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How Bigoted Pennsylvania Drug Warriors Turned This New York Man's Life into a Living Hell [FEATURE]

In June, 2014, Wilfredo Ramos was driving back to his Brooklyn home after visiting his mother in Lancaster, Pennsylvania when two Pennsylvania State Police troopers detoured him into a Kafkaesque nightmare from which he emerged only five months later.

The traffic stop from hell happened to Wilfredo Ramos -- and happened, and happened. (Sonoma County Sheriff's Office)
In the meantime, Ramos rotted in jail on bogus charges, losing his job, his car, and his apartment. Now, in a small gesture of redress, the State Police have agreed to pay Ramos $150,000 for his travails in a taxpayer-funded settlement, but the cops still admit no fault or liability.

According to the lawsuit that ended in the settlement, Ramos' nightmare began when he was pulled over by Troopers Justin Summa and Kevin Vanfleet on June 6, 2014. Neither trooper said why they stopped Ramos, and the suit alleged they were engaged in racial profiling because Ramos is Hispanic and was driving a car with New York plates.

Summa claimed he smelled alcohol, and Ramos replied that he had not been drinking. Summa then challenged Ramos, citing his ethnicity and place of residence. "We know you have drugs," Summa told him, "just tell us where they are." Ramos denied possessing any drugs.

Summa then administered a Breathalyzer test, which came back negative for alcohol, and ordered Ramos to perform field sobriety tests, which he completed without any problem. The encounter should have ended at that point, with Ramos being thanked for his cooperation and sent on his way, since there was no evidence he had committed any crime.

But that's not what happened. Instead, although Ramos had cleared all the tests and although they lacked probable cause, Troopers Summa and Vanfleet arrested Ramos for driving under the influence, giving them a pretext to search his vehicle in their quest to make a drug bust. Their search turned up nothing.

The troopers then took Ramos to state police headquarters where they administered yet another Breathalyzer test, which they described as "inconclusive." The next stop was the Lehigh County DUI center, where Ramos consented to have his blood drawn to be tested.

According to the lawsuit, typical practice in Lehigh County is that people arrested under suspicion of drunk driving who have no prior drunk driving arrests and where there was no accident or injuries are released pending blood test results. That didn't happen with Ramos. Instead, he was held under $10,000 cash bail -- an amount he could not raise.

As Ramos rotted in jail, his blood sample was tested twice by the Lehigh Valley Health Network Laboratory, which found on June 18, 2014, that it contained no drugs or alcohol. Trooper Summa then ordered a third test of the sample, this time for a broader spectrum of substances, but again the results were negative.

On the same day the test results came in, Summa testified in a preliminary hearing on Ramos' case that the results were not yet in. He did not tell the court about the negative test results. Ramos remained in jail for 158 days until he was found not guilty in Lehigh County Court after blood tests showed no illegal substances or alcohol in his system.

While Ramos was jailed, he was fired from his job and lost his home. He lost his car, too: The tow truck operator notified Ramos by mail about a deadline to retrieve his vehicle, but because Ramos was in jail, no one was at his residence to receive the letter.

Ramos' lawsuit charged that Troopers Summa and Vanfleet conspired to falsely arrest him despite finding no evidence that he was impaired or had drugs in his car. The lawsuit also named five state police supervisors, from the troop commander to former state police Commissioner Francis Noonan, as liable for racially motivated misconduct, unlawful seizure, violations of due process of law, denial of equal rights, conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, and other Civil Rights Act violations.

While the State Police admitted no fault or liability, their willingness to settle the case speaks for itself.

Attorney Joshua Karoly, who represented Ramos in the lawsuit, was magnanimous after the settlement was announced. "It was a mistake that this happened, and this resolution is going to go a long way toward getting his life back on track to where it was before this happened," Karoly told the Lancaster Morning Call. "It makes mistakes like that much less likely when they're brought to the public's attention."

Looking Back: The Biggest Domestic Drug Policy Stories of the Past 20 Years [FEATURE]

As Drug War Chronicle marks the publication of its 1,000th issue (with yours truly having authored 863 of them going back to 2000), we reflect on what has changed and what hasn't in the past couple of decades. This piece recounts our domestic drug policy evolution in the US; a companion piece looks at the international picture.

A lot has happened. We've broken the back of marijuana prohibition, even if we haven't killed it dead yet; we've seen medical marijuana gain near universal public acceptance, we've seen harm reduction begin to take hold, we've fought long and hard battles for sentencing reform -- and even won some of them.

But it hasn't all been good. Since the Chronicle began life as The Week Online With DRCNet back in 1997, more than 30 million people have been arrested for drugs, with all the deleterious consequences a drug bust can bring, and despite all the advances, the drug war keeps on rolling. There's been serious progress made, but there's plenty of work left to do. 

Here are the biggest big picture drug stories and trends of the past 20 years:

1. Medical Marijuana

It was November, 1996, when California became the first state to legalize medical marijuana, five years after San Francisco became the first city in the country to pass a medical marijuana measure, thanks in large part to the efforts of activists who mobilized to make its use possible for AIDS patients. Two years later, Alaska, Oregon, and Washington came on board, and three years after that, Hawaii became the first state to allow it though the legislative process. Now, 29 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico allow for the use of medical marijuana, and public support for medical marijuana reaches stratospheric levels in polls.

But the battle isn't over. The federal government still refuses to officially recognize medical marijuana, potentially endangering the progress made so far, especially under the current administration, efforts to reschedule marijuana to reflect its medical uses remain thwarted, some of the more recent states to legalize medical marijuana have become perversely more restrictive, and in some of the more conservative states, lawmakers attempt to appease demands for medical marijuana legalization by passing extremely limited CBD-only laws.

