Category: General Drug War

U.S. Government Website Admits Drug War Enforcement Causes Violence

Tuesday, August 7th, 2012

By Sean Dunagan, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

As anyone who pays attention to the issue can tell you, the brazen dishonesty of the propaganda front in the war on drugs is enough to make any Madison Avenue ad man wince:  Cannabis has no medicinal value. Your brain, on drugs, transforms into a fried egg.  Marijuana is the most violence-causing drug in the history of mankind (that one’s a quote from Harry Anslinger, the former Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics).  It would be a hilarious spectacle, if not for the fact that so many people actually believe what they are told.

Yet, sometimes, the truth—as it is prone to do—finds a way to peek through the veil and let itself be known.  Witness last year’s Department of Homeland Security report concluding that eliminating cartel “kingpins” has no impact on drug trafficking levels, and DEA Administrative Law Judge Francis Young’s 1988 finding that marijuana “has a currently accepted medical use in treatment in the United States” and should, accordingly, be transferred from Schedule I to Schedule II under the Controlled Substances Act.

Another such moment of drug war reason occurred in April in the form of statements made by Dr. Mark Kleiman, a UCLA Professor of Public Policy and former visiting fellow at the DOJ’s National Institute of Justice.  In a video posted on the NIJ’s web site, Dr. Kleiman candidly observes:

Everybody knows that drug abuse and crime are sort of the same thing, and therefore fighting the war on drugs is a good way to reduce crime.  Unfortunately, that ain’t so. And we need to distinguish sharply between policies to reduce drug abuse and the damage that it does to individuals and the people around them and policies to reduce predatory crime . . .

A lot of the stuff we do that’s supposed to control drug abuse actually turns out to increase predatory crime.  We could think about not doing that.  In particular, drug law enforcement has a natural tendency to increase the stakes in drug dealing.  To put more money on the table, to put more time behind bars at risk, and therefore to increase the value of violence to people engaged in the illicit drug trade. . . That ramping up drug law enforcement is going to increase, rather than decrease, violence.  That’s what we’ve been seeing in Mexico.

As a former DEA analyst, I find it astonishing that these statements were made by a DOJ-funded researcher and posted to a DOJ web site.  Lest anyone doubt that the drug policy reform movement is succeeding, I would ask you to try to imagine these statements having been allowed during the Just Say No era.

I should note that Dr. Kleiman does not advocate for legalization; instead, he makes the rather strained argument that the drug war is worthwhile, but that law enforcement efforts focusing on violent actors in the drug business would be more effective.  I would argue that while such an approach is certainly more morally justifiable than locking up, say, elderly cancer patients who use medical marijuana, it’s inherently inconsistent with his own observations about the causal relationship between prohibition and violence.  Locking up elderly cancer patients doesn’t “increase the value of violence” for drug traffickers.  Locking up violent drug traffickers does, simply because it raises the stakes.

In economic terms, the illicit drug market is driven almost entirely by risk premiums.  In Colombia, a kilogram of cocaine costs less than $3,000.  By the time it reaches the U.S., that price has increased at least sixfold.  Why?  Because the risk of trying to evade the Coast Guard, Customs and DEA folks who try to interdict it along the way has a quantifiable value.  The dynamic is multiplied at the retail level.  Standing on a street corner selling coke by the gram is a pretty high-exposure (hence high-risk) endeavor, so the price jumps up to roughly $100 a gram in most cities.

That market dynamic in the milieu of prohibition will always engender violence because prohibition ensures that only criminals will be engaged in the market.  So, imagine that Dr. Kleiman’s suggested approach were to be adopted so successfully that the risk of arrest for traffickers increased dramatically.  Would Chapo Guzman, the billionaire head of the Sinaloa cartel who is listed by Forbes magazine as one of the richest men in the world, decide that drug trafficking had just gotten too risky and find another line of work?  I sincerely doubt it.  The result would be an upward adjustment of the risk premium.  That would mean that drugs became more expensive.  That would mean that transporting and selling them became more profitable.  That would mean that the stakes would be higher, and traffickers would defend their market share with even greater violence.  That would mean, as we have witnessed over and over again, that prohibition makes the problems associated with the drug trade worse, not better.

We see this in a very tangible way in Mexico, where I worked for two years with the DEA.  In 2006, there were roughly 2,100 drug-related murders in the country.  In December of that year, Felipe Calderon assumed the presidency promising to redouble the country’s fight against drug traffickers.  He deployed the military to the streets, waging an all-out assault against the “worst of the worst” (like the one suggested by Dr. Kleiman).  Last year, the death toll topped 12,000.

I applaud Dr. Kleiman’s lucid assessment of the relationship between prohibition and crime, but I’m absolutely dumbfounded by his inability to draw a sound conclusion from his own premises.  The fact is that drug market violence is a direct and natural consequence of prohibition.  To suggest that it can be eradicated without ending prohibition is to suggest that a tree can be killed by plucking a few of its leaves.

