Tag: War on Drugs

Baby Bou-Bou and the War on Drugs

bouphonesavanh01

Last week, a horrifying incident occurred in Habersham county. Cops on a drug raid tossed a flash-bang grenade into a house they were raiding when they found something blocking the door. That thing was a crib and inside the crib was 19-month-old Bounkham Phonesavanh. He’s now in critical condition after suffering severe chest and face wounds and burns when his crib caught fire. Doctors give him only a 50 percent chance of survival. One lung has failed. By the time I post these words, he may be dead. He has three older sisters who love him to pieces and have been basically crying non-stop for the last week.

In the immediate aftermath, the cops claimed that everything they did was justified. They said there was a dangerous meth dealer in the house, that they’d seen men armed with assault rifles, that an informant had tipped them off and they’d made an undercover buy. They blamed the family for putting the toddler in harm’s way by dealing drugs.

Almost all of that is now known to have been a lie:

Police surveillance should have revealed that children had been playing in front of the the house for two months and that a van with four car-child seats was parked in the driveway that officers crept by the night of the raid, said Mawuli Mel Davis.

The warrant contended that an undercover agent had purchased methamphetamine at the house the day before and officials justified the no-knock warrant on the grounds that the drug dealer was dangerous and possessed firearms.

Raiders found no drugs, gun or cash — nor the suspected drug dealer — at the house but did find the Phonesavanh family who was visiting from Wisconsin after their house had burned.
The suspected drug dealer, 30-year-old Wanis Thonetheva, was arrested later and was in possession of about an ounce of methamphetamine, Terrell said.

Now some people will try to tell you this is an isolated unfortunate incident. I don’t think you can write off the possibly fatal charring of a toddler that way. But they are also lying. Radley Balko has a rundown of incident after incident where flash-bangs have been deployed in these kind of situations. These are instruments of war. People’s houses have been burned down, people have been killed, other children have been scorched.

Nor is this an isolated incident in Habersham County. A few years ago, the same jurisdiction (different task force) gunned down pastor Jonathan Ayers. They thought he had bought drugs and came roaring up in an SUV, brandishing guns. The officers were in plain clothes and had little badges dangling from their necks. Not realizing they were cops, he tried to drive away and was shot and killed. The investigation exonerated the cops and concluded Ayers might have been paying for sex. His wife, however, found out that the cop who killed Ayers hadn’t been trained in the use of lethal force and the task force and investigators were hip-deep in nepotism. The county settled the case for $2 million. They clearly didn’t learn anything, however.

The lack of drugs and guns makes this more horrifying, but it’s kind of a side point. Even if the Phonesavanh family had been dealing meth — which they fucking weren’t — this raid would not have been justified. Launching a no-knock violent raid without even a basic assessment of the situation is something we wouldn’t do in Afghanistan, let alone Habersham County. Launching a no-knock violent raid of any kind in the United States against American citizens is something that should be used only in extreme situations, not routinely. That’s true even if they are dealing drugs. When you routinely launch drug raids in the middle of the night with military gear and officers trained to throw flash-bangs into homes, something like this is inevitable. We’re lucky there haven’t been more babies burned by this callous bullshit. And all for the glorious end of keeping Americans from getting high.

The War on Drugs is not a metaphor; it is literally a war on our own people. Baby Bou-Bou just became the latest horrific casualty. We’ve ended the War in Iraq. We’re ending the War in Afghanistan. When are we going to end this one? How many burned children, traumatized families and dead bodies is it going to take before we say, “enough!” I’m not even talking about decriminalizing drugs, here. You can keep drugs illegal. But isn’t it about time we stopped treating our own country like a battlefield?

Update: Let’s count the ways this could have been prevented.

