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The Outrageous Death of Ollie Lee Brooks

A poor, elderly black man with a heart condition was sitting in his room at a cheap Tulsa, Oklahoma, motel the night of May 28th, using his drug of choice, minding his own business, and not bothering anybody when police arrived at his door. Now he's dead, and his death raises questions not only of law enforcement use of force, but of race, class, and predatory policing.

Ollie Lee Brooks
As the Tulsa World reported, Ollie Lee Brooks, 64, died at the Oklahoma State University Medical Center after a pair of Tulsa police officers tased and pepper spayed him during an arrest attempt at a Super 8 Motel in east Tulsa. Police said he struggled with them when they tried to arrest him after spotting drug paraphernalia "in plain sight" in his motel room.

Brooks becomes the 22nd person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

He "immediately resisted arrest by actively fighting officers," the police report said. They then pepper sprayed him, but it didn't "have the desired effect," so one officer then tased Brooks, who "continued to fight," so he tased him again. At one point, Brooks broke free and ran down the stairs, but the officers tackled and cuffed him, then called medics to the scene.

The officers were not wearing body cams, and there is no surveillance video to verify their account.

But there is no reason to doubt their explanation for why they went to his room in the first place: They had gone to the motel "to search the register for guests with outstanding warrants, police spokesman Leland Ashley said."

You read that right: Police in Tulsa are going around to motels and hotels and checking guest lists against their lists of people wanted for warrants. Or at least they're going to some motels and hotels and doing that. Like motels in minority neighborhoods that attract a non-wealthy clientele. There are no reports of police running warrant checks at the Tulsa Hilton Garden Inn or the Tulsa Marriott Courtyard.

This looks to be a race- and class-based predatory policing practice, targeting the poor, who often have arrest warrants not just for alleged crimes but for the crime of being unable to pay fines for past offenses. It has the same sort of stench about it as the now well-known predatory policing in Ferguson, Missouri, that culminated in massive civil unrest after the killing of Michael Brown nearly two years ago.

And a list of outstanding warrants for dangerous felons is one thing, but that's not what the Tulsa police officers were carrying. Instead of keeping society safe from criminals, the officers were essentially acting as bill collectors.

Ollie Lee Brooks was on the list not for being an escaped fugitive or a dangerous criminal, but for an $874 bench warrant in connection with an DUI/open container charge from Okmulgee County in 1991. (It had been a $642 warrant, but a $201 "collections fee" and other fees had been added in 2012.) That DUI/open container charge was never prosecuted, and Brooks had had several run-ins with the law since then (he was last arrested in 1999), yet somehow that warrant was still on the books, was reissued in 2005, and had never been served.

(In a Friday press conference, Tulsa Police Chief Chuck Jordan said it wasn't the Okmulgee warrant, but a 2015 Tulsa warrant for failure to pay a jaywalking fine. In either case, the point remains that cops acting as bill collectors, went after Brown, and now he's dead.)

The comments section of the initial Tulsa World article contains numerous messages from Tulsans who knew him as a sometimes homeless man who frequented a custard shop and who also picked up occasional work in landscaping and odd jobs. Here's one:

I knew this man as "Richard". He slept behind a dumpster at 61st and Sheridan several years ago when I worked for my parents business, Custard King Frozen Custard. I used to give him free custard and talk to him. I even bought him a pair of shoes and some clothes one time. Actually he's a pretty nice guy! This is very sad news indeed and serves as a warning that police have no hesitation about shocking the hell out of you and killing you. I was told that he had just gotten out of the hospital a few weeks ago with a heart condition. My father talked with him recently. He would occasionally stop by their business. Several years ago, I tried to help this guy out. I am totally shocked because I never knew him as a violent guy. He just frequented our area sometimes. He told us he had a son which he helped with tree work sometimes. He was always very friendly to us.

Another comment:

Ollie used to come to our store and buy a sirloin steak with all the fat on it. We wouldn't see him for awhile and he would just show up. Friendly guy, mannerly, sometimes you could tell he had been drinking and sometimes he appeared to be under the influence but before he got sick he had a tree trimming business and did some landscaping on the side so he wasn't a complete bum. It is sad that this is how he left this Earth and how he will be remembered.

Let's recap here: An elderly black man living on the margins of society manages to scrape enough money together to get a motel room to do his thing in peace, the police run a warrant check on the guests at the motel, they find a trivial warrant, they discover evidence of another criminal offense (drug possession), a struggle ensues, and Ollie Brooks is dead.

Police Chief Jordan said Friday that the two officers involved had been suspended with pay, but had been returned to active duty the day before and had done nothing wrong. But there's something very wrong indeed with a criminal justice system that generates results like this.

And speaking of things being wrong, just a few days ago, AlterNet published "May Was One of the Worst For Drug War Deaths in Recent Memory," which listed seven people killed by police enforcing the drug laws that month. Ollie Lee Brooks wasn't on that list, not because he didn't deserve to be, but because the Tulsa Police didn't bother to publicly announce his death at their hands.

News of his death came only when the Tulsa World ran a story after an affidavit for a search warrant for his room after his death was officially filed last Wednesday. When asked by a reporter whether the department should have notified the media and the public that someone had died after an encounter with police that involved physical force, Jordan said, "In hindsight, after today, yeah, I probably would. Yes, sir."

Brooks' family has retained legal counsel. But he's still dead.

Chronicle AM: CA MJ Ticket Race Disparities Persist, Bolivians Protest New US Law, More... (6/1/16)

Two presidential candidates get "A" grades on marijuana policy, racial disparities in marijuana law enforcement persist in Los Angeles even in the age of decriminalization, Bolivians protest a new US drug trafficking law that extends Uncle Sam's reach, and more.

Bolivian coca farmers don't consider themselves drug traffickers. (justice.gov/dea)
Marijuana Policy

Marijuana Policy Project Updates Guide to Presidential Candidates, Adds Third Parties. MPP has released an updated version of its voters' guide to include Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Both received "A+" grades from the group. Republican presumptive nominee Donald Trump got a "C+," while the two remaining contenders, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, received a "B" and an "A," respectively. MPP called this "the most marijuana-friendly field of presidential candidates in history."

