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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.

How Reefer Madness Helped Kill Philando Castile

The Minnesota cop who was acquitted last week of killing Philando Castile used the fact that he smelled marijuana in the car as part of his defense. Whether Officer Jeronimo Yanez really believed Castile's presumed pot use made him more dangerous or whether the testimony influenced the jury's decision to acquit remains unknown, but its use in his defense illustrates the enduring power of the demonization of the plant and its users.

Castile's killing last year sparked angry demonstrations and made national headlines after his girlfriend, Diamond Reynolds, live streamed the immediate aftermath of the shooting on Facebook, with a bloodied, mortally wounded Castile moaning as Reynolds says "That police just killed my boyfriend, he's licensed, and he was trying to get his wallet out of his pocket, and he let the officer know he had a firearm and he was reaching for his wallet, and the officer just shot him in his arm."

In the video, Yanez is visibly agitated: "I told him not to reach for it; I told him to get hand up!" he yells.

"You told him to get his ID, sir," Reynolds responds, as her four-year-old daughter in the back seat attempts to comfort her. "Oh my God. Please don't tell me he's dead. Please don't tell me my boyfriend just went like that."

Castile did go just like that, though. He was pronounced dead at the Hennepin County Medical Center 20 minutes after Yanez opened fire, shooting seven bullets at him.

Dashcam video from Yanez's patrol car, not released until Tuesday, shows that it only took 30 seconds before Yanez opened fire.

(Click here to watch the video on YouTube.)

Yanez didn't mention marijuana in Reynolds' video, but in court transcripts of his testimony, Yanez said he opened fire on Castile in part because he could smell marijuana -- and he assumed that Castile had been using it in front of the child.

"I thought I was gonna die and I thought if he's -- if he has the guts and audacity to smoke marijuana in front of the five-year-old girl and risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her secondhand smoke, and the front seat passenger doing the same thing, then what -- what care does he give about me?" Yanez said.

The argument apparently is that smoking pot in front of kids makes you a stone cold killer. Never mind the hyperbole of "risk her lungs and risk her life by giving her second-hand smoke," in Yanez's mind, someone who would smoke pot around kids is not only endangering their lives, but would be willing to kill a cop over a pot charge or a broken taillight (the original reason for the traffic stop), and that justifies pumping Castile full of lead.

Police did later find traces of marijuana in the vehicle, and defense attorneys used that and the marijuana smell to also insinuate that Castile was so high he was slow to comply with Yanez's demands. That made Yanez even more suspicious, the defense claimed.

But Yanez's claims about secondhand smoke border on the bizarre. Yes, ingesting secondhand pot smoke can be harmful, but secondhand smoke is quite different from intent to harm a police officer. And the most notorious source of unwanted secondhand smoke is cigarettes, yet no one insinuates that smoking them around kids makes you more likely to be a cop-killer. Yanez and his defense attorneys were singing a Reefer Madness tune with this claim.

Despite Yanez's claims and phobias, pot smokers are no more likely to behave violently than non-users, and in fact, some research shows they are less likely to. A 2014 study in the journal Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that marijuana use among couples was associated with lower risk of domestic violence.

Philando Castile was black. That was strike one. He was armed (and admitted it). That was strike two. And he was a pot smoker. That was strike three. Reefer Madness, either in the mind of Officer Yanez or the minds of the jurors, or both, helped kill Phil Castile.

Watch: Minnesota Drug Task Force Cop Assaults Motorist

Worthington, Minnesota, resident Anthony Promvongsa, 21, had a run-in with an angry motorist as he drove through the streets of town last July 28. Promvongsa went on his way, but that agitated motorist -- who turned out to be an off-duty cop -- called on his colleagues to go after the young man, and this is what happened:

(Click here to watch the video on YouTube.)

The cop doing the cursing, kicking, and punching in the video is Agent Joe Joswiak, a city of Worthington police officer and a member of the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force.

"I had no idea what was going on when I was approached and attacked by this officer," Promvongsa said in a statement released Thursday by the ACLU. "I did not even have the opportunity to take off my seatbelt before I was literally blindsided with this unnecessary attack. I immediately pulled over for the Worthington squad car and before I knew what was happening, I was beat and ripped from my vehicle."

"I know I am not the first person to have this type of traumatic experience with law enforcement in Worthington," Promvongsa added.

Not only did Joswiak brutalize the young man, he and local prosecutors then charged Promvongsa with multiple felonies over the alleged traffic incident. He faces charges of fleeing in a motor vehicle and two counts of assault with a deadly weapon (his car), but, as the ACLU notes, "no matter what happened before the dashcam video began rolling, Anthony did not deserve to be abused by the police in this way."