  • They could have surveilled the house for more than about ten seconds.
  • They could have talked to a neighbor.
  • They could have used more than one informant.
  • They could have arrested the drug dealer in broad daylight when he came out of the house (he was kicked out of the house that day).
  • They could have noticed that the van in the driveway had kiddy seats in it instead of using it as cover.
  • Finding one door blocked, they could have entered from a different door.
  • They could have been trained to not toss a flash-bang grenade into an uncertain situation.
  • None of those steps involve legalizing drugs or letting criminals run free. They involve not immediately escalating a situation to a violent confrontation. Patterico makes this point:

    Don’t treat this like the cops intended this. They didn’t. When the story says deputies are distraught over this, I believe it. Cops don’t go into law enforcement to hurt small children.

    But look: if you use stun grenades in the service of a no-knock warrant like this, tragedies like this are going to happen. The question that police (and members of the public who pay the police) have to ask themselves is this: is it worth this kind of risk to arrest people for the crime in question? If the crime is murder, you might have one answer. If the crime is selling drugs, you might have another.

    And if the answer to that question (should we use this tactic knowing the risk?) is “no” . . . then don’t do it.

    There’s no question in my mind what the answer is.

    Mercy in the Drug War

    If the DOJ is to be believed, the President, who has so far granted the fewest Presidential pardons since John Adams, may grant clemency to hundreds, perhaps thousands of victims of the War on Drugs:

    The Obama administration’s new clemency efforts became official today, as the Department of Justice announced the start of their revamp of the petition process that could end up commuting thousands of sentences. Deputy Attorney General James Cole promised “an extensive screening system” to identify only those who have served significant time in federal prison for their offenses, have kept their noses clean (figuratively and literally), and whose convictions did not involve violence. The DoJ will offer pro bono legal services to those who qualify to navigate the clemency petition process as well.

    The criteria mentioned by Cole are published at DoJ as well:

  • They are currently serving a federal sentence in prison and, by operation of law, likely would have received a substantially lower sentence if convicted of the same offense(s) today;
  • They are non-violent, low-level offenders without significant ties to large scale criminal organizations, gangs or cartels;
  • They have served at least 10 years of their prison sentence;
  • They do not have a significant criminal history;
  • They have demonstrated good conduct in prison; and
  • They have no history of violence prior to or during their current term of imprisonment.
  • A few years ago, Congress reduced the huge discrepancy between cocaine and crack sentencing. The President appears to be mostly applying the Fair Sentencing Act to people who were swept up in the sentencing craze of the 90’s.

    This is part of a larger push, mostly at the state level, toward reducing mandatory sentencing and reducing non-violent prison populations. A lot of people are surprised that the push toward prison and sentencing reform is being largely driven by conservatives:

    In Texas, funneling money to special courts (like drug courts or prostitution courts), rehabilitation, and probation in an effort to make sure current offenders don’t reoffend, instead of continuing to make room for more prisoners, has resulted in billions saved and dramatically lower crime rates. In just the last three years, Texas has shut down three prisons.

    The conservative movement to reform prisons is not new. Republican governors in Georgia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio have all made efforts in recent years to address growing incarceration rates. But it has largely remained on the periphery of the mainstream—the stuff of columns and local reports that do nothing to sway the general public.

    I, however, am not surprised. What conservative would oppose shrinking government, cutting spending and putting productive citizens to work? If someone is truly dangerous, they absolutely belong in prison. But there are thousands upon thousands of people in prison who are not dangerous. Hell, even some of those who committed violent crimes are not beyond redemption. Consider the case of Mike Anderson. Convicted of armed robbery, the State of Missouri mistakenly thought he was in prison for 13 years. The state suddenly realized their mistake and want to jail him. In the meantime, he’s become a carpenter, a business owner, a religious man and a law-abiding father of four. What’s the point in jailing him now? Does it make society safer? Prison is a means to an end; the end being a safer society. It is not an end in and of itself.

    For once, the Obama Administration is doing something that will reduce government power and result in an increase in freedom. I think that’s why the response I have seen in the conservative blogosphere has been, like Ed Morrissey above, cautiously supportive.

    One of the few dissenters is Andrew McCarthy, who claims the President is abusing his power. I find this argument dubious coming from a big-time supporter of the unitary executive who has argued that the President has the power to start wars and torture people. But I especially find it dubious because the pardon power is one of the few instances where the President has unlimited ability to check the power of the judiciary and legislative branches. Presidents have used this power extensively in the past — Ford and Carter for draft dodgers, for exmaple. The language is pretty straight-forward.

