overruled Aravind's timely objection, agreeing with the prosecutors that  the officers' references to what the informant told them was more to explain the officers' actions rather than vouch for the truth about what the informant said. 

Prior to trial, Jones' attorney Santosh Aravind filed a 403 motion to force the government prosecutors to disclose the identity of the informant. In response, prosecutors argued against identifying and bringing forth the informant because "the informant only gave a tip, and that the informant was not on the scene on any of this and would not be a fact witness." 

The Arrest of Coy Jones

The long, winding road to Coy Jones' federal conviction was the result of a hearsay statement by a "streetwise snitch." The showdown encapsulated a cast of dubious characters on Wednesday, May 3, 2017. On this eventful day in Jones' life, DEA agent Royce Clayborne received a tip from his prize-winning informant.

The informant told Claiborne that a drug deal would go down at a Valero gas station in Travis County, Texas. The DEA surveillance team, along with Austin police officers, observed Jones arrive in a vehicle. Jones parked next to a truck driven by a roommate of Fredy Cruz-Ortiz. DEA agents initially targeted Cruz-Ortiz, not Jones, because Cruz-Ortiz was the ring-leader of a meth trafficking ring. DEA agents and Cedar Park Detective Michelle Langham would later testify that they observed Coy Jones make a gesture to the other driver. Following the gestures, both vehicles drove off simultaneously.

 DEA agents had no direct knowledge that a drug deal had gone down until the informant told agent Claiborne by phone that a transaction had taken place and that the drivers had left the Valero parking lot. Officers immediately followed both vehicles as they headed towards County Road 213. This area is a lightly traveled rural road. When both vehicles briefly passed out of view and then reappeared into sight, Detective Langham spotted both drivers on County road 213 talking. When Jones and the other man departed, they drove off in different directions. 

Keep in mind, at this point, the officers never saw a dope exchange between Coy Jones and the other man he met on the night of May 3, 2017 nor did officers see Jones in a drug transaction on two prior occasions when he met with the alleged meth dealer. And on that night, the officers never saw Jones with a gun. They only had suspicions about drugs based on the tip from the informant.

The unidentified man, who was suspected to be the roommate of the meth ringleader identified as Cruz-Ortiz, was not  followed or stopped after his separate encounters with Jones. Officers instead continued to follow Jones as he finally turned onto County road 201. Detective Langham dispatched a sheriff's deputy to stop Jones by using a pretext traffic violation. 

When the deputy activated his emergency red light to pull over Jones' vehicle, Jones' vehicle sped up, accelerating up to 90 miles per hour with the officers in hot pursuit. The chase lasted for at least two miles.

During the ensuing chase, none of the officers or agents saw Jones throw a weapon from his vehicle, yet when Jones' vehicle came to a screeching halt both windows rolled down. With guns drawn, officers arrested Jones and searched his vehicle, but no drugs or firearms were found.

Where is the Dope?

Unable to find dope on Coy Jones--either in or around his vehicle -- the officers grew increasingly frustrated. 

Perhaps the officers should have freed Coy Jones because they did not have an iota of evidence that he was guilty of a crime, right? 

But these hounds smelled blood.

"Let's get a K-9 out here," an officer said. Officers used the K-9 dog to retrace the route of the road that Jones and the officers had traveled during the chase. After 'one to two' hours of searching, officers discovered an unloaded pistol in a 'cactus patch'. Then, finally, on the opposite side of the road, approximately 'a half mile' from where the gun was found, an officer recovered a zip lock bag containing 982 grams of methamphetamines.

Detective Langham testified at trial that both the gun and the meth were found in an area "where the sheriff's deputy lost sight of Jones as he sped down County road 201."

DEA agents interrogated Coy Jones on the same night he was arrested.  When agents accused him of intentionally fleeing to avoid being caught with the methamphetamines and the gun, Jones explained that he was attempting to avoid an individual who tried to fight him at the Valero. 