2. Marijuana Legalization: In the War on Weed, Weed is Winning

Twenty years ago, pot wasn't legal anywhere, and Gallup had public support for legalization at a measly 25%. A lot has changed since then. It took repeated tries, but beginning in 2012, states started voting to free the weed, with Colorado and Washington leading the way, Alaska and DC coming on board in 2014, and California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada joining the ranks last year. Now, about a fifth of the country has legalized weed, with more states lining up to do so next year, including most likely contenders Delaware, Michigan, New Jersey, and Vermont.

Now, Gallup has support for legalization at 64% nationwide, with even a slight majority (51%) of Republicans on board. The only demographic group still opposed to pot legalization is seniors, and they will be leaving the scene soon enough. Again, the battle is by no means over. Marijuana remains illegal under federal law, and congressional efforts to change that have gone nowhere so far. But it seems like marijuana has won the cultural war, and the rest is just cleaning up what's left of the pot prohibition mess.

3. Marijuana, Inc.: The Rise of an Industry

State-legal marijuana is already a $10 billion dollar a year industry, and that's before California goes on line next month. It's gone from outlaws and hippie farmers in the redwoods to sharp-eyed business hustlers, circling venture capitalists, would-be monopolists, and assorted hangers on, from accountants, lawyers, and publicists to security and systems mavens, market analysts, and the ever-expanding industry press.

These people all have direct pecuniary interests in legal marijuana, and, thanks to profits from the golden weed, the means to protect them. Marijuana money is starting to flow into political campaigns and marijuana business interests organize to make sure they will continue to be able to profit from pot.

Having a legal industry with the wherewithal to throw its weight around a bit is generally -- but not entirely -- a good thing. To the degree that the marijuana industry is able to act like a normal industry, it will act like a normal industry, and that means sometimes the interests of industry sectors may diverge from the interests of marijuana consumers. The industry or some parts of it may complain, for instance, of the regulatory burden of contaminant testing, while consumers have an interest in knowing the pot they smoke isn't poisoned.

And getting rich off weed is a long way from the justice-based demand that people not be harassed, arrested, and imprisoned for using it. Cannabis as capitalist commodity loses some of that outlaw cachet, some ineffable sense of hipster cool. But, hey, you're not going to jail for it anymore (at least in those legal states).

4. The Power of the People: The Key Role of the Initiative Process

The initiative and referendum process, which lets activists bypass state legislatures and put issues to a direct popular vote, has been criticized as anti-democratic because it allows special interests to use an apathetic public to advance their interests, as both car insurers and tobacco companies have attempted in California. It also gets criticized for writing laws without legislative input.

But like any political tool, it can be used for good or ill, and when it comes to drug reform, it has been absolutely critical. When legislatures refuse to lead -- or even follow -- as has been the case with many aspects of drug policy, the initiative process becomes the only effective recourse for making the political change we want. It was through the initiative process that California and other early states approved medical marijuana; it was five years later that Hawaii became the first state where the legislature acted. Similarly with recreational marijuana legalization, every state that has legalized it so far has done it through the initiative process; in no state has it yet made its way through the legislature, although we're hoping that will change next year.

And it's not just marijuana. The initiative process has also been used successfully to pass sentencing reforms in California, and now activists are opening the next frontier, with initiatives being bruited in California and Oregon that would legalize psychedelic mushrooms.

The bad news: Only 24 states have the initiative process. The good news: The ones that do lead the way, setting an example for the others.

Drug prohibition can't be separated from the larger struggle for racial and social justice. (Creative Commons)
5. The Glaring Centrality of Race

It took Michelle Alexander's 2010 publication of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to put a fine point on it, but the centrality of race in the prosecution of the war on drugs has been painfully evident since at least the crack hysteria of the 1980s, if not going back even further to the Nixonian law-and-order demagoguery of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

We've heard the numbers often enough: Blacks make up about 13% of the population and about 13% of drug users, but 29% of all drug arrests and 35% of those doing state prison time for drugs. And this racial disparity in drug law enforcement doesn't seem to be going away.

Neither is the horrendous impact racially-biased drug law enforcement has on communities of color. Each father or mother behind bars leaves a family exploded and usually impoverished, and each heavy-handed police action leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The drug war conveyor belt, feeding an endless number of black men and women into the half-life of prison, is clearly a key part of a system of racially oppressive policing that has led to eruptions from Ferguson to Baltimore. If we are going to begin to try to fix race relations in this country, the war on drugs is one of the key battlefronts. Thanks in part to Alexander's bestseller, civil rights organizations from the traditional to newer movements like Black Lives Matter have devoted increasing focus to criminal justice, including drug policy reform.

6. Harm Reduction Takes Hold

We don't think teenagers should be having sex, but we know they're going to, anyway, so we make condoms available to them so they won't get pregnant or STDs. That's harm reduction. So is providing clean needles to injection drug users to avoid the spread of disease, making opioid overdose drugs like naloxone widely available so a dosing error doesn't turn fatal, passing 911 Good Samaritan laws to encourage and OD victims' friends to call for help instead of run away, and providing a clean, well-lit place where drug users can shoot or smoke or snort their drugs under medical supervision and with access to social service referrals.

Two decades ago, the only harm reduction work going on was a handful of pioneering needle exchanges, thanks to folks like Dave Purchase at the North American Syringe Exchange Network (founded in 1988), and early activists faced harassment and persecution from local authorities. But it was the creation of the Harm Reduction Coalition in 1993 that really began to put the movement on the map.

