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Narc Scandal Front and Center in Florida Sheriff Race [FEATURE]

Scandal has been brewing in the Pinellas County, Florida, Sheriff's Office over the possibly criminal misbehavior of some of its narcotics detectives, and Sheriff Bob Gualtieri, a Republican, has been trying to keep it from spinning out of control. But with his job on the line in November, his challengers, Republicans and Democrats alike, are making the scandal -- and the department's emphasis on busting marijuana grows -- issues with which to wound him in the campaign.

Narcotics deputies went above and beyond in their efforts to bust indoor marijuana grows (wikimedia.org)
Pinellas County sits on Florida's Gulf Coast and includes the city of St. Petersburg. For the last few years, it has been an epicenter of the state's prescription opioid epidemic, but despite the county leading the state in Oxycontin overdose deaths, some Pinellas County narcs were more interested in pot growers than pill mill merchants.[Editor's Note: At least one candidate for sheriff is challenging the conventional law enforcement narrative regarding opioid pain medications; see Scott Swope's comments on the topic at the end of this article.]

It all began when narcotics detectives with the sheriff's office hit on the bright idea of spying on a legal business -- a Largo hydroponics grow shop -- and taking down the license plate numbers of customers, and then snooping around to see what they could find. At least four detectives were involved in surveillance that apparently crossed the line into illegality by trespassing on private property without a warrant, by disguising themselves as utility company workers, and by subsequently falsifying search warrant affidavits (they would claim to have smelled marijuana from the street, when they had actually trespassed to find evidence).

They would have gotten away with it if not for tenacious defense attorneys. But things began to unravel last year, when the attorney for Allen Underwood, who had been arrested in a grow-op bust, filed a complaint saying that Underwood's surveillance cameras had recorded one of the detectives hopping over his fence. The detective ordered the surveillance video deleted, and the sheriff's office found no evidence of wrongdoing by its man.

Next, Largo defense attorney John Trevena charged in a case that one of the detectives had donned a Progress Energy shirt and cap to gain warrantless access to a private property. The detective first denied it under oath, then admitted it. At the time, Gualtieri attributed the deception to "over-exuberance" by a young detective.

Then, in February, Tarpon Springs attorney Newt Hudson questioned one of the detectives under oath about whether he ever saw his dope squad colleagues trespass. Under questioning, the detective admitted that he and one of the other detectives had once broken down a fence to enter a yard of interest.

"That was the game changer," Sheriff Gualtieri told the Tampa Bay Times last month as he announced he was launching a criminal investigation of the four detectives. "Misconduct will not be tolerated and we will hold accountable any member of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office who acts contrary to the law," Gualtieri said. "The ends never justify the means."

Embattled Sheriff Bob Gualtieri (bobforsheriff.com)
Three of the detectives have resigned, and Gualtieri fired the fourth, but it might be too late to undo the damage to local law enforcement and to Gualtieri's own political prospects. At least 18 pending marijuana grow prosecutions have been halted, and Gualtieri and Chief Assistant State Attorney Bruce Bartlett said they also will review charges against about two dozen other defendants who previously pleaded guilty, were convicted or accepted plea bargains.

And Gualtieri has been repeatedly pummeled by challengers over the scandal. Not only the sole Democrat in the race, Palm Harbor attorney Scott Swope, but Gualtieri's Republican challengers, most notably former Sheriff Everett Rice, have criticized his handling of the affair. The Republican primary, which Gualtieri hopes to survive, is set for August 14.

"They shouldn't have been investigating the store to begin with," Swope told the Chronicle. "As far as criminal activity is concerned, we have bigger fish to fry than trying to catch people who are purchasing grow lamps. It was absolutely ridiculous."

Especially given that the sheriff's office had had to cut $100 million from its budget and eliminate 600 positions, including the cold case unit and sexual predator tracking, Swope said, alluding to the severe financial straits in which the department and the county found themselves.

"When I'm at a campaign presentation and tell people that they had detectives for surveilling this business selling legal equipment, but not for human trafficking or cold cases, everyone hears that and goes 'wow,'" Swope said. "It's an argument that has some traction."

Swope also criticized the leisurely pace of Gualtieri's internal investigation.

