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Psychedelics: Nebraska Moves to Ban Salvia Divinorum

If state Attorney General Jon Bruning has his way, Nebraska will soon join the short list of states that have criminalized the sale and possession of salvia divinorum. In a Monday press release setting his key legislative priorities, Bruning announced that banning salvia was one of his top three. (The other two were eliminating intoxication as a defense in considering the mental state of a defendant and moving against certain types of scam artists.)

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
The obscure plant, a member of the mint family native to southern Mexico, is a potent, fast-acting hallucinogen and has achieved a certain measure of popularity among recreational drug users in recent years. But because of its powerful disorienting effects, it is not one most people use repeatedly.

The DEA has had the drug under consideration for several years, but has yet to announce any plans to move it under the rubric of the Controlled Substances Act. Several states, most recently Illinois, and a handful of local municipalities, have banned it.

It is time that Nebraska joined that group, Bruning said. "Salvia is a powerful hallucinogen that can be purchased legally. This legislation will make it illegal and put it on par with other powerful drugs like peyote, psychedelic mushrooms and LSD," said Attorney General Bruning. "Several other states have already made salvia illegal. It's time to add Nebraska to the list."

In the measure he describes as "protecting Nebraska kids," Bruning would submit them -- and Nebraska adults -- to up to five years in prison for possessing the plant, and to 20 years for selling it.

"Videos of teens using this common plant to get high have become an internet sensation," said Sen. Vickie McDonald of St. Paul, who will sponsor the legislation. "Nebraska needs to classify salvia divinorum and its active ingredient, salvinorin A, as a controlled substance in order to protect our children from a drug being portrayed as harmless when it's not."

Law Enforcement: Ohio SWAT Team Kills Woman, Wounds Toddler in Drug Raid


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In the latest example of overzealous policing gone fatally awry, a member of a Lima, Ohio, police SWAT team shot and killed a young mother and wounded the child she was holding in her arms during a raid aimed at the woman's boyfriend, who was alleged to be selling drugs from the residence. Tarika Wilson, 26, was killed last Friday in an upstairs bedroom, shot twice by Lima police Sgt. Joseph Chevalia. Her one-year-old son, Sincere, was also shot, as were two pit bulls at the house. The child lost his left index finger, but his injuries are not life-threatening. One of the pit bulls was killed.

In the week since the incident, Lima police have failed to provide any details on what led up to the shooting, except to say they were executing a drug search warrant for Wilson's boyfriend, Anthony Terry. Terry was arrested at the scene and charged with possession of crack cocaine, which, along with marijuana, was found at the house.

Lima police did, however, engage in some preemptive apologetics. "This is a terrible situation that resulted from a very dangerous situation that occurs when a high-risk search warrant is executed," Lima Police Chief George Garlock said.

Garlock did not explain what made the search warrant "high-risk," nor did he explain why he sent a SWAT team to raid a home where officers knew children were present. In addition to her one-year-old, Wilson was the mother of five other children between 3 and 8 who lived at the house.

Officers tossed at least one stun grenade before charging the residence, but that explosion took place outside because officers knew children were present. "Because of the possibility that we had children in there, they were not lobbed inside," Garlock said.

Lima police have turned the investigation of the incident over to the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation because the shooting involved a Lima police officer. That investigation is expected to take several weeks.

By mid-week, the FBI announced that it was joining the investigation. But angry family and community members are not waiting for answers. A crowd of more than 300 people marched with family members from a community center to the home where the killing took place to express their outrage and from there to the police station.

"Remember that baby who is in a hospital and that woman laying on a slab being dissected because the Lima police overstepped their bounds," Brenda Johnson, executive director of the community center, told the crowd before the march began. Ms. Johnson said it was reckless for police to raid a home with so many children inside. "This time it was someone else's child," she said. "Next time it could be your child, your grandchild."

According to next door neighbor and Wilson cousin Junior Cook, police "broke down the door and started shooting." He also denied that Terry sold drugs from the house. "No one ever came and knocked on that door or bought drugs there," Cook said.

