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Teen Drug Use Survey Figures Spark Marijuana Debate [FEATURE]

This year's annual Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey on the habits of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders was released Wednesday, and most of the results were uncontroversial. But with two states having already legalized marijuana for adults and opinion polls suggesting more and more Americans are ready to move ahead with legalization, battles are raging over the numbers on teen marijuana use and what they mean.

The survey found that for most drugs, teen use levels are stable or declining. Synthetic marijuana use was down, as was cigarette smoking, alcohol drinking, and the use of inhalants, synthetic stimulants, prescription opioids, salvia divinorum, and hallucinogens other than LSD.

Drugs where teen use levels were stable included LSD; amphetamines; Adderall, specifically; Ritalin, specifically; ecstasy; cocaine; crack; heroin; methamphetamine; crystal methamphetamine; sedatives; tranquilizers; Rohypnol; Ketamine; and steroids. For most of these drugs, use levels even in 12th grade were quite low. For instance, 2.2% of seniors reported using LSD, 2.3% reported using Ritalin, and 4.0% reported using ecstasy.

When it comes to marijuana, 23% of seniors said they smoked in the month prior to the survey, 18% of 10th graders did, too, and so did 12% of 8th graders. Some 6.5% of seniors reported daily use, as did 4.0% of 10th graders, and under 2% of 8th graders.

It helps to put those numbers in historical perspective. All of the numbers are above the historic lows in teen drug use reported at the end of the Reagan-Bush era in the early 1990s, but well below the historic highs in teen drug use reported in 1979, just before the Reagan-Bush era began.

For seniors, the all-time low for monthly use was 11.9% in 1992, but the recent high was 23.1% in 1999. This year's 22.7% is actually a decline of two-tenths of a percent from 2012, and in line with figures for the past decade showing rates hovering in the upper teens and low twenties. It's a similar story at the younger grade levels.

The survey also found that the notion that regular use of marijuana is harmful is losing favor among teens. Only 39.5% of seniors saw it as harmful, down from 44.1% last year, and down significantly from views over the past two decades.

Despite the relative flatness of the marijuana use numbers, some warned that the sky is falling, cherry-picking the numbers and warming to favored themes to support their points of view.

Ever since Reefer Madness days, teen marijuana use has worried the grown-ups.
"Let these numbers be a wakeup call to parents and decision-makers alike," said Kevin Sabet, a former senior drug policy advisor in the Obama Administration now serving as the director of Project SAM (Smart Approaches to Marijuana). "There is no way to properly 'regulate' marijuana without allowing an entire industry to encourage use at a young age, to cast doubt on the science, and to make their products attractive -- just like Big Tobacco did for 50 years. Today's Big Marijuana is no different."

"These increases in marijuana use over the past few years are a serious setback in our nation's efforts to raise a healthy generation of young people," said Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. "Teens deserve to grow up in an environment where they are prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and drug use never factors into that equation. Today's news demands that all of us recommit to bolstering the vital role prevention and involved parenting play in keeping young people safe, strong, and ready to succeed."

"This is not just an issue of increased daily use," said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). "It is important to remember that over the past two decades, levels of THC -- the main psychoactive ingredient in marijuana -- have gone up a great deal, from 3.75% 1995 to an average of 15% in today's marijuana cigarettes. Daily use today can have stronger effects on a developing teen brain than it did 10 or 20 years ago."

Volkow also latched onto figures showing that 12% of 8th graders had tried marijuana in their lives.

"We should be extremely concerned that 12% of 13- to 14-year-olds are using marijuana," Volkow added. "The children whose experimentation leads to regular use are setting themselves up for declines in IQ and diminished ability for success in life."

In 2012, MTF added questions about where students obtain marijuana. In states that have medical marijuana, 34% of pot-smoking seniors said one of the ways they got their marijuana was through someone else's prescription (recommendation). And 6% said they got it with their own recommendation.

"A new marijuana industry is forming in front of our eyes, and make no mistake about it: they are delighted their customers -- today's youth -- consider their product safe," remarked former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy, a Project SAM cofounder. "The rise of legalization and medical marijuana has sent a message to young people that marijuana use is harmless and non-addictive."

But while the drug czar, Dr. Volkow, and Project SAM were sounding the tocsin about the threat of teen marijuana use, others reacted more calmly, taking solace from the findings that teen cigarette smoking and drinking, not to mention other drugs, had declined.

"These findings should put to rest any claims that reforming marijuana laws and discussing the benefits will somehow contribute to more teens using marijuana," said Mason Tvert, director of communications for the Marijuana Policy Project. "It's time for prohibition supporters to stop hiding behind teens when debating marijuana policy."

The declines in teen cigarette smoking and drinking show that regulation -- not prohibition -- is the way to address substance use, Tvert said.

"Regulation clearly works and prohibition has clearly failed when it comes to protecting teens," he argued. "Regulating alcohol and tobacco has resulted in significant decreases in use and availability among teens, and we would surely see similar results with marijuana. At the very least, this data should inspire NIDA and other government agencies to examine the possibility that regulating marijuana could be a more effective approach to preventing teen use."

Marijuana Use Fairly Stable, Annual Survey Finds

The annual Monitoring the Future survey of teen drug use is out, and anyone trying to use the numbers to argue that marijuana reform is causing a spike in teen pot-smoking is going to have a hard sell.

Here's what MTF had to say about teen marijuana use:

"Annual marijuana prevalence peaked among 12th graders in 1979 at 51%, following a rise that began during the 1960s. Then use declined fairly steadily for 13 years, bottoming at 22% in 1992 -- a decline of more than half. The 1990s, however, saw a resurgence of use. After a considerable increase (one that actually began among 8th graders a year earlier than among 10th and 12th graders), annual prevalence rates peaked in 1996 at 8th grade and in 1997 at 10th and 12th grades. After these peak years, use declined among all three grades through 2006, 2007, or 2008; after the declines, there began an upturn in use in all three grades, lasting for three years in the lower grades and longer in grade 12. In 2011 and 2012 there was some decline in use in grade 8, with 10th and 12th grades leveling in 2012. In 2010 a significant increase in daily use occurred in all three grades, followed by a nonsignificant increase in 2011. In 2012 there were non-significant declines for daily use in the lower grades and a leveling at 12th grade with use reaching 1.1%, 3.5%, and 6.5% in grades 8, 10, and 12, respectively."