    The President shall be Commander in Chief of the Army and Navy of the United States, and of the Militia of the several States, when called into the actual Service of the United States; he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices, and he shall have Power to Grant Reprieves and Pardons for Offenses against the United States, except in Cases of Impeachment.

    This is constitutional and permitted. The pardon power can be abused, certainly. Bill Clinton’s final days in office come to mind. But the President isn’t abrogating a law. He is considering — on a case by case basis — the sentences of people who are serving harsher sentences than they would if they were convicted today.

    The more I look at this, the more it seems like a good idea. It’s a small step backward in the devastating War on Drugs our nation has been fighting for forty years. I don’t say this often but the President is doing the right thing.

    Drugs Are Still Bad, M’Kay?

    This weekend, we lost another celebrity to drugs. Philip Seymour Hoffman, a brilliant actor, OD’d on heroine. He left three kids behind.

    As you know, I am vehemently opposed to the War on Drugs. But this does not mean I approve of them. It means I think that the “cure” isn’t a cure at all and, to the extent that it is, is worse than the disease.

    But drugs can be vile things. Nicotine addiction destroys hearts and lungs and leaves everything smelling awful. Alcohol is good in moderation, but we have tens of millions of problem drinkers who, among other things, kill thousands of innocent people on our roads. Pot, which I’ve never used, seems OK in moderation but I do know people who’ve spent years just sitting on their couch, just working long enough to get the next joint.

    But it’s at the hard stuff where my libertarianism falters. Meth, coke, crack, heroine — these are simply awful things. It’s true that most people who try them won’t get addicted. But many do. And some end up like Hoffman, dead on the floor of a hotel room, decades of potential snuffed out and grieving families left behind. Heroine is particularly dangerous in this because the purity of it can vary, leading to accidental overdoses (it’s thought that Janis Joplin died because the heroine she was using was purer than she was used to).

    Hard drugs are not unique in their lethality. People die of alcohol poisoning; one of my best friends was nearly carried off by it. And combinations of prescription and over-the-counter drugs have addicted many and killed people like Brittany Murphy and Heath Ledger.

    In the end, however, the problem of drugs — legal and illegal — is a social problem and a medical problem. Throwing cops and judges into this does not save people’s lives; it only creates a massive industry of jails, asset forfeiture and no-knock raids.

    But opposing the awful machine of the War on Drugs doesn’t mean we can’t be angered at the stupidity of it all when a young and talented person dies because of the vile trash that is heroin.

    The Demons of the Demon Weed

    Alberto Willmore was a beloved art teacher in Manhattan. Two years ago, police busted him, claiming a marijuana joint they found on the ground belonged to him. He then fell into a morass of legal system delays and education bureaucracy bullshit that he is only now just emerging from.

    We think that the two million people in prison are the only damage out insane War on Drugs does. Watch the video to see what a “minor” pot arrested can do. This happens 40,000 times a year and 90% of the arrestees are black, even though blacks use marijuana at rates comparable to whites.

    (H/T: Amy Alkon)

    From the War on Terror to the War on Everything

    Me, when the NSA story broke:

    we know that these powers, especially when they lurk in secret, only have a tendency to expand. Powers intended for terrorism rapidly extend to drugs (which often involve foreign agents) and are then extended to ordinary crime. Think about the Constitution-shredding tactics used in the War on Drugs — asset forfeiture, for example — and how they been extended beyond the War on Drugs. Once you give our government a hammer, they will get the courts to rule that everything is a nail.

    Reuters today:

    A secretive U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration unit is funneling information from intelligence intercepts, wiretaps, informants and a massive database of telephone records to authorities across the nation to help them launch criminal investigations of Americans.

    Although these cases rarely involve national security issues, documents reviewed by Reuters show that law enforcement agents have been directed to conceal how such investigations truly begin – not only from defense lawyers but also sometimes from prosecutors and judges.