"Not all the police are bad. Some of them have children," Pastor Arnold Manley of Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church told the crowd. "But the majority of the ones in Lima are."

Residents and community activists have vowed to march every Saturday until justice is done. On Monday, more than 200 of them showed up at a heated meeting with police officials and the city council to demand action.

"The man who shot her, he's not a suspect? What if that was me?" shouted Quintel Wilson, the victim's brother. "Where would I be? Locked up. No bond! Victim is the word here."

"We're going to see that justice is done," said Bishop Richard Cox, an official with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Councilman Tommy Pitts, chair of the council's safety services committee, said Lima police have long targeted blacks. "This comes as no surprise to me," he said about the shooting.

That the resort to heavily-armed, paramilitarized SWAT teams to do routine drug search warrants can result in civilian fatalities should come as no surprise to anyone who follows their use. In 2006, Cato Institute analyst Radley Balko produced an authoritative report on the topic, Overkill: The Rise of Paramilitary Police Raids in America, that showed dozens of cases of people killed or brutalized during such raids.

The raids continue despite little sign of public support for them. StoptheDrugWar.org (publisher of this newsletter) last October commissioned a Zogby poll that found that two-thirds oppose the use of SWAT-style teams in routine drug raids. Now, from Ohio, comes one more reason to oppose them.


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Law Enforcement: Dallas Police to Accept Recruits With Past Drug Use

Past drug use is no longer a bar to employment with the Dallas Police Department -- as long as the applicant was under 21 at the time, it was more than 10 years ago, it was one time only and it didn't include shooting up. That was the policy approved by the Dallas City Council Public Safety Committee Monday in a last-minute compromise after council members balked at the department's slightly more liberal original proposal.

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Jack Evans Police Headquarters, Dallas
Under current Dallas police hiring policy, any drug use except for limited instances of marijuana smoking barred applicants from the force. The only exception was if the hard drug use took place before the age of 15. Last fall, the department quietly proposed allowing past hard drug use if it was fewer than four times, at least 10 years ago, and the applicant was under 21, but when the city council found out, it threatened to kill the proposal.

That's what it looked like was going to happen Monday. Although police officials including Deputy Chief Floyd Simpson and Chief David Kunkle told committee members they supported relaxing the hiring ban, council members were inclined to kill it.

"I'm dead set against any change in our policy on drugs, and I think that would not exactly be a morale boost to our present police officers," said council member Mitchell Rasansky during the debate.

Other council members wondered about sending mixed messages to children. "We can't say that on one hand, but on the other side allow some type of relaxed policy," Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway said.

But council member Ron Natinsky, who opposed the initial proposal, suggested the compromise of allowing only one instance of past drug use instead of four. That motion picked up a second from council member David Neumann.

"We have to be reasonable role models to our families, to our friends and to our citizens," Neumann said. "And part of that is being benevolent in understanding that we make mistakes."

The measure then quickly passed on a 4-2 vote. Dallas now joins several other large police departments and the FBI in no longer insisting on a life-long history of drug abstinence in its new recruits.

Marijuana: Despite Law Allowing Ticketing for Pot Possession, Most Texas Counties Still Arrest

Thanks to a new state law that went into effect on September 1, law enforcement agencies in Texas now have the option of simply ticketing misdemeanor marijuana possession offenders instead of arresting them. The law, which also applies to a handful of other misdemeanor offenses, was designed to alleviate chronic overcrowding in Texas jails and make better use of police resources. However, almost no one in Texas is taking advantage of it.

According to a report this week in the Dallas Morning News, only the Travis County (Austin) Sheriff's Department is ticketing instead of arresting misdemeanor marijuana offenders. Officials in Dallas, Tarrant (Fort Worth), and Collin (suburban Dallas) counties gave varying reasons for failing to implement the cost-saving measure, ranging from "system inadequacies" to the belief it will "send the wrong message" about marijuana use.

"It may... lead some people to believe that drug use is no more serious than double parking," Collin County prosecutor Greg Davis told the Morning News.