In Los Angeles, Racial Disparities in Marijuana Enforcement Persist. A new analysis from the ACLU and the Drug Policy Alliance finds that even in the era of decriminalization, blacks in Los Angeles are much more likely to be ticketed for pot possession than whites or Latinos. Although pot use was "similar across racial and ethnic lines," blacks were nearly four times more likely than whites to be ticketed and about 2 ½ times more likely than Latinos to be ticketed.

Maine Legalization Effort Gets Organized Opposition. A new coalition aimed at defeating the state's legalization initiative has formed. The group, Mainers Protecting Our Youth and Communities, says it represents parents, health experts, clergy, and police. Its spokesman is Scott Gagnon, chair of the Maine affiliate of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, the brainchild of leading pot prohibitionist Kevin Sabet.

Law Enforcement

Oklahoma Reserve Deputy Who Mistakenly Killed Drug Suspect Gets Four Years in Prison. Former reserve deputy Robert Bates, who fatally shot unarmed drug suspect Eric Harris in April 2015 after he said he mistakenly drew his handgun instead of his stun gun, was sentenced to four years in state prison Tuesday. The killing raised the veil on favoritism and corner-cutting in the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office and led to an indictment of Sheriff Stanley Glanz, who resigned last November.

International

Bolivians Reject New US Drug Trafficking Law. Political and social leaders, peasants, and coca growers rejected the new US Transnational Drug Trafficking Act, signed into law by President Obama last month. According to the Congressional Research Service, the act criminalizes the manufacture or distribution of a controlled substance "by individuals having reasonable cause to believe that such a substance or chemical will unlawfully be imported into the United States…" On Tuesday, hundreds of people marched through the city of Santa Cruz to protest the law, which they said could target coca growers, and President Evo Morales warned that Bolivia is not a US colony and added that coca is part of the country's cultural patrimony.

(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.)

Frustrated Marijuana Legalizers Head for the White House

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

A demonstration headed by the DC Cannabis Campaign and Weed for Warriors is set for the White House Friday after the Obama administration failed to respond to the groups' requests for "higher level consultations" following an initial meeting with White House staffers last month.

Headed by longtime DC political gadfly Adam Eidinger, the DC Cannabis Campaign is the group behind the District's successful 2014 marijuana legalization initiative. The campaign's White House demonstration last month led to that initial meeting and to the campaign's call for further meetings.

Weed for Warriors is a group dedicated to working with the Veterans Administration to ensure that vets "have the freedom to use medical marijuana as a recognized medical alternative to harmful psychiatric drugs."

Organizers are saying the event won't be a smoke-in, but it will come close. "This will be an unpermitted event with mass cannabis consumption and escalated civil disobedience," demonstration promotional materials say.

"Support veterans risking arrest!" the groups say. "They will lead a mass die-in calling for an end to the war on drugs."

The groups are calling on the Obama administration to deschedule -- not reschedule -- marijuana before the president leaves office in January. But they are also clear that the ultimate goal is ending prohibition.

"You should understand our protests are not just for medical research into cannabis, but ending cannabis prohibition once and for all," the DC Cannabis Campaign said in its letter to the White House earlier this month. "You have the opportunity to heal the national wound of unjust cannabis policies that have always targeted minorities, hurt patients and corrupted policing in America for nearly 80 years."

The date, May 20, is no accident. It's the birthday of arch-prohibitionist Harry J. Anslinger, who, as head of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics for decades in the mid-20th Century, was a founding father of the modern war on drugs. The protestors note that Anslinger built support for pot prohibition by resorting to racist and xenophobic justifications, as Anslinger's own words make clear:

"There are 100,000 total marijuana smokers in the US, and most are Negroes, Hispanics, Filipinos, and entertainers. Their Satanic music, jazz, and swing, result from marijuana use. This marijuana causes white women to seek sexual relations with Negroes, entertainers, and any others."

"… the primary reason to outlaw marijuana is its effect on the degenerate races."

"Marijuana is an addictive drug which produces in its users insanity, criminality, and death."

"Reefer makes darkies think they're as good as white men."

"Marijuana leads to pacifism and communist brainwashing."

"You smoke a joint and youre likely to kill your brother."

"Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind."

The bigotry and racism behind Anslinger's attack on marijuana have remained embedded in prohibition, with black people being arrested at a rate nearly four times that of whites. And five million people have been arrested on marijuana charges since President Obama has been in office -- nearly 90% of them for simple possession.

"Given the compelling and staggering facts as to why these failed cannabis policies harm Americans, we are sure you can understand why we cannot tolerate your inaction on these important issues any longer," the groups said in their letter to the White House. "We simply cannot stand on the sidelines and watch while everyday more Americans are harmed by what is clearly racist and unconstitutional failed drug policies. This is why we are requesting a formal response regarding the above from your administration before May 20th."

That formal response didn't happen, so Friday's demonstration at the White House is happening.

Chronicle AM: Racial Disparities in CO Pot Arrests Persist, NH Decriminalization Moves, More... (5/11/16)

A new poll has good news for Florida's medical marijuana initiative, pot decriminalization is one Senate vote away in New Hampshire, and more. 

Marijuana Policy

Colorado Racial Disparities in Teen Marijuana Arrests Worsen After Legalization.  Teen marijuana arrests actually increased after legalization in Colorado, and so did racial disparities among those arrested, according to a new state report.  White juvenile arrests dropped by 8%, while Latino arrests increased by 29% and black arrests increased by 58%. Among adults, marijuana arrests have decreased by nearly half, but racial disparities among those arrested grew slightly worse. In 2012, black people got busted at a rate almost double that of whites; in 2014, the rate was almost triple.

Florida Poll Has Majority Support for Legalization, Overwhelming Support for Medical Marijuana. A new Quinnipiac University poll has support for pot legalization at 56% and support for medical marijuana at 80%. Legalization isn't on the immediate horizon in the Sunshine State, but a medical marijuana initiative will be on the November ballot. A similar initiative was defeated in 2012 with 58% of the vote; it needed 60% to win because it was a constitutional amendment.