"The internal investigation took way too long," said Swope. "When you have an assertion that one of your detectives is trespassing to obtain evidence, falsifying ID to obtain evidence, falsifying affidavits, then destroying evidence, that needs to take precedence over every other internal investigation, and it didn't. When Gualtieri first went on the record, he said he didn't believe it; he just dismissed it, at least initially."

For Rice, who served as sheriff for 16 years until 2004, the pot grow scandal was an indication of misplaced priorities in Gualtieri's department.

"How is it that Pinellas and Pasco County became the pill-mill capital of the world in the last three or four years," Rice asked at a candidates' forum this spring, "and meanwhile we're spying on people who have hydroponic materials?"

Rice was still on the attack last month, telling the Tampa Bay Times that problems in the department are not limited to the pot grow scandal, but also include reports of slipshod internal investigations, narcotics sergeants claiming pay while monitoring detectives from home, and possible thefts.

"The question is,'' said Rice, "how did that culture come about in the first place? I think people realize that a Sheriff Rice wouldn't put up with such things,'' Rice said.

Except that he did. During his time in office, one of Rice's narcotics detectives gathered evidence of a pot grow illegally and lied about it under oath. He also fabricated evidence for a search warrant by calling in his own "anonymous tip." In another case, deputies used an informant to get a search warrant without revealing that the informant's wife was having an affair with the suspect. Pinellas judges tossed a number of pot grow cases over police misconduct during Rice's reign, and one detective was prosecuted for perjury.

One of the cases tossed was against Randy Heine, a Pinellas Park smoke shop owner. In that 1997 bust, deputies raided Heine's home and seized two pounds of pot, but a judge threw out the case, finding that deputies had resorted to "gross, material misrepresentation of the facts'' in their search warrant application.

Heine, a perennial gadfly on the local scene, has also become a harsh critic of Pinellas-style drug law enforcement. He was briefly a candidate in the sheriff's face before dropping out after failing to pay a filing fee. That leaves Swope, Gualtieri, and Rice.

Democratic challenger Scott Swope (swopeforsheriff.com)
For Swope, Gualtieri and Rice are birds of a feather -- traditional lawmen who don't think twice about the futility and expense of continuing to fight the war on marijuana. He offers a different vision, one that includes marijuana decriminalization and, eventually, legalization and regulation.

"Florida should go the way of more than a dozen other states and decriminalize," he said. "Then the sheriff's office wouldn’t have to expend limited resources trying to catch people in possession of small amounts. That would make it so those young people don't have a criminal record, they're still eligible for student loans, they can get jobs. It's a bit of a shocker for some of my audiences, but when you think about it, it makes perfect sense to save tax dollars by not investigating and prosecuting possession of small amounts."

A marijuana bust of 20 grams or less is a misdemeanor in Florida, but it means a trip to jail, booking, and waiting to get bonded out. It also uses up law enforcement man-hours during arrest, booking, detention, and prosecution. Florida should and will decriminalize eventually, Swope said, but he wouldn't wait for the legislature to act if elected.

"As sheriff, I can't tell the legislature what to do, but I would have some influence over the county commission. I could lobby them to enact an ordinance making possession of less than 20 grams an ordinance violation," he explained. "That way, instead of deputies having to arrest people and put them in the criminal justice system, they could just issue an ordinance violation ticket, and the fines would go to Pinellas County.

Swope was philosophically open to legal, regulated marijuana sales, but wasn't pushing it as a campaign position. First things first, he said.

"From the perspective of this campaign, the majority of the population believes medical marijuana should be legal, and I do, too," he explained. "Decriminalization and regulation similar to alcohol and cigarettes, well, that's a bit more of a progressive position. I think it's going to be a two-step process: Make medical marijuana legal, and after enough time, and people realize these folks aren't committing crimes, then it's time for step two."

Swope also had an interesting perspective on the pain pill and pill mill issue.

"Pinellas County had a very serious problem with pain pills, we led the state four straight years in Oxycontin deaths, and it's still a serious problem, but unfortunately, when they really ramp up the pain pill mill enforcement, the pendulum can swing too far the other way," he noted. "There is a potentially serious negative impact on doctors and pharmacies trying to help people who need the help. If Florida were a little more progressive and had a medical marijuana law, perhaps many could treat themselves with that instead of narcotics."