In this century, harm reduction practices have gained ground steadily. Now, 33 states and DC allow needle exchange programs to operate, 40 states and DC have some form of 911 Good Samaritan laws, and every state in the county has now modified its laws to allow greater access to naloxone.

The next frontier for American drug war harm reduction is safe injection sites, and on the far horizon, opiate-assisted maintenance. There is not yet a single officially sanctioned operating safe injection in the country, but we are coming close in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. And let's not forget drug decriminalization as a form of harm reduction. It should be the first step, but that's not the world we live in -- yet.

7. Sentencing Fever Breaks

Beginning in the Reagan years and continuing for decades, the number of prisoners in America rose sharply and steadily, driven in large part by the war on drugs. The phenomenon gained America infamy as the world's biggest jailer, whether in raw numbers or per capita.

But by early in the century, the fever had broken. After gradually slowing rates of increases for several years, the number of state and federal prisoners peaked around 2007 and 2008 at just over 1.6 million. At the end of 2015, the last year for which data is available, the number of prisoners was 1.527 million, down 2% from the previous year. And even the federal prison system, which had continued to increase in size, saw a 14% decline in population that year.

But most drug war prisoners are state prisoners, and that's where sentencing reform have really begun to make a difference. States from California to Minnesota to Texas, among others, enacted a variety of measures to cut the prison population, in some cases because of more enlightened attitudes, but in other cases because it just cost too damned much money for fiscal conservatives.

Current US Attorney General Jeff Sessions would like very much to reverse this trend and is in a position to do some damage, for instance, by instructing federal prosecutors to pursue tough sentences and mandatory minimums in drug cases. But he is hampered by federal sentencing reforms passed in the Obama era. Sessions may be able to bump up the number of people behind bars only slightly; the greater danger is that his policies serve as an inspiration for similarly inclined conservatives in the states to try to roll back reforms there.

8. The Rise (and Fall) of the Opioids

In 1996, Purdue Pharma introduced Oxycontin to the market. The powerful new pain reliever was pitched to doctors as not highly addictive by a high pressure company sales force and became a tremendous market success, generating billions for the Sackler family, the owners of the company. Opioid prescriptions became more common.

For many patients, that was a good thing. Purdue Pharma's marketing push coincided with a push by chronic pain advocates -- patients, doctors and others -- to ease prescribing restrictions that had kept many patients in feasibly treatable pain. And which in many cases still do: A 2011 report by the Institute of Medicine found that while "opioid prescriptions for chronic noncancer pain [in the US] have increased sharply . . . [tlwenty-nine percent of primary care physicians and 16 percent of pain specialists report they prescribe opioids less often than they think appropriate because of concerns about regulatory repercussions." As the report noted, having more opioid prescriptions doesn't necessarily mean that "patients who really need opioids [are] able to get them."

While it's popular to blame doctors and Big Pharma for getting a bunch of pain patients addicted to opioids, that explanation is a bit too facile. Many of the people strung out today were never patients, but instead obtained their pain pills on the black market. Through a perverse system of incentives, people on Medicaid could obtain the pills by prescription for next to nothing, then resell them for $40 or $60 apiece to people who wanted them. Some pain management practices were on the cutting edge of relieving pain for patients who needed the help. But others were little more than shady pill mills, popping up in places like Ohio, Kentucky, and Florida -- places that would become the epicenter of an opioid epidemic within a few years.

When the inevitable crackdowns on pain pill prescribing came, legitimate prescribers of course got caught in the crossfire sometimes, especially those who served the poor or the patients who in the worst chronic pain. Their being targeted, or others reining in their prescribing practices, left many patients in the lurch again. And the closure of pill mills left addicted people in the lurch. But there was plenty of heroin to make up for the missing pills the addicted used to take. Mexican farmers have been happy to grow opium poppies for the American market for decades, and Mexican drug trafficking organizations know how to get it to market.

The whole thing has been worsened by the arrival of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid dozens of times stronger than pure heroin, which seems to be coming mostly from rogue Chinese pharmaceutical labs (although the Mexicans appear to be getting in on the act now, too).

And now we have a drug overdose crisis like the country has never seen before, with around 60,000 people estimated to die from overdoses this year, most of them from opioids (by themselves or in combination with alcohol and/or other drugs). The crisis is inspiring both admirable harm reduction efforts and an execrable turn to harsher punishments, while making things harder again for many pain patients. While many argue that the gentle side of the response to this epidemic is because the victims are mainly white, I would suggest that argument pays short shrift to all the years of hard work advocates and activists of all ethnicities have put in to creating more enlightened drug policies.

9. Policing for Profit: The Never Ending Fight to Rein in Asset Forfeiture

Twenty years ago, pressure was mounting in Washington over abuses of the federal civil asset forfeiture program, just as it is now. Back then, passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) of 2000 marked an important early victory in the fight to rein in what has tartly described as "policing for profit." It was shepherded though the house by then Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Henry Hyde, an Illinois Republican.

How times have changed. Now, with federal agents seizing billions of dollars each year though civil forfeiture proceedings and scandalous abuse after scandalous abuse pumping up the pressure for federal reform, the Republican attorney general is calling for more asset forfeiture. And Jeff Sessions isn't just calling for it; he has undone late Obama administration reforms aimed at reining in one of the sleaziest aspects of federal forfeiture, the Equitable Sharing program, although he is having problems getting Congress to go along.

In the years since CAFRA, a number of states have passed similar laws restricting civil asset forfeiture and directing that seized funds go into the general fund or other designated funds, such as education, but state and local police have been able to evade those laws via Equitable Sharing. Under that program, instead of seizing money under state law, they instead turn it over to the federal government, which then returns 80% of it to the law enforcement agency -- not the general fund and not the schools.