The bolding is ours. There are short term ups and downs, but they seem to be of mainly rhetorical and polemical significance.

If you look at the handy tables at the end of the report, you see that combined lifetime marijuana use for all three grades (8, 10, and 12), was at 30.7% last year, about the same as it was in 1995 (31.6%) or 2005 (30.8%). Much happens, but little changes.

Ditto for annual use: 26.1% in 1995, 23.4% in 2005, 24.7% last year.

Ditto for monthly use: 15.6% in 1995, 13.4% in 2005, 15.1% last year.

Ditto for daily use: 2.7% in 1995, 2.9% in 2005, 3.6% last year.

The daily use figures could be alarming ("Daily Teen Pot Smokers Up 25% Since 1995"), except the trend-line is not steadily upward, but varies from year to year (it was 3.7% in in 2001 and 2.7% in 2007).

Look for some terrifying spin about how the numbers show the kids are going to pot. But when you look at the numbers more closely and over time, when it comes to teens and marijuana, meh, what's new?

Radel Hypocrisy Charge Doesn't Withstand Scrutiny

[Update: I've posted an improved version of this editorial in the Chronicle. Request links and likes there instead. - DB]

One of the top political stories this week is the recent bust for cocaine possession of Rep. Trey Radel, a Republican freshman congressman from Florida. Radel pleaded guilty today, and was sentenced to a year of supervised probation. As I write this piece, he is giving a press conference to apologize to the country and his family.

Trey Radel
Since the bust came to light, headlines have been circulating to the effect of Radel having voted for legislation to drug test food stamp recipients. I believe this is off base, because it is true only in a technical sense. As the body of the articles explain, what Radel voted for was an ultimately failed version of the Farm Bill, one of the major, recurring federal budget bills that get authorized every five years. It includes things like agricultural subsidies, funding for the food stamps program as a whole (now known as SNAP, Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, rather than "food stamps"), many other items. Drug testing of food stamp recipients was just one provision out of many in the bill, and a look at the bill's roll call shows that while it was mostly Republicans who voted for it, there were also some Democrats, including some liberals who almost certainly opposed the drug testing provision. Politicians frequently have to vote for bills that include provisions they don't like, because they want to larger package to pass.

The drug testing language was actually added to the bill through an amendment sponsored by Rep. Richard Hudson (R-NC), which was passed on a voice vote, no roll call. That means there is no way to know, at least from the official legislative record, what Radel's position on the amendment was. His vote for the Farm Bill is consistent with supporting the amendment, with opposing the amendment, or with having no position on it. It's legitimate to point out, as a Politico article did, that Radel's arrest "brings up drug testing for food stamps." I hope it does, but that's a different point.

A ThinkProgress article noted that Radel has made comments suggesting "nuance" in his views on drug policy, pointing out he cosponsored a bill to reduce the use of mandatory minimum sentencing for low-level drug offenses. Perhaps in a nod to the "drug testing vote" headlines, the article has an update at the bottom mentioning the vote. I believe the original thrust of the article was on target, and I don't see the hypocrisy angle holding up in this case, at least from as much as we know right now.

Youth Drug Use on Decline, Most Media Fail to Notice

One of the two annual major drug use surveys in the US released its results this week, coinciding with National Recovery Month, according to the news release from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health contains a wealth of information and is hard to boil down, but there are some number that seem salient.

One of them is that current marijuana use by adults (past 30 days) has increased from 5.8% of the population in 2007 to 7.3% in 2012, or 18.9 million current users. However, current marijuana use among youths aged 12 to 17 decreased slightly from 2011 to 2012, 7.9% down to 7.2%, although it's up slightly from 2006 and 2007 (6.7% in both years), but in turn down from 2002 (8.2%). It doesn't look like teen marijuana use is going up generally, and it may be going down, but data like this is usually complicated.

Another is that heroin use has been going up, 373,000 past-year users in 2007 vs. 669,000 in 2012. But cocaine and methamphetamine use have dropped significantly during the same timeframe, while nonmedical use of prescription drugs has stayed about constant.

The other major annual drug use survey, Monitoring the Future, has a category that I believe is useful, "Illicit Drugs Other Than Marijuana." NSDUH doesn't seem to provide a breakdown on that. MTF has found that while use of any given illicit drug besides marijuana varies, the percentage using some illicit drug besides marijuana is roughly constant over time.

Also, drug use by older people (the "baby boomers") is way up relative to a decade ago, though still only about 7%.

How did the mainstream media do? Mixed. A number of outlets highlighted the increase in drug use by older persons, and I certainly agree that's a key finding. But most major outlets focused on the increase in marijuana use overall, while failing to note the decrease in teen marijuana use, including TimeCNN, US News and World Report, USA Today and Fox News. In the (quick and incomplete) look at Google News links that I took, only ABC noted that youth illicit drug use had dropped even as overall illicit use had increased.

I think it's a significant "fail" that most major media did not note that, given the importance place that youth drug use naturally holds in these concerns. Overall, though, the media did not "freak out" over the drug use stats, and that's a good thing.

I've only taken a fairly quick look at the new numbers. We'd welcome any insights readers have on this topic -- even if you think I'm wrong -- post to the comments below, or email us your thoughts or links to your own analyses.

GAO Says ONCDP Not Achieving Drug Goals So Far

Just a day after the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP -- the drug czar's office) released its latest annual national drug control strategy, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a report finding that ONDCP has fallen well short of goals enunciated in its 2010 national drug strategy.

In the report, Office of National Drug Control Policy: Office Could Better Identify Opportunities to Increase Program Coordination, GAO noted that ONDCP and the federal government "have not made progress toward achieving most of the goals articulated in the 2010 National Drug Control Strategy." In some areas, including reducing teen drug use, reducing drug overdose deaths, and reducing HIV infections from injection drug use, GAO found, ONDCP was not only not making progress, but sometimes the numbers were moving in the opposite direction.