Joswiak claims that Provongsa refused his order to leave the car, but the video makes clear Joswiak never gave him any chance to do so. Instead, the ACLU notes, "it shows a textbook case of excessive force."

There was no mention of any drug offense in original police reports, although police searched Promvongsa's vehicle after assaulting him. Later in the video, Joswiak can be heard hopefully asking Promvongsa "Have you been in trouble with narcotics?" He received a negative response.

The ACLU says it and Promvongsa are weighing their options, and calls on the Worthington Police and the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force "to immediately investigate the incident, take all appropriate personnel actions, and ensure this never happens again." It also calls for Agent Joswiak to be "held accountable for his actions, up to and including termination and prosecution."

The ACLU's concern that "this never happens again" suggests that it has happened before. "Based on additional complaints that we are receiving, this does not appear to be an isolated incident," the ACLU said. "Rather, there's evidence that racial profiling and police brutality are systemic problems that span the Worthington Police Department, Nobles County Sheriff's Office, and the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force as Worthington becomes a much more diverse city."

The incident has drawn the attention of US Rep. Tim Walz, who represents the area. "Like many Minnesotans, I found the video released today deeply disturbing," he said in a statement Thursday. "I have had a chance to speak with local officials and leaders in the community and believe all parties are passionate in pursuing justice. I will continue closely monitoring this situation. Addressing situations like this one in our communities and in Minnesota is an absolute necessity and we are all in this together."

The Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force, Worthington Police Department and the Nobles County Attorney's Office issued a joint press release Thursday afternoon that amounted to hunkering down and evading the issue of excessive force altogether.

"The July 28, 2016 video released by ACLU is one piece of evidence in a pending criminal case," the release begins. "Release and discussion of evidence in pending criminal cases is limited by the data practices law and criminal court procedural rules. The video, viewed in a vacuum, shows only a short segment of the incident that is the basis of the criminal charges."

"Because the case is now awaiting a jury trial date, the Buffalo Ridge Drug Task Force, Worthington Police Department and the Nobles County Attorney's office feel it is inappropriate to comment further."

The Buffalo Ridge Drug Task force lauds itself for "aggressive enforcement" and brags about "seizures of vehicles, firearms, jewelry, and large amounts of cash." But now it's becoming known nationwide because of the "aggressive enforcement" actions of one of its officers.

Worthington, MN
United States

Not One Step Back: Drug Policy Reformers and African American Academics Convene in the South

This article was published in collaboration with Alternet and first appeared here.

Hundreds of members of the Atlanta community and dozens of the nation's leading advocates for drug policy reform gathered in a groundbreaking meeting over the weekend. The meeting aimed at building alliances with the African American community to both advance smart public health approaches to drug policy and maintain and protect existing reforms in the face of hostile powers in Washington.

Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, Rep. Maxine Waters, asha bandele
Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, Georgia State University's Department of African American Studies, the Morehouse School of Medicine, Amnesty International, The Ordinary People's Society, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and Peachtree NORML, "Not One Step Back" marked the first time the drug reform movement has come to the historically black colleges of the South and signals the emergence of a powerful new alliance between black academics and reform advocates.

The event included a series of panels filled with activists, academics, and public health experts, including Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrice Cullors and VH1 personality and best-selling author Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, and was highlighted by a keynote address by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).

To the delight of the audience, "Auntie Maxine" slammed the drug war as aimed only at certain communities while those making fortunes at the top of the illegal drug trade go untouched. The representative from South Central reached back to the days of the crack cocaine boom to make her case.

"The police did everything you think wouldn't happen in a democracy," she said, citing illegal raids and thuggish behavior from the LAPD of then-Chief Darryl Gates, the inventor of the SWAT team. But if low-level users and dealers were getting hammered, others involved went scot free.

"Something happened to devastate our communities," she said, alluding to the arrival of massive amounts of cocaine flowing from political allies of the Reagan administration as it waged war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. "The CIA and DEA turned a blind eye," Waters argued. "If you're the CIA and DEA, you know who the dealer is, but they take the lower-level dealers and let the big dealers keep selling drugs."

"Ricky Ross did time," she said, referencing the South Central dealer held responsible for unleashing the crack epidemic (with the help of Nicaraguan Contra connections). "But those big banks that laundered all that drug money -- nobody got locked up, they just have to pay fines. But for them, fines are just a cost of doing business. Even today, some of the biggest banks are laundering money for drug dealers," Waters noted.

"We have to defend our communities; we don't support drugs and addiction, but you need to know that people in high places bear some responsibility. One of the worst things about the drug war is that we never really dealt with how these drugs come into our communities," Waters added.