"I think the legislature was very sensitive to the fact that there are so many jails that are overcrowded," said Terri Moore, Dallas County's first assistant district attorney. "This was a great idea, but it raises a lot more questions that we are not ready to answer."

"These are not just tickets. These are crimes that need to be appropriately dealt with," said Ron Stretcher, Dallas County's director of criminal justice. "We want to make sure we get them back to court to stand trial. It's not about emptying the jail. It's about making sure that we have room in the jail for the people who need to be there," he said.

But the Travis County Sheriff's Department said merely ticketing marijuana offenders was smart policy. "There are folks that think we are being soft on crime because we are just giving tickets. We are still hard on crime," said spokesman Roger Wade. "We believe if we can save resources and have the same effect on crime, then we should take advantage of this."

Prosecutors in north Texas counties also cited the lack of a system for dealing with misdemeanor tickets. But that seems pretty feeble.

Harm Reduction: DC Quick to Move After Congress Lifts Needle Exchange Funding Ban

Officials from the District of Columbia announced Wednesday that the District government will invest $650,000 in needle exchange programs. The move comes less than two weeks after Congress passed an appropriations bill relaxing a decade-old ban on the District using even its money to fund such programs.

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PreventionWorks at work (screen shot from recent nytimes.com '''slide show,'' June '07)
Mayor Adrian Fenty and several city council members made the announcement at a press conference at the headquarters of PreventionWorks!, a DC needle exchange program that had heretofore existed on only private funding. Now, it will get $300,000 in city funds. Public funding for needle exchange would help reduce the number of new HIV infections in the city, they said.

"This program goes to best practices to combat one of our greatest health problems," Fenty said at the news conference. Given the high prevalence of HIV in the District, "everyone should be concerned," he said. "HIV and AIDS are such well-known public health problems in the District of Columbia that people understand we have to have programs and services in the neighborhoods," the mayor said.

The rest of the $650,000 will go to fund additional needle exchange programs throughout the city, he said.

It is money well spent, said DC Councilmember David Catania (I-At Large), chairman of the Committee on Health. "The cost of infection is immeasurably higher in terms of dollars and lives," he said.

Prisons: Facing Budget Crisis, California Governor Ponders Early Release of 22,000 Nonviolent Offenders

Faced with a $14 billion budget deficit next year, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is considering a proposal to slash ballooning prison spending by granting early release to some 22,000 nonviolent, non-sex offender inmates. The proposal would also cut the state's prison population by another 6,000 by changing the way parole violations are handled. But Schwarzenegger has not approved the proposal, and it is already generating political opposition.

With some 172,000 inmates, California's prison system is second only to the federal system in size, and its budget has ballooned by 79% in the last five years to nearly $8 billion. Still, the system is vastly overcrowded and faces two federal class-action suits seeking to cap inmate populations because overcrowding is resulting in the state not delivering constitutionally adequate medical and mental health care.

According to the California Department of Corrections' latest prisoner census, more than 35,000, or 20.6%, of those prisoners are doing time for drug offenses. Drug offenders, property offenders, and "other" nonviolent offenders together account for half the state prison population.

Under the plan, presented to the governor's office by his departmental budget managers, low-risk offenders with fewer than 20 months left in their sentences would be released early. That would save the state about $250 million in the coming fiscal year and more than $780 million through June 2010, according to the Sacramento Bee, which first broke the story last week. It would also involve cutting some 4,000 prison jobs, mostly for the state's highly paid prison guards, whose base salary is nearly $60,000 a year.

The proposal also calls for a "summary" parole system, where released offenders would remain under supervised release, but would not be returned to prison for technical parole violations, such as dirty drug tests or missing an appointment, but only if they are convicted of a new crime. Moving to a summary system would cut the average parole population by 18,500 in the next fiscal year and reduce the prison population by another 6,250, according to the proposal. It would also cost about 1,660 parole jobs. Altogether, changes in the parole system would save the state $329 million through June 2010.