The one-time deputy's drug war positions are winning him support outside of traditional Democratic constituencies, including Libertarian Party figures ranging from county stalwarts to presidential nominee Gary Johnson.

"I have the endorsement of the Libertarian Party here, and that has some of the Democrats scratching their heads. I just explain that I'm a lawyer familiar with the Constitution, I'm progressive-thinking and understand and appreciate the value of personal liberty and what the Constitution means and I will make damned sure the sheriff's office abides by the Constitution."

Pinellas County has 3,000 more registered Democrats than Republicans, but most county offices, including the sheriff's, have been in Republican hands for decades. A victory for Democratic challenger Scott Swope in November would not only break the GOP's stranglehold on elected office in Pinellas, it could also bring a fresh new perspective to Florida law enforcement.

Meanwhile, Sheriff Gualtieri has just unleashed an offensive against "fake pot."

(This article was published by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also shares the cost of maintaining this web site. DRCNet Foundation takes no positions on candidates for public office, in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, and does not pay for reporting that could be interpreted or misinterpreted as doing so.)

St. Petersburg, FL
United States

NYPD Police Officer Indicted in Ramarley Graham Killing

Ramarley Graham
A New York City police officer has been indicted on manslaughter charges in the Bronx shooting death of 18-year-old Ramarley Graham. Graham, a young black man, was shot and killed in the bathroom of his own home after a team of NYPD narcotics officers followed him home, broke in, and confronted him.

When he was killed in February, Graham was the eighth person to die in drug law enforcement activities so far this year. That number is now up to 28. The indictment of NYPD Officer Richard Haste is the first of any officer in any of those deaths.

Although the indictment has not been officially unsealed, the New York Times reported that a grand jury has indicted Haste, 30, on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter. More charges could be pending.

Graham was shot and killed after he and a pair of friends caught the attention of narcotics officers who had staked out a bodega on White Plains Road. They radioed their colleagues and said they believed he had a gun in his waistband as he walked toward his home. Officer Haste dashed to the scene, broke into Graham's apartment, and shot and killed him in his bathroom.

No weapon was found, but police did say they found marijuana in a plastic baggie in the toilet bowl, suggesting Graham may have been trying to get rid of the evidence to avoid becoming another New York City pot bust statistic.

The shooting has provoked anger in the community and led to numerous calls for justice for Graham and other victims of overzealous policing in the city. It has also focused attention on the aggressive tactics of the NYPD's Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, teams of officers who surreptitiously surveil the streets looking for drug deals before bursting in to bust dealers and customers.

The Graham shooting has focused attention on the aggressive tactics of the Police Department’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Units -- teams of six or seven officers who hide on rooftops or in parked cars as they scan the streetscape for drug transactions before swooping in to arrest dealers and customers. Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered a review of the units' tactics, but the results of that review have not been released.

The last time NYPD officers were indicted for killing a resident was when three of them riddled Sean Bell's body with bullets as he attended his pre-wedding party in 2007. Those officers were eventually found not guilty.

New York, NY
United States

South Carolina Man Dies in Custody of Narcotics Officers

A 46-year-old South Carolina man died in police custody last Tuesday after being arrested for selling cocaine. Rodney Andrew Haymon of Westminster becomes the 26th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to official sources, Haymon was arrested after selling cocaine to undercover narcotics officers. He was cooperating with officers while riding with them to another location as part of a drug investigation. Haymon was sitting in the front seat of the patrol car and was not handcuffed. According to officer reports, he "chugged" a bottle of water, then was "chugging" a bottle of Gatorade when he went into what officers described as a seizure.

Officers on the scene carried out CPR, and an ambulance was called to the scene. Haymon was transported to a local hospital where he died, just under two hours from the time of his arrest.

An autopsy last Wednesday revealed no physical injuries that would have caused his death. The coroner found that he had two fractured ribs, but said they were consistent with CPR efforts, which include sharply compressing the chest.

