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How Reefer Madness Helped Kill Philando Castile

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Click here to watch the video on YouTube.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Atlanta, GA
United States

Chronicle AM: Conyers Racial Profiling Bill, Competing FL MedMJ Proposals, More... (3/13/17)

The senior member of the House files a racial profiling bill, Colorado lawmakers move to reduce medical marijuana homegrow limits, Kansas lawmakers mess with a medical marijuana bill, Texas lawmakers get a hearing on decriminalization, and more.

CBD cannabis oil (marijuanagames.org)
Marijuana Policy

Texas Decriminalization Bill Gets Hearing Today. The House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee today held a hearing on House Bill 81, which would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. Under the bill, offenders would face a ticket and fine rather than jail time and a criminal record. The Sheriff's Association of Texas opposes the bill, arguing that marijuana is "a gateway drug."

Medical Marijuana

Colorado House Gives Preliminary Approval to Cutting Home Grow Plant Limits. The House voted last Friday to give preliminary approval to House Bill 17-1220, which would limit medical marijuana home grows to 16 plants per residence. The current limit is 99 plants. Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) and law enforcement support the bill as a means of reducing diversion. The House must vote on the bill again this week before sending it to the Senate.

Florida Lawmakers Have Six Competing Medical Marijuana Plans to Choose From. Voters approved medical marijuana at the ballot box last November. Now, the legislature is trying to figure out how to implement it. Here's an overview of the six competing plans.

Kansas Senate Committee Approves CBD Cannabis Oil Bill, But Activists Unhappy. The Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee approved a CBD cannabis oil bill last Thursday, but only after gutting the original bill, Senate Bill 155, and replacing it with Senate Bill 151, which would only allow doctors to recommend "non-intoxicating" cannabinoid medications. "This is not the scope of what those who want to see prescriptive authority for medical marijuana want," said Sen. David Haley (D-Kansas City), who sponsored the original bill. Haley said he would attempt to restore the original bill this week.

Race

Conyers Files Federal Racial Profiling Bill. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the longest serving member of the House (he's been there since 1965), filed House Resolution 1498 last Friday. The bill calls for "eliminat[ing] racial profiling by law enforcement."

International

Philippines President Creates New "Joint Command" to Wage Bloody Drug War. President Rodrigo Duterte has signed an executive order creating an Interagency Committee on Illegal Drugs (ICAD). The order mobilizes 21 executive agencies to prioritize "high value" targets and go after all levels of the drug trade. Since Duterte took office last year, more than 8,000 people have been killed by police or shadowy vigilante groups. Another 48,000 have been jailed.

Chronicle AM: VT MJ Possession Pardons, No Jail for MJ in Houston, UK CBD, More... (1/4/17)

Vermont's governor pardons nearly 200 for pot, Houston's incoming DA says no jail for pot possession, a British medical regulatory agency recognizes CBD as medicine, and more.

British medical authorities have officially recognized CBD cannabis oil as a medicinal product. (Creative Commons/Wikimedia)
Marijuana Policy

Alaska Gets First Legal Marijuana Tax Revenues. The state is starting to reap the fiscal benefits of marijuana legalization, as the Department of Revenue announced it had taken in $81,000 in taxes from seven growers in the month of November. The revenues came from taxes on 98 pounds of pot and 10 pounds of trim, which are taxed at $50 an ounce and $15 an ounce, respectively.

Vermont Governor Pardons 192 for Pot Possession. Gov. Peter Shumlin (D) has pardoned 192 people convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana. Some 450 people applied for pardons after Shumlin announced the program last month, but he only pardoned 192 after looking at subsequent criminal histories. "While attitudes and laws about marijuana use are rapidly changing, there is still a harmful stigma associated with it," Shumlin said. "My hope was to help as many individuals as I could overcome that stigma and the very real struggles that too often go along with it."

No Jail for Marijuana Possession in Houston. Incoming Harris County District Attorney Kim Ogg has said the practice of jailing people for pot possession is over. "All misdemeanor possession of marijuana cases will be diverted around jail," Ogg said. "I've never felt good about putting marijuana users in the same jail cells as murderers. It's just not fair, it doesn't make any sense, and our country is resoundingly against that."