While such a proposal would be groundbreaking if enacted, the odds appear long. Queried by the press after the Bee broke the story, Schwarzenegger spokesman Bill Maile said the governor had not decided if he liked the idea or not. "The governor asked his department heads to work with their budget managers to find ways to cut the budget by 10% because of the budget crisis we are facing, and this idea was one of many that was floated in reaction to that request," Maile said. "It's not a proposal yet, just an idea."

Early reaction from the political class has not been good. Rep. Jose Solorio (D-Santa Ana), head of the Assembly Public Safety Committee, said Democratic reaction would range from skepticism to outright opposition. "Many of us are going to have some very strong concerns about whether it's the direction we want to begin taking," Solorio told the Bee in a followup story. Early releases are "DOA" with Assembly Republicans, he added.

Republican Assemblyman Todd Spitzer (R-Orange), one of his party's criminal justice leaders, said early releases would undermine recently enacted Assembly Bill 900, a $7.9 billion measure that will add 53,000 jail and prison beds, but also establish rehabilitation as the philosophical underpinning of the state's prison system.

"By letting people out 20 months early, which is supposed to be when they get their reentry skills, they're not going to get them at all, so recidivism is going to get worse," Spitzer said. "This budget plan is a forfeiture of AB 900 principles, which was supposed to change how we treat criminality in California."

Republican political consultant Ray McNally was even more dramatic. "It's pretty clear, the governor has decided not to run for US Senate or other political office," said McNally, whose clients include the California Correctional Peace Officers Association. "You can't release 22,000 people from prison and expect to ever get elected to another office again. I think he's made his decision to retire from politics."

If Schwarzenegger braves the firestorm and adopts the proposal, he will probably include it in budget filings next month. If the proposal makes it to the final appropriations bill, that bill must pass with a two-thirds vote. There is a long way to go, but this proposal at least acknowledges that there might be a better path than just building more prisons.

Legislation: Illinois Joins Short List of States Banning Salvia Divinorum

As of January 1, possession of salvia divinorum in Illinois will be a felony. Before the legislature passed a bill this year, the obscure Mexican mint with hallucinogenic properties had been unregulated and freely sold at tobacco stores, "head shops," and even gas stations.

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salvia leaves (photo courtesy Erowid.org)
"We decided to move forward rather than waiting for someone to be killed because of it," said state Rep. Dennis Reboletti (D-Elmhurst), the bill's sponsor. He told the Chicago Tribune it was necessary for Illinois to regulate the herb tightly because the federal government had failed to act. The DEA considers salvia a "drug of concern," but has so far not moved to schedule it under the Controlled Substances Act.

Salvia has traditionally been used in religious ceremonies by Mazatec Indians in southern Mexico, but in recent years, it has spread to the US and other countries, where it is easily available over the counter or via the Internet. At high doses, salvia can produce intense hallucinations, but those effects are short-lived, with a "trip" being over in a matter of minutes. It is not a drug experience that most users wish to repeatedly revisit.

But for Reboletti and his peers, the risk of teens and college students from salvia use are so great that it must be banned. "It's very likely that you could hurt yourself or hurt others while in this drug-induced state," he said.

But others said that given salvia's spiritual and medical uses and potential, banning it is too harsh. Crystal Basler, owner of a religious supply store in Carbondale, told the Tribune most of her customers were medical -- not recreational -- users. "Some people describe [the effect] as they get very relaxed, kind of like taking an anti-stress pill," Basler said. "The leaf is very, very mild. There's no reason to ever make the leaf illegal. A lot of women buy it for PMS depression."

Salvia should be regulated, but not banned, she said. "I'm a big fan of it being regulated," Basler said. "But it shouldn't be illegal because you're interfering with people's right to choose in terms of their health care and religious following."

Salvia has already been made a Schedule I drug under state laws in Delaware, Louisiana, and Missouri, as well as a handful of towns around the country. Bills to ban it have also been brought in Alabama, Alaska, California, Florida, Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas, but have so far not succeeded.