For instance, under the broader goal of "curtailing illicit drug consumption in America," ONDCP had set use reduction goals to be achieved by 2015. It sought to reduce last month drug use by teens by 15%, but has achieved no movement. Similarly, it sought a 15% reduction in past month use by young adults, but has achieved no movement. It also sought to reduce lifetime use of drugs, alcohol, and tobacco by 8th graders by 15%, and was making progress toward its goal with alcohol and tobacco, but not with illegal drugs.

Likewise, under ONDCP's broad goal of "improving the public health and public safety of the American people by reducing the consequences of drug use," ONDCP identified goals of reducing overdose deaths, drug-related hospital emergency room visits, and drug-related HIV infections by 15% by 2015, but showed "movement away from goal" between 2010 and 2012.

Drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is talking up a "21st Century Approach" to drug use with a heavy emphasis on treatment and prevention, but the latest national drug budget still allocates 58% of funding to law enforcement and interdiction. And those remaining funds for treatment and prevention are "fragmented" across 15 federal agencies, with much overlapping. GAO reviewed 76 federal drug treatment and prevention programs and found 59 of them overlapped.

GAO did note that while ONDCP was not showing progress in most of its goals, it had implemented 107 of the 112 "action items" contemplated to meet those goals. The auditors noted that "ONDCP officials stated that implementing these action items is necessary, but may not be sufficient to achieve Strategy goals."

Washington, DC
United States

Public Benefits Drug Test Bills Move in Three States

Bills that would require recipients of public benefits such as welfare or unemployment benefits to submit to drug testing have advanced in three states. On Monday, an unemployment drug testing bill passed the Arkansas Senate. On Tuesday, a welfare drug testing bill won a Senate committee vote in North Carolina. And on Wednesday, a welfare drug testing bill passed the Texas Senate.

The Arkansas bill, Senate Bill 38, would require random, suspicionless drug testing of people receiving unemployment benefits. Those seeking unemployment would have to sign a waiver to allow for random drug testing, and they would be ineligible for benefits if they refused to sign or failed the drug test.

It passed the Republican-led Senate on a 25-5 vote and now goes to the House.

"Arkansas law states that you have to be adequately seeking employment, and by that you have to pass a drug test since so many employers require drug tests," said bill sponsor Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-District 33), who said 80% of employers in the state require drug tests. His bill was "more of an enforcement mechanism than anything else," he added.

The bill is being opposed by the ACLU of Arkansas, which is threatening to fight it if it becomes law. But even if the bill gets through the House, Gov. Mike Beebe (D) has signaled it might not survive his veto pen.

"We have concerns about whether the bill will put us in violation of the federal unemployment laws administered by the US Department of Labor," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample told Reuters. "There are also continued concerns as to whether the cost of implementing such a program would produce any real savings in offset."

The North Carolina bill, Senate Bill 594, sponsored by Sen. Jim Davis (R-Macon), would require applicants for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) to undergo mandatory suspicionless drug tests at their expense. Applicants would be reimbursed if they tested negative, but denied benefits if they tested positive -- until they have entered and paid for drug treatment.

Things got testy before the measure passed the Senate Judiciary Committee Tuesday.

"If you have money to buy drugs, you have money to buy food, you have money to support your family," Davis said. "You don't deserve public assistance." Non-drug users "will gladly" pay for drug tests because they know they will be reimbursed, he said.

"If they're already there because they need food stamps, where are they going to come up with that money? They're scraping the bottom," Sen. Ellie Kinnaird (D-Orange) shot back.

Bill Rowe of the North Carolina Justice Center told lawmakers that studies showed drug use is no more common among welfare recipients than the general public, and that similar laws in Florida and Michigan had been found unconstitutional, sparking an angry reaction from one lawmaker.

"Our Fourth Amendment doesn't allow suspicionless testing of people," Rowe said. "There's no decision that says this is okay."

"You're okay with (drug users) getting federal dollars if they've had a doobie and get the munchies and need more food stamps?" challenged Sen. Tommy Tucker (R-Union). "Sit down."

Noting that the bill "mostly affects poor people and a significant number of them people of color," Sen. Angela Bryant (D-Rocky Mount) said its sponsors were letting their "prejudice" show. "There's a lot of people getting government money," she said. "Let's not start with poor people on this. Let's start with ourselves. When you run for election, you should have to take a drug test. If we give a scholarship, you should have to take a drug test."

"I really reject the notion of injecting race into this thing," Davis shot back. "I'm sick and tired of it. This is not a racial bill."

The bill was approved on party lines and now goes to the Senate Health Committee.

The Texas bill, Senate Bill 11, would require TANF applicants to undergo a drug use assessment, and if there is "good cause to suspect" drug use, they must then undergo a drug test. A positive drug test would result in a denial of benefits for six months, with a second positive drug test resulting in a denial of benefits for a year, although they could be restored after six months if drug treatment is completed.

People who had prior drug convictions or previous positive drug test results would face mandatory drug testing.

"Taxpayer dollars shouldn't be used to subsidize a person's drug habit," said bill sponsor Sen. Jane Nelson (R-Flower Mound).

"Welfare should never subsidize the irresponsible choices of otherwise capable people who instead elect to stay at home, play video games, and get high with their friends," Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst (R) said.

The bill passed the Senate on a 31-0 vote after Nelson agreed to language sought by Democrats that ensured that children of parents who tested positive wouldn't lose their benefits. It now goes to the House.

Missouri Marijuana, Hemp Bills Filed

Members of the Missouri legislature have introduced three different marijuana law reform bills this month -- one to decriminalize possession; one to expunge misdemeanor offenses, including possession, from the record after five years; and one to legalize industrial hemp.

Rep. Rory Ellinger (D-University City) and two cosponsors introduced the decriminalization bill, House Bill 512, at a press conference earlier this month. The bill would make the possession of up to 35 grams of marijuana or paraphernalia punishable only by a fine, but it would still be a criminal offense -- a misdemeanor -- instead of a civil infraction. The bill would also encourage judges to use "suspended imposition of sentence," under which the person is not convicted and, if he successfully completes a probationary period, there is no longer any public record of the matter.