Medical Marijuana

Florida is Now a Medical Marijuana State. The constitutional amendment approved by voters in November to legalize medical marijuana went into effect Tuesday. But the state doesn't have a distribution system up and running yet. Lawmakers and the state Department of Health will have to craft rules, with an implementation target date of September 9.

Massachusetts Medical Marijuana Hearing Aims to Ease Patient Access. At a public hearing in Boston Tuesday, advocates called for changes in the state's medical marijuana law to allow hospices and nursing homes to provide the medicine for patients. "Hospice patients are literally out of time," said Elizabeth Dost, clinical director for the Massachusetts Patient Advocacy Alliance, which represents medical marijuana patients. "The patient's average length of stay (in hospice) in Massachusetts is 35 to 45 days. By the time they access cannabis, they are often deceased." Another public hearing is set for Thursday morning in Holyoke.

Law Enforcement

NAACP Activists Arrested in Protest at Attorney General Nominee's Office. Six NAACP demonstrators were arrested after occupying the Mobile, Alabama, offices of Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Donald Trump's choice to head the Justice Department. The NAACP is demanding the Sessions turn down the nomination to be attorney general, citing his record of ignoring voter suppression but prosecuting black voting rights activists. Sessions is also opposed by broad swathes of the drug reform community for his stances against marijuana legalization and sentencing reform and in favor of asset forfeiture.

International

Britain Recognizes CBD as a Medicine. The Medicines and Health Care Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) Tuesday classified CBD as a medicine in the United Kingdom. The agency said it made the move after reviewing claims from several companies that their CBD products offered health benefits.

Georgia Marijuana Activists Face 12 Years in Prison for Planting Pot Seeds. In a New Year's Eve act of civil disobedience, dozens of activists and the Girchi Party planted pot seeds at party offices, publicly breaching the country's criminal code and exposing themselves to up to 12 years in prison under the country's drug laws. The Girchi Party is demanding drug decriminalization and marijuana legalization.

Chronicle AM: Obama Says Federal Pot Prohibition "Not Tenable" After Tuesday, More... (11/07/16)

Marijuana Policy 

President Obama Says Federal Pot Prohibition in Question After Tuesday's Vote. Appearing on the Bill Maher Show Friday night, President Obama said federal marijuana prohibition will not "be tenable" if more states vote to legalize the weed on Tuesday. "The good news is is that after this referenda, to some degree it’s gonna call the question, because if in fact it passed in all these states, you now have about a fifth of the country that’s operating under one set of laws, and four-fifths in another," Obama said. "The Justice Department, DEA, FBI, for them to try to straddle and figure out how they’re supposed to enforce laws in some places and not in others — they’re gonna guard against transporting these drugs across state lines, but you’ve got the entire Pacific corridor where this is legal — that is not gonna be tenable," he said.

 

Maine Legalizers Have Huge Cash Advantage. Supporters of the Question 1 marijuana legalization initiative have raised more than $2.4 million dollars, according to campaign finance reports, while opponents have raised only $201,000. Most of the pro-legalization money has come from the New Approach PAC, the instrument of the heirs of late Progressive Insurance founder and drug reform philanthropist Peter Lewis, while 99% of the anti-legalization money has come courtesy of Project SAM's Kevin Sabet, who now heads the newly formed non-profit Alliance for Healthy Marijuana Policy.

Las Vegas Casino Magnate Sheldon Adelson Again Kicks in Against Nevada Pot Initiative. The Sands Corporation head honcho and prolific funder of anti-drug reform efforts has given more than $1.35 million to the campaign trying to defeat the Question 2 marijuana legalization initiative in recent weeks, according to campaign finance reports. That's on top of $2 million he gave opponents in September. In fact, Adelson is virtually a one-man opposition campaign, having provided 97.4% of all reported opposition campaign contributions. Proponents of Question 2 have raised only $1.2 million.

Medical Marijuana

New Report Calls Marijuana a "Promising Option" for Dealing With Opioid Addiction. A new report from the National Cannabis Industry Association finds that increasing legal access to marijuana can be a potent weapon in the fight against opioid addiction. The report findssignificant progress in reducing addiction and overdose deaths in states that have legalized it.