The coroner said he had heard rumors Haymon had been Tasered or otherwise injured, but there was no evidence of that. He said that he is awaiting toxicology reports to see whether Haymon ingested something that could have caused his death.

Haymon's family said he had no history of seizures.

Seneca, SC
United States

Jacksonville Police Kill Armed Man in Drug Raid

A Jacksonville, Florida, narcotics detective shot and killed an armed man during a drug raid aimed at arresting a small-scale crack dealer last Thursday. Juan Montrice Lawrence, 40, becomes the 22nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year, and the third in a one-week period.

According to the Florida Times-Union, citing Jacksonville Sheriff's Office spokesman John Hartley, detectives had spent six weeks buying crack out of an apartment in the Casa del Rio St. Johns complex, and, after making one last purchase at the apartment door Thursday afternoon, a "take-down team" attempted to arrest their target, Nathaniel Phillip Hill, 39.

But Hill struggled, and the officers were pulled into the apartment as they took Hill to the floor. A second male, later identified as Hill's teen-age son, was also tackled. At that point, veteran narcotics Detective Valentino Demps saw Lawrence standing in a hallway with a gun in his hand. Demps ordered Lawrence to drop the gun, then shot him twice when he did not comply.

"He gave multiple commands for the suspect to drop the gun. He refused to obey the commands," Hartley said. "He was shot at least twice, once in the face, once in the hip."

Lawrence was taken to Shands Jacksonville Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Witnesses described seeing officers in black uniforms and ski masks gathered at the apartment complex.

By Friday, police had identified Lawrence as an "armed felon" whose previous convictions including carrying a concealed weapon and cocaine possession and were saying that the decision to shoot him had probably saved several officers' lives.

"If he'd let him get down that hallway, we could have three or four dead officers at the scene," Hartley said. "Certainly he [Lawrence] was ready to fire on them."

Nathaniel Hill was arrested and charges with distribution of cocaine and possession of a firearm by a convicted felon. An ounce of cocaine, a pistol, and rounds of ammunition were seized at the apartment. Hill's teenage son was detained, but later released without charges.

Jacksonville, FL
United States

DEA Agent Kills Man in Cartel Murder-for-Hire Sting

An unnamed DEA agent in Laredo, Texas, Saturday shot and killed one of four men he and other agents were trying to arrest as they wrapped up an undercover operation in which DEA agents posed as Mexican cartel members seeking assassins. The dead man, Jerome Corley, becomes the 18th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to Reuters, citing court documents filed Monday, undercover DEA agents working the months-long sting sent in an arrest team to detain the four men. One of the agents shot Corley repeatedly, killing him. The court documents provided no other details on the circumstances of the shooting.

The sting operation began in January 2011, when undercover DEA agents posing as members of the Zetas, a notoriously violent cartel originally composed of US-trained former Mexican elite soldiers, were told by two men in South Carolina that Corley's cousin, Kevin Corley, a lieutenant in the US military until two weeks ago, could sell them automatic weapons and ammunition.

As the months ticked by, the DEA agents developed the relationship with Kevin Corley, who told them he was an Army officer who trained soldiers and said he could put together a murder-for-hire ring to raid a South Texas ranch, kill the owner, and recover 20 kilograms of stolen cocaine. He said he and his cousin would carry out the hit for $50,000 and five kilos of coke.

Earlier this month, Kevin Corley sold three assault rifles, five stolen bullet-proof vests, and other equipment to an undercover DEA agent in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for $10,000, the court documents said. At that meeting, Corley discussed the pending hit, saying he had purchased a knife to carve a "Z" in the victim's chest and a hatchet to dismember his body.

At that point, the DEA decided to wrap things up and sent in its arrest team. The surviving members of the wannabe hit squad, including one active duty member of the US Army, are now in federal custody in Laredo and facing federal drug conspiracy and weapons charges.

Laredo, TX
United States

Fresno Cops Kill Armed Man Fleeing Meth Bust

Undercover Fresno, California, narcotic officers shot and killed a man in nearby Sanger Thursday after he first displayed a weapon, then attempted to run away in a drug bust gone bad. Noel Torres, 22, becomes the 16th person to be killed in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

Citing police sources, KSEE 24 TV News reported that the Fresno Police Major Narcotics Unit had arranged for an undercover informant to buy two pounds of methamphetamine from a man in a shopping center parking lot, and things went south once the deal went down.