On Appeal

Attorney Santosh Aravind appealed Coy Jones' conviction based on these four key points:

1.The District Court erred by admitting evidence of Jones' prior conviction.

2. Testimony regarding the confidential informant (aka snitch) violated Jones' rights under the Confrontation Clause.

3. The District Court erred by not ordering disclosure of the identity of the confidential informant.

4, The evidence was insufficient to support the jury's verdict.

During the trial, as stated, Jones' attorney objected multiple times to the prosecutor's use of information from a snitch that was spoken to in court by a DEA agent. To determine whether the Sixth Amendment (Confrontation Clause) had been violated, the Fifth Circuit focused on the exchange of testimony between the prosecutor and DEA agent Royce Clayborne.

Prosecutor: "Based on the information you had received; Coy Jones received a large amount of methamphetamines."

Defense Attorney: "Objection hearsay."

Judge: "That objection is overruled."

Prosecutor: "Why did you follow Coy Jones as opposed to the other guy?"

Agent Clayborne: "Well, we knew Coy Jones had just received methamphetamines."

Clayborne further told the prosecutor that their purpose there forward was to stage a traffic stop of the vehicle driven by Coy Jones and arrest him. 

During cross-examination, defense attorney attacked Agent Clayborne's knowledge of whether Jones obtained meth from another person at the Valero.

Defense attorney: "[You] did not see any interaction between Mr. Jones and the person in the silver truck, right?"

Agent Clayborne: "That's correct."

Defense: "But you did not know that, right? You had not seen anything. You had not seen an exchange of methamphetamines or money."

Clayborne: "But I knew it was."

Defense: "You believed it, but you did not know it."

Realizing Clayborne's testimony created doubts as to whether he saw the drug deal go down between Jones and the other guy in the silver truck, the prosecutor took the agent on re-direct examination.

Prosecutor: "The defense confronted you about when you said you knew a drug deal had gone down, but that you had not seen anything; how did you know that a drug deal occurred?"

Clayborne: "Once we saw (other officers included) what looked like a drug deal; I made a phone call to my confidential source (the snitch) who got back to me -- and said the deal had happened."

Prosecutor: "Based on that information, you decided to stop Coy Jones?"

Clayborne: "That's correct."

Bottom Line

Coy Jones' case exemplifies how federal prosecutors flagrantly violate the law in drug cases. Here, prosecutors violated Jones' constitutional rights to a fair trial and to have the right to confront his accuser(s) in court. The accuser was a police informant who prosecutors failed to bring forward to testify about what he did or did not see. Prosecutors knew beforehand that they were bypassing the constitutional limits of the Confrontation Clause, which enshrines the use of the Sixth Amendment to confront accusers(s). The trial court judge was equally responsible for the reversal of Jones conviction because Jones trial lawyer made timely objections to the judge about the prosecutors not bringing forth the "drug informant" to testify to the jury of whether he saw Jones do a dope deal.

Trapped in the system, unable to make bail, Coy Jones was bullied into pleading guilty all over again to the same charges that the Fifth Circuit had reversed in his favor. A federal judge gave Jones only eight years this time around on November 1, 2019.

Jones attorney, Santosh Aravind told the Drug War Chronicle that "if the case would've been retried, then it's likely the government would have to bring in the actual informant to testify." Prosecutors had already figured they could win the case outright if the informant testified in open court during a new trial for Jones. 

Attorney Craig Washington viewed the situation differently. Washington said the new plea raises the possibility that Coy Jones pleaded guilty to crimes that amount to "Fruit of the Poisonous tree." Under this doctrine the law says that "if the evidential tree is tainted, so is its fruit.”

"Once the Fifth Circuit granted a new trial, prosecutors shouldn't have been able to use the same evidence that was overturned in the first place to get Coy Jones to plead guilty to it."

Prosecutors have not responded to the Drug War Chronicle’s inquiry about Washington’s allegations as of this writing.

Meanwhile inmate Coy Jones#63245-280 is serving his prison sentence at FCI in Three Rivers, Texas. Although his projected release date is in 2024, the word in the legal arena is that another round of appeals will hit the court by the end of this year or early 2021.