New Mexico Panel Votes to Allow Medical Marijuana for "Opiate Use Disorder." A state advisory board that makes recommendations to the Health Department on New Mexico’s Medical Cannabis Program voted 5-1 Friday in favor of adding "opiate use disorder" to the list of conditions that qualify. Now, it's up to incoming Health Secretary Lynn Gallagher to accept or deny the recommendation. Such a move could add thousands of new patients to the state's rapidly expanding medical marijuana program.

Asset Forfeiture

Montana Supreme Court Affirms Right to Jury Trial in Civil Forfeiture Cases. In a ruling last week, the state high court upheld and strengthened a 2015 law that reformed asset forfeiture procedures. The ruling came in the case of a man whose land was seized after police found 300 marijuana plants on it. The man was convicted of federal drug charges, but not prosecuted by the state. Even though he faced no state charges, the state seized his land. He requested a jury trial, but was denied in lower court, and a judge turned the property over to the state. But the Supreme Court said the 2015 law supplanted older law on which the trial judge based his decision.

Law Enforcement

Even As Arrests Drop, California Racial Disparities Persist. A new report from the office of Attorney General Kamala Harris finds that arrest rates for all racial groups have dropped in the past decade, but blacks were still much more likely than whites to be arrested on felony charges. When it comes to drugs, black men were six times as likely as whites to be arrested, and black women were nearly three times as likely to be arrested as whites. Latinos, on the other hand, were arrested for drugs at roughly the same rate as whites. 

A Possession Arrest Every 25 Seconds: The Cruel Folly of the War on Drugs [FEATURE]

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

Nearly a half century after Richard Nixon inaugurated the modern war on drugs, to criticize it as a failure as so common as to be banal. Yet even as marijuana prohibition falls in some states, the drug war rolls on, an assembly line of criminalization and incarceration, dealing devastating blows to the lives of its victims that linger far beyond the jail or prison cell.

More than 1.25 million arrests for simple drug possession last year. (Creative Commons)
And most of its victims are not capos or kingpins, but simple drug users. According to a new report from Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), drug possession is the single offense for which the largest number of arrests are made in the US, totaling more than 1.25 million last year, and accounting for more than three-fourths of all drug arrests.

Based on analysis of national and state-level data, as well as more than 360 interviews with drug offenders, family members, past and present government officials, and activists conducted mostly in Texas, Florida, Louisiana, and New York, the 196-page report, "Every 25 Seconds: The Human Toll of Criminalizing Drug Use in the United States," finds that enforcement of drug possession laws causes extensive and unjustifiable harm to individuals and communities across the country.

The long-term consequences can separate families; exclude people from job opportunities, welfare assistance, public housing, and voting; and expose them to discrimination and stigma for a lifetime. While more people are arrested for simple drug possession in the US than for any other crime, mainstream discussions of criminal justice reform rarely question whether drug use should be criminalized at all.

"Every 25 seconds someone is funneled into the criminal justice system, accused of nothing more than possessing drugs for personal use," said Tess Borden, Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU and the report's author. "These wide-scale arrests have destroyed countless lives while doing nothing to help people who struggle with dependence."

Among those interviewed was for the study was Corey, who is doing 17 years in Louisiana for possessing a half ounce of marijuana. His four-year-old daughter, who has never seen him outside prison, thinks she's visiting him at work.

The harmful consequences of a drug arrest extend far beyond prison walls (ussupremecourt.gov)
Another is "Neal," whose name was changed to protect his privacy. Also in Louisiana, he's doing five years for possessing 0.2 grams of crack cocaine. He has a rare autoimmune disorder and said he cried the day he pleaded guilty because he knew he might not survive his sentence.

Then there's Nicole, held for months in the Harris County Jail in Houston and separated from her three young children until she pleaded guilty to a felony -- her first. The conviction meant she would lose her student financial aid, the food stamps she relied on to feed her kids, and the job opportunities she would need to survive. All for an empty baggie containing a tiny bit of heroin residue.

"While families, friends, and neighbors understandably want government to take action to prevent the potential harm caused by drug use, criminalization is not the answer," Borden said. "Locking people up for using drugs causes tremendous harm, while doing nothing to help those who need and want treatment."