New Hampshire House Passes Decriminalization Bill. The House Wednesday voted 289-58 to approve Senate Bill 498, which was amended in committee to include provisions that would decriminalize the possession of up to a quarter ounce of marijuana.  The bill now goes back to the Senate for approval. 

International

Myanmar Opium Farmers Call for End to Eradication Until Alternatives are Found. The 4th Annual Myanmar Opium Farmers' Forum ended Monday with a call for recognition of the struggles of poppy farmers and no crop eradication without alternative development programs in place: "We grow opium because we are poor and do not have other livelihood opportunities to feed our families and send our children to school, as well as for medicinal and traditional uses. We are not involved in the drug trade, we are not criminals, and we are not commercial farmers. Some of us also grow it for traditional and medicinal uses. It is important to differentiate between small-holder farmers like us, and those people who grow opium commercially and/or who invest in it," the farmers said.  "The government should not carry out any force eradication of our opium fields unless and until they have provided access to sustainable crop substitution programmes and alternative livelihoods to our communities. Eradication should especially not take place during the harvest season. By that time we have already invested a lot and also cannot grow another crop anymore that season." Myanmar is the world's second leading producer of opium, behind Afghanistan. 

February's Drug War Deaths

The war on drugs continues to exact a lethal toll, with drug law enforcement-related deaths occurring at a pace of just under one a week so far this year. There were three in January, and four more last month, bringing this year's toll so far to seven.

Of the February killings by police, one was of an unarmed white man, one was of an unarmed black man, and two were of armed black men. In all four cases, police shooters claimed they feared for their lives. In the cases of the three black men killed in the drug war, protests broke out after each killing. That didn't happen with the white guy, though.

The unarmed white man allegedly struggled with an arresting officer, the unarmed black man was holding a cell phone mistaken for a weapon, one armed black man was shot fleeing from police in disputed circumstances, and the other was shot by police as he wore a holstered weapon.

Where the war on drugs intersects with the American obsession with firearms possession, the bodies fall fast. None of the victims actually fired at an officer, but officers' fears of being shot impact the way they approach their duties, and the results are deadly -- even when there's not actually a real gun around.

Here's the February death toll:

On February 5, San Antonio police Officer John Lee shot and killed Antronie Scott, an unarmed black man, after an officer trying to arrest him said he mistook a cell phone in Scott's hand for a weapon. Scott, who was wanted on drug possession and weapons warrants, was being tracked by two detectives, who radioed the uniformed officer to make the arrest.

According to My San Antonio, at a press conference the following day, Police Chief William McManus explained that: "Officer Lee stated that he feared for his life when he discharged a single round" and the shooting happened "in the blink of an eye."

Audio of the incident confirms that Lee shouted, "Show me your hands!" and then shot within seconds. Lee told McManus he though Scott was holding a gun, but it turned out to be a cell phone.

There is no video of the incident because San Antonio police are not yet equipped with body cameras and the officer's dashcam had an obstructed view.

The killing sparked angry protests organized by activist Alvin Perry and Scott's family the following week.

"Just like my shirt says, 'Will I be next?' Anyone one of us could be next," said Perry. "Things like this have happened in San Antonio, but it's been swept under the rug or overlooked."

By the week after that, Scott's family had filed a federal lawsuit against Officer Lee, the police department, and the city of San Antonio. The lawsuit charges that "no reasonable police officer and/or law enforcement officer given the same or similar circumstances would have initiated such a vicious and unwarranted attack on Mr. Scott within a second of directing Mr. Scott to show his hands."

The lawsuit also cited department policy, which allows police too much discretion in use of lethal force.

Chief McManus moved to fire Officer Lee, placing him on "contemplated indefinite suspension" as the first step toward termination.

*****

On February 21, a Seattle police officer shot and killed armed black man Che Taylor, 47, after they encountered him apparently selling drugs while they conducting surveillance in the Wedgewood neighborhood.

According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, citing police accounts, officers spotted Taylor wearing a holstered handgun and, knowing he was barred from carrying firearms because of a past felony conviction, swooped in to arrest him as he stood beside the passenger window of a parked car. When officers tried to detain him, he allegedly refused to show his hands and lower himself to the ground as police ordered. So one officer opened fire on him.

The Seattle Police made available dashcam video of the shooting, but it does not clearly show Taylor's actions before he is shot. It does show two police officers armed with rifles approaching an apparently oblivious Taylor, who jerks his head up as they draw near, and then appears to be trying to comply with their contradictory demands -- "Hands up!" and "Get on the ground!" -- before being shot repeatedly by one of the officers.

While police said Taylor was trying to reach for his holstered handgun, the video doesn't show that. It does show the second officer opening fire on Taylor as soon as he (the officer) comes around the car, in what looks an awful lot like a summary execution.

The officer has been identified as Michael Spaulding. This wasn't his first killing. In 2013, he shot and killed a mentally ill man after slipping and falling, arguing that he no choice but to defend himself. That killing was ruled as justified by a King County inquest. The following year, he signed onto a desperate lawsuit to block Justice Department-mandated police use-of-force reforms.

The alternative weekly The Stranger consulted with several veteran police officers who criticized police for issuing contradictory demands and said that, contrary to the police account, he was complying with police orders. One, recently retired from the Kings County Sheriff's Office, who asked not to be identified had this to say:

"From the angle presented, I cannot draw any type of conclusion [about whether the shooting was justified]," he said. "If those officers had body cameras, it would be a lot easier." They were not wearing body cams.

"If they know they're dealing with a person that's armed," he said, "then you want to come in with force showing."

The way officers rush toward the car with their guns out is "standard stuff... That looks pretty textbook."

"From what I saw, he was told to get down, and he was getting down. And while he was down, I don't know what prompted them to shoot... He's getting down. But we can't tell if he's getting all the way on the ground."