The man had arrived in a vehicle with two other men, but pulled a gun as undercover officers moved in to make the arrest.

"Once the transaction was complete, undercover officers converged in an attempt to detain the three suspects, when one of the suspects produced a firearm in his hand," said Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer.

Dyer said the officers yelled at the man to drop his weapon, but he didn't and instead tried to flee on foot. He was shot by two officers as he ran and died shortly after at a nearby hospital. Three officers fired their weapons and are now on paid administrative leave while the investigation is underway.

The shooting is being investigated by the Fresno County Sheriff's Department, but comments by Sheriff Margaret Mims to KFSN TV News suggest it will be little more than a formality.

"In this case, the suspect made a bad choice," said Sheriff Mims. "He got out of the vehicle, he was in fact armed and the officers feared for their own safety and took action."

It is unclear whether the dead man was trying to rip off the drug-buying informant, thought he was about to get ripped-off himself as men in plain clothes moved in, or was trying to avoid being arrested.

The shooting took place in front of a crowded McDonald's restaurant. Investigators are interviewing some 80 potential witnesses. Alina Silva was one.

"We saw cops running and shooting and everybody was ducked down and then next thing you know, they shot a guy over there," she told KSEE TV 24 News.

Sanger, CA
United States

This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

Bad cops pay out big in New York, a sheriff cleans house in Florida, a sticky-fingered cop gets in trouble in North Carolina, and a California cop gets caught with his fingers in the dope jar. Let's get to it:

In Clearwater, Florida, the new Pinellas County sheriff is investigating his narcotics division, which Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said had become "too loose an operation." The unit has been criticized for conducting surveillance of customers at hydroponic grow stores and for one of its members donning a utility company uniform to seek warrantless entry to a suspected marijuana grow. Nine deputies have been investigated so far, with five disciplined, two with complaints found unfounded, and two still under investigation. In one case, a detective sought reimbursement for a $200 payment to a snitch, but "he never paid the informant." In another, a deputy back-dated a snitch payment receipt for another deputy who had failed to have the payment witnessed, as required by department policy. In another case, a deputy put department GPS devices on vehicles of his family members. In yet another case, a deputy erased a DVR hard drive seized in a marijuana bust because, he claimed, it might reveal the faces of undercover officers. But a local defense attorney said the tape would have shown deputies trespassing without a warrant. Gualtieri said he was "appalled" when shown court documents about the deputy wearing a utility company uniform, and that marijuana grow houses should not be the department's highest priority. Gualtieri has referred his findings to local prosecutors. Stay tuned.

In New York City, two Brooklyn undercover officers have been hit with a huge judgment for falsely arresting two brothers for selling cocaine. Brothers Jose and Maximo Colon were at a nightclub in Elmhurst in 2008 when plainclothes Officers Henry Tavarez, Steven Anderson and Alan Figueroa arrived. They were shortly joined by Det. Miguel Caraval, who told the Colon brothers they were under arrest. But security video footage from the club showed that the brothers had never talked to any of the police, and the charges were dismissed. Attorneys for the city suggested that one of the officers had planted cocaine on the pair. The brothers filed a civil rights lawsuit, which the city settled by paying them $150,000 each. Figueroa paid a nominal payment to the brothers for their settlements and charges were dismissed against Caraval. But Officers Tavarez and Anderson did not respond to their complaints, and were slapped last week with default judgments of roughly $210,000 each.

In Carlsbad, California, a Carlsbad police detective has been charged with two felony counts after being arrested in January. Detective Michael Koch, an 18-year-veteran, got caught stealing drugs from the evidence room by coworkers. He had heroin in his pocket when he got busted. He faces one count of felony burglary and one count of felony drug possession at his March 16 arrangement and is looking at up to 3 ½ years in jail. But he's still on paid leave, and still drawing his $72,000 a year salary.