Drug War reporter Clarence Walker can be reached at: [email protected]

Marijuana Legalization Appeal Garners Broad Amicus Support, Pending Singapore Drug Execution Slammed, More... (9/16/20)

Despite marijuana legalization, Black DC residents still make up 90% of pot arrestees; human rights groups challenge a pending drug execution, and more.

The US Supreme Court ponders taking up an appeal of a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of marijuana prohibition. (CC)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Legalization Appeal Receives Unprecedented Support with the Filing of Nine Amicus Briefs. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the federal law that criminalizes marijuana are getting support. Nine amicus briefs supporting the lawsuit have been filed as it goes to the Supreme Court. Those filing supporting briefs include seven members of Congress, 19 major organizations, and a pair of prominent marijuana researchers and scientists. Only eight cases since 2008 have inspired as many amicus briefs. A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court is expected during this 2020-2021 term.

Washington, DC, Still Sees Huge Racial Disparity in Marijuana Arrests After Legalization. While marijuana arrests have declined by half in the five years since the city legalized the substance, police remain far more likely to arrest Blacks than Whites on marijuana charges. Blacks still account for just under 90% of all marijuana arrests, even though they make up only 45% of the population. Similarly, while Blacks and Whites are equally likely to use marijuana, Blacks made up 84% of all public consumption arrests.

International

Human Rights Groups Slam Singapore's Planned Execution of Drug Trafficker. A 44-year-old Malaysian man, Syed Suhail bin Syed Zin, is set to be executed for drug trafficking in Singapore on Friday, and human rights and anti-death penalty advocates are crying foul, calling the country's resort to capital punishment "callous."Human Rights Watch called the pending execution "barbaric" and called for the sentence to be commuted, while Amnesty International called on Singapore to "immediately halt this callous hanging."

DEA Loses Bid to Kill MJ Rescheduling Lawsuit, Canada to Stop Prosecuting Most Drug Possession Cases, More... (8/20/20)

A new poll shows bipartisan support for marijuana legalization, Colombian coca eradication goes into high gear amidst the pandemic, and more.

Marijuana Policy

New Poll Has Bipartisan Support for Marijuana Legalization. A new poll from Data for Progress has support for marijuana legalization at 58%, including 69% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans. Support among Democrats jumped to 79% when respondents were provided details of the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act, which is currently pending before Congress. So did Republican support, which jumped to 60%.

Law Enforcement Professionals Call on Congress to Legalize Marijuana. More than 50 current and former law enforcement professionals have sent a letter to Congress urging it to move swiftly on the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement (MORE) Act. The letter was signed by the National Black Police Association, Fair and Just Prosecution and Law Enforcement Action Partnership, in addition to dozens of current and former prosecutors, judges and police officers. Cook County State Attorney Kim Foxx and Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison (D) were among the list of signees.

Federal Appeals Court Rejects DEA Challenge to Marijuana Rescheduling Lawsuit. The 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals has denied a DEA request to throw out a lawsuit challenging marijuana's listing as a Schedule I drug. The lawsuit was filed in May by a group of scientists and veterans who argue that marijuana's classification is unconstitutional.

International

Canadian Federal Prosecutors Directed to Avoid Drug Possession Charges in Most Cases. The Public Prosecution Service of Canada has issued a directive to prosecutors to not prosecute drug possession cases unless major public safety concerns are involved. Charges should be filed only "in the most serious cases," said agency director Kathleen Roussel. In most cases, prosecutors should seek alternative approaches, such as restorative justice and indigenous approaches. "When deciding whether to initiate and conduct any prosecution, PPSC prosecutors must consider not only whether there is a reasonable prospect of conviction based on the evidence available but also whether a prosecution serves the public interest," she said.