"He was obeying commands," the former officer said. "And it looks like the other officer was going in to take control of him, when the officer with the rifle began to shoot."

Here's the video:

 

*****

On February 26, a Pennington County, South Dakota, sheriff's deputy shot and killed Abraham Mitchell Fryer, an unarmed white man. According to the Rapid City Journal, citing police sources, Deputy Robert Schoeberl pulled over Fryer, who was wanted on drug charges, in Rapid Valley just before midnight. Within moments, Fryer was dead, with the Journal reporting that "the shooting apparently came after the two men had fought."

Both men were transported to a local hospital, where Fryer was pronounced dead. Deputy Schoeberl was treated for unspecified injuries and released.

Police were quick to release Fryer's criminal history, calling it "extensive," and noting that he was wanted for failure to appear on marijuana possession, drug possession, and possession with intent to distribute charges in neighboring Meade County. He was also wanted by federal authorities on a weapons charge, but was unarmed at the time he was killed.

The shooting is under investigation by the state Department of Criminal Investigation, which is expected to issue a report within 30 days.

*****

On February 29, Raleigh, North Carolina, police Officer J.W. Twiddy shot and killed Akiel Denkins, an armed black man, after a foot chase. According to the Raleigh News & Observer, Twiddy was attempting to arrest Denkins on outstanding felony drug charges when Denkins took off running.

Police and witnesses agreed that the pursuit began outside a business on East Bragg Street, in a heavily African-American neighborhood, but disagreed on much else. According to a preliminary report from Police Chief Cassandra Deck-Brown, Twiddy caught up with Denkins behind a nearby house and grabbed him. As the pair struggled, Denkins allegedly pulled a handgun from his waistband and "began to move it toward Officer Twiddy," the report said.

"While still struggling with Mr. Denkins, Officer Twiddy drew his duty weapon and fired multiple shots as Mr. Denkins continued to move the firearm in his direction," the report said. "After the first shots were fired, Officer Twiddy felt Mr. Denkins' hand or arm make contact with his duty weapon. Officer Twiddy, fearing that Mr. Denkins was either going to shoot him or attempt to take his duty weapon, stepped back and fired additional shots at Mr. Denkins, who still had the firearm in his hand."

But the report clashes with accounts from witnesses. Denkins' former basketball coach, M.M. Johnson, said he talked to numerous people who were on the street when Denkins got shot.

"They said he took off running," Johnson said. "Everybody that was standing out there was talking about it. Ain't nobody said nothing about a struggle. They said he took off running and the police officer fell and started busting (shooting) because he couldn't catch him."

A preliminary autopsy report showed that Denkins was hit by four bullets -- one in his chest, one on his left forearm, one on his right upper arm, and one on his right shoulder. But the report does not say whether any of the shots came from behind.

Joe Jabari, owner of the building where the pursuit began, said he heard "a lot of people" say Denkins had been shot in the back and that he was "absolutely shocked" at the police chief's report.

"This kid came to me many times, saying, 'I wish I didn't have a felony charge because I need to change,' " he said. "He was trying, honest to God he was trying. That day, I don't know what happened. I'm not defending nobody, but some of these kids feel like they have no choice."

Denkins had previous drug convictions and was out on $10,000 secured bond after being charged in October with two counts of selling or delivering cocaine and one count of felony possession of cocaine with intent to sell or deliver. He had failed to show up for a court date, and an arrest warrant had been issued days before he was killed.

After the shooting, neighborhood residents broke into spontaneous protest, chanting "No Justice, No Peace," and later that evening, a small group gathered around "an anti-police sign with an expletive" that was hoisted on a utility pole.

Denkins' funeral last Friday was attended by more than 200 people, with "people wearing baggy jeans, red bandanas and anti-police T-shirts mingled with people wearing smart suits," as ABC News put it.

"Justice will be served whether we know it or not. Not by men, not by a judge but by the ultimate Supreme Court, Jesus Christ," said friend Aaron Cummings.

Officer Twiddy has been placed on administrative leave while the State Bureau of Investigation looks into the matter.

Chronicle AM: El Chapo Captured, ME Gov's Race-Tinged Remarks Draw Outrage, More... (1/8/16)

Mexican authorities have recaptured the fugitive head of the Sinaloa Cartel, Maine's Tea Party governor goes racial on drugs, while other New England states move toward drug reforms, and more.

Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, head of the Sinaloa Cartel, arrested today in Mexico
Medical Marijuana

Missouri Medical Marijuana Initiative Approved for Signature Gathering. An initiative from New Approach Missouri has been approved for circulation by the secretary of state's office. The group is seeking 250,000 raw signatures to ensure it meets the requirement of 160,000 valid voter signatures to qualify for the ballot. The campaign estimates it will cost $800,000 for paid signature gathering and is trying to raise funds now.

Asset Forfeiture

New Hampshire House Passes Asset Forfeiture Reform. The GOP-controlled House Thursday approved a bill that would divert money garnered through civil asset forfeiture away from law enforcement and into the state's general fund. The bill would also require a criminal conviction before seized property can be permanently forfeited and it would provide protections for "innocent owners." The bill is House Bill 636. It now goes to the Senate.

Drug Policy

Maine Governor Says Black Out-of-State Drug Dealers Are "Impregnating Young White Girls." During a town hall meeting on Wednesday night, Gov. Paul LePage (R) was asked about how he was tackling substance abuse in Maine. What was his response? "These are guys with the name D-Money, Smoothie, Shifty -- these types of guys -- they come from Connecticut and New York, they come up here, they sell their heroin, they go back home." He then elaborated: "Incidentally, half the time they impregnate a young white girl before they leave, which is a real sad thing because then we have another issue we have to deal with down the road." He is catching lots of flak for his comments.