This current setup, with its perverse incentives for police to evade state laws and pursue cash over crime, makes asset forfeiture reform a continuing battlefield at both the state and the federal levels. A number of reform bills are alive in the Congress, and year by year, more and more states pass laws limiting civil asset forfeiture or, even better, eliminating it and requiring a criminal conviction before forfeiture can proceed. Fourteen states have now done that, with the most recent being Connecticut, New Mexico and Nebraska. That leaves 36 to go.

10. Despite Everything, the Drug War Grinds On

We have seen tremendous progress in drug policy in the past 20 years, from the advent of the age of legal marijuana to the breaking of sentencing fever to the spread of harm reduction and the kinder, gentler treatment of the current wave of opioid users, but still, the drug war grinds on.

Pot may be legal in eight states, but that means it isn't in 42 others, and more than 600,000 people got arrested for it last year -- down from a peak of nearly 800,000 in 2007, but still up by 75,000 or 12% over 2015.

It's the same story with overall drug arrests: While total drug arrest numbers peaked at just under 1.9 million a year in 2006 and 2007 -- just ahead of the peak in prison population -- and had been trending downward ever since, they bumped up again last year to 1.57 million, a 5.6% increase over 2015.

There are more options for treatment or diversion out of jail or prison, but people are still getting arrested. Sentencing reforms mean some people won't do as much time as they did in the past, but people are still getting arrested. And the drug war industrial complex, with all its institutional inertia and self-interest, rolls on. If we want to actually end the drug war, we're going to have to stop arresting people for drugs. That would be a real paradigm shift.

Chronicle AM: MD Sees First MedMJ Sale, PA Pays for False Drugged Driving Arrest, More... (12/4/17)

Lots of medical marijuana news today, plus Pennsylvania has to pay out for a bogus drugged driving arrest that saw a man jailed for five months, and more.

Medical marijuana sales started last Friday in Maryland. (Creative Commons)
US Surgeon General Says Medical Marijuana Should Be Treated Like Other Drugs. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said last Friday that marijuana should be treated and studied like other pain relief drugs, but that he was opposed to recreational legalization. "Under medical marijuana, I believe it should be like any other drug," he said. "We need to let the FDA vet it, study it, vet it. The FDA has actually approved cannabidiol oil and some derivatives of marijuana, Marijuana is not one substance. It's actually over 100 different substances, some of which benefit, some of which are harmful."

Arkansas Regulators Set Timeline. The Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission announced last Friday that medical marijuana cultivation licenses would be issued in about three months, and dispensary licenses would be issued three months after that. The date for announcing cultivation licenses is February 27; a firm date for dispensary licenses isn't set yet. The commission anticipates medical marijuana on dispensary shelves by the middle of next year.

Maryland Medical Marijuana Sales Begin. The first legal medical marijuana sale in the state took place last Friday, after years of delays. A handful of dispensaries have received shipments of medical marijuana, while others said they expected to come online soon. The state's first legal pot crop was grown this fall.

Montana Medical Marijuana Providers, Patients Oppose New Regulations. At a hearing last Thursday at the Department of Public Health and Human Services, patients and providers complained that proposed regulations would place significant cost and time burdens on them. Among provisions criticized were high licensing fees and requirements for extensive product-safety testing.

Ohio Gets Sued Over Commercial Grower Application Process. One day after the state announced its choices for a second batch of commercial cultivation licenses for medical marijuana, one of the losers in the process has filed a lawsuit challenging the scoring process for applications. The state law allowing medical marijuana sets a September 8, 2018 deadline for sales to begin, the timetable is already tight, and any further delays could put that date in doubt.

Hemp

Wisconsin Governor Signs Hemp Bill. Gov. Scott Walker (R) last Thursday signed into law a bill that allows farmers in the state to grow hemp. Under the bill, hemp plants can't contain more than 0.3% THC, and no one with a drug conviction can be a hemp farmer.

Law Enforcement

Pennsylvania Pays $150,000 for Falsely Jailing Man as Suspected Drugged Driver. The State Police will pay $150,000 to a New York Hispanic man who was jailed for five months even though he passed Breathalyzer and field sobriety tests and subsequent blood testing showed no presence of alcohol or illegal drugs. Wilfredo Ramos sued for false imprisonment and false arrest. He lost his car, his job, and his apartment while sitting in the Lehigh County Jail for months even after test results came back.

International

Australia Federal Government Gives Up on Welfare Drug Testing Scheme. Federal Social Services Minister Christian Porter confirmed Monday that he was removing drug testing of welfare recipients from the government's welfare reform bill in the face of stiff opposition from experts and elected officials. Porter said he didn't want to sacrifice the entire welfare piece to controversy over the drug testing provision.

Swedish High Court Rejects Medical Necessity Defense for Growing Marijuana Plant. The Supreme Court has ruled against a man who grew marijuana to treat neuropathic pain from a motorcycle accident, as well as for anxiety and depression. The man had been acquitted of cultivation charges in August by a lower court, but an appellate court reinstated the conviction, and now the Supreme Court has echoed that decision. The court did suggest that the parliament could amend laws to allow for medical marijuana, and it went relatively lightly on the patient, fining him $616 and giving him no jail time.

Two NYPD Cops Charged with Raping Teen After Busting Her for Marijuana

A New York City grand jury indicted two Brooklyn narcotics officers late last week on charges they raped an 18-year-old woman after arresting her for smoking marijuana. The alleged victim says she was assaulted while handcuffed in the back of a police van in the parking lot of a Chipotle restaurant in September.