Law Enforcement: Chicago's Courts Are in Crisis, and the Drug War Is a Big Contributor, Report Finds

Judges in Chicago's main Criminal Court Building at 26th and California hear some 28,000 felony cases a year, with each judge hearing about 800, or about four per judge per work day. Nonviolent, drug-related charges make up more than half of them, according to a report recently released by the Chicago Appleseed Fund for Social Justice, a research and advocacy organization focused on social justice and governmental effectiveness, especially regarding the criminal justice system. The clogging of the courts with low-level drug offenders is a major factor in a gravely dysfunctional criminal justice system, the report concludes.

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Cook County court house (chicagopc.info)
Based on more than 100 interviews with criminal justice system professionals, more than 160 hours of courtroom observation of more than 500 proceedings, interviews with victims, defendants, witnesses, and family members, and surveys of judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, A Report on Chicago's Felony Courts is a thorough, comprehensive, and eye-opening look at the way justice is served in one of the nation's largest cities.

"The sheer volume of cases in Chicago's felony courts overwhelms the judges,
prosecutors, and public defenders," the report notes in the first sentence of its executive summary. After enumerating the dimensions of the crisis, the report's authors go on to make a series of findings and recommendations aimed at everyone from the state legislature (it "has overburdened the criminal courts by passing criminal laws without regard to cost, impact, or resources" and should quit doing so) to the Cook County Board (quit using the courts for patronage, provide them with sufficient resources) to the 26th Street court administrators (increase professionalism, improve facilities).

But the bulk of the report's recommendations are devoted to dealing with nonviolent drug offenders. As the authors noted in describing the problem: "Non-violent, drug-related charges make up more than half of the cases. When asked to identify changes they would like to see in the criminal justice system, more than a third of the professionals focused on drug cases. There was nearly unanimous frustration: 'Drug cases have crippled the system,' said one prosecutor. Another prosecutor said: 'We've become a factory mill, just concerned with the disposition of the case. There's not enough consideration of if the person needs prison time or needs an extra attempt at rehabilitation.' The volume of drug prosecutions is dealt with through assembly-line plea bargaining. There is a feeling of grim reality among courtroom professionals about the system's inability to rehabilitate addicts, but there is no consensus about how to deal with drug abuse. Many judges believe that the existing alternative treatment programs are ineffective. Another prosecutor said that the system 'has no choice' but to ship offenders to prison.

"Because of the restricted sentencing options," the authors continued, "prosecutors and judges try to avoid treating these drug cases as felonies, especially for first-time offenders. 'People charged with small amounts of possession usually are dismissed because of the number of cases,' notes one prosecutor, 'and those are the cases that should be getting treatment alternatives.' There is also a strong incentive for defendants to plead guilty to drug charges to avoid harsh minimum sentences. Even though reduced charges in drug cases may allow for probation instead of jail
time, many offenders fail probation because the system does not provide the supervision and rehabilitation needed to return them to productive society. One former probation officer told us, 'adult probation that provides only one unsupervised check-in is useless as a way to give real services.' Judges vary as to whether they enforce the conditions of probation. Probation cannot work without a well-funded, consistently applied program."

Noting that many drug offenders can be rehabilitated and arguing that their potential value as productive members of society merits more flexibility, the report made the following recommendations:

  • Increase funding for and oversight of the probation system.
  • Expand the use of private, community-based organizations for supervised, rehabilitative probation.
  • Redefine young, nonviolent offenders as a "post juvenile" category of defendants.
  • Expunge criminal record after successful completion of probation.
  • Create up to four new drug courts with a focus on diversion/treatment programs.
  • Facilities are needed with courtrooms dedicated exclusively to narcotics cases in which the defendants are eligible for diversion and cases involving mental health issues.
  • Create, through legislation, a station adjustment model for dealing with possession of small amounts of controlled substances. [Editor's Note: A "station adjustment" allows police to handle a matter without involving the court system, i.e. with a warning or a referral to a treatment program.]
  • The drug school concept, operated on a deferred prosecution basis by the State's Attorney's Office, should be expanded. The Juvenile Drug School Program, eliminated due to budget constraints, should be re-established.
  • Increase training for defense counsel, prosecutors, and judges about the availability of diversion and treatment programs.
  • In creating legislation, attention should be paid to replacing mandatory minimum jail sentences with treatment and rehabilitation alternatives.