Perhaps decriminalization is not quite the right word."Depenalization" would be more correct.

"Every year, nearly 20,000 Missourians are put in chains and then relegated to second-class citizenship by a criminal record for the possession of small amounts of marijuana," said John Payne, executive director of Show-Me Cannabis Regulation, who addressed the press conference. "This policy costs Missouri taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year, but does nothing to decrease marijuana use or eliminate the harms associated with the black market. There are no other proposals before our legislators that can do so much good so easily."

At the same press conference, Rep. Ellinger also introduced the expungement bill, House Bill 511. Under current Missouri law, only a very few specified offenses can be expunged. This bill would allow expungement for all misdemeanor offenses, including marijuana and paraphernalia offenses, except for violent or sex offenses.

"Although these measures may seem like long shots, one year ago, no one would have predicted that the Republican majority in both houses would reduce the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine or reduce the term of probation in most felony drug cases by one half, especially during an election year," said Dan Viets, a veteran attorney with Show-Me Cannabis Regulation. "Those reforms passed with bipartisan support, and these bills can too. That means we will do everything we can to make it happen in 2013."

And this week, Sen. Jason Holsman (D-South Kansas City) introduced an industrial hemp bill, Senate Bill 358. It would exempt industrial hemp -- defined as containing less than 1% THC -- from the state's controlled substances act and allow anyone not convicted of a drug-related crime to grow it. An identical bill was introduced in the House last year, but didn't move.

After the snow melts in Missouri, legislators will be getting back to work. It would be nice if the Show Me State could show the rest of us the way forward.

Jefferson City, MO
United States

Who Was Killed in America's Drug War Last Year? [FEATURE]

For the past two years, Drug War Chronicle has been tracking all the US deaths directly attributable to domestic drug law enforcement, including the border. You can view the 2011 deaths here and the 2012 deaths here.Soon, we will hand our findings out to criminal justice and other professionals and then issue a report seeking to identify ways to reduce the toll. In the meantime, we can look at the raw numbers from last year and identify some trends.

A New Orleans police officer was indicted for killing Wendell Allen during a drug raid in March. (family photo)
Before we begin, though, it's important to note our resource and data limitations, as well as explaining what gets included and what doesn't. We depended largely on Google news alerts for "officer shoots" or "officer kills" and their variations (trooper shoots, deputy shoots, police shoot, etc.) We can't claim that the list is exhaustive -- some initial reports never mention drugs, although they were involved; some others may have slid through the cracks. (Our tally includes several cases where people collapsed and died during or immediately after being arrested; the drug link became apparent only weeks or months later when toxicology reports came back. We could have missed others.)

We also used fairly tight criteria for inclusion. These deaths had to have occurred during drug law enforcement activities. That means people whose deaths may be at least partially blamed more broadly on drug prohibition (overdoses, AIDS and Hepatitis C victims, for example) are not included. Neither are the deaths of people who may have been embittered by previous drug law enforcement operations who later decide to go out in a blaze of glory, nor the deaths of their victims.

It's only people who died because of drug law enforcement. And even that is something of a grey area. One example is traffic stops. Although they ostensibly are aimed at public safety, drug law enforcement is at least a secondary consideration and, sometimes, as in the case of "pretextual stops," the primary consideration, so we include those deaths when it looks appropriate. Another close call was the case of a Michigan father accused of smoking marijuana and reported to Child Protective Services by police. He was shot and killed in a confrontation with police over that issue. We included him even though it was not directly drug law enforcement that got him killed, but the enforcement of child custody orders related to marijuana use. It could be argued either way whether he should not have been included; we decided to include him.

Because we are a small nonprofit with limited resources, we have been unable to follow-up on many of the cases. Every law enforcement-related death is investigated, but those findings are too often unpublished, and we (I) simply lack the resources to track down the results of those investigations. That leaves a lot of questions unanswered -- and some law enforcement agencies and their personnel, and maybe some others, off the hook.

We attempted to provide the date, name, age, race, and gender of each victim, but were unable to do so in every case. We also categorized the type of enforcement activity (search warrant service, traffic stops, undercover buy operations, suspicious activity reports, etc.), whether the victim was armed with a firearm, whether he brandished it, and whether he shot it, as well as whether there was another type of weapon involved (vehicle, knife, sword, etc.) and whether the victim was resisting arrest or attempting to flee. Again, we didn't get all the information in every case.

Here's what we found:

In 2012, 63 people died in the course of US domestic drug law enforcement operations, or one about every six days. Eight of the dead were law enforcement officers; 55 were civilians.

Law Enforcement Deaths

Officer Victor Soto-Velez was ambushed in Camuy, Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in June.
Law enforcement deaths began and ended the year. The first drug war death, on January 4, was that of Ogden, Utah, police officer Jared Francom, who was serving on the Weber-Morgan Metro Narcotics Strike Force when he was shot and killed during a "knock and enter" SWAT-style raid on a suspected marijuana grower. Five other officers were also shot and wounded, as was the homeowner, Matthew Stewart, who is now charged with his killing and faces a death sentence if convicted.

The last drug war death of the year, on December 14, was that of Memphis police officer Martoiya Lang, who was shot and killed serving a "drug-related search warrant" as part of an organized crime task force. Another officer was wounded, and the shooter, Trevino Williams, has been charged with murder. The homeowner was charged with possession of marijuana with intent to distribute.

In between Francom and Lang, six other officers perished fighting the drug war. In February, Clay County (Florida) Sheriff's Detective David White was killed in a shootout at a meth lab that also left the suspect dead. In April, Greenland, New Hampshire, Police Chief Michael Maloney was shot in killed in a drug raid that also left four officers wounded. In that case, the shooter and a woman companion were later found dead inside the burnt out home.

In June, Puerto Rican narcotics officer Victor Soto Velez was shot and killed in an ambush as he sat in his car. Less than two months later, Puerto Rican police officer Wilfredo Ramos Nieves was shot and killed as he participated in a drug raid. The shooter was wounded and arrested, and faces murder charges.