The selection of Atlanta for the conclave was no accident. Georgia is a state that incarcerates blacks for drug offenses at twice the rate it does whites. While blacks make up only a third of the state's population, they account for three-quarters of those behind bars for marijuana offenses.

The state has the nation's fourth-highest incarceration rate, with a prison population on track to grow 8% within the next five years, and one out of every 13 adults in the state are in prison or jail or on probation or parole.

Atlanta is also the powerhouse of the South -- the region's largest city, and one that is increasingly progressive in a long-time red state that could now be turning purple. And it is the site of the Drug Policy Alliance's International Drug Policy Reform Conference -- the world's premier drug reform gathering -- set for October. What better place to bring a laser focus on the racial injustice of the drug war?

"The drug war is coded language," said Drug Policy Alliance senior director asha bandele. "When the law no longer allowed the control and containment of people based on race, they inserted the word 'drug' and then targeted communities of color. Fifty years later, we see the outcome of that war. Drug use remains the same, and black people and people of color are disproportionately locked up. But no community, regardless of race, has been left unharmed, which is why we are calling everyone together to strategize."

And strategize they did, with panels such as "Drug Reform is a Human Rights Issue," "This is What the Drug War Looks Like: Survivors Speak," "Strength, Courage, and Wisdom: Who We Must Be in These Times," and "Dreaming a World: A Nation Beyond Prisons and Punishment."

While denunciations of white privilege were to be expected, the accompanying arguments that capitalism plays a role in perpetuating oppression and inequality was surprisingly frank.

"We have to dismantle both white supremacy and capitalism," said Eunisses Hernandez, a California-based program coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We need to reach a place where trauma is dealt with in a public health model. The current system of law enforcement, prisons, and jails doesn't do anything for us."

"We're in agreement here," said Dr. Hill. "We have to eliminate white supremacy and capitalism."

That's not something you hear much in mainstream political discourse, but in Atlanta, under the impetus of addressing the horrors of the war on drugs, the search for answers is leading to some very serious questions -- questions that go well beyond the ambit of mere drug reform. Something was brewing in Atlanta this weekend. Whether the initial progress will be built upon remains to be seen, but the drug reformers are going to be back in October to try to strengthen and deepen those new-found bonds.

Atlanta, GA
United States

Chronicle AM: States' Rights Marijuana Bill Filed, Trouble in Morocco's Rif, More... (2/8/17)

A federal bill to let states experiment with marijuana policy is back, CBD cannabis oil and medical marijuana study bills advance at the statehouse, trouble is bubbling up in Morocco's hash-producing regions, and more.

California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher is again introducing a bill to give states the lead on marijuana policy. (house.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Republican Congressman Files Federal Bill to Let States Set Own Marijuana Policies. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) Tuesday filed House Resolution 975, the Respect State Marijuana Laws Act. The bill would resolve conflicts between state and federal laws by exempting people and entities from certain provisions of the Controlled Substances Act if they are acting in compliance with state laws. Rohrabacher authored similar legislation in the last Congress, garnering 20 cosponsors, including seven Republicans.

Minnesota Legalization Bill Filed. Rep. Jon Applebaum (DFL-Minnetonka) filed a bill Wednesday to legalize marijuana for recreational use. "Minnesotans are rightfully developing different attitudes on marijuana," Applebaum said in a news release. "Other states' successes, along with the failed prohibition attempts of others, validated the need for a statewide conversation," he added. The bill is not yet available on the legislative website.

Medical Marijuana

Georgia Bill to Lower THC Levels, Add Autism Advances. A bill that would add autism to the list of qualifying conditions for using CBD cannabis oil, but would also lower the amount of THC in cannabis oil was approved by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. Medical marijuana advocates like Senate Bill 16 for its autism provision, but don't want the lower THC provision. The bill would drop allowable THC levels from 5% to 3%.

Utah House Passes Medical Marijuana Research Bill. The House voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to pass House Bill 130, which would allow universities in the state to study medical marijuana. The bill is a fallback after legislators retreated from earlier plans to push an actual medical marijuana bill. The bill now advances to the Senate.

Wisconsin Senate Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Bill. The Senate voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to approve a bill allowing for the use of CBD cannabis oil to treat seizures. Senate Bill 10 now heads to the House.

Sentencing

Maryland Bill Would Set Criminal Penalties for People Who Sell Drugs Linked to Fatal Overdoses. A bill that would set criminal penalties of up to 30 years in prison for people who sell heroin or fentanyl where "the use of which is a contributing cause to the death of another" has been filed in the House. The measure, House Bill 612, aims not only at the person who directly sold the drug, but also anyone in the supply chain. It's scheduled for a committee hearing on February 28.