Massachusetts House Votes to Repeal Mandatory Driver's License Suspension for Drug Offenders. The House voted Thursday to repeal a state law mandating automatic driver's license suspensions for people convicted of drug offenses -- whether they were driving or not. About 7,000 people have their licenses suspended for drug offenses each year, imposing significant barriers to social reentry for drug offenders. "This vote shines a bright light on our state's evolving understanding of drug policy, and emphasizes our ongoing need to advance an approach to criminal justice and drug law reform that prioritizes treatment and rehabilitation over harmful punitive measures that impede Massachusetts residents from successfully reentering and re-engaging their communities," said Rep. Tom Sannicandro, Chair of the Harm Reduction and Drug Law Caucus. The bill now goes to the Senate.

International

El Chapo Captured! Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto announced on his Twitter feed this morning that Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, fugitive head of the Sinaloa Cartel had been recaptured in his home state of Sinaloa. He had escaped from a Mexican federal prison last July. That was his second prison break. He also escaped from a Mexican federal prison in 2001 and eluded capture for more than a decade. Not this time. Guzman heads what is arguably the most powerful drug trafficking organization in the world.

Black Lives Matter Makes A Powerful Connection With Racist Drug War [FEATURE]

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

The Black Lives Matter movement sprung out of the unjust killings of young black men (Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown), either at the hands of self-styled vigilantes or police. But as the movement blossomed and matured, BLM began turning its attention to a broader critique of the institutional racism behind police violence against the black population.

While the war on drugs plays a central role in generating conflict between the black community and law enforcement, the critique of institutional racism in policing and the criminal justice system necessarily implicates the nation's drug policies. The grim statistics of racially biased drug law enforcement are well-known: blacks make up about 13% of the population, but 30% of all drug arrests; blacks account for nearly 90% of all federal crack cocaine prosecutions; black federal crack offenders were sentenced to far more prison time that white powder cocaine offenders; blacks and other minorities are disproportionately targeted in traffic stop and stop-and-frisks despite being less likely than whites to be carrying drugs, and so on.

People who have been spent careers working in the drug reform movement didn't need the publication of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow to understand the corrosive and screamingly unfair impact of drug war racism on black communities, but the 2010 broadside helped open eyes outside the movement and deepened the visceral impact of drug war racism for those already in the trenches. The book continues to reverberate. And now, Black Lives Matter is bringing a whole new sense of energy and urgency to the issue.

Despite efforts by leading drug reform groups like the Drug Policy Alliance, the world of drug reform remains overwhelmingly white. With marijuana legalization proceeding at a rapid pace and business opportunities emerging, the unbearable whiteness of the marijuana industry is becoming an increasingly high-profile issue.

Last month, Black Lives Matter activists released Campaign Zero, a comprehensive platform for curbing police violence and reforming the criminal justice system in the US. The platform does not explicitly call for ending the war on drugs, but drug war policies and policing techniques are inextricably intertwined with the policing problems (and solutions) it identifies. Campaign Zero calls for decriminalizing marijuana within the context of a broader call for moving away from "broken windows" policing, as well as demanding an end to mass stop-and-frisk and racial profiling policies, both impelled in large part by the drug war. It also calls for an end to "policing for profit," whether through issuing tickets for revenue-raising purposes or through another drug war creation, the use of civil asset forfeiture to seize cash and goods from people without convicting them of a crime (sometimes without even arresting them).

Most of the other Campaign Zero policy proposals regarding police use of force, militarization and community control don't directly address the war on drugs, but because the drug war is so pervasive, it is implicated with them as well. According to the FBI, drug offenses were the single largest category of arrests made, constituting 1.5 million of the 11 million arrests nationwide last year.

How does a mostly white drug reform movement that is already intellectually aware of drug war racism, and that has used it to its advantage in efforts like the Washington, DC marijuana legalization fight and the struggle to roll back harsh mandatory minimum drug sentencing laws, deal with Black Lives Matter? To its credit, the Drug Policy Alliance took a big whack at it during last month's International Drug Policy Reform Conference in suburban Washington. While race and the drug war were an issue at numerous sessions during the conference, a Live National Town Hall on "Connecting the Dots: Where the Drug Policy Reform Movement and the #BlackLivesMatter Intersect" brought a laser-like focus to the topic. And it was a hot topic -- event organizers had to move the event to a larger room at the last minute when it became evident that hundreds of people were determined to be there.

They came to hear from a panel that included BLM co-founder Patrice Cullors, Break the Chains: Communities of Color and the War on Drugs founder and executive director Deborah Peterson-Small, NAACP Legal Defense Fund senior organizer Lumumba Bandele, DPA policy manager Kassandra Frederique, and St. Louis hip-hop artist T-Dubb-O. DPA program director Asha Bandele was the moderator.

People have to open their minds to new paradigms, the panelists warned. "People are so wedded to the institution of policing they can't even imagine something different, something radical," said Cullors. "We have to transform the way our communities have been completely devastated by the war on drugs."

"We are at a historic moment right now, a moment where freedom looks different to people than how it looked before," said Peterson-Small. "Harriet Tubman famously said she could have freed more slaves if the people only knew they were slaves -- that's the psychology of enslavement. What we need now is a conversation about white people who believe they're free when they're not," she said.

"We black people already know we're not free," Small continued. "I worry about the people who believe they're free, the people who think the police are your friends, that they're here to serve and protect you. You have a lot of illusions about the role of police in your lives."

The legacy of slavery lives on all too vividly in the modern criminal justice system, she said.

"Policing is the way white America continues to replicate the cycle of enslavement, the power dynamic on which this society is based. Every time a black man is arrested, it's a reenactment of that dynamic," Peterson-Small said.

"We believe in two incompatible things," she told the audience. "We believe that we live in a free and democratic country where anyone who works hard can succeed, but we also know we live in a country established by and for the benefit of white men. White folks are in denial about that incompatibility, but it's no longer possible to pretend something that's been going on for 200 years hasn't been happening."

Removing the blinders from white people's eyes is part of the struggle, she said. "Our fight for freedom is your fight for freedom. Oppressed people have to be the agent and catalyst of freedom for their oppressors," she told a rapt crowd.

DPA's Frederique talked about the imperative she felt to make the connection between her work as a drug reformer and the broader issue of racism in America in the wake of the Trayvon Martin killing.