Interdicting drugs at the border also proved hazardous. In October, Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Ivie was shot and killed in a friendly fire incident as he and other Border Patrol agents rushed to investigate a tripped sensor near the line. And early last month, Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III was killed when a Mexican marijuana smuggling boat rammed his off the Southern California coast. Charges are pending against the smugglers.

Civilian Deaths

Civilian deaths came in three categories: accidental, suicide, and shot by police. Of the 55 civilians who died during drug law enforcement operations, 43 were shot by police. One man committed suicide in a police car, one man committed suicide in his bedroom as police approached, and a man and a woman died in the aftermath of the Greenland, New Hampshire, drug raid mentioned above, either in a mutual suicide pact or as a murder-suicide.

Five people died in police custody after ingesting packages of drugs. They either choked to death or died of drug overdoses. One man died after falling from a balcony while fleeing from police. One man died in an auto accident fleeing police. One Louisville woman, Stephanie Melson, died when the vehicle she was driving was hit by a drug suspect fleeing police in a high-speed chase on city streets.

The Drug War and the Second Amendment

Americans love their guns, and people involved with drugs are no different. Of the 43 people shot and killed by police, 21 were in possession of firearms, and in two cases, it was not clear if they were armed or not. Of those 21, 17 brandished a weapon, or displayed it in a threatening manner. But only 10 people killed by police actually fired their weapon. Merely having a firearm increased the perceived danger to police and the danger of being killed by them.

In a handful of cases, police shot and killed people they thought were going for guns. Jacksonville, Florida, police shot and killed Davinian Williams after he made a "furtive movement" with his hands after being pulled over for driving in a "high drug activity area." A month later, police in Miami shot and killed Sergio Javier Azcuy after stopping the vehicle in which he was a passenger during a cocaine rip-off sting. They saw "a dark shiny object" in his hand. It was a cell phone. There are more examples in the list.

Several people were shot and killed as they confronted police with weapons in their own homes. Some may have been dangerous felons, some may have been homeowners who grabbed a gun when they heard someone breaking into their homes. The most likely case of the latter is that of an unnamed 66-year-old Georgia woman shot and killed by a local drug task doing a "no knock" drug raid at her home. In another case from Georgia, David John Thomas Hammett, 60, was shot and killed when police encountered him in a darkened hallway in his home holding "a black shiny object." It was a can of pepper spray. Neither victim appears to have been the target of police, but they're still dead.

Police have reason to be wary of guns. Of the eight law enforcement officers killed enforcing the drug laws last year, seven were killed by gunfire. But at least 22 unarmed civilians were shot and killed by police, and at least four more were killed despite not having brandished their weapons.

It's Not Just Guns; It's Cars, Too

In at least seven cases, police shot and killed people after their vehicles rammed police cars or as they dragged police officers down the street. It is difficult to believe that all of these people wanted to injure or kill police officers. Many if not most were probably just trying to escape. But police don't seem inclined to guess (which might be understandable if you're being dragged by a moving car.)

Danielle Misha Willard, a relapsed heroin user, was shot by West Valley, UT police in a parking lot in November. (facebook.com)
Race and Gender

Getting killed in the drug war is mostly a guy thing. Of the 63 people killed, only six were women, including one police officer. One was the Georgia homeowner, another was the Louisville woman driver hit by a fleeing suspect, a third was the unnamed woman who died in the Greenland, New Hampshire raid. Other than the Memphis police officer, only two women were killed because of their drug-related activities.

Getting killed in the drug war is mostly a minority thing too. Of the 55 dead civilians, we do not have a racial identification on eight. Of the remaining 47, 23 were black, 14 were Hispanic, nine were white, and one was Asian. Roughly three out four drug war deaths were of minority members, a figure grossly disproportionate to their share of the population.

Bringing Police to Justice

Many drug war deaths go unnoticed and un-mourned. Others draw protests from friends and family members. Few stir up public outrage, and fewer yet end up with action being taken against police shooters. Of the 55 civilians who died during drug law enforcement activities, charges have been filed against the police shooters in only two particularly egregious cases. Both cases have generated significant public protest.

One is the case of Ramarley Graham, an 18-year-old black teenager from the Bronx. Graham was chased into his own apartment by undercover NYPD officers conducting drug busts on the street nearby. He ran into his bathroom, where he was apparently trying to flush drugs down the toilet, and was shot and killed by the police officer who followed him there. Graham was unarmed, police have conceded. A small amount of pot was found floating in the toilet bowl. Now, NYPD Officer Richard Haste, the shooter, has been indicted on first- and second-degree manslaughter charges, with trial set for this coming spring.

The other case is that of Wendell Allen, 20, a black New Orleans resident. Allen was shot and killed when he appeared on the staircase of a home that was being raided for marijuana sales by New Orleans police. He was unarmed and was not holding anything that could be mistaken for a weapon. Officer Jason Colclough, the shooter, was indicted on manslaughter charges in August after he refused a plea bargain on a negligent homicide charge. When he will go to trial is unclear.

Criminal prosecutions of police shooters, even in egregious cases, is rare. Winning a conviction is even less unlikely. When Lima, Ohio, police officer Joe Chavalia shot and killed unarmed Tanika Wilson, 26, and wounded the baby she was holding in her arms during a SWAT drug raid in 2008, he was the rare police officer to be indicted. But he walked at trial

It doesn't usually work out that way when the tables are turned. Ask Corey Maye, who was convicted of murder and sentenced to death for killing a police officer who mistakenly entered his duplex during a drug raid even though he argued credibly that he thought police were burglars and he acted in self defense. It took 10 years before Maye was able to first get his death sentence reduced to life, then get his charges reduced to manslaughter, allowing him to leave prison.

Or ask Ryan Frederick, who is currently sitting in prison in Virginia after being convicted of manslaughter in the 2008 death of Chesapeake Det. Jarrod Shivers. Three days after a police informant burglarized Frederick's home, Shivers led a a SWAT team on a no-knock raid. Frederick shot through the door as Shivers attempted to break through it, killing him. He argued that he was acting in self-defense, not knowing what home invaders were on the other side of the door, but in prison he sits.