Colombia Coca Eradication Goes into High Gear During Pandemic. Manual coca eradication is occurring at levels not seen for a decade even as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic. In June alone, more than 32,000 acres were forcibly eradicated, more than any month since the government and the FARC signed a peace treaty in 2016. "The government has taken advantage of the pandemic to do an eradication campaign and not to support farmers," said Eduardo Diaz, director of the Agency for the Voluntary Substitution of Illegal Crops under former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. "If the government wanted to support farmers, they would also take the opportunity to be present in the territories and support them in the production of food, support them in productive development. It takes the same effort to bring troops to do forced eradication as to bring technicians to do training and plant the fields... They have to pursue drug traffickers, but the farmers aren't drug traffickers."

Is the Era of the No-Knock Drug Raid Coming to an End? [FEATURE]

In the mass protests over out-of-control and racially biased law enforcement ignited by the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police office Derek Chauvin, Floyd's name isn't the only one being chanted by the crowds. There's also Ahmaud Arbery, the Georgia jogger gunned down by white vigilantes. There's Rayshard Brooks, the Atlanta man shot and killed by police after falling asleep in his car in the Wendy's drive-through lane and them tussling with and fleeing from them as he sought to avoid arrest.

And then there's Breonna Taylor. The 26-year-old black EMT and Louisville resident was killed on March 13 as police executing a midnight no-knock drug search warrant at her apartment were greeted by gunfire by her boyfriend.. As the circumstances of her death emerged, she has become the face of the burgeoning movement to radically restrict the police resort to no-knock warrants, which could just as aptly be referred to as home invasion warrants.

That's what it felt like to Ms. Taylor and her boyfriend Kenneth Walker. Although Louisville police claimed they knocked and announced their presence, they were operating with a no-knock warrant, and that account is disputed by Walker and Taylor's relatives. Walker said he and Taylor were in bed together when the door crashed in and he thought someone was breaking into their home. He said he fired in self-defense. (Here is that fraught zone where the war on drugs encounters the 2nd Amendment.)

Walker's single shot wounded one officer, who returned fire along with two other officers. Breonna Taylor was hit by at least eight bullets and died at the scene. Walker was charged with attempted murder, although those charges have now been dropped. No drugs were found at the apartment. To make matters even worse, the drug suspect the police were looking for was already in custody when the raid went down.

"They executed this innocent woman because they botched the search warrant execution," attorney Benjamin Crump, who is representing the Taylor family in a lawsuit filed over the killing told the New York Times. "They had the main person that they were trying to get in their custody, so why use a battering ram to bust her door down and then go in there and execute her?"

Outrage over the killing of Breonna Taylor quietly festered as the country hunkered down amidst the coronavirus pandemic, but when the iconic killing of George Floyd finally galvanized the streets, the pain and anger over Taylor's killing became a rallying cry not just in Louisville but across the land. And it's bringing a laser-like focus on a practice more akin to raiding terrorist hideouts in the Middle East than to serving and protecting American citizens, which in turn is leading to a renewed focus on the role of the drug war in all of this.

The war on drugs provided the impetus for no-knock raids from the beginning, and the courts were all too willing to help. The 1963 US Supreme Court case Ker v. California, which gave constitutional imprimatur to forcible police entries, was a drug case where the possibility that evidence could be destroyed carried the day for the cops. When the Supreme Court revisited and refined its no-knock doctrine in the 1990s, the impetus once again was enforcing drug prohibition.

In a case involving small-scale sales of marijuana and meth to an informant, the court ruled in 1995 in Wilson v. Arkansas that police must generally "knock and announce" before kicking in a door with a search warrant, although it allowed for exceptions as per Ker. In another small-time drug sales case, 1997's Richard v. Wisconsin, the court held that police needed to demonstrate "a reasonable suspicion" that announcing their presence before bashing in the door would be dangerous or allow for the destruction of evidence for a no-knock warrant to be permitted.