International

Morocco Drug Control Policy Sparking Unrest in Country's North. The death of an illegal fish vendor in November has sparked months of widespread protests and unrest in Morocco's Rif, but that unrest has been brewing for years thanks to a lack of economic development and the government's harsh treatment of cannabis growers, one of the few economic activities available to area residents: "This situation in which Rifans are left with few other economic options than to engage in illicit activities and risk criminal sanctions is aggravated by the harsh provisions of the Moroccan narcotics law. While drug use is punished with two months to one year in prison, the law allows for up to 30 years for drug trafficking offenses. The average sentence is around 10 to 15 years, even for minor, non-violent offences."

Philippines President Insults Former Colombia President Over Drug Policy Criticisms. Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte called former Colombian President Cesar Gaviria "an idiot" for publishing an article in the New York Times criticizing Duterte's murderous crack down on drugs. "To tell you frankly... they say that Colombia leader has been lecturing about me. That idiot," Duterte said.

Colombia Gives Land Titles to Families Abandoning Coca Crops. The Colombian government announced Monday it will grant land titles to some 10,000 peasant families that have given up on coca production. The program will take place in southern Cauca, Nariño and Putumayo provinces, where about half the country's coca is grown. The move comes after the government and the leftist guerrillas of the FARC agreed to a crop eradication and substation program last month.

Interview: Marc Mauer on Criminal Justice Reform in the Trump Years [FEATURE]

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

For nearly half a century, America has been in the grip of incarceration fever. Beginning with the "law and order" campaigns of Richard Nixon, reprised by Ronald Reagan's "war on drugs," and seemingly carried on by inertia through the Bush-Clinton-Bush era, the fever only began to break in the last few years.

The Sentencing Project's Marc Mauer (Human Rights Project/Bard College)
For the first time in decades, we have not seen the ever-increasing uptick in the number of people behind bars in the United States. After the incredible expansion of imprisonment that made the land of the free the unchallenged leader in mass incarceration, the US prison population may have finally peaked. Small declines have occurred in state prison populations, and the federal prison population, fueled largely by drug war excess, is stabilizing.

Much of the progress has come under the Obama administration, but now, there's a new sheriff in town, and he doesn't seem remotely as reform-friendly as Obama. What's going to happen with sentencing reform and criminal justice under Trump and the Republicans?

To try to find some answers, we turned to someone who's been fighting for reform for decades now, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington, DC-based nonprofit committed to working for a fair and effective criminal justice system by promoting reforms in sentencing policy, addressing unjust racial disparities and practices, and advocating for alternatives to incarceration.

Drug War Chronicle: When it comes to sentencing reform, we're likely in for a rough ride these next few years with tough-talking Trump in the White House and Republicans in control of both houses of Congress. But before we look forward to what may come, it's worth looking back at where we've been and what's been accomplished in the last eight years. How did sentencing reform do under Obama?

Marc Mauer: I think we saw very substantial reform, both in terms of actual policy changes that have made a real difference, but also in terms of a change in the political environment, which is really critical for long-term reform.

We saw substantial changes coming out of Congress, the White House, and the US Sentencing Commission. In Congress, probably the most substantial piece of legislation was the Fairness in Sentencing Act of 2010, which reduced -- but didn't eliminate -- the crack vs. powder cocaine sentencing disparity.

But changes put in place by the Sentencing Commission have had the largest impact. It amended the sentencing guidelines to reduce punishments for drug offenders, which affected an estimated 46,000 people currently serving federal drug sentences. Of those, about 43,000 have seen their cases reviewed, with 29,000 getting sentence reductions and 14,000 getting denied. These are going to be rolling reductions -- for people who might have had three years left, the guidelines change might knock that down to six months; for people doing 30 years, it might knock it down to 27. They still have a long way to go, but not as far as before. This is having and will have the most significant effect.

The Obama White House was very active on sentencing reform, too. Obama commuted more than 1,700 federal prison sentences, a third of those life sentences, typically for third-time drug offenses, and that has a very significant effect. They've also done a number of initiatives around re-entry, collateral consequences, "ban the box" policies, and the like.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recently issued guidance to employers about when it is and isn't appropriate to use prior criminal records when considering employment applications. The administration set up an interagency reentry council that brought together a number of cabinet agencies to see what they could do to have an impact on easing reentry.