Both the Graham and the Allen cases came early in the year. Late in 2012, two more cases that would appear to call out for criminal prosecutions of police occurred. No charges have been filed against police so far in either case.

On October 25, undocumented Guatemalan immigrants Marco Antonio Castro and Jose Leonardo Coj Cumar were shot and killed by a Texas Department of Public Safety trooper who shot from a helicopter at the pickup truck carrying them as it fled from an attempted traffic stop. Texas authorities said they thought the truck was carrying drugs, but it wasn't -- it was carrying undocumented Guatemalan immigrants who had just crossed the border. Authorities said they sought to disable the truck because it was "traveling at reckless speeds, endangering the public." But the truck was traveling down a dirt road surrounded by grassy fields in an unpopulated area. The Guatemalan consulate and the ACLU of Texas are among those calling for an investigation, and police use of force experts from around the country pronounced themselves stunned at the Texas policy of shooting at vehicles from helicopters. Stay tuned.

Two weeks later, undercover police in West Valley, Utah, shot and killed Danielle Misha Leonard, 21, in the parking lot of an apartment building. Leonard, a native of Vancouver, Washington, had been addicted to heroin and went to Utah to seek treatment. Perhaps it didn't take. Police have been extremely slow to release details on her killing, but she appears to have been unarmed. An undercover police vehicle had boxed her SUV into a parking spot, and the windshield and both side windows had been shattered by gunfire. Later in November, in their latest sparse information release on the case, police said only that she had been shot twice in the head and that they had been attempting to contact her in a drug investigation. Friends and family have set up a Justice for Danielle Willard Facebook page to press for action.

Now, it's a new year, and nobody has been killed in the drug war so far. But this is only day two.

Dr. Shaygan's Saga: Prosecutorial Misconduct in the War on Pain Docs [FEATURE]

special to Drug War Chronicle by investigative journalist Clarence Walker, cwalkerinvestigate@gmail.com

Part 4 in a series, "Prosecutorial Misconduct and Police Corruption in Drug Cases Across America."

In what could become an historic case, a Florida doctor acquitted of drug dealing charges over his prescribing practices is asking the US Supreme Court to reinstate a $600,000 award made to him by a lower court after federal prosecutors were found to have engaged in misconduct that was "vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith." That language comes from the Hyde Amendment, enacted in 1997, which gives federal judges the power to force the government to pay attorney's fees to acquitted defendants if the actions of those prosecutors met that standard of misconduct.

Dr. Ali Shaygan
The case of Florida physician Dr. Ali Shaygan has been closely watched by pain-management doctors -- an area in which the federal government has waged a fierce "war on prescription doctors" -- a war fueled by a rising death toll in recent years from prescription drug overdoses in America, but also preceding that rise. Since 2003, according to DEA, hundreds of physicians across the nation have been charged in federal or state court for illegally dispensing narcotic pain medicine to patients.

This past August, the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the trial court decision awarding the money to Shaygan, who had operated a Miami pain clinic. He was acquitted in March 2009 of 141 counts of illegally distributing narcotics to patients, including one case where a patient died of an overdose.

Shaygan's attorneys charged that two Assistant US Attorneys, Sean Cronin and Andrea Hoffman, as well as a DEA agent, had acted "vexatiously" and withheld materially important evidence after Shaygan was originally charged in a 23-count indictment. US Circuit Court Judge Alan Gold, who presided over the high-profile trial, agreed that prosecutors violated disclosure requirements by withholding information from the defense and the court and ordered the cash award.

Judge Gold also accused the government of launching a separate "tactical" effort to disqualify the doctor's attorney, David Markus, shortly before the trial began. In that effort, which Gold characterized as part of a scheme to undermine the defendant's rights to a fair trial, the prosecutors failed to notify the defense that the DEA had attempted to manipulate two witnesses in the case into trying to entrap Markus into paying off witnesses to give favorable testimony at the trial to help the doctor beat the rap.

Following a sanction hearing after the doctor's acquittal in 2009, Judge Gold issued a scathing ruling against the prosecutors. The government conduct was so "profoundly disturbing that it raises troubling issues about the integrity of those who wield enormous power over the people they prosecute," Gold concluded.

After Gold requested that the Justice Department investigate the government's misconduct, prosecutor Cronin conceded to the Miami Herald, "We should have done a better job," but insisted that "at no time was I acting in bad faith."

He said he authorized secret recordings of attorney Markus because a witness, Courtney Tucker, had told a DEA agent the defense might be trying to tamper with her testimony. Yet Tucker contradicted Cronin's claim when she testified that a DEA agent had tried to pressure her to tailor her testimony to bolster the prosecution's case against Dr. Shaygan.

Atty. David Markus after the acquittal
When federal prosecutors appealed the cash award to the 11th Circuit, a sharply divided panel overturned it, holding that Gold had overreached and wrongly interpreted the Hyde Amendment by applying the incorrect legal standard for awarding the fees under the statue. The appeals court majority also held that "as long as a prosecutor had an objectively reasonable basis in law (not frivolous and not vexatious), an award of attorney fees under the Hyde Amendment is improper." One judge concluded that the overall prosecution and allegations on the original indictment were "objectively valid."

But in a harsh dissent, Judge Beverly Martin wrote that the majority opinion "will render trial judges mere spectators of extreme government misconduct."

Markus told the Chronicle the appeals court reversal was not what he expected. "The decision was surprising given how the oral argument went and how thorough Judge Gold's order was," Markus said, adding that he was appealing to the Supreme Court.

Now a coalition of former federal judges and prosecutors, organized by the bipartisan group the Constitution Project has signed onto an amicus brief supporting Markus's writ of certiorari asking the Supreme Court to overturn the appeals court decision and reinstate the cash award in US v. Shaygan.

"When a court bends the law to excuse a prosecutor's bad faith, public confidence in the criminal justice system suffers," the Constitution Project brief said.