Breonna Taylor was shot and killed by Louisville police in a fatally bungled no-knock drug raid in March. (Family photo)
Those rulings left "reasonable suspicion" up to state and local judges, and while little national or even state data exists on the rates at which judges rejected no-knock warrant requests, a pair of local studies suggests they essentially acted as rubber stamps. A recent PBS Newshour report cited a Denver Post analysis of no-knock warrant requests from Denver police in 2000, a year after Mexican citizen Ismael Mena was killed in a no-knock drug raid. The cops got 158 out of 163 requests approved. Similarly, a Washington Post analysis of no-knock warrant requests by policy in Little Rock, Arkansas, between 2016 and 208 had the cops getting 103 out of 105 approved.

Police resort to no-knock raids has gone through the roof in recent decades, according to a 2007 study done by Peter Kraska, a professor with the School of Justice Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. He found that while no-knock or announce and enter raids happened about 1,500 times in the early 1980s, that figure skyrocketed to about 40,000 a year by the turn of the century as the drug war deepened. Kraska estimated the number of such raids at about 45,000 a year by 2010.

The raids are mainly for drugs. A 2014 ACLU report looking at SWAT teams doing no-knock raids found that 62% of them were for drugs. In at least a third of those raids, no drugs were found. In nearly another third of those raids, it's not known if any drugs were seized because police did not report that information.

And they can be deadly -- both for their targets and for the officers undertaking them. The New York Times reported three years ago that between 2010 and 2016 alone, at least 13 police officers lost their lives on such raids, but so did more than seven times as many civilians. The Times put the civilian death toll at 94, with many hundreds more injured. They include such total innocents as 19-month-old "Baby Bou Bou" Bounkam Phonesavanh, who was severely burned by a flash bang grenade thrown by a Georgia SWAT officer in a 2015 no-knock raid.

But now, with the killing of Breonna Taylor in the context of mass mobilizations against police brutality and racial bias, no-knock raids are being challenged like never before. The Democratic congressional response to the upheaval in the streets, the Justice in Policing Act, directly targets no-knock raids. As the Democrats put it, the bill "[b]ans no-knock warrants in drug cases at the federal level and conditions law enforcement funding for state and local governments banning no-knock warrants at the local and state level." (Advocates are calling for amendments to strengthen the bill -- and then passage.)

Kentucky's libertarian-leaning US Senator Rand Paul (R) met with Taylor's family and then introduced the Breonna Taylor Act "to prohibit no-knock warrants." The bill would mandate that federal law enforcement officers must announce their presence and purpose before executing a search warrant and it would condition federal aid to law enforcement agencies to ensure they follow the same rules.

"After talking with Breonna Taylor's family, I've come to the conclusion that it's long past time to get rid of no-knock warrants. This bill will effectively end no-knock raids in the United States," said Paul.

Meanwhile, even Paul's Republican colleagues are climbing on the no no-knock bandwagon, although to a more limited degree than the Democrats. The just introduced Justice Act, largely crafted by the GOP's sole black senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, wouldn't ban no-knock raids, but would increase federal reporting requirements for no-knock raids and use of force. It would also increase penalties for false police reports.

It's unclear whether any of these bills will pass or whether compromise legislation will emerge, and it's unclear just how strong any language on no-knock raids will end up being. But what is clear is that Congress finally has the issue squarely in its sights.

But law enforcement is largely a state and local matter, and it's going to be up to state legislatures and governors and city councils and mayors to address the issue at the local level. Louisville has already done so. With protests raging in the streets, the city council early this month moved unanimously to ban no-knock raids. Only two states -- Florida and Oregon -- have banned no-knock raids, but that should be about to change, given the tumult in the streets over police misconduct. It should have happened a long time ago.

Fixing the Federal Criminal Justice System: The Establishment Weighs In [FEATURE]

In a just issued report on reforming the federal criminal justice system, a blue-ribbon task force of the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice calls for sweeping changes in the system from its approach to drug offenses to significant sentencing changes, support for getting ex-inmates successfully reintegrated into society, and more.