    The undated documents show that federal agents are trained to “recreate” the investigative trail to effectively cover up where the information originated, a practice that some experts say violates a defendant’s Constitutional right to a fair trial. If defendants don’t know how an investigation began, they cannot know to ask to review potential sources of exculpatory evidence – information that could reveal entrapment, mistakes or biased witnesses.

    “I have never heard of anything like this at all,” said Nancy Gertner, a Harvard Law School professor who served as a federal judge from 1994 to 2011. Gertner and other legal experts said the program sounds more troubling than recent disclosures that the National Security Agency has been collecting domestic phone records. The NSA effort is geared toward stopping terrorists; the DEA program targets common criminals, primarily drug dealers.

    You see that? If Reuters’ reporting is accurate, they’re being fed data from War on Terror sources, then using that to launch their investigations, after which they cover up their tracks. They then go into court and perjure themselves claiming that the investigation originated elsewhere. While technically no information is presented that violates exclusionary rules, the privacy of Americans is thoroughly and systematically gutted.

    I’m awaiting further reporting on this subject. But if Reuters’ account is born out, this is an extremely serious scandal.

    Update: More from the NYT. The agencies are clamoring for NSA data.

    SCOTUS in the News

    Going to be an interesting week for the Court. They are having hearings now on both DOMA and California’s same sex marriage ban. We won’t know their decision for a while. My guess is that they will strike down parts of DOMA and possibly California’s amendment but on very narrow grounds that fall short of declaring a “right” to marriage. That would be my preferred outcome at this stage. I would prefer that this issue not be resolved by the Court. And given the dramatic shifts in opinion — Mark Warner and Claire McCaskill just changed their positions and a new poll shows majority support in Ohio — I suspect the gay marriage proponents will get what they want through the democratic process very soon. By the time the 2020’s roll around, I expect gay marriage to be legal in a majority of states no matter what the Supreme Court says.

    The more interesting ruling came today in Florida v. Jardines. This is case where a “drug-sniffing dog” was brought onto someone’s porch without a warrant and his subsequent alert used as probable cause. There wasn’t much hope for this since the Court decided earlier this year, unanimously, that drug-sniffing dogs constitute an infallible drug detection mechanism and therefore their use does not constitute a search. This, despite overwhelming evidence that drug-sniffing dogs are anything but infallible and often simply reinforce the predisposition of their handlers.

    But the Court ruled in favor of Jardines on privacy and trespass grounds. This will prevent blind searches of people’s homes using the dogs so it’s at least something. Interesting, supposed fascists Thomas and Scalia decided with the majority while supposed liberals Kennedy and Breyer were with the minority.

    The Court has been chipping away at our Fourth Amendment rights for some time. It’s nice to see the brakes applied or once.

    Shut Up, Citizen

    Radley Balko has been running a series of “Raid of the Day” articles over at HuffPo as preparation for the publication of his “Rise of the Warrior Cop” book (which I’ve pre-ordered). Today‘s should turn your stomach:

    On Monday, the Miami Herald posted an article about rising support for legalized medical marijuana in the state of Florida. The article mentioned an pro-pot activist named Cathy Jordan, who uses the drug to mitigate the symptoms of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The article mentioned Sen. Jeff Clemens (D-Lake worth), who is sponsoring a bill to legalize the drug. That bill is named after Jordan.

    The Bradeton Herald now reports that just hours after that article ran, a team of ski-mask-clad deputies from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department staged a guns-drawn raid on Robert and Cathy Jordan’s home. According to Robert Jordan, the cops seized 23 marijuana plants, including the two mature plants his wife uses to treat her illness. They made no arrests.

    The raid is a stark example of the troubling trend of using paramilitary police tactics to send a political message. Set aside for a moment the sheer cruelty of sending government agents to separate a suffering, terminally ill woman from the medication that gives her some relief. (And yes, that’s a major thing to set aside.) Why ski masks? Why come in with guns drawn? Did the Manatee County Sheriff’s Department really think that wheelchair-bound Cathy Jordan and her 64-year-old husband were a threat?