Chicago area judges, politicians, and legislators have expressed interest in the report and its findings. Whether that interest holds past the next news cycle remains to be seen. In the meantime, the wheels of justice grind on in the City of Big Shoulders, but just barely.

Law Enforcement: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories

In New York City, the Brooklyn South Narcotics Squad is again under investigation, this time after two undercover cops were taped referring to blacks as "niggers" and a third generated large numbers of civilian complaints. The foul-mouthed narcs, who posed as drug users for buy-and-bust operations in Coney Island, were chatting with each other and not assuming undercover personas when they made the remarks. They are now on desk duty pending further investigation. The third officer, a plainclothes detective also working the drug squad, was put on desk duty last month for receiving a high number of complaints from the Civilian Complaint Review Board. This is just the latest problem for Brooklyn South. Last year, 40 sergeants and lieutenants in the Brooklyn South vice squad were transferred after a handful of cops stole high-end electronics during raids on gambling dens and clubs and placed them in the station house. Three more Brooklyn South officers are accused of breaking into a massage parlor they had raided to steal surveillance tapes that may have cleared suspects. Four years ago, 26 detectives with the Narcotics Squad were demoted to patrolman after they were caught in an overtime scam, and that same year, a female lieutenant sued her narc supervisors for sexual harassment. The beat goes on.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico, the Santa Fe police drug squad is back in business after operations had been suspended for a year while federal investigators looked into the department's narcotics and burglary division. Police Chief Eric Johnson stopped all city narcotics investigations in November 2006, when the FBI informed him of their investigation. It has so far resulted in the arrests of Sgt. Steve Altonji and Det. Danny Ramirez, who are accused of stealing money from drug dealers. Now, Chief Johnson says two Santa Fe officers have been assigned to the Region Three Narcotics Task Force, and they have already conducted their first undercover sting at a local park.

In Boston, a former Boston police officer was sentenced to 13 years in federal prison December 12 for protecting a cocaine shipment for what he thought were Miami drug dealers but who turned out to be undercover federal agents. Former Officer Carlos Pizarro, 37, was one of three Boston cops arrested last year after going to Miami to collect $35,000 from the "dealers" to escort a truck they thought was carrying 100 kilos of cocaine. Pizarro, and the other two cops, Roberto Pulido and Nelson Carraquillo, had all pleaded guilty to conspiracy and attempted possession with intent to distribute cocaine. Pizarro is the first to be sentenced.

In Daytona Beach, Florida, a Daytona Beach police officer was arrested Saturday after being caught stealing cash and drug paraphernalia left as bait by investigators. Robert Rush, 29, a Crime Suppression Team member, is charged with official misconduct. Daytona Beach Police said they acted after repeated citizens' complaints about Rush. On December 13, they put $90 and a crack pipe in a van and set Rush and his partner to investigate for drug sales activity. As investigators watched, Rush returned to the station and entered the crack pipe as evidence, but never admitted to seeing or taking the cash. When he left duty, other officers pulled him over and found the $90, which he claimed he just forget to tag. He was suspended on Saturday and fired this Wednesday.

In Austin, Minnesota, an Austin police captain was arrested Monday for stealing two prescription pill bottles of Oxycontin filed as evidence. Captain Curt Rude has admitted to taking the pill bottles and now faces charges of felony theft, felony 5th degree drug crime and gross misdemeanor interference with property in official custody. He was placed on administrative leave last month, after the theft was first reported. He is currently on paid administrative leave. Rude faces up to 10 years in prison on the theft count and five years on the drug count. [Ed: Corruption or desperation?]