The two narcotics officers, Eddie Martins and Richard Hall, now face charges of first degree rape. The alleged victim, who posts on social media under the name Anna Chambers, including posts about the case, says that both narcs forced her to perform oral sex on them, and that one of them raped her. She alleges that she and two young men were pulled over by Martins and Hall for smoking pot, and that they targeted her after finding prescription drugs in the car. The narcs told her companions to leave before ordering her to undress so they could "search for drugs."

They didn't find any drugs on her, but handcuffed the teen anyway before coercing her into sex, her attorney, Michael David, told the New York Post.

"You'll spend three hours in the precinct," they allegedly told her. They also allegedly said: "This is what you're going to do for us, and we'll let you go," David said.

"There was zero consent," David said. "The cops were over 6 feet tall. She's very petite, like 5-2 and maybe 100 pounds. There's nothing she could do."

The grand jury issued the indictments October 26 after hearing a week of testimony, including testimony on the stand from Chambers herself. The narcs were not arrested upon indictment, but are expected to turn themselves in this week. They have been placed on modified duty and stripped of their guns and badges and are now suspended without pay. They're looking at between three and 25 years in prison if convicted.

The detectives, from NYPD's Brooklyn South narcotics squad, have not denied that they engaged in sex acts with the alleged victim, but claimed they were consensual. They also spent the past week trying to discredit and impugn their accuser.

In a letter to prosecutors, lawyers for the narcs pointed out that she had filed a $50 million claim against the city in October and that she had posted "provocative" selfies on her Instagram and Twitter accounts after the assault. The lawyers called on prosecutors "to further investigate Chambers' dubious claim before you ask the grand jury to return an indictment against Martins and Hall."

Chambers furiously rejects the narcs' claim that the sex was consensual, her lawyer said.

"She was shocked that the [cops] would say it was consensual after everything that was done to her. She wanted to get the word out," David explained. 'She just wants everybody to know it's an absolute lie that this was consensual. She was raped. She was viciously, brutally raped in handcuffs. It's the truth," he said.

"She's embarrassed," David continued. "She's very depressed over this. Her whole life had changed after this experience. She's afraid of the police, and she really wants justice to be served here."

After the attack, Chambers did what victims are supposed to do: She sought help at NYU Langone Hospital, which performed a rape kit on her that found the cops' DNA. She reported a sexual assault to police. She confided to friends after it happened. And she filed a civil lawsuit. And now, the criminal justice system swings into action against the perpetrators.

One of the reasons the war on drugs is so loathed is that it provides the opportunity for crooked cops to abuse their power in ways that have been alleged in this case. One wonders how many similarly abused women have not come forward.

New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM: Dallas Ends Marijuana Possession Arrests, Drug Czar Nominee Names, More... (10/18/17)

Dallas gives up on arresting pot possessors, the DOJ gives up on prosecuting the Kettle Falls Five, there's a new list of possible drug czar nominees, and more.

No more small-time pot arrests in Big D. (Wikimedia Commons)
Marijuana Policy

Pro-Legalization Congressman Plans to Target Anti-Marijuana Lawmakers. Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-OR), one of the leading advocates for marijuana legalization on Capitol Hill, told a cannabis industry meeting Tuesday that he is taking the offensive against lawmakers who try to block marijuana reform measures. And his first target is House Rules Committee Chair Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), who has used his position to block numerous marijuana measures. "We're going to be putting up some billboards in Pete Sessions's district. It's going to feature a veteran and ask the question why Pete Sessions doesn't want him to have access to his medicine," Blumenauer said in remarks reported by Marijuana Moment. "We're going to make the point that there are consequences. This is not a free vote. People are going to take a position one way or another. And if they are going to be part of an effort to deny people access to medicine that can be transformational… this is going to be part of the political landscape this year."

New Hampshire Legalization Commission Meets, Hears Criticism. At the first meeting of a legislative commission charged with studying the effect of marijuana legalization, advocates criticized the commission's makeup and said it was squandering an opportunity for an honest review of issues around legalization. "Sadly, the commission includes staunch opponents of reform such as the Association of Chiefs of Police and New Futures, but supportive organizations such as the ACLU-NH were excluded in the language of the final bill," said Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana, in remarks reported by NH1. "Additionally, none of the six legislators who were appointed to the commission has ever publicly expressed support for ending marijuana prohibition."

Dallas to Join Other Major Texas Cities in Not Arresting Pot Possessors. A decade ago, the state legislature passed a law allowing police to ticket and release people caught with up to four ounces of marijuana, yet only a handful of localities have taken advantage of that law. Now, Dallas is one of them. The city council voted 4-1 Tuesday night to allow police to just issue tickets, joining Austin, Houston, and San Antonio.

Medical Marijuana

Justice Department Drops Kettle Falls Case, Concedes It Is Blocked From Prosecuting. The DOJ Tuesday filed a motion to stay the case of the Kettle Falls Five, a group of Washington state medical marijuana patients and producers who had been pursued and prosecuted after a 2012 raid. In the filing, Justice Department officials conceded that an amendment barring the use of federal funds to go after medical marijuana in states where it is legal blocked them from proceeding with the case.

Arkansas Regulators Swamped With Applications, May Push Back Licensing to 2018. Deluged with applications to grow and sell medical marijuana, the state Medical Marijuana Commission has set December 15 when it will start receiving applications, but says even that date could be pushed back as hundreds of applications come in. That means there's still no approximation of the data medical marijuana will actually be available on store shelves in the Razorback State.

Asset Forfeiture

Justice Department Sets Up Oversight Unit for Asset Forfeiture Program. Attorney General Sessions is setting up a Justice Department unit to oversee the equitable sharing asset forfeiture program, which allows state and local law enforcement to let the federal government "adopt" their cases so they can avoid state laws that limit where the proceeds go. Former Attorney General Eric Holder had stopped the controversial program, but Sessions reinstated it, calling it an "extremely valuable" tool for law enforcement. In a memo Tuesday, Sessions ordered Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to name a director to review the policy and take action if needed.