The report also emphasized the now all-too-familiar racial disparities in drug law enforcement, noting that while blacks use drugs at similar or lower rates than whites, they're more than two-and-a-half times more likely to arrested for drug possession and more than four time more likely to be arrested for pot possession. It's even worse in some localities, such as Manhattan, where blacks are 11 times as likely to be busted for drug possession as whites. That amounts to "racial discrimination under international human rights law," the two groups said.

Aside from the vicious cruelty of imprisoning people for years or decades merely for possessing a substance, that drug conviction -- and drug possession, even of tiny amounts, is a felony in 42 states -- also haunts their futures. Drug convicts face the loss of access to social welfare benefits, the stigma of criminality, the disruption of family life, the financial burden of paying fines and fees, and the burden of trying to find work with a felony record. And that harms society at large as well as the criminalized drug users.

And despite tens of millions of drug arrests over the past few decades, with all their collateral damage, the war on drugs doesn't achieve its avowed goal: reducing drug use. There has to be a better way, and Human Rights Watch and the ACLU have something to say about that.

report launch at National Press Club, Washington, DC, 10/12/16
"State legislatures and the US Congress should decriminalize personal use and possession of all drugs. Federal and state governments should invest resources in programs to decrease the risks associated with drug use and provide and support voluntary treatment options for people struggling with drug dependence, along with other approaches," the two groups recommended.

"Until full decriminalization is achieved, officials at all levels of government should minimize and mitigate the harmful consequences of current laws and practices," they added, providing detailed recommendations to state legislatures, police, prosecutors, and other state and local government entities, as well as the federal government.

"Criminalizing personal drug use is a colossal waste of lives and resources," Borden said. "If governments are serious about addressing problematic drug use, they need to end the current revolving door of drug possession arrests, and focus on effective health strategies instead."

Chronicle AM: MA Init Leads in New Poll, Iran Ponders End to Drug Death Penalty, More... (10/6/16)

We have Massachusetts legalization news today, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker gets slapped down in his bid to drug test food stamp applicants, Iran's parliament ponders ending the death penalty for drugs, and more.

It looks like another bumper opium harvest next spring in Afghanistan. (unodc.org)
Marijuana Policy

Another Massachusetts Poll Has Legalization Initiative Winning. A new Western New England University Polling Institute poll has the Question 4 leading a month out from election day. The poll had support at 55% among all registered voters, with 39% opposed. When it came to likely voters, the initiative's lead shrunk slightly, with 52% in support and 42% opposed.

Massachusetts ACLU Report Highlights Continuing Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests. Even after decriminalization, people continue to get arrested for marijuana offenses, especially if they're black, a new ACLU report has found. Black Massachusetts residents were 3.3 times more likely to get popped for pot than white ones even though they use it at the same rate. For marijuana sales offenses, the disparity was even more striking: Blacks were 7.1 times more likely than whites to get busted for peddling pot. "Racial disparities are a disturbing feature of our current marijuana policy. Black people are arrested for marijuana possession at 10 times the rate of white people in some counties -- despite the fact that black people and white people use marijuana at the same rate," ACLU Racial Justice Director Rahsaan Hall says in a prepared statement. "Taxing and regulating marijuana is an important step towards reducing the harm that current policies cause to people of color, particularly Black people, and it will generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that can be reinvested in our communities."

Drug Testing

Federal Court Rejects Wisconsin's Bid to Drug Test Food Stamp Applicants. A federal judge in Washington has rejected a challenge from Gov. Scott Walker (R) to a federal law that blocks states from drug testing food stamp applicants. Walker had challenged the policy last year as he launched a doomed presidential bid, but the federal judge ruled that Wisconsin filed its complaint too soon, before it had actually implemented the policy, and without giving the Obama administration a chance to formally reject it.

International

Afghan Opium Production Expands to Near Record Levels. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported Wednesday that opium production this year to one of the highest levels on record. Illicit cultivation has expanded to nearly half a million acres, making it one of the biggest years for poppy since 1994, when the UNODC began estimating the crop size. The all-time record is about 600,000 acres, reported in 2014.