"We can't wait to make the connection, I needed to understand how to make the connection," she said, "but I was without words. Now, I locate the work I do as racial justice. If we're going to continue to say that the war on drugs is war on people of color, if we continue to get nontraditional allies and say marijuana legalization is a civil rights issue and how we are winning, I find it hard to believe the idea that we can win the war on drugs without winning the war on people of color. If we think that, we're doing something wrong."

"Drug policy reform needs to systematically disrupt and destroy institutional racism," she said. "If we don't, we can't ask black people to sit at the table."

But as moderator Asha Bandele noted, it's not just white racism that's holding down black people when it comes to drug policy. "Respectable" black people have been a bulwark of the drug war, too. If you just obey the law, you won't get in trouble, they say, looking down their noses at their troublesome brethren.

That's wrongheaded, said Peterson-Small. "If we were having this conversation 135 years ago, people would have said the same thing about the pig laws as we say now about the crack laws," she said. "We've always been in a war for our survival in this country. The only reason we are here is to be a source of economic profit for other people."

Alluding to Poland's WWII-era Lodz Ghetto, Peterson-Small warned that meekly complying with harsh and arbitrary authority to ensure the survival of the community can end up with the elimination of the community.

"We've got to stop drinking that Kool-Aid," she said. "When we as a community are willing to stand up for the brother with a blunt and a 40 the way we did with Trayvon, they won't be able to keep us down."

"Just look at me," said hip-hop attired T-Dubb-O. "I have a dream, too. I don't want to be a hashtag, I don't want to sell drugs, to kill somebody who looks like me. It's the system of white supremacy that puts me in that mind state. When you talk about the war on drugs, that school-to-prison pipeline, that's what gives them that mind-state," he said.

"We don't own no poppy farms, but now we have a heroin epidemic," he said. "The murders you see in Chicago, those killings in St. Louis, that's heroin."

T-Dubb-O took drug war solidarity to the next level, mentioning the case of the 43 missing Mexican student teachers presumably killed by drug gangs working in cahoots with corrupt local politicians.

"We have to have an international vision of the people who are repressed," he said.

In response to an audience question, Peterson-Small got down to nuts and bolts. If we want to dismantle racism, drug policy provides a space to apply harm reduction to the problem.

"The work that really needs to be done is for people to understand that we're not the ones who need fixing," she said. "All of us have been infected by this thing. If we apply harm-reduction principles, we would focus on what is the intervention, not who is the racist. It's a course of treatment, not a weekend of racial sensitivity training."

The National Town Hall is just a beginning. We still have a long way to go.

Double Standard? Marijuana or Hemp? DEA Indian Tribe Raid Raises Questions [FEATURE]

This article was produced in collaboration with AlterNet and will appear at http://www.alternet.org/drugs/.

Taking advantage of a 2014 Justice Department memo giving Indian tribes a green light to participate in marijuana commerce, as well as a 2014 congressional vote allowing for industrial hemp pilot programs, Wisconsin's Menominee Tribe earlier this year planted some 30,000 cannabis plants as part of a pilot project with the College of the Menominee Nation.

Last Friday, the DEA came and cut them all down.

The DEA says the plants were marijuana plants; the tribe says they were hemp plants. In either case, tribal officials and marijuana reform advocates don't understand why the grow was raided. Even if it were marijuana, it appears to be an operation well within Justice Department guidelines. And that's leading to some pointed questions about whether the feds have one standard for pot-legal states and another for the tribe-legal jurisdictions.

The memo that allows for marijuana commerce on the reservation includes eight potential enforcement triggers first formulated in a 2013 Justice Department memo (the Cole memo) advising federal prosecutors to lay off of recreational and medical marijuana operations in states where they are legal. Those triggers include diversion to other localities, money going to organized crime, and violence associated with the trade, among others.

The raid came after the tribe allowed a Bureau of Indian Affairs employee and local police to inspect the operation and take plant samples. And that visit came after a meeting between the BIA agent, the local cops, and an assistant US attorney.

According to the DEA affidavit for a search warrant, the samples tested positive for "marijuana," although there was no measurement of THC levels in the plants.

Industrial hemp is high in fiber, but low in THC, with levels at 0.3% or less. Pot produced for the recreational market, by contrast, typically has THC levels of 15% to 20% and beyond. There is a possibility some of the plants could exceed the 0.3% limit, but not by much.

The DEA affidavit also attempted to make a case that the hemp grow was violating those Justice Department triggers. The tribe had hired Colorado cannabis consultant Brian Goldstein to consult on its grow, and Goldstein, along with Tribal Chairwoman Ruth Wapoose, had in fact guided the feds and the local cops on their tour of the operation.

But Goldstein was "white," the affidavit noted, and several other people present appeared "non-native," and some vehicles had Colorado plates. This, the affidavit somewhat tortuously argued, violated the memo's provision about diversion from states where marijuana is legal to those where it is not. It seems to claim that hiring a cannabis consultant from a legal state is equivalent to importing pot from that state.

A field of hemp at sunrise. (votehemp.org)
The affidavit also stretched to assert the operation was setting off other enforcement triggers. The lack of ventilation in a drying room "is a health and safety concern for the community and the individuals associated with the operation, which is a violation of the enumerated priorities listed in the Cole memorandum regarding adverse public health concerns of marijuana cultivation," it argued.

But drying hemp stalks in closed barns is standard practice and is used by farmers around the country, including those who produced legal hemp crops this year in Colorado and Kentucky.

And security personnel guarding the property had guns, leading the BIA agent to question "the ability for the security team to have weapons for protection because it would violate the Cole memorandum."

Now, the grow has been destroyed, any decision on criminal prosecution is in the hands of federal prosecutors, and the tribe and other observers are wondering just what is going on. After all, the Menominee aren't the only tribe to take the Justice Department at its word, only to be raided down the road.

This past summer, the DEA hit two California tribes, the Pit River Tribe and the Alturas Indian Rancheria, seizing 12,000 plants. The feds alleged Cole memorandum violations including financing from a foreign entrepreneur and fears the marijuana would be distributed outside the reservations in ways that violated the state's medical marijuana law. And the US attorney in South Dakota a month earlier refused to agree to lift an injunction barring Oglala Sioux tribal member Alex White Plume from growing hemp, which the Oglala Sioux Nation has legalized.