Drug Policy

With Marino Out, Here Are Possible Drug Czar Nominees. There's a short list of possible nominees to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy after Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA) was forced to withdraw over his championing of a bill blocking the DEA from going after opioid pain pills it suspected were being diverted from legitimate medicinal use. Among the possibilities are former New Hampshire Republican congressmen Frank Guinta, who headed a congressional heroin task force; Trump opioid commission member and Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Bertha Madras, outgoing New Jersey Gov. Christ Christie (R), who heads the opioid commission; Florida Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi, and acting ONDCP head Richard Baum.

Foreign Policy

Trump Extends US "Emergency" Regarding Colombia Drug Trafficking. The White House announced Monday that it is maintaining a national emergency over the "extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy" posed by Colombian drug traffickers. The "emergency" has been in effect since 1995, and allows the government to quickly free up funds to protect threatened interests. Colombia is the home of the vast majority of cocaine consumed in the US.

Chronicle AM: Houston Quits Trying "Trace Amount" Drug Cases, US Chides Colombia, More... (9/28/17)

San Antonio quits arresting small-time pot violators, Houston quits prosecuting folks caught with trace amounts of drugs, Vermont begins pondering how to do pot legalization, the US chides Colombia on coca and the FARC, and more.

With moves in Houston and San Antonio, change is coming to the Lone Star State.
Marijuana Policy

Vermont Marijuana Commission Begins Legalization Study. The state Marijuana Advisory Commission is holding its first meeting today. The commission is charged with studying the best way to legalize marijuana in the state. Gov. Phil Scott (R) empaneled the commission after vetoing a legalization bill in May. In his veto message, Scott said he wasn't opposed to legalization, but had concerns about underage use and impaired driving. The commission is set to report back to the legislature in January.

San Antonio to Quit Arresting People for Pot Possession. Authorities in Bexar County (San Antonio) announced Wednesday that they will no longer arrest small-time marijuana and other misdemeanor offenders, instead issuing them citations. People cited must complete a program before charges are dismissed. San Antonio now joins Harris County (Houston) and Dallas in enacting policies to no longer arrest small-time pot offenders.

Medical Marijuana

Michigan Lawmakers Seek to Keep Dispensaries Open. As the state prepares to shift to a new regime allowing licensed dispensaries, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs has tentatively asked all existing dispensaries to shut down by December 15 and seek licenses. But some legislators have filed House Bill 5014, which would allow dispensaries to stay open while their license applications are pending before the department. A Senate version of the bill is expected to be filed shortly.

Law Enforcement

Houston Stops Prosecuting Cases of Trace Amounts of Drugs. Harris County (Houston) District Attorney Kim Ogg has quit pursuing thousands of "trace drug" cases, where people are charged with drug possession based on drug residues left in baggies or syringes. Ogg actually quietly implemented the policy in July, but has gone public with it now. The move will save the county the cost of prosecuting somewhere between 2,000 and 4,000 felony cases each year.

Sentencing

New House Bill Creates Incentives to Reduce Crime, Incarceration at Same Time. Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-CA) filed the Reverse Mass Incarceration Act of 2017 on Wednesday. Companion legislation, Senate Bill 1458, was filed in June by Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). The bill would essentially reverse the 1994 crime bill, which provided incentives to states to increase prison populations. It would instead pay states to decrease incarceration rates through incentivizing grants.

International

US Ambassador to Colombia Says FARC Has Not Complied With Peace Deal. "The FARC have not complied, in my opinion, with their obligations under the agreement," US Ambassador to Colombia Kevin Whitaker said during a recent interview with El Tiempo. Whitaker claimed the leftist rebels continued to encourage coca cultivation in some parts of the country and said they should not be involved in government-sponsored crop substitution programs. Whitaker's comments are in line with other US officials, who have become increasingly critical of the peace deal between the FARC and the government as coca and cocaine production have increased in the past two years.

Philippines Claims It Doesn't Allow Extrajudicial Killings in Drug War. In a statement released as Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano met in Washington with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Philippines government denied it had a policy of killing suspected drug users and dealers. "Contrary to media reports, Cayetano also clarified to Tillerson that the Philippines does not have a state policy allowing extrajudicial killings, especially of illegal drug suspects," the statement read. The statement also welcomed further cooperation with Washington and reiterated the "seriousness" of the country's "drug problem." Thousands of people have been killed since President Duterte unleashed his drug war, but the Philippines claims it only kills suspects who were violently resisting arrest.

Drug Arrests, Marijuana Arrests Both Up Last Year, FBI Reports [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and first appeared here.f

Despite spreading marijuana legalization and despite a growing desire for new directions in drug policy, the war on drugs continues unabated. According to the FBI's latest Uniform Crime Report, released Monday, overall drug arrests actually increased last year to 1.57 million, a jump of 5.63% over 2015. The increase includes marijuana arrests, which jumped by more than 75,000 last year compared to 2015, an increase of 12%.

The war on drugs rolls on. (Wikimedia)
That comes out to three drugs arrests every minute, day in and day out, throughout 2016. It's also more than three times the number of people arrested for violent crimes. Drug offenses are the single largest category of crimes for which people were arrested last year, more than burglaries, DUIs, or any other criminal offense.

Unlike previous years, this year's Uniform Crime Report did not immediately make available data on specific offenses, such as drug possession or drug sales, nor did it break arrests down by type of drug, but the Marijuana Policy Project obtained marijuana arrest data by contacting the FBI. It reported some 653,000 people arrested on marijuana charges last year, although the FBI did not provide data on how many were simple possession charges.