In Smithfield, North Carolina, a former Benson police officer pleaded guilty Monday to charges that he'd stolen $850 cash that was evidence in a drug investigation. Randall William "Randy" Beasley, 43, was charged in January with obstructing justice and altering, destroying or stealing evidence of criminal conduct. As part of a deal with prosecutors, he pleaded guilty to misdemeanor larceny and obstructing justice, and the other charge was dropped. Beasley got sentenced to 18 months of supervised probation and ordered to perform 24 hours of community service. He also received two 45-day suspended jail sentences, so he won't serve time unless he violates probation.

Drug Cops Hatch Foolproof Plan to Arrest Every Teenager in America

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/marijuanaheart.jpg
In case you haven't heard the news yet, it looks like police are going to win the drug war after all. Violence and corruption are bad enough, but if they're capable of something as sickeningly devious as this, I'm not sure I see the point in dragging things out any further.

During an undercover marijuana sting at a South Florida school, a teenage boy began to fall for someone he thought was just another teenage girl.

But the boy's crush turned out to be an undercover police officer, who would later have him arrested for selling her marijuana she asked him to obtain for her.
...
The operation resulted in a total of 31 arrests in three different Florida schools. [Huffington Post]

How many people do you think she had to flirt with to make 31 arrests? My first guess would be 31. I mean, how hard can this be? Have you ever met a bored, lovesick teenager? It's a good thing all she asked him to do was get her some weed. 

Texas Officer in Drug Investigation Kills Armed Man

A member of a Parker County, Texas, combined task force shot and killed an armed man during a drug investigation Friday afternoon. The as yet unidentified man becomes the 12th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to Parker County Sheriff Larry Fowler, officers conducting a drug investigation on New Hope Road in the far northeast section of the county confronted two men and a woman. One man and the woman were stopped, but the second man fled, throwing packets of something on the ground.

That man then turned, assumed "a defensive position," and pointed a gun at the officers, Fowler said. "The officer called for him to stop," Fowler said. "He pointed a gun at the officer, and the officer shot him."

The man was pronounced dead at the scene. The other man was arrested, but the woman was released. A gun was found at the scene, Fowler said.

Fowler said police were in plain clothes, but with badges visible, and they identified themselves.

The officers involved were part of the Weatherford-Parker County Special Crimes Unit, which includes Weatherford police and Parker County sheriff's deputies, but the sheriff's office would not say which department the shooter worked for.

The Texas Rangers are investigating because it was an officer-involved shooting.

There is no word on what charges have been filed, if any, and what drugs, were found, if any.

Reno, TX
United States

Bronx Narc Kills Unarmed Teen

A NYPD narcotics officer shot and killed a Bronx 18-year-old Thursday as the teen was allegedly trying to flush drugs down a toilet in his own home. Ramarley Graham becomes the eighth person to die in US drug law enforcement operations so far this year, and it appears to have been over a small amount of marijuana.

Police told the Wall Street Journal the undercover narcs had already arrested two other men they watched allegedly selling drugs Thursday afternoon when they approached Graham. He ran to his home nearby, followed by police, and into a second-floor bathroom, where he was possibly trying to flush drugs, police said.

When an unidentified officer confronted him in the bathroom, Graham spun around, and, according to police, there was a struggle, and the officer then shot him in the chest. It wasn't clear what caused the officer to fire. Graham was pronounced dead at a local hospital. A small amount of pot was floating in the toilet bowl.

An earlier report from PIX-11 TV, however, had police telling local media Graham "made a motion near his waist leading them to believe he was armed" when he was still on the street. He wasn't, police have conceded.

Police were quick to tell local media about Graham's arrest record, which included busts for burglary, robbery, dealing marijuana, and other offenses. But they didn't say how those cases had been resolved or whether they were even aware of his identity when they shot him.

After the shooting, PIX-11 TV reported that "Graham's parents were at the White Plains Road intersection visibly agitated and a crowd of approximately 80 people were openly hostile towards police, berating officers lined up along the crime scene tape."

Graham's mother, Constance Malcolm, 39, told the Wall Street Journal, a neighbor had called her at work to tell her her son had been killed. Malcolm said her mother and her six-year-old son were also in the apartment during the shooting.

"The cops told me they were chasing him. He had weed, and that's it," Ms. Malcolm said. "Nobody deserves to be shot like that in their own house."

Bronx, NY
United States

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