Justice for Chavis Carter

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

A breaking story this week from Jonesboro, Arkansas, concerns the death of 21 year old Chavis Carter, a black man who was shot to death while handcuffed in the back seat of a Jonesboro Police Department squad car. Carter had been stopped while driving last Saturday night and a search of Carter’s vehicle had allegedly turned up marijuana. The Jonesboro police say Carter committed suicide with a stolen .380 Cobra semi-automatic that somehow wasn’t found during the search or arrest of Chavis; Chavis’s family and supporters say that Chavis was murdered, and that the police are involved in covering up what appears to be a racially motivated crime. Here are stories from the Huffington Post, Charles Blow at the NYT, and KAIT8 News.

The family has put up a Facebook page “Justice for Chavis (ASAP) Carter“. I would also suggest that Arkansans who think that marijuana prohibition gives an already inequitable justice system an additional degree of inhumanity be aware of the final 9 days of the signature drive by Arkansans for Compassionate Care, who are seeking to put a medical marijuana bill to the November Arkansas ballot.

-Eapen Thampy

How To Make Money Selling Drugs

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

I helped out a bit with this movie. I also give some commentary for about 20 seconds of it. It’s a really creative way to look at the drug war. The first part looks at how dealers, mules, hit men, and the rest of the criminal side make money off drug prohibition. The second part looks at how drug testing companies, police departments, prosecutor officers, politicians, and the rest of the drug war infrastructure profit from drug prohibition.

It’s also fun to watch. Beautifully, vividly shot. And I can now say I was in a movie with Woody Harrelson, Adrian Grenier, 50 Cent, and Eminem.


At DEA, We Made the Drug Problem Worse, Not Better

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

By Sean Dunagan, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition

The war on drugs has failed.  Its failure has been so categorical and self-evident that the statement itself is bromidic.  By any reasonable metric of success—addiction rates, violence, the availability of drugs in our schools— it’s clear that our 40-year jihad against certain plants and chemicals has done far more harm than good.  Despite this, the federal government’s drug war strategy, which is founded upon aggressive law enforcement and mass incarceration, remains unchanged.  We continue to arrest nearly a million people a year for marijuana offenses.  We remain the world’s leading jailer, with an incarceration rate more than five times the global average.  And this year, the federal government will spend nearly $4 billion more on drug law enforcement and interdiction than it will on drug treatment.

What has this strategy gotten us?  The highest drug abuse rates on the planet and 50,000 corpses in Mexico.

The American people—along with a growing chorus of world leaders—are rapidly waking up to this reality.  Just 10 percent of the public now believes that the drug war is succeeding, and a majority now favors marijuana legalization.  To mix metaphors a bit, public opinion is undergoing a sea-change and is quickly approaching an inevitable tipping point.

Apparently, I’m a slow learner, as I was well behind that curve.  I spent 13 years working as an Intelligence Analyst with the Drug Enforcement Administration before resigning last year.  Over the course of that time, I gradually realized that our drug policies only served to enrich and empower the very cartels we were fighting.  I could have kept up the good fight for another 50 years, and the problem would only have been worse as a result of my efforts.

In 2010, while assigned to the DEA office in Monterrey, Mexico, my family was evacuated as a result of the city’s rapidly deteriorating security situation.  As I drove them northward through the desert in a long caravan of heavily-armed Federal Police trucks, trying to comprehend the barbarity plaguing the region, I recalled a wonderful verse from the Tao Te Ching: Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself.

That may or may not be a universal truth, but it certainly applies to drug prohibition.  Why did the Zetas want to kill us?  Well, we wanted to kill them.  I’m not suggesting a moral equivalency, but I am suggesting that nearly all of the evils of the drug trade are Frankenstein’s monsters of our own creation.  The violence of the drug world, from drive-by shootings in Chicago to internecine cartel wars in Mexico, is a direct and inevitable consequence of prohibition (see: Capone, Al).  Most overdose deaths are attributable to impurities and inconsistent potency levels of drugs bought on the street—factors that would cease to exist in a regulated legal market.  Most addictions persist because addicts are treated as criminals rather than patients.  And, of course, being arrested for marijuana has destroyed far more lives than the drug itself ever could.

Since leaving the DEA, I am proud to be a speaker with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).  LEAP is a non-profit organization comprised of current and former “drug warriors” who have recognized the failure of drug prohibition and now advocate for a policy of regulated legalization.  Our members include retired police chiefs, judges, prosecutors, wardens, detectives, special agents, and others who have the courage to approach the drug policy issue with reason and compassion.

Radley has graciously offered LEAP the opportunity to contribute to The Agitator over the next few weeks.  His offer is greatly appreciated.  With public opinion shifting, Mexico burning, our prisons overflowing, our police militarizing, and needless deaths occurring every day, this is a critical time to address a very critical issue.

Eventually, all wars end.  Some end in victory, some in defeat, and some—particularly in recent years—with the fatigued realization that waging them was a tragic folly from the beginning.  So it is with the war on drugs.

The Militarization of U.S. Domestic Policing

Friday, August 3rd, 2012

This should be a very familiar topic for Agitators:

This paper develops the political economy of the militarization of domestic policing. We analyze the mechanisms through which the “protective state” — where the government utilizes its monopoly on force to protect citizens’ rights — devolves into a “predatory state” which undermines the rights of the populace. We apply our theory to the U.S., where we trace the (failed) historical attempts to establish constraints to separate the military functions and policing functions of government. In doing so we emphasize the role of crises in the form of perpetual wars — the “War on Drugs” and the “War on Terror” — in the accelerated militarization of domestic policing.