To make things better in the federal criminal justice system, Congress has some work to do. (Creative Commons)
Formed in July 2019, the Council on Criminal Justice is relatively new on the scene but contains some real heavy hitters. The co-chairs of its advisory board of directors are former US Assistant Attorney General Sally Yates and Koch Industries Senior Vice President Mark Holden, while its founding president is criminal justice expert Adam Gelb and the chair of its board is former head of the Justice Department's Office of Justice Programs Laurie Robinson.

The members of the task force that issued the report, Next Steps: An Agenda for Federal Action on Safety and Justice, are also prominent figures from across the political spectrum. They include former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, former Washington, DC and Philadelphia police chief Gordon Ramsey, American Conservative Union general counsel David Savakian, former director of the Open Society Foundation's Addiction Program's Dr. Kima Taylor, as well as Yates and Holden.

Noting in the report's executive summary that both crime and incarceration rates have receded -- although with a considerable lag between the two -- and that the federal prison population finally peaked in 2013, they write that "[y]et there is broad agreement across the political spectrum that more must be done to make communities safe and guarantee justice -- not just by states and localities, where the majority of the criminal justice system operates, but also by the federal government, which runs the country's largest correctional system and helps set the tone of the national conversation."

The task force sought "to craft a consensus view of the actionable, politically viable steps that the federal government can take now and in the near future to produce the greatest improvements in public safety and the administration of justice." With a nod to the ongoing pandemic, the task force noted that although it "concluded its deliberations before the outbreak of COVID-19, several of the recommendations are highly relevant to the federal response, in the short term and beyond."

So, what does this consensus view on federal criminal justice reforms look like?

The task force came up with 15 policy recommendations for actions by the legislative, executive, and judicial branches, along with detailed rationales for each and equally detailed plans for implementing them. Here are some of the highlights:

Marijuana Policy

Reflecting the task force consensus but not quite catching up with public opinion, which now consistently favors legalization in opinion polls, the task force calls not for federal marijuana legalization but for instead allowing states to set their own marijuana policies through a system of waivers. It finds the status quo where "states are, in effect, licensing individuals and businesses to commit federal felonies" as untenable as "states and the industry continue to operate under an illusion of sovereignty where circumstances can change at any moment."

Instead, they recommend formalizing the status quo, acknowledging that states can enact legalization without fear of federal interference, unless and until marijuana is rescheduled or legalized at the federal level.

Sentencing Policy

The task force makes a number of pointed recommendations when it comes to sentencing policies that have made the land of the free the home of the world's largest prison population. They note that the US Sentencing Commission, which is responsible for setting guidelines for federal prison sentences, is currently paralyzed and "has been unable to modify sentencing guidelines to reflect current law, including the bipartisan reforms of the FIRST STEP Act of 2018," because the Trump administration has failed to fill vacancies on it.

The task force's recommendation here is: "The President and the Senate should fully reconstitute the US Sentencing Commission so it can fulfill its statutory duties to make necessary and timely adjustments to the sentencing guidelines, make recommendations to Congress for needed changes to federal criminal and sentencing statutes, and conduct research on the policies and operations of the federal sentencing and corrections systems."

One of the main drivers of the mushrooming federal prison population -- it grew from 24,000 in 1980 to nearly 220,000 before peaking in 2013 -- is mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders, leaving federal prisons stuffed "not just with major traffickers but also with thousands of lower-level players in the drug distribution chain, a disproportionate number of whom are minorities," the task force notes.

While, over the years as the incarceration fever began to break, various efforts to mitigate the pernicious effects of mandatory minimums were implemented (and have helped reduce the number of federal prisoners), the task force is ready to be done with them. "Congress should eliminate mandatory minimum sentencing laws for all drug crimes and consider eliminating non-drug mandatory minimums while refraining from enacting any new mandatory minimums pending study," it recommends.

Also on sentencing, the task force notes that neither Congress nor the courts have acted to restrict judges from sentencing someone based on conduct for which they have been acquitted in court, a practice that mainly occurs in drug conspiracy cases. The task force calls on the US Sentencing Commission to amend federal sentencing guidelines to prohibit such sentencing.