Are the tribes being held to a different standard than states where it is legal? Has there been a policy shift at Justice? Are individual federal prosecutors going off the reservation?

Menominee Tribal Chairman Gary Besaw doesn't know, but he isn't happy about it.

"I am deeply disappointed that the Obama administration has made the decision to utilize the full force of the DEA to raid our Tribe," he said in a statement after the raid. "We offered to take any differences in the interpretation of the farm bill to federal court. Instead, the Obama administration sent agents to destroy our crop while allowing recreational marijuana in Colorado. I just wish the President would explain to tribes why we can't grow industrial hemp like the states, and even more importantly, why we don't deserve an opportunity to make our argument to a federal judge rather than having our community raided by the DEA?"

Neither was Eric Steenstra, head of the hemp industry advocacy organization Vote Hemp.

"The DEA action in this case is egregious, excessive and presents an unjust prejudice against Indian Country and the rights of sovereign tribal nations," he said. "The Menominee Indian Tribe cultivated their industrial hemp in accordance with Federal Law, per the legislation put forth in the Farm Bill. This is a step backward, at a time when great progress has otherwise been made toward legalizing and regulating industrial hemp cultivation."

In an interview with US News and World Report, tribal law expert Lance Morgan, a member of Nebraska's Winnebago tribe who has worked with tribal governments pondering marijuana operations, said the Cole memorandum guidelines are not being applied consistently and warned the Menominee raid would be remembered as a historic betrayal.

"How can you allow people to buy marijuana in a retail environment in some states and then raid an industrial hemp operation of a tribe? The only difference is that there is a tribe involved," he said. "This odd federal policy of encouraging investment and then raiding the new business sets us back a few decades in federal tribal trust and economic policy."

The raids against tribal pot operations will kill investment in such ventures, Morgan said.

"The new federal policy of 'sort of' allowing tribes to get into the marijuana business is especially cruel and unusual because it encourages investment, but after the investment is made the federal government comes and shuts it down and the investors lose all their money."

Tribal law expert and former head of New York's Seneca Nation Robert Odawi Porter agreed that there is at least the appearance of a double standard.

"This certainly suggests a real divergence in policy approach for Indian country," compared to the pot-legal states, which have been allowed to develop enormous marijuana industries, he said. "It increasingly looks like the Justice Department guidelines are not being interpreted in the same way as they were intended."

It seems like the Justice Department has some explaining and clarifying to do. Can the tribes participate in the new marijuana economy like that states, or not? And does the DEA accept the legal definition and status of hemp? If not, why?

Sweeping Bipartisan Federal Sentencing Reform Legislation Filed [FEATURE]

A bipartisan group of senators including heavyweights like Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley and Assistant Democratic Leader Dick Durbin rolled out comprehensive sentencing reform legislation Thursday. The bill aims at reducing prison sentences for some drug offenders and seeking to curb recidivism by bolstering reentry programs for prisoners. The legislation would, however, also expand mandatory minimum sentences in some for some non-drug offenses.

The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act of 2015 is also cosponsored by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Mike Lee (R-UT), Charles Schumer (D-NY), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

It is arguably the most sweeping legislation to roll back drug war excesses yet, and it represents "small government" conservatives cooperating with liberals and civil rights advocates -- a remarkable step in this era of poisoned partisan relations in Washington. If passed, it would free some currently serving prisoners, as well as cut sentences for future offenders.

The bill narrows the scope of mandatory minimum prison sentences to focus on the most serious drug offenders and violent criminals, while broadening ways defendants with minimal non-felony criminal histories can avoid triggering mandatory minimum sentences. The bill also reduces certain mandatory minimums, providing judges with greater discretion when determining appropriate sentences, and preserves "cooperation incentives" to aid law enforcement in tracking down kingpins.

In addition to reducing prison terms for some offenders through sentencing reform, qualifying inmates can earn reduced sentences through recidivism reduction programs outlined in the CORRECTIONS Act introduced by Cornyn and Whitehouse. The bill also makes retroactive the Fair Sentencing Act and certain statutory reforms that address inequities in drug sentences.

According to a summary provided by Sen. Grassley's office, the bill:

Reforms and Targets Enhanced Mandatory Minimums for Prior Drug Felons: The bill reduces the enhanced penalties that apply to repeat drug offenders and eliminates the three-strike mandatory life provision, but it allows those enhanced penalties to be applied to offenders with prior convictions for serious violent and serious drug felonies.

Broadens the Existing Safety Valve and Creates a Second Safety Valve: The bill expands the existing safety valve to offenders with more extensive criminal histories but excludes defendants with prior felonies and violent or drug trafficking offenses unless a court finds those prior offenses substantially overstate the defendant's criminal history and danger of recidivism. The bill also creates a second safety valve that gives judges discretion to sentence certain low-level offenders below the 10-year mandatory minimum. But defendants convicted of serious violent and serious drug felonies cannot benefit from these reforms.

Reforms Enhanced Mandatory Minimums and Sentences for Firearm Offenses: The bill expands the reach of the enhanced mandatory minimum for violent firearm offenders to those with prior federal or state firearm offenses but reduces that mandatory minimum to provide courts with greater flexibility in sentencing. The bill also raises the statutory maximum for unlawful possession of firearms but lowers the enhanced mandatory minimum for repeat offenders.

Creates New Mandatory Minimums for Interstate Domestic Violence and Certain Export Control Violations: The bill adds new mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes involving interstate domestic violence and creates a new mandatory minimum for providing weapons and other defense materials to prohibited countries and terrorists.

Applies the Fair Sentencing Act and Certain Sentencing Reforms Retroactively

Provides for Prison Reform based on the Cornyn-Whitehouse CORRECTIONS Act: The bill requires the Department of Justice to conduct risk assessments to classify all federal inmates and to use the results to assign inmates to appropriate recidivism reduction programs, including work and education programs, drug rehabilitation, job training, and faith-based programs. Eligible prisoners who successfully complete these programs can earn early release and may spend the final portion (up to 25 percent) of their remaining sentence in home confinement or a halfway house.