There's been a congressional ban on inmates using Pell grant education funds, which only Congress can overturn, but the Obama administration created a pilot Pell grant program and was able to restore some funding on a research basis. The estimate is that about 12,000 incarcerated students will be able to take advantage of that.

President Obama meets with federal prisoners, El Reno, Oklahoma, 2015 (whitehouse.gov)
DWC: Now, it's a new era, and Jeff Sessions appears set to become our next attorney general. He was something of a player on criminal justice issues in the Senate; what's your take on what to expect from him on sentencing and criminal justice reform?

MM: I'm not overly optimistic. He's been supportive of some criminal justice reform in the past, most notably the Fair Sentencing Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act -- that involved a left-right coalition that felt prison rape was a bad thing, and provided money for research, training, and oversight as ways to reduce prison rape and sexual assault.

But in other areas, he's pretty much a hardliner. He was one of a handful of Republicans who vocally opposed sentencing reform legislation that was moving through Congress last year. He's one of the reasons the bill never got a Senate floor vote, even though it had passed out of the Judiciary Committee.

He's expressed skepticism about the work of the Civil Rights Division at Justice, particularly toward the consent decrees that it has imposed on cities and police departments making them agree to try to deal with tensions police law enforcement and African-American communities. That wasn't a pro- or anti-law enforcement approach; we have a real problem, and we need to get the parties working together. Getting law enforcement and local officials to agree that we have a problem is a very important tool to address a very serious problem.

To just say as Sessions does that he supports law enforcement doesn't get us very far. What do we do when law enforcement isn't doing the right thing, when it's violating people's rights? This will be very problematic.

And he continues to express support for harsh sentencing. It will be very interesting to see what perspective he has on what federal prosecutors should do. Eric Holder directed US Attorneys to change their charging practices in low-level drug cases so that people with minimal criminal histories wouldn't be hit with mandatory minimum sentences when possible. We haven't heard from Sessions whether he will keep that in place, or overturn it, or come up with something else. That will be critical. Attorneys general have swung back and forth on this.

DWC: That sentencing reform bill died last year, in part because of election year politics. Now the campaigns are over, but the Republicans control Congress. What are the prospects for anything good happening there now?

MM: There is some hope for sentencing reform. Among the Republican leadership, both Sen. Chuck Grassley, head of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and House Speaker Paul Ryan have publicly expressed a desire to see criminal justice reform go through this Congress. It's not entirely clear what that would look like -- would it look like last year's bill or only contain some aspects? -- but it is encouraging that they're voicing support for moving in that direction. Clearly, the big question is how the White House responds.

DWC: That is the big question. So, what about Trump? What do you foresee?

MM: Well, during the campaign, Trump called himself the law and order candidate, and he's been a vocal proponent of the death penalty and other tough measures, so that isn't encouraging. And if Sessions becomes attorney general, he would be involved, too, and that doesn't bode well for sentencing reform. Whether he makes this a priority issue or lets his GOP colleagues on Capitol Hill take the lead will tell us a lot about the prospects.

DWC: With Trump and a Republican Congress you're facing a different political constellation than you were last year. How does that change your work, or does it?

MM: It doesn't change much in the day-to-day work. To make criminal justice reform work, we've always needed to make it bipartisan. It's been too sensitive and too emotional for so long that it's just not going to work unless it's bipartisan. That worked with crack sentencing and some other sentencing reform measures moving through Congress, and we are just going to continue the work. We meet regularly with congressional offices.

When it comes to justice reform issues, the political environment has shifted from the days of just "lock 'em up." There is growing and substantial support for reform from the right, not uniformly, but there is enough commonality of purpose that there is a good base for some kind of legislative change. That doesn't mean it's going to be easy, though.

DWC: Our conversation has focused so far on the federal level, but it's the states -- not the feds -- who hold the vast majority of prison inmates. How are things looking at the state level, and what impact do you thing the new order in Washington will have at the statehouse?

The states have begun reducing their prison populations. (nadcp.org)
MM: Unlike issues like health care, criminal justice is primarily a state and local issue, and over the last 10 or 15 years, there has been significant forward momentum. Overall, the state prison population has declined modestly, but in a handful of states they have achieved reductions of 25% or 30% over this period. And they did it on their own; this wasn't inspired by Washington.

And this wasn't just a blue state phenomenon. The state with the most substantial prison reduction was New Jersey with 31% -- under Christ Christie, who was generally supportive. Other states that saw big reductions were California, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New York, but also Mississippi. We've also seen reforms enacted in places like Georgia and South Carolina, and Republican governors have been supportive.