And the task force is calling for federal prisoners serving lengthy sentences approved by "tough on crime" legislation in the 1980s and 1990s to be able to appeal to have their sentences reconsidered after serving at least 15 years, with a chance for review every 10 years after that.

Reentry

Giving federal offenders a chance of actually succeeding on the outside upon their release from prison is another main focus of the task force. It starts with recommending that Congress ensure the Bureau of Prisons is working as it should by creating "an independent performance, oversight, and accountability board (Board) to oversee and advise the Bureau of Prisons (BOP)."

To help prisoners prepare for post-carceral careers while still behind bars, the task force calls for the restoration of Pell grants and other expanded educational opportunities, and it recommends several measures to increase their chances once they're back on the street. Among them are sealing low-level criminal records from public view to help employment prospects, expanding public housing access for people with convictions, and providing guidance on closing Medicaid reentry gaps.

The task force also calls for Congress "to support and incentive increased access to residential and community-based treatment services that are evidence-based, including access to Medication-Assisted Treatment (MAT) in order to strengthen reentry programs, prevent recidivism, and promote better health outcomes."

The Council on Criminal Justice is about as establishment and mainstream as it gets. When people like this are shouting for the federal criminal justice system to be fixed, you know it needs to be fixed (if you didn't already). The task force has shown us what needs to be done; now it's up to Congress, the courts, and the administration to act. We shall see.

Plaintiffs in MJ Scheduling Case vs. DEA Look to Supreme Court, NJ Voters Ready to Approve Legal MJ, More... (4/24/20)

A New Jersey poll shows strong support for approving a November marijuana legalization initiative, California state government agencies are moving to ease the pandemic burden on marijuana businesses, the Supreme Court is being asked to rule on whether marijuana's designation as a Schedule I drug is unconstitutional, and more.

Will the Supreme Court take up a case challenging marijuana's designation as a Schedule I drug? Stay tuned. (Creative Commons)

DEA Marijuana Scheduling Lawsuit Will Be Appealed To Supreme Court Following Dismissal. Plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the DEA over the classification of marijuana will appeal to the US Supreme Court after the 2nd US Court of Appeals ruled against them last week. The appeals court had recommended that plaintiffs seek administrative policy change instead, but they will ask the Supreme Court to rule that keeping marijuana in Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act is unconstitutional because it imposes undue burdens that jeopardize patients' lives.

California Offers Marijuana Firms Tax Help to Cope with Coronavirus Pandemic Fallout. The state has issued new guidelines aimed at helping businesses, including marijuana businesses, survive the pandemic. The programs, a mix of extensions, relief, and deferrals, will allow many marijuana companies to keep operations going and meet payroll. The initiatives are coming from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration (CDTFA), the Office of Tax Appeals and the Franchise Tax Board.

New Jersey Poll Finds Residents Ready to Approve Marijuana Legalization in November. Unable to reach agreement on a marijuana legalization bill, the state legislature punted the issue to the voters, placing a legislative legalization initiative on the November ballot. Now, a new poll from the Monmouth University Polling Institute finds voters are ready to approve it. The poll had support at 61%, with only 34% opposed.

Virginia Legislature Rejects Governor's Bid to Delay Legal Marijuana Study. The legislature has rejected two proposed amendments to its decriminalization bill from Gov. Ralph Northam (D), including one that called for a delay in the end date for a study on marijuana legalization included in the bill. The House had initially agreed to the change, but the Senate rejected it, and House members were unable to add the delay back in when they received the Senate bill for a final vote. The bill, Senate Bill 2, will decriminalize small-time possession effective July 1.

Ohio Okays Curbside Medical Marijuana Pickup, DEA Seized More Plants But Did Fewer Busts Last Year, More... (4/14/20)

The DEA continued with its futile pursuit of marijuana eradication last year, a former Amazon worker wins a victory in a court battle over being fired for medical marijuana use, and more.