Just Another Pain Doctor Prosecution

The wheels of justice in Dr. Shaygan's case began turning on June 9, 2007, when one of the long-term patients at his pain clinic, James Brendan Downey, died of a drug overdose from a fatal combination of prescribed methadone and illegal cocaine. Shaygun had prescribed the methadone to Downey two days before he died, and an autopsy found that the levels of methadone in his blood alone were enough to kill him.

In a subsequent undercover sting operation, two Florida police officers posed as potential patients at Shaygan's office to determine how easily they could obtain prescribed narcotics. Federal prosecutors said both officers obtained a prescription for controlled substances on their first visit without presenting medical records, and that Shaygan only administered minimal physical examination.

Judge Gold
On February 8, 2008, the Southern Florida US Attorneys Office filed a 23-count indictment against Shaygan alleging that "the doctor distributed and dispensed controlled substances outside the scope of professional practice unintended for legitimate medical purposes in violation of 21 U.S.C. 841."

Three days later, DEA agents arrested Shaygan at his office. Agents seized Shaygan's active patient files and even confiscated his leather-bound daily planner. Prosecutors said that DEA agents reported that Shaygan allegedly made a statement to the effect, "I want to cooperate." On May 14, Markus filed a motion to suppress his client's statement during his arrest.

At a post-hearing on the suppression motion held on August 2008, Markus clashed with lead prosecutor Cronin over Markus's attempt to keep his client's alleged statement from being heard by the jury. Cronin threatened Markus with an enhanced prosecution of his client if he persisted in that strategy.

"Cronin told me that if we litigated the suppression issues, there would be no more plea discussions, and that if I went after his witnesses (DEA agents), there would be a 'seismic shift' in the way he would prosecute the case against Mr. Shaygan," Markus said.

Markus dismissed Cronin's threat and forged ahead with the suppression hearing, offering up damaging testimony by Shaygan, who testified that DEA agents, while flashing their weapons, continued to interrogate him, despite his request to speak with a lawyer. Agents denied this happened. After hearing from a defense witness that he overheard Shaygan say, "May I please have my lawyer," Judge Gold granted the motion to suppress, which barred prosecutors from using Shaygan's statements during the trial.

Then, playing legal hardball, prosecutor Cronin made good on his threat, filing an additional 108 drug charges against Shaygan totaling hundreds of years in prison and bringing the total number of charges filed against him to 131. Cronin filed the extra charges after DEA agent Chris Wells located and interviewed Shaygan's former patients Carlos Vento, Trinity Clendening, Courtney Tucker and Andrew McQuarrie. These former patients would play a pivotal role in the misconduct allegations against federal prosecutors Cronin and Hoffman.

Before trial, prosecutors Cronin and Hoffman received a tip from DEA agent Wells that Shaygan's defense team might be tampering with the witnesses. Wells said one witness, Courtney Tucker, "was about to go south and not testify." Prosecutors relayed this new information to Karen Gilbert, the Assistant US Attorney in charge of the narcotics unit. Gilbert authorized DEA agent Wells to ask witnesses Tucker and Carlos Vento to record phone calls with the defense team and for the witnesses to ask attorney Markus for funds to testify that Dr. Shaygan had not overprescribed medication that killed James Downey. Vento later signed a confidential informant agreement with the DEA.

Trial Shenanigans

During a three-week trial in beginning in 2009, prosecutors characterized Dr. Shaygan as a drug dealer who recklessly sold prescriptions for dangerous narcotic painkillers, such as oxycodone and methadone, to increase his wealth. Prosecutor Cronin told the jury the government would prove that Shaygan's illegal distribution of methadone contributed to Mr. Downey's death. Jurors viewed evidence showing prescription bottles from Shaygan found in Downey's bedroom, where he died in his sleep. Downey's girlfriend, testifying for the government, said her boyfriend had obtained methadone from Shaygan hours before he died.

But the girlfriend also undercut the prosecution's case by testifying that Shaygan had questioned and cautioned Downey about the large amount of methadone he had requested. Defense attorney Markus further undercut the prosecution case by presenting evidence of additional medicine bottles at the scene prescribed by other doctors.

For the defense, renowned expert forensic pathologist Dr. Michael Baden testified that when Downey used multiple prescribed drugs there was no verifiable way to conclude the drugs given to him by Dr. Shaygan actually caused his death.

Then, in a dramatic twist right out of Perry Mason, former Shaygan patient and government witness Trinity Clendening let slip that he had recorded for the DEA a telephone call he made to to Markus's office to solicit payment for testifying on Shaygan's behalf. A recording later heard in court showed that that Markus had directly refused to offer bribes. "I am not paying money for anything," he said on the tape.

Markus was furious. During a hearing outside the presence of the jury, he hammered the witness. Clendening, now unraveling the government's deceit, revealed the whole scheme to set up Markus for a witness tampering charge. Markus attacked the prosecutors relentlessly over their withholding evidence of the scheme. In closing arguments, Markus rhetorically compared the prosecutorial misconduct in Shaygan's case with the infamous Salem Witch trials, and told the jury it had been misled by the government's flagrant violation of the law through withholding evidence that the defense had asked for under the law and not received.

Judge Gold instructed jurors that they were legally bound to consider the prosecutor's violations of the law during their deliberations over Shaygan's guilt or innocence. After deliberating four hours, the jury acquitted Dr. Shaygan on March 12, 2009.

Shaygan's relatives, friends and colleagues erupted with cheers after hearing the verdict, and jurors hugged Shaygan as he left the courtroom.

"I feel vindicated," Shaygan told the Miami Herald. "I feel that my life can move forward again."

"This verdict sends a message that justice prevails," Markus added.

But justice hasn't prevailed just yet. The federal prosecutors who engaged in the misconduct have not been punished for their actions, either criminally, professionally, or financially. The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals decision reversing the $600,000 award for misconduct that is "vexatious, frivolous, or in bad faith" remains the last word on the affair -- unless the Supreme Court agrees to take the case.

At least, Dr. Ali Shaygan is out from under his legal woes and, having had his license to prescribe medicine reinstated, he is once again helping patients.