It's quite likely the momentum we see at the state level will continue to a significant extent. At that level, policymakers are closer to the issue, and money issues are more relevant -- states actually have to balance their budgets. And by now, a number of states have had good experiences with reducing prison populations, with no adverse effects on public safety. The public has been supportive, or at least not opposed.

DWC: So, where do we go from here?

MM: Our goals and our strategy largely remain the same. We have to speak to broad audiences and work both sides of the aisle. Most importantly, we have to remember that criminal justice reform has never been easy. For several decades, we spent a good part of our careers trying to explain why tough on crime policies are counterproductive. It's been a long battle, but it's come to the point where the public environment has been shifting in a more rational, compassionate direction.

We have to build on the hard work that's been done. Now, we have Black Lives Matter and related grassroots activity, which has really spread quite quickly, creating a broader demand for change from the ground up. Some political leaders lead, but many follow; the more active support there is around the country, the more politicians have to respond.

Still, going backwards is quite possible. What happens to the commitment to civil rights? What happens to sentencing policy? If not actual backward movement, probably at least a halt to work around reentry programming in prisons and the like. That would be a real shame. We have made significant progress, the field has a much greater store of knowledge about what works and what doesn't. We are ready to try to expand on that; it would be extremely foolish in terms of public safety not to take advantage of that.

2016: People Still Killed in US Drug War at the Rate of One a Week [FEATURE]

With 2016 now behind us, it's time for some year-end accounting, and when it comes to fatalities related to drug law enforcement, that accounting means tallying up the bodies. The good news is that drug war deaths are down slightly from last year; the bad news is that people are still being killed at the rate of about once a week, as has been the norm in recent years. There were 49 people killed in the drug war last year.

This is the sixth year that Drug War Chronicle has tallied drug war deaths. There were 54 in 2011, 63 in 2012, 41 in 2013, 39 in 2014, and 56 in 2015, That's an average of just a hair under one a week during the past six years.

The Chronicle's tally only include deaths directly related to US domestic drug law enforcement operations -- full-fledged, door-busting, pre-dawn SWAT raids, to traffic stops turned drug busts, to police buy-bust operations. Some of the deaths are by misadventure, not gunshot, including several people who died after ingesting drugs in a bid to avoid getting busted and two law enforcement officers who separately dropped dead while.

Many of those killed either brandished a weapon or actually shot at police officers, demonstrating once again that attempting to enforce drug prohibition in a society rife with weapons is a recipe for trouble. Some of those were homeowners wielding weapons against middle-of-the-night intruders who they may or may not have known were police.

But numerous others were killed in their vehicles by police who claimed suspects were trying to run them down and feared for their lives when they opened fire. Could those people have been merely trying to flee from the cops? Or were they really ready to kill police to go to avoid going to jail on a drug charge?

Which is not to understate the dangers to police enforcing the drug laws. The drug war took the lives of four police officers last year, one in a shootout with a suspect, one in an undercover drug buy gone bad, one while doing a drug interdiction training exercise at a bus station, and one while engaged in a nighttime drug raid over a single syringe. That's about par for the course; over the six years the Chronicle has been keeping count about one cop gets killed for every 10 dead civilians.

Here are December's drug war deaths:

On December 7, in Dallas, Texas, Keelan Charles Murray, 37, shot and killed himself as local police operating as part of a DEA drug task force attempted to arrest him for receiving a package of synthetic opioids. Police said they were clearing the apartment when they heard a gunshot from upstairs. A Duncanville police officer then shot Murray in the shoulder, and Murray then turned his own gun on himself. Murray was locally notorious for having sold heroin to former Dallas Cowboy football player Matt Tuinei, who overdosed on it and died in 199. Dallas Police are investigating.

On December 11, in White Hall, West Virginia, Marion County police attempting to serve a drug arrest warrant shot and killed Randy Lee Cumberledge, 39, in the parking lot of the local Walmart. Police said they spotted Cumberledge's vehicle, but when they approached and ordered him to show his hands, he put his vehicle into gear and "drove aggressively" toward a deputy. Both the deputy and a White Hall police officer opened fire, killing Cumberland. There was no mention of any firearms recovered. The West Virginia State Police are investigating.

On December 12, in Byron, Georgia, member of a Peach County Drug Task Force SWAT team shot and killed Rainer Smith, 31, when he allegedly opened fire on them with a shotgun as they forced their way into his home to arrest him. Smith wounded two Byron police officers before return fire from police killed him. Police said no one answered the door when they arrived, so they forced their way in, and were immediately met by gunfire. Smith's live-in girlfriend and infant daughter were in the home with him. They were uninjured. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation is investigating.