In Zanesville, Ohio, a Zanesville police officer was among five people arrested on drug charges December 12. Officer Donald Peterson, 53, is accused of arranging cocaine deals and selling prescription drugs, some of which he confiscated during traffic stops, while in uniform. According to a criminal complaint unsealed the following day, Peterson said there were others in the department who could provide him with prescription drugs. He went down thanks to a "cooperating informant," who said Peterson arranged for him to buy eight $20 bags of crack on one occasion, sold him six morphine tablets and two painkillers on another, and offered to pay him in drugs if he would baby sit Peterson's children on yet another. Peterson wife, Serritha, 29, was also arrested on charges she sold morphine tablets and other painkillers to the informant. All five arrested are charged with distribution of a controlled substance and conspiracy to distribute a controlled substance and each faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted. Peterson's downfall came in the wake of the October arrest of Zanesville officers Sean Beck and Trevor Fusner, who were plotting a fake police raid to steal a cocaine shipment. During the investigation of that pair, Peterson's name came to light.

In Longview, Texas, a Gregg County jail guard was arrested Monday for bringing illegal drugs into the North jail facility. Eric Sanders, 21, is accused of delivering contraband to jail inmates and has now become one himself, at the main Gregg County Jail. He is charged with having a prohibited substance in a correctional facility, a third-degree felony. He has also been fired. No word on just what drug it was.

In La Grange, Kentucky, a Texas Department of Corrections guard was arrested December 15 and charged with bringing marijuana, alcohol, a pornographic DVD, and tobacco into the Roederer Correctional Complex in La Grange. Guard Joshua Bertholf, 26, faces two counts of first-degree promoting contraband for the pot and booze and two counts of 2nd-degree promoting contraband for the porn and smokes. He has now been demoted from working at the state prison to residing at the Oldham County Detention Center.

Sentencing: New Jersey Moves to Shrink "Drug-Free Zones," Cops Protest

New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine (D), all 21 county prosecutors, and the state sentencing commission all agree that the Garden State's drug-free zone law is ineffective, racially unbalanced and should be amended, but some New Jersey law enforcement officials disagree. While Corzine and his allies want to cut back on the drug-free zones, these police officials are pushing for even stiffer penalties.

Under current New Jersey law, anyone caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of a park, public building, or public housing is subject to increased penalties, including mandatory minimum sentences. Under the proposal presented by the state and embodied in a pending bill, A2877, the drug-free zones would be cut back to 200 feet, sentences would be increased for sales within the zones, but the mandatory minimum sentences would be dropped.

Drug-free zones became popular as a law enforcement tool designed to protect kids from drug dealers, but as the New Jersey Commission to Review Criminal Sentencing pointed out in a 2005 report and again in a supplemental report this year, the zones cover huge swathes of urban New Jersey, effectively submitting black and brown city dwellers to much more severe penalties than those faced by their white suburban or rural counterparts. According to the commission, 96% of people jailed under the law are black or Hispanic.

The drug-free zone laws had another pernicious effect as well: Although they did not stop drug dealing within the zones, they did result in stiff mandatory minimum sentences for those convicted. Selling a bag of weed in the zone got you a year in prison, while selling a rock of crack got you three years. As a result, more defendants fought their cases, clogging the courts with low-level drug dealers.

In addition to clogging the courts, prosecutors also complained that the mandatory minimums meant there was little wiggle room for plea deals, leaving them without cooperating witnesses to make further drug cases. As a result, prosecutors have effectively ditched the mandatory minimums for anyone who would accept a plea bargain. Now, only those who contest their charges in court and lose are hit with the mandatory minimums.

But while the governor, the prosecutors, and the sentencing commission want to further reform the drug-free zone law, some police want to go in the opposite direction. "Leave it at 1,000 feet," said Rahway Police Chief John Rodger. "And increase the penalty in the 200-foot zone," he told the Home News Tribune this week.

Still, Rodger conceded that he could not recall any drug deals taking place in or near schoolyards, a sentiment shared by veteran Middlesex County Prosecutor Caroline Meuly. The drug-free zone law has "a laudable goal," she said, "but I can't think of any (criminal case) file where people have sold to children or targeted them."

Reforming New Jersey's drug-free zone law as Corzine and crew suggest would be an improvement, but it would still be aimed primarily at low-level urban minority drug dealers. Better to limit it to cases of actual sales of drugs to youths, or repeal it outright.

Drug War Issues

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