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

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

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

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

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

Medical Marijuana

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

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

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

Sentencing

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

International

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DWC: So, where do we go from here?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are December's drug war deaths:

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

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

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

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

Seven More Drug War Deaths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Charlotte Killing That Sparked Civic Unrest Began With a Joint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte, NC
United States

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And drugs.

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

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.

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.

Chronicle AM: CA Initiative Picture Clearing Up, Call for NYC Safe Injection Site, More (12/8/15)

It looks like we're now down to one serious legalization initiative in California, calls grow for a safe injection site in New York City, Nepalese villagers fight marijuana eradicators, and more.

Marijuana Policy

California "Sean Parker Initiative" Revised. The Adult Use of Marijuana Act (AUMA), backed by billionaire tech titan Sean Parker, has been revised to add safeguards for protecting children, maintaining local government control over pot commerce, shielding small businesses from monopolistic competition, and strengthening worker and labor protections in the industry, the campaign said Monday. Click on the title link for more details on the changes.

ReformCA Activists Migrate to Parker Initiative. The California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform (ReformCA) has apparently given up on getting its own legalization initiative on the ballot, with a majority of ReformCA board members now endorsing the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, known more widely as the "Sean Parker initiative." Board members endorsing the Parker initiative include Oaksterdam University founder Richard Lee, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition head Neill Franklin, Students for Sensible Drug Policy deputy director Stacia Cosner, California Cannabis Industry Association director Nate Bradley, and Dr. Bronner's Magic Soaps head David Bronner; and two other board members have reportedly agreed to withdrawing the ReformCA initiative, making a majority. "We have carefully reviewed amendments submitted by the proponents of the Adult Use of Marijuana Act, and we're convinced it's time to endorse that initiative and unite everyone behind a single, consensus measure to achieve a legal, regulated system, which a majority of voters have consistently said they want," Bronner said in a prepared statement.

Harm Reduction

Advocates Call for New York City Supervised Injection Site. Faced with a fourth straight year of increasing heroin overdose deaths, public health advocates are calling on the New York City to do more on overdose prevention, including authorizing supervised injection sites. "It's time for New York City to follow the science," said Julie Netherland, PhD, of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Supervised injection facilities can reduce overdose deaths and have proven effective in improving a host of public health and public safety outcomes. We can no longer afford to let fear and stigma stand in the way of saving lives."

International

Slovenia Joins Ranks of Countries Allowing Supervised Injection Facilities. The local nonprofit Stigma has launched a supervised injection site pilot project in the capital, Ljublana. Stigma and the Slovenian Ministry of Health worked quietly behind the scenes to get legal approvals and funding before going public.

Nepalese Villagers Clash With Marijuana Eradicators. Marijuana growing villagers in Makawanpur District fought with police trying to eradicate their crops Monday. Gunfire came from both sides, but no injuries were reported, and crowds dispersed after the gunfire. Police said they had destroyed about 20 acres worth of marijuana crops.

Fleeing California Meth Suspect Crashes Cycle, Has Gun, Is Killed

A man attempting to elude police on a motorcycle crashed his bike, then allegedly pulled a gun and was shot and killed. James Richard Jimenez, 41, becomes the 13th person to die in US domestic drug law enforcement operations so far this year.

According to a statement released by the Napa Police Department, officers with the department's Special Enforcement Unit were preparing to serve a search warrant for drugs and firearms at a residence in the city's Alta Heights section when Jimenez, the man they were looking for, drove by on a motorcycle.

Police had arrested him a month earlier on charges of possessing meth and ammunition. He recognized police and sped away, the statement said. Police took off after Jimenez in a short pursuit that ended when he crashed his bike.

Officers repeatedly shouted "Police, show us your hands, show us your hands" as they approached, but said Jimenez reached for his waistband for what they "recognized as a handgun." One officer then fired three shots, with at least one striking Jimenez in the torso.

"Following standard protocol, officers immediately secured the suspect in handcuffs and began CPR and other life saving measures," the statement said. But Jimenez was pronounced dead shortly thereafter at a local hospital.

Police said they recovered a "substantial" amount of cash, methamphetamine, and a gun at the scene.

The officer who fired the shots was later identified as Officer Thomas Keener.

The next day, several dozen of Jimenez's friends and relatives marched through Alta Heights demanding justice after the shooting.

"We want justice for Hyme! He didn't have to die this way!" one relative shouted.

They said he was a family man, not a gang member or violent, and they didn't know why he fled police.

"I'm numb, just numb," said his mother, Janet Jimenez.

His fiancée, Holli Nelson, 26, said Jimenez had made mistakes in the past, but he had paid his dues.

"They're making him out to be a monster, and he's not," she said. "They gunned him down like a dog."

Napa, CA
United States

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