Iraqi Forces Burn ISIS Opium Poppy Crop. Iraqi security forces Wednesday burned a four square acre field planted with opium poppies belonging to ISIS in Salahuddin province. The move was described as an effort to cut ISIS financing through the opium and heroin trade. Iraqi officials said ISIS used laboratories at Mosul University to process the raw opium into heroin.

Iran Moving to End Death Penalty for Drug Offenses. One of the world's leading drug executioners may be about the change its ways. A bill that would end capital punishment for drug trafficking now has the support of a majority in the parliament. If the parliament actually approves the bill, it would have to be ratified by the Guardian Council of Islamic jurists, which has opposed any relaxation of the country's death penalty regime. But executing drug smugglers "will not benefit the people or the country," said Yahya Kamalpur, deputy head of the parliamentary legal and judicial committee. Parliament "wants to eliminate the death penalty for criminals who [smuggle narcotics] out of desperation" and replace it with long prison sentences or hard labor. We are after a scientific and not emotional solution in confronting drug smugglers," he said.

Danes to Consider Bill Easing Marijuana-Impaired Driving Rules. A bill filed in the parliament this week would the country's zero tolerance policy toward drivers with marijuana in their systems in favor of a "stepladder" approach in which the penalty for driving while impaired would depend on the level of marijuana in the driver's system. Under current law, driving with marijuana in one's system can result in the loss of a driver's license for three years. That's too much for bill sponsor Jan Jorgensen of the Liberal Party. "You can actually drive pretty well, even after having smoked hash. There is obviously a limit to how much, but we believe a minimum threshold should be introduced now," he said. "The problem is that we have punished a lot of people who have not been of any danger to traffic at all, simply because they might have smoked marijuana a fortnight ago, and it still could be measured in the blood."

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

In Surprise Reversal, Democrats Call for "Pathway" to Marijuana Legalization

Meeting in Orlando Saturday ahead of the Democratic National Convention later this month, the party's platform drafting committee dropped a moderate marijuana plank it had adopted only days earlier and replaced it with language calling for rescheduling pot and creating "a reasoned pathway to future legalization."

Bernie Sanders supporters had pushed earlier for firm legalization language, but had been turned back last week and didn't have any new language going into this weekend's platform committee meeting. But on Saturday afternoon, the committee addressed an amendment that would have removed marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act, as Sanders supporters had earlier sought in vain, with Tennessee Sanders delegate David King arguing that pot was put in the same schedule as heroin during a political "craze" to go after "hippies and blacks."

That amendment was on the verge of being defeated, with some committee members worrying that it went "too far" and that it would somehow undermine state-level legalization efforts, but then committee members proposed merely rescheduling -- not descheduling -- marijuana and added the undefined "pathway" language.

The amendment was then adopted on an 81-80 vote, leading to a period of contention and confusion as former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, the committee co-chair, entered a complaint that at least one member may not have been able to vote. That led to arguments between committee members and between members and non-voting observers, most of whom were Sanders supporters. The Washington Post reported that one Clinton delegate complained loudly that Sanders delegates "wanted 100% of everything."

But the new language prevailed when former Arkansas US senator Mark Pryor, a Clinton delegate, announced that while opponents of the language were unhappy that the earlier compromise language had been replaced, they weren't going to fight it.

"We withdraw the objection," Pryor said.

The marijuana amendment adopted by the platform committee reads:

"Because of conflicting laws concerning marijuana, both on the federal and state levels, we encourage the federal government to remove marijuana from its list as a Class 1 Federal Controlled Substance, providing a reasoned pathway for future legalization."

The earlier language had cited disparate racial enforcement of marijuana laws and urged support for state level "marijuana decriminalization," but only stated support for "policies that will allow more research to be done on marijuana, as well as reforming our laws to allow legal marijuana businesses to exist without uncertainty."

Bernie Sanders supporters didn't get the descheduling language they wanted, but they did get a commitment to rescheduling and they got the word "legalization" in there, even if the phrase "a reasoned pathway for future legalization" is a bit mealy-mouthed.

And the Democratic Party now has marijuana legalization as part of its platform.

Orlando, FL
United States

The Outrageous Death of Ollie Lee Brooks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another comment:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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