On December 21, in Knox, Indiana, Knox Police shot and killed William Newman, 46, as they attempted to arrest him for possession of methamphetamine, failure to appear for dealing meth, and violating parole. Police said Knox attempted to flee, almost running down an officer, and they opened fire. He died in a local hospital hours later. The Indiana State Police are investigating.

Seven More Drug War Deaths

When police in Charlotte, North Carolina, shot and killed Keith Lamont Scott in September in an incident that began when they spotting him rolling a joint in his car, the city was shaken by angry protests. Part of it was that he was another black man gunned down by police; part of it was undoubtedly because video taken by Scott's wife as her husband was killed went viral.

Most drug war-related deaths don't get so much attention, but they happen with depressing regularity. The Drug War Chronicle has been tallying them since 2011, and throughout that period, drug war deaths have remained fairly constant, averaging about one a week throughout that period.

The good news is that this year it looks like we're not going to reach that one a week threshold. The bad news is we're still going to get close. With less than a month to go, the Chronicle's tally this year has reached 45.

Here are the seven people killed by police enforcing drug laws since the Scott killing. At least three of them were killed as they attempted to flee police in their vehicles, including one where a bystander video shows police opening fire after he posed no obvious immediate danger to police.

On September 27 in Phoenix, Arizona, a Phoenix police officer shot and wounded John Ethan Carpenter, 26, who died of his wounds a week later. Police were tailing Carpenter as part of a drug investigation and had arranged a drug deal with him. He pulled up to a convenience store parking lot next to an undercover cop who was part of the investigation, and other officers then blocked his vehicle in with a marked police cruiser. When officers approached on foot, Carpenter reportedly pulled a hand gun and pointed it at them. When they retreated, he put his vehicle in reverse, ramming the police cruiser, and the undercover narc then "feared for the safety of his fellow officers" and opened fire. Drugs were found in the vehicle. Carpentier had previously done prison time for aggravated assault and drug paraphernalia (!?).

On October 19, in Willoughby, Ohio, a Willoughby police officer shot and killed Frank Sandor, 38, as he attempted to speed away from two officers questioning him in the parking lot of a Lowe's Home Improvement store. Sandor was wanted on drugs and escape warrants and first gave officers false information when they stopped him, then put his vehicle in reverse, striking a police motorcycle parked behind him before driving off. A YouTube video posted shortly after the incident shows the motorcycle officer shooting three times at Sandor's vehicle as it fled -- after the officer was no longer in any immediate danger. That video showed the officer limping after he fired the shots. Sandor's vehicle rolled to a halt a few yards away. The Ohio Bureau of Investigation is conducting the investigation of the shooting.

On October 25, in Elkton, Maryland, state police attempting to serve a Delaware drugs and guns arrest warrant at a local motel shot and killed Brandon Jones and Chelsea Porter, both 25, when, instead of surrendering to the dozens of police surrounding the motel, they came out of their motel room with guns pointed at police. Jones came out first, refused demands to drop the weapon, and was shot. Then Porter did the same thing. The shooting will be investigated by Maryland State Police, as is protocol when any police action results in a death.

On November 3, in Salisbury, North Carolina, a member of the Salisbury Police's SWAT-style Special Response Team shot and killed Ferguson Laurent, 23, as the team executed a "no-knock" search warrant looking for drugs, guns, and stolen property. "One subject fired at least one shot at the officers," said an official statement from the department. "Officers returned fire and struck the subject who has since passed away at the hospital." The officer who shot Laurent was identified as K. Boehm. Boehm shot and killed another suspect in 2008; that killing was found to be justified. Word of the killing spread rapidly and a "tense" crowd gathered at the scene, leading Police Chief Jerry Stokes to warn that while people had a First Amendment right to protest, "if you start becoming violent and damaging property, then that is the problem." The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating the shooting.

On November 15, in Webster, Texas, members of the nearby Alvin Police Department Street Crimes Unit shot and killed Robert Daffern, 37, after locating the wanted drug felon at a motel. Police said they approached Daffern, but that he didn't comply with commands to surrender and instead brandished a pistol and aimed at one of the officers. The Alvin Police investigators then fired several rounds, leaving Daffern dead at the scene. Police found a second pistol in his pocket, and a "significant amount" of drugs and cash. The incident is being investigated by the Webster Police Department and the Harris County District Attorney's office and will be reviewed by a grand jury.

On November 28, in Hickory, North Carolina, a Catawba County sheriff's deputy with the narcotics division shot and killed Irecas Valentine, 41, during a "narcotics investigation." The sheriff's office said "an altercation occurred involving the unidentified suspect's vehicle and an undercover deputy's vehicle" and "shots were then fired by at least one deputy." Valentine died after being transported to a local hospital. The State Bureau of Investigation is investigating the case.