    No, of course they didn’t. This was about making an example of someone. Cathy Jordan’s name is on a bill to legalize medical pot in Florida. So it was up to Florida law enforcement to bring the boot down upon Cathy Jordan’s neck.

    Medical marijuana is not legal in Florida and Jordan was breaking the law. I’m not going to disagree with that. But as Balko points out, you have to question the priorities here. Even if we say that busting a terminally ill senior citizen was a wise use of limited police resources, why in the blue fuck would you have a violent raid? These raids are usually justified — often flimsily — by the potential for violent resistance. Ignoring, for the moment, that the threat can be mitigated by grabbing people at work or at their cars during the day, were they expecting this sufferer of Lou Gehrig’s disease to whip out a bazooka?

    The cops claim they were tipped off by a real estate agent who saw marijuana plants through the window. I would not be surprised at all if it turns out these plants could not be seen through a window (a common three of the “raids of the day” is bad and bogus tips). I find it difficult to believe that a raid was launched by pure coincidence on the person Florida’s medical marijuana proposal is named after. And given that the cops didn’t arrest anyone and it’s still not clear that they’ll bring charges, I have to think the point was to send a message.

    We need to remember something in the debate over legalizing medical and/or recreational marijuana. There are legions of people whose livelihoods and careers depend on the War on Drugs. Prosecutors who can get convictions; prison unions and private prisons who can jail the convicted; politicians who get to grandstand. And police and their unions, who see a reason for more hires and often directly benefit from asset forfeiture. Check out this article about the fierce police union opposition to even token reform of Georgia’s asset forfeiture laws.

    But returning to the political point — Balko again:

    Here is the point: If we’ve reached the point where we’re okay with — or at best complacent about — the government using violence to make an example of someone because of their political activism, then we’ve lost our grip on the principles that make free societies free. That these excessive, militarized raids on medical marijuana grows, clinics, and activists have been going on since the 1990s is a strong — and sad — indication that we let go of those values a long time ago.

    Exactly. I keep thinking of Siobhan Reynolds, who advocated for people who need large opiate prescriptions to deal with chronic pain. She was relentlessly harassed and intimidated by federal agents and prosecutors. They even used grand jury privacy laws against her to keep their investigations secret (grand jury proceeding are supposed to be confidential to protect the accused. Using them to conceal government actions is an abuse of the process. And federal prosecutors have shown little interest in grand jury confidentiality in high-profile cases like Barry Bonds).

    The Drug Warriors are losing. They are losing the War on Drugs and they are losing the political fight over it. The American people are slowly growing sick of this absurdity and slowly realizing that harm mitigation and treatment are a far better cure for our nation’s drug problem than guns and prisons. But they Drug Warriors will not go down without a fight. And, in this case, the fight is quite literal.

    The Keystone Cops of Cannabis

    Pivoting from Alex’s post on the need for new legal frameworks in the post-legalization era, I wanted to talk about the Obama Administration floating some trial balloons on how they are going to respond to Washington and Colorado legalizing pot.

    It’s not promising.

    One option is for federal prosecutors to bring some cases against low-level marijuana users of the sort they until now have rarely bothered with, waiting for a defendant to make a motion to dismiss the case because the drug is now legal in that state. The department could then obtain a court ruling that federal law trumps the state one.

    A more aggressive option is for the Justice Department to file lawsuits against the states to prevent them from setting up systems to regulate and tax marijuana, as the initiatives contemplated. If a court agrees that such regulations are pre-empted by federal ones, it will open the door to a broader ruling about whether the regulatory provisions can be “severed” from those eliminating state prohibitions — or whether the entire initiatives must be struck down.

    Another potential avenue would be to cut off federal grants to the states unless their legislatures restored antimarijuana laws, said Gregory Katsas, who led the civil division of the Justice Department during the George W. Bush administration.

    Busting low level users? Suing the states? Once again, we see the legacy of Raich: a federal government empowered to use any and and all means to override state law.