US-Mexican Caravan for (Drug War) Peace Gets Underway [FEATURE]

Last Sunday, dozens of Mexican activists led by poet Javier Sicilia crossed into the US at San Diego to begin a weeks-long Caravan for Peace and Justice that will take them more than 6,000 miles through 27 cities in a bid to focus attention on the drug war's terrible toll in both countries. They were met there by representatives of the more than 100 US organizations that are joining and supporting the Caravan as it makes its way toward Washington, DC.

"Our purpose is to honor our victims, to make their names and faces visible," Sicilia said. "We will travel across the United States to raise awareness of the unbearable pain and loss caused by the drug war -- and of the enormous shared responsibility for protecting families and communities in both our countries."

But it's not just about honoring the victims of the drug war; the Caravan also explicitly seeks policy changes on both sides of the border, and not only to drug policy. These policy areas and the Caravan's recommendations include:

Drug War policies: We propose the need to find a solution, with a multidisciplinary and intergenerational approach that places individuals, and their welfare and dignity, at the center of drug policy. We call on both the Mexican and the U.S. community to open and maintain a dialogue about alternatives to Prohibition based on evidence, and which is inclusive in its considerations of the diverse options for drug regulation.

Arms trafficking: We propose that the President of the United States immediately prohibit the importation of assault weapons to the United States. Assault weapons are often smuggled into Mexico, and have also been used too many times against innocent civilians in the US. We propose giving authorities effective regulatory tools and adequate resources to halt arms smuggling in the border regions, especially in border states like Arizona and Texas.

Money laundering: We call for governments on both sides of the border to take concrete steps to combat money laundering. We propose that financial institutions be held accountable for preventing money laundering through increased government surveillance, investigations, fines and criminal charges. We also call for the Treasury Department to immediately implement Congress’ 2009 call to close the “prepaid/stored value cards” loophole.

US foreign aid policy: We call for a change from the United States' "war" focus to one of human security and development that contemplates promoting the healing of Mexico's torn social fabric. We propose the immediate suspension of US assistance to Mexico's armed forces. The "shared responsibility" for peace that both governments share must begin with each country complying with its own respective national laws.

Immigration: We call for a change in the policies that have militarized the border and criminalized immigrants. These policies have generated a humanitarian crisis driven by unprecedented levels of deportations and incarceration of migrants. In addition, these policies have also inflicted immeasurable environmental damage. We call for protecting the dignity of every human being, including immigrant populations that have been displaced by violence who are fleeing to the US seeking safe haven and a better life.

The Caravan is a natural outgrowth of Sicilia's Mexican Movement for Peace and Justice with Dignity (MMPJD), which he formed after his son and several comrades were kidnapped and murdered by drug cartel gunmen in Cuernavaca in March 2011. It is designed to put names and faces on the estimated 60,000 dead, 10,000 disappeared, and 150,000 displaced by the prohibition-related violence pitting the so-called cartels against each other and the Mexican state.

In Mexico, the MMPJD struck a deep chord with a population increasingly angered and frightened by the often horrific violence raging across the country. Caravans organized by the MMJPD crisscrossed the country last year before bringing 100,000 people to mass in Mexico City's huge national plaza, the Zocalo in June. The mass outpouring of grief and anger convinced President Felipe Calderon to meet with Sicilia, who brought along photos of some of the dead depicting them as happy, smiling human beings.

"The powers that be were trying to tell us that all those who were dying were just criminals, just cockroaches," Sicilia explained. "We had to change the mindset, and put names to the victims for a change."

On last Sunday, Sicilia and the Caravan were met in San Diego by about 100 supporters from national groups such as the Drug Policy Alliance, Global Exchange, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the NAACP, the Washington Office on Latin America, and, as will be the case across the country, local immigrant rights, civil rights, religious, and drug reform groups.

"This movement brings together activists from both of our countries to shed light on the policies that have failed our families, neighbors, and nations," said Sicilia. "United, we will raise our voices to call for an end to a war on drugs that allows entire communities to become casualties, and we will demand a shift in attention to poverty and the lack of economic opportunity that helps breed the criminality."

"What we are trying to do is raise the level of conversation around this topic," said Global Exchange's Ted Lewis, one of the caravan's organizers. "We're trying to have a bi-national conversation and impact."

Javier Sicilia and Sheriff Joe Arpaio (caravanforpeace.org)
By last Friday, the Caravan had reached Las Cruces, New Mexico, after first stopping in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Tucson. In Los Angeles, the Caravan wooed Hollywood, seeking support from the film community as it seeks to shift public opinion against prohibitionist drug policies that wreak havoc in both countries.

"What unites us is grief for what Mexico has lost, which is peace," said Mexican filmmaker Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, the Oscar-nominated director of "Biutiful" and "Babel," who was among the Hollywood stars greeting the Caravan.

In Phoenix on Thursday, Sicilia and the Caravan had an unexpected encounter with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as they trekked to one of Arpaio's jails to see what the drug war looks like on the US side of the border. The feisty sheriff, who is notorious for his treatment of prisoners and anti-immigrant politics, got an earful from Sicilia, but didn't exactly roll over.

Sicilia chided Arpaio over the flow of American weapons into Mexico and the hands of the cartels and asked him to do a better job controlling the traffic, to which Arpaio retorted, "Control the flow of drugs."

Sicilia also urged Arpaio, who is under Justice Department investigation over his treatment of prisoners and illegal immigrants, to "be more human" in the way he handles people under his control. "We don't come in war but in peace to tell you that you have half of the responsibility for the war that there is in Mexico," he said. "I ask you whether treating migrants like dogs is a correct policy."

"I don't run the jails," Arpaio replied. [Ed: As noted above, Arpaio does run jails, and is being investigated for how prisoners are treated in them.]

Sicilia urged Arpaio to visit Mexico, but Arpaio demurred, saying that the cartels had a price on his head.

The Caravan for Peace is now less nearly two weeks into its journey across the county to Washington, DC. Organizers have not said yet whether they will seek a meeting with President Obama, but are planning on meetings on Capitol Hill. Between now and then, they hope the Caravan will succeed in raising consciousness among Americans about the toll of the drug war on both sides of the border. Whether policymakers will listen is an open question, but the media is certainly listening. Google lists 145 news articles about the Caravan so far. That's a good start.

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