The DEA eradicated more pot plants last year than in 2018, but busted fewer grows and made fewer related arrests. (DEA.gov)
Marijuana Policy

DEA Seized More Pot Plants Last Year but Arrested Fewer People for Growing. According to a new annual report from the DEA, the agency seized more than four million plants last year, a more than 40% increase over 2018. But the number of indoor grows raided actually decreased by about 10%, suggesting that the DEA was raiding bigger grows rather than expanding enforcement efforts. And most of the seized plants -- 3.1 million of them -- came from California, where the agency seized only 1.8 million in 2018. And related arrests declined by 15%, from 5,600 in 2018 to 4,700 last year.

Medical Marijuana

Worker Fired by Amazon for Medical Marijuana Wins Key Decision in Federal Court. A former Amazon warehouse worker who sued in New Jersey state court after being fired for using medical marijuana has won a preliminary victory. Amazon had responded to the lawsuit by moving to have the case heard in federal court, where the worker had little chance of winning since marijuana remains prohibited under federal law. But late last week, the federal court allowed the worker's request to remand the case back to state Superior Court.

Ohio Okays Curbside Pickup for Medical Marijuana Sales. The state has determined that medical marijuana dispensaries are "essential" businesses during the coronavirus crisis and are being allowed to sell their products via curbside pickup. The stat Board of Pharmacy approved a temporary guideline to allow the practice last week. While a Cleveland-area dispensary is the first to implement curbside service, all dispensaries in the state have been cleared to do so as well.

Chronicle AM: Philly Safe Injection Site Gets Favorable Final Ruling, San Diego to Dismiss Pot Convictions, More... (2/26/20)

A federal judge has issued a final order saying a proposed Philadelphia safe injection site does not violate federal law, Kansas lawmakers vote to keep a third pot possession conviction a felony, the Virginia legislature has passed a smokeable hemp bill, and more.

The Mexican congress is on a path to legalize marijuana ahead of a Supreme Court-imposed April deadline. (Creative Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Kansas Lawmakers Kill Bid to Lower Marijuana Penalties. The House Corrections and Juvenile Justice Committee voted 7-4 Tuesday to reject House Bill 2686, which would have reduced third time simple pot possession from a felony to a misdemeanor and released people serving prison time for felony marijuana possession. I thought this was mild enough that it might get through the committee," said Democratic Rep. Boog Highberger, of Lawrence, home to the liberal University of Kansas main campus. "I can't explain it." But Republican committee members said it was a step toward legalization, which they don't support.

San Diego DA Files Motion to Reduce and Dismiss Marijuana Convictions.The San Diego County District Attorney's Office announced Tuesday that it has filed a motion to reduce nearly 25,962 felony marijuana convictions to misdemeanors, while also moving to dismiss 1,040 misdemeanor marijuana convictions completely. The office said it had already reduced or dismissed more than 1,600 marijuana-related convictions since 2016, when Proposition 64 was voted into law, legalizing recreational marijuana use in California. The DA's Office's reduction and dismissal motions are pending review by a judge.

Hemp

Virginia Lawmakers Pass Smokeable Hemp Bill. The Senate voted 37-3 Tuesday to approve House Bill 962, which clarifies that smokeable hemp products can lawfully be sold to people 21 and over. The bill now goes to the desk of Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

Harm Reduction

Philadelphia Safe Injection Site Gets Final Approval from Federal Judge. A federal judge Tuesday issued a final order in a case where he earlier ruled that a proposed safe injection in the city would not violate federal law. The final order upholds that previous ruling and clears the way for the nonprofit group Safehouse to move forward with opening the site. The Trump administration had challenged the legality of the harm reduction measure and could still appeal the ruling, but Safehouse says it is moving forward anyway.

International

Mexican Congress Moving Closer to Marijuana Legalization. Sen. Ricardo Monreal of the ruling MORENA Party said Monday that marijuana legalization is "on track" and that several congressional committees are meeting this week to work on the issue. Four committees were set to meet to review a draft bill Wednesday. The congress is working under an April Supreme Court deadline to get legalization done.

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