While that figure marks a decline from historic highs a decade ago -- pot arrests peaked at nearly 800,000 in 2007 -- the sharp jump in pot arrests last year demands explanation, especially as it comes after a decade of near continuous declining numbers.

"Arresting and citing nearly half a million people a year for a substance that is objectively safer than alcohol is a travesty," said MPP communications director Morgan Fox. "Despite a steady shift in public opinion away from marijuana prohibition, and the growing number of states that are regulating marijuana like alcohol, marijuana consumers continue to be treated like criminals throughout the country. This is a shameful waste of resources and can create lifelong consequences for the people arrested."

While the majority of drug (and other) arrests are conducted by local law enforcement, DEA helps, too. (justice.gov)
Despite the lack of specific offense data, 2016 is unlikely to turn out markedly different from previous years when it comes to the mix of drug arrests. Past years typically had simple drug possession offenses accounting for 85% to 90% of all drug arrests and small-time marijuana possession arrests accounting for around 40%.

That means that of the more than 1.5 million drug arrests last year, probably 1.3 million or so of them were not drug kingpins, major dealers, gangbangers, or cartel operatives. Instead they were people who got caught with small amounts of drugs for personal use.

"Criminalizing drug use has devastated families across the US, particularly in communities of color, and for no good reason," said Maria McFarland Sánchez Moreno, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Far from helping people who are struggling with addiction, the threat of arrest often keeps them from accessing health services and increases the risk of overdose or other harms."

Perpetuating the war on drugs leads not only to the criminalization of millions, but also perpetuates racially biased outcomes and heightens racial tensions in the US. Black people make up just 13% of the U.S. population and use drugs at similar rates to other ethnic groups, but they constitute 29% of all drug arrests and 35% of state drug war prisoners.

And it has a huge negative impact on immigrants, fueling mass detentions and deportations. Non-citizens, including legal permanent residents -- some of whom have been here for decades and have US citizen family members -- face deportation for even possessing any drug (except first-time possession of less than 30 grams of marijuana). Between 2007 and 2012, more than a quarter million people were deported for drug offenses, including more than 100,000 deported for simple drug possession.

Last year, the Obama administration was in power and setting the tone on drug policy and criminal justice matters -- and the number of arrests still went up. These disappointing numbers show that reformers have their work cut out for them all the more with the "tough on crime" Trump administration in power for at least the next few years.

Chronicle AM: FBI: Drug Arrests Up Last Year, Colombia Coca Conflict, More... (9/25/17)

The FBI's latest Uniform Crime Report shows an increase in drug arrests last year, there's conflict in the coca fields in Colombia, British Columbia gets set to figure out how it's going to handle legal weed, and more.

There were more than 1.5 million drug arrests last year, an increase of more than 5% over 2015. (Wikimedia)
Medical Marijuana

Florida Medical Marijuana Law Challenged By Black Farmer. A state law designed to ensure that at least one medical marijuana cultivation license is reserved for a black farmer has been challenged by a black farmer. Panama City farmer Columbus Smith filed suit last Friday to challenge the law, arguing that it is so narrowly drawn that only a handful of black farmers in the state could qualify. The lawsuit names as a defendant the state Department of Health, which issues licenses, and seeks a temporary injunction blocking the issuance of licenses under that provision of the law.

Montana Dispensary Owner Wins Temporary Restraining Order to Block Billings Ban. Richard Abromeit, the co-owner of Montana Advanced Caregivers in Billings, and a patient filed a temporary restraining order against the city last Friday in a bid to block city officials from enforcing its new ordinance banning medical marijuana businesses. Now, the city cannot enforce the ban until a future court hearing decides the issue. The dispensary has operated in Billings for a decade, but city fathers voted last month to approve an ordinance that bans all medical marijuana businesses.

Law Enforcement

FBI Annual Crime Report Shows Jump in Drug Arrests Last Year. Despite the spread of marijuana legalization and strong public support for new direction in drug policy, the war on drugs just keeps rolling along. Statistics from the FBI's annual Uniform Crime Report, released Monday, show 1.57 million arrests for drug law violations nationwide, up 5.63% over 2015. Unlike previous reports, this year's report did not make immediately available data on arrests for specific drugs, such as marijuana. But in recent years, simple pot possession along accounted for about 40% of all drug arrests. Drug possession (either or pot or other drugs) accounted for between 85% and 90% of all drug arrests in previous years.

International

British Columbia Begins Public Engagement Process on How to Legalize Marijuana. BC Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General Mike Farnworth has announced that the government is beginning an extensive process of public consultation about how best to legalize weed in the province. Questions to be determined include the legal age for use, what possession limits will be, how to deal with drug impaired driving, and issues around personal cultivation. The consultation will also address questions around how weed is to be sold. Canada is set to implement marijuana legalization on July 1, 2018.

Colombia Coca Farmer Protests Force Temporary Halt to Forced Eradication in Norte de Santander. Government officials and coca growers agreed last Wednesday on a temporary halt to forced eradication of coca crops in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander state in the country's northwest. The agreement came after protests the previous weekend led to clashes and road blockades. Under the peace agreement negotiated between the government and leftist FARC rebels, coca farmers are supposed to have a chance to voluntarily eradicate their plants and join a crop substitution program, but the protestors said the anti-narcotics police, who are under pressure from the US, were engaging in forced eradication anyway.