The Charlotte Killing That Sparked Civic Unrest Began With a Joint

The chain of events that led to the death of Keith Lamont Scott at the hands of Charlotte Metropolitan Police Department (CMPD) officers and days of civic unrest in North Carolina's largest city began with a joint, Charlotte police said Saturday.

the fateful, fatal joint (CMPD)
That makes Scott the 38th person to die in domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

In an official statement posted on the CMPD's Facebook page and during a press conference last Saturday afternoon announcing that the department was releasing some police body- and dash-cam videos of the fatal encounter, Charlotte police laid out a timeline of what occurred:

Two plain clothes officers were sitting inside of their unmarked police vehicle preparing to serve an arrest warrant in the parking lot of The Village at College Downs, when a white SUV pulled in and parked beside of them.

The officers observed the driver, later identified as Mr. Keith Lamont Scott, rolling what they believed to be a marijuana "blunt." Officers did not consider Mr. Scott's drug activity to be a priority at the time and they resumed the warrant operation. A short time later, Officer Vinson observed Mr. Scott hold a gun up.

Because of that, the officers had probable cause to arrest him for the drug violation and to further investigate Mr. Scott being in possession of the gun.

Due to the combination of illegal drugs and the gun Mr. Scott had in his possession, officers decided to take enforcement action for public safety concerns…

And Keith Scott ended up dead. According to his family, he was in his vehicle waiting for his son to get off the school bus. But because he was rolling a joint while waiting, and because police just happened to be engaged in an operation nearby, he caught the attention of the cops.

Even when police said they saw him hold up a gun, they used the joint-rolling as probable cause to investigate the presence of the gun. If not for marijuana prohibition, the whole unraveling of events, with dire consequences for Keith Scott, and lamentable ones for the city of Charlotte, most likely would never have occurred.

Charlotte, NC
United States

Donald Trump's Bizarre Explanation for Charlotte Unrest: "Drugs"

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

Donald Trumps blames unrest in Charlotte on "drugs." (Gage Whitmore/Wikipedia)
Donald Trump's efforts to reach out to the black community took yet another stumble-footed turn Thursday when he went off-script to blame the unrest shaking Charlotte this week not on police violence or racial inequality, but drugs.

"If you're not aware, drugs are a very, very big factor in what you're watching on television," the GOP contender claimed. He offered no evidence to support his claim.

Charlotte is only the latest American city to see outbreaks of street violence amid protests over the police killings of black men. In this case, it was the gunning down of Keith Scott Tuesday by an undercover Charlotte police officer. Scott's family maintains he was unarmed and holding only a book, while police say he was armed and they recovered a weapon at the scene. Police have so far refused to release body-cam video of the killing.

Casually blaming "drugs" for the community anger over the Scott killing is in line with Trump's effort to portray himself as a "law and order" candidate who will protect the black community. But that's a tough sell in minority areas where relations with police are, to put it mildly, fraught.

Trump is trailing Hillary Clinton by roughly 80 percentage points among African-American voters, and this is just the latest off-kilter attempt to woo them. Telling them they live in blighted communities hasn't worked, telling them they're living in the worst time ever for black Americans hasn't worked, relying on the likes of Don King hasn't worked. Blaming the unrest in Charlotte on "drugs" is unlikely to turn the tide, either.

But Trump is trying to make that "law and order" appeal.

"There is no compassion in tolerating lawless conduct. Crime and violence is an attack on the poor, and will never be accepted in a Trump Administration," he said at the beginning of remarks to the Shale Insight Convention. "Our job is not to make life more comfortable for the violent disrupter, but to make life more comfortable for the African-American parent trying to raise their kids in peace, to walk their children to school and to get their children a great education. We have to cherish and protect those people."

But then he ad-libbed his "drugs" remark, once again stereotyping the black community and contributing to the suspicion that his efforts to reach out to African-Americans are really aimed not at winning black votes but at convincing moderate Republicans and independents that he's not a racist.

And he followed up with a shoutout to law enforcement. He praised police for risking their lives, although he did acknowledge that they could make mistakes.

"Police are entrusted with immense responsibility, and we must do everything we can to ensure they are properly trained, that they respect all members of the public, and that any wrongdoing is always vigorously addressed," Trump said. "But our men and women in blue also need our support, our thanks, and our gratitude. They are the line separating civilization from total chaos."

And drugs.

(This article was prepared by StoptheDrugWar.org's lobbying arm, the Drug Reform Coordination Network, which also pays 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.)

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