    There were a lot of people who speculated that re-election would empower Obama to “pivot” on the drug issue. I was skeptical, to say the least, because cracking down on medical marijuana wasn’t exactly a political winner for him in the first place. No one outside of a few libertarians decided their vote on Obama’s marijuana policy. Ardent drug warriors weren’t voting for Obama anyway and his supporters ignored his crackdowns. But the new rhetoric emerging from the Hypocrite Smoker in Chief shows that the Obama defenders were definitely smoking something if they thought things would change.

    Notice what words and phrases do not appear in the New York Times article: pivot, possibly ending the war on drugs, whether our drug laws are doing more harm than good, the drug war a failure, crime and misery [the drug war] creates.

    You’d think that if Obama were going to “pivot,” simply leaving alone two states that overwhelmingly legalized pot and gave him their electoral votes would be the best place to start.

    Marijuana actually outpolled Obama in Colorado, Washington and Arkansas.

    The Administration’s response is so disheartening that it has even caused Andrew Sullivan to deviate from his usual “we just have to trust that Obama has a long-term plan in mind” programming:

    Well, since they’re asking: if they decide to treat the law-abiding citizens of Colorado and Washington as dangerous felons; if they decide to allocate their precious law enforcement powers to persecuting and arresting people for following a state law that they have themselves just passed by clear majorities; if they decide that opposing a near majority of Americans in continuing to prosecute the drug war on marijuana, even when the core of their own supporters want an end to Prohibition, and even when that Prohibition makes no sense … then we will give them hell.

    Will we? Will we really, now? Obama has spent four years cracking down on legal medical marijuana in a way that George W. Bush never did and almost the entirety of the liberal media and the so-called “Obamacons” acted like toilets with the lids up while he did it. Have you seen a massive outrage from left wing blogs over the NYT article I quote above? Have you seen any of them even acknowledge it? Rachel Maddow did a whole show on how marijuana policy is changing. I scanned through it to see if she gave Obama hell for his policies. If she did, I missed it.

    For four years, liberals have steadfastly ignored Obama’s repulsive marijuana policies. They did this, they said, because it was so important for Obama to win re-election and he needed liberal support on more important issues. But there are always more elections and the issues are just as important now as they were three months ago. Are the liberals really going to turn on Obama during a fiscal cliff showdown because of pot? Are they really going to let the GOP win 2014 and 2016 because of medical cannabis? I don’t think so.

    The fact is that if Obama is going to be pushed on his marijuana policy, that push is going to have to come form the Right; from politicians who actually believe in state’s rights or have libertarian social views. The only other alternatives are the Supreme Court reversing Raich or a bunch of states uniting to openly and aggressively defy federal drug laws (e.g., by forbidding any state cooperation with drug raids or prosecuting federal agents for violating state law).

    But the idea that Obama is going to reverse course on this is ridiculous. And the idea that his supporters will turn on him is even more so. There are too many people who have a vested interest in the Drug War. And the next time Obama defies special interests — on healthcare, banking, defense or law enforcement — will also be the first.

    Penn Goes Off

    Sweet Jesus, yes:

    That’s Penn, going off on Obama joking about drug use while he continues to prosecute the War on Drugs. It’s beautiful.

    I think Penn hits a point that can not be emphasized enough: the role that class and wealth play in the War on Drugs. As P.J. O’Rourke pointed out in Parliament of Whores, rich connected people who do drugs need treatment and help (or, more often, a bong and a rolled up dollar bill). Middle class and especially poor people “part of the drug problem”.

    At some point, this is going to be recognized for the debacle that it is. And when that happens, we can not let men like Barack Obama — or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or anyone of a million hypocritical Drug Warriors — off the hook. The suffering they have inflicted on millions to assuage their guilt about drugs is incalculable.

    You’re Going to Jail

    I’m not the biggest of fan of John Stossel’s routine. But this is pretty devastating. It’s long, so I put it up as a weekend video when you have time.

    The most interesting part, to me, is when Stossel brings the hookers in to talk to prosecutor and serial shit-maker-upper Wendy Murphy. The fascination on her face when she meets these women is priceless.