Limits Solitary Confinement for Juveniles in Federal Custody and Improves the Accuracy of Federal Criminal Records

Provides for a Report and Inventory of All Federal Criminal Offenses

Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) is a bill cosponsor (wikimedia/Bbsrock)
"This historic reform bill addresses legitimate over-incarceration concerns while targeting violent criminals and masterminds in the drug trade," Grassley said. "This bill is an important component in my ongoing effort as Judiciary Committee chairman to ensure access to justice for both the victims and the accused."

"The United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country on earth," said Durbin. "Mandatory minimum sentences were once seen as a strong deterrent. In reality they have too often been unfair, fiscally irresponsible and a threat to public safety. Given tight budgets and overcrowded prison cells, our country must reform these outdated and ineffective laws that have cost American taxpayers billions of dollars. This bipartisan group is committed to getting this done."

"Crafting criminal justice reform in this Congress is like a Rubik's cube, but this group of Republicans and Democrats worked hard to come up with a fair and balanced package that will make a real difference," said Schumer. "This bill would make much needed reforms to sentencing for nonviolent offenders, resulting in a much fairer criminal justice system. I'm hopeful that we can continue moving the ball forward in a bipartisan way to make the reforms our system needs."

"For decades, our broken criminal justice system has held our nation back from realizing its full potential," said Booker. "Today, we take a step forward. Mass incarceration has cost taxpayers billions of dollars, drained our economy, compromised public safety, hurt our children, and disproportionately affected communities of color while devaluing the very idea of justice in America. The Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act is a promising, bipartisan step forward to help right this wrong."

Although the bill doesn't move completely away from the resort to mandatory minimums, it is still garnering general support among the civil rights, drug reform, and criminal justice reform communities.

The bill aims to reduce federal prison populations. (nadcp.org)
"The legislation is recognition from leadership in both parties that the war on drugs has failed and that the harsh sentencing laws that appealed to lawmakers in the 80s and 90s have had disastrous consequences -- especially for communities of color," said Michael Collins, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance. "There are things we like about the bill and things we don't, and much more action is needed to tackle mass incarceration, but this is a worthy compromise."

"In an age of intense partisan conflict, it's heartening to see lawmakers across the spectrum working together on restoring justice in this country," said Maj. Neill Franklin (Ret.), executive director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a group of criminal justice professionals working to end the drug war. "We could reduce the impact that drug prohibition has on people of color and for so many others who have been victims of unreasonable and ineffective drug prohibition laws. There's still a lot of work to be done, but this is a considerable step in the right direction."

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights was also on board.

"Today marks a unique moment in our history and an important step forward in making long overdue reforms to our justice system," said Wade Henderson, the group's CEO. "This bill represents the most robust bipartisan effort at criminal justice reform in years. "This harmonic convergence of left and right -- of civil rights and small government advocates -- represents a coalition of conscience that can carry this legislation to the White House. We applaud the effort and look forward to working with the cosponsors on this legislation."

Now, the bill has to actually get through Congress. Given the high-powered and bipartisan support in the Senate, prospects look good there, but whether the House will be willing to sign on remains to be seen.

Chronicle AM: Delaware Decriminalizes, Supremes Make Synthetic Convictions More Difficult, More (6/19/05)

The marijuana reform bandwagon rolls through Delaware, federal bills on opiates and racial profiling get filed, the Supreme Court issues an interesting decision on synthetic drug sales, and more.

The Supreme Court clarifies that criminal intent matters. (supremecourt.gov)
Marijuana Policy

Delaware Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession. With the signature of Gov. Jack Markell (D) Thursday night on House Bill 39, Delaware becomes the 20th state to either decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana or make it legal for adults. The new law, which goes into effect in six months, removes the criminal penalties for the possession of up to an ounce by an adult, replacing them with a civil infraction punishable by a maximum $100 fine. For those between 18 and 21, a first offense would be a civil infraction, while any more would be misdemeanors. For people under 18, possession would remain a misdemeanor. Public use would be a misdemeanor punishable by a $200 fine and up to five days in jail. That includes moving vehicles, public areas, and outdoors on private property within 10 feet of street, sidewalk, or any other areas generally accessible to the public.

Missouri Cannabis Conference Next Weekend. Missouri advocacy groups Show Me Cannabis and Missouri NORML are holding a joint conference beginning next Friday in Kansas City. Click on the title link for all the details.

Heroin and Opiates

Federal Bill to Deal With Opiate Use Filed. A bipartisan group of six House members Thursday filed HR 2805 as a multi-pronged effort to grapple with opiate and heroin use. Several other bills on the topic have already been filed. This one would increase prescription monitoring requirements, create an inter-agency task to develop best practices for pain management, create a grant program to increase the number of first responders carrying the opiate overdose reversal drug naloxone, and direct the drug czar's office to establish a public awareness program.

New Synthetic Drugs

Supreme Court Rules People Can't Be Convicted for Selling Synthetic Drugs If It's Not Clear They're Illegal. A unanimous US Supreme Court ruled Thursday that people cannot be convicted for selling synthetic drugs unless prosecutors prove they knew the drugs were prohibited by law. Stephen McFadden had been convicted of violating the Controlled Substance Analog Enforcement Act for selling "bath salts," and a federal appeals court ruled that trial court jury instructions saying he could be convicted if the jury found he intended the drugs for human consumption. But the Supreme Court disagreed, saying prosecutors must prove the defendant knew the substance was either a controlled substance or an analog. The case is McFadden v. United States.

Law Enforcement

Federal Racial Profiling Bill Introduced. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) Thursday filed S 1610, which would eliminate racial profiling by police officers and promote accountability for state and local law enforcement. The bill also has provisions to eliminate sentencing disparities and promote reentry programs. It has not yet been assigned to a committee.

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