In Bid to Defend Marijuana Arrests, NYC Mayor de Blasio Attacks Drug Reformers

Last month, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) released a report noting that marijuana arrests under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio continue to be marked by shocking racial disparities, much as they were under his predecessors, Rudy Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg. Stung by the criticism, de Blasio is fighting back, but his response so far has consisted of attacking DPA as "legalizers" and comparing apples to oranges.

New York City still has a marijuana arrest problem under Mayor de Blasio. (Wikimedia)
The DPA report, Unjust and Unconstitutional: 60,000 Jim Crow Marijuana Arrests in Mayor de Blasio’s New York, noted that while marijuana possession arrests are down under de Blasio from the grotesque numbers achieved under Giuliani (more than 40,000 arrests in 2001) or Bloomberg (more than 50,000 arrests in 2011), NYPD still arrested made more than 18,000 of them last year. A whopping 86% of them were black or brown, maintaining the racial disparities so apparent in earlier administrations.

That's "a far cry from the Mayor's pledge to rein in NYPD's targeting of people of color," charged DPA New York State Director Kassandra Frederique in the report. That de Blasio had managed to bring pot arrests down to an average of only 20,000 a year during his tenure shouldn't be portrayed as progress, argued Frederique, instead describing it as "slower injustice, but slower injustice is still injustice delivered."

De Blasio struck back last Friday, releasing a statement that called the DPA report "misleading" and attacked DPA as "a group committed to legalization." De Blasio's statement emphasized that marijuana arrests had dropped significantly under his administration -- something DPA never disputed -- but failed to address the claim of continuing racial disparities in arrests. Instead, it merely noted that because arrests were down overall, arrests of black and brown people were down, too.

But the takeaway sentence in de Blasio's statement inadvertently makes DPA's case:

As a result of this new policy, arrests for marijuana possession are down 37%  -- from almost 29,000 in 2013 to approximately 18,000 in 2016. This has translated into approximately 9,600 fewer arrests of Black and Latino New Yorkers for marijuana possession in 2016 as compared to 2013.

In other words, a reduction of less than 11,000 total marijuana arrests between the two years resulted in about 9,600 people of color not being arrested. De Blasio's own data and arguments show that the city's minorities clearly take the brunt of marijuana law enforcement, his wriggling notwithstanding.

And now, DPA is returning fire at de Blasio.

"Mayor de Blasio is not disputing the data published in our report, he is trying to spin his poor record to look as though he has made some progress," Frederique said in a Friday press release. "In reality, New York City was the marijuana arrest capital of the world under Bloomberg and still holds that dubious title under de Blasio today. The 18,000 arrests in 2016 alone and outrageous racial disparities are a disgrace to the city and a blight on the mayor’s record. The unjust and racially-targeted arrests are devastating black and Latino communities across the city."

Frederique also applied some political ju-jitsu to de Blasio's "legalizer" attack.

"The mayor’s efforts to discredit the report and the Drug Policy Alliance by calling us legalizers, is a desperate attempt to distract the public from the facts of his abysmal record. Our report is based on data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Rather than attack his critics, the mayor should attack the problem of racially-targeted arrests," she said. "For the record, the Drug Policy Alliance is committed to marijuana legalization to increase access for patients and end targeted policing in communities of color. And we’re not alone; nearly 60% of Americans also support legalization."

Instead of attacking critics, the mayor should fix the problem, Frederique added.

"It’s time for the mayor to get out of the spin cycle and back to work," she prescribed. "The mayor must end the biased policing practices that have ruined the lives of so many young black and Latino New Yorkers now."

New York, NY
United States

Chronicle AM: Dark Web Drug Sales Site AlphaBay Busted, Owner Kills Self in Jail, More... (7/14/17)

AlphaBay is history, Nevada moves to ease its legal pot shortage, the White House opioid commission misses a deadline -- again -- and more.

Marijuana Policy

Nevada Regulators Approve Emergency Measures to Ease Pot Shortage. The state Tax Commission voted Thursday to let the Department of Taxation to again determine whether limiting marijuana transport licenses to licensed alcohol distributors would result in a shortage of legal marijuana distributors. If the department does make that determination, it could then award transport licenses to previous medical marijuana distributors. "When businesses operate we get the tax revenue and that's what the state wants," testified Deonne Contine, director of the Department of Taxation. "We need to do everything we can to get more distributors licensed so these businesses can continue operating."

Industrial Hemp

Utah Regulators Give Initial Approval for Hemp Research Grows. The state Agricultural Advisory Board on Thursday gave initial approval to a new rule that would allow limited marijuana cultivation for research purposes. The rule would allow anyone with a permit to grow industrial hemp. State universities are already able to cultivate hemp for research purposes under the 2014 federal Farm Bill, but this rule now expands who can grow the plant. The rule is open for public review through the summer and if finalized, would allow the state to begin issuing permits next January.

Heroin and Prescription Opioids

White House Opioid Commission Again Misses Deadline. The president's Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis, led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), will miss a second deadline for filing an interim report. Under a Trump executive order establishing the commission, the panel had until June 27 to file its interim report, but failed to do so and said it would on July 17. Now, in a notice printed in the Federal Register Friday, the commission said it would reschedule its July 17 call until July 31, again missing its deadline. The commission has until October 1 to issue a final report.

Law Enforcement

Dark Web Giant AlphaBay Busted, Owner Hangs Himself in Thai Jail. AlphaBay, one of the largest drug sales websites on the Dark Web, has gone dark. It wasn't, as some suspected, a scam and rip-off by the owners, but the result of a joint law enforcement operation by police in Canada, the US, and Thailand. Canadian citizen Alexandre Cazes, identified as AlphaBay's owner, was arrested July 5 in Thailand, where he owned three luxurious homes. He was found hanged in a Thai jail cell Wednesday.

Drug War Issues

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