This is from Coyne and Hall at the economics department of George Mason University. SSRN here.

-Eapen Thampy, Americans for Forfeiture Reform

Hat Tip: Abhi Sivasailam

Two Things

Monday, July 30th, 2012

I don’t have time to give either of these the attention they deserve—which they deserve for entirely different reasons. But I’ll leave them here for y’all to ponder, discuss, and dissect.

  • The first is this article, which depicts a story so unbelievably outrageous on so many different levels, it may well shock even the jaded souls who read this site. It’s really astounding.



Maggie’s Monday Links

Monday, July 30th, 2012

(Thanks to Radley for the first three items, Mike Siegel for the fourth and Grace for the fifth.)

Maggie’s Thursday Links

Thursday, July 19th, 2012

(Thanks to Radley for the first four items and Jesse Walker for the fifth.)

Maggie’s Tuesday Links

Tuesday, July 17th, 2012

Maggie’s Saturday Morning Links

Saturday, July 14th, 2012

A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”
 –  Stephen Crane

(Thanks to Radley for the first two items.)

Maggie’s Links for a Busy Afternoon

Monday, July 9th, 2012

I promised Dave Krueger a new post on terminology today, but when I did I was forgetting that I had to bring my husband to the airport today.  I’m just beginning to catch up now and see little hope of doing so before dark, so here are some links and I’ll get that other post ready for tomorrow, harlot’s honor!

(Thanks to my friend Grace for #1 & 2, and to Radley (via Twitter) for #3 & 4)

Maggie’s Saturday Links

Saturday, July 7th, 2012

And here are two from Radley’s Twitter stream:

“Good Enough” for Probable Cause

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

“Bono” is a state police drug dog in North Carolina. Of the 85 times Bono has alerted his handler to the presence of drugs, a subsequent search turned up actual drugs just 23 times.

No matter. Federal District Court Judge Glen Conrad ruled late week that Bono’s record is still good enough to establish probable cause.

Bono “may not be a model of canine accuracy,” Conrad wrote in an opinion filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.

However, the judge ruled that other factors, including the dog’s training and flawless performance during re-certification sessions, were enough to overcome a challenge raised by Green’s attorney, public defender Randy Cargill.

Conrad’s justification for allowing the search illustrates just how clueless federal judges can be about these things—and why they can be such poor custodians of the Fourth Amendment. Judges have far too little skepticism for law enforcement officials.

I wrote about this in a column for Reason a couple years ago. The reason Bono performs so well in certification exams is because those exams test his ability to detect drugs. Dogs are great at that. But when Bono is with his handler alongside the highway, he isn’t detecting drugs. He’s pleasing his handler. Dogs are great at that, too. And that’s what we’ve bred them to do. On the road, Bono reading his handler’s body language, and alerting to confirm his handler’s suspicions. Of course, this assumes Bono’s handler is on the up and up, and isn’t deliberately cuing alerts. Which is also a problem.

It gets worse.

At a hearing earlier this month, Assistant U.S. Attorney Ashley Neese defended the performance of the German shepherd.

In some cases where nothing was found after an alert by Bono, police later determined that drugs had been in the vehicle earlier, likely leaving an odor the dog was trained to detect, Neese said.

Taking those cases into account, Conrad found that Bono’s accuracy rate was at least 50 percent.

I wonder if the judge asked the U.S. Attorney to provide some documentation for his claims, or if these were cases of an officer claiming to have found “shake” or residue—both of which, conveniently, are never tested.

But let’s take the U.S. Attorney’s claims at face value. Let’s say the dog was alerting to odors from drugs that had been in the car days or weeks or months earlier. (Which may or may not have had anything to do with the person driving when the car gets pulled over.) As one dog trainer told me in the piece I wrote for Huffington Post earlier this year, drugs dogs can be trained to ignore residue, shake, and lingering odors. That is, they can be trained to alert only when there’s a measurable quantity of illicit drugs.  The cops don’t want those dogs. They want dogs that will give them probable cause to search as often as possible. And because the courts have said a dog’s sniff is, in itself, enough for probable cause, there’s a strong incentive for police departments to want dogs that will alert to just about anything.

What’s incredible is that even if everything the U.S. Attorney says is true, the dog and his handler still have a 50 percent rate of error. Which means they’re no better than a coin flip. A coin flip is good enough for Judge Conrad.

Sunday Links

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Alex White, Professional Snitch

Saturday, June 30th, 2012

At the New York Times, Ted Conover has written an amazing profile of Alex White, the longtime Atlanta drug informant who refused to help the cops cover up the murder of Kathryn Johnston. Add it to your long reads folder. It’s well worth your time.

I followed that case closely, so if you were reading this blog back in 2006, you’re probably familiar with the general course of events. But several things about the article struck me. First, for all the danger informants face from the people they give away, White was most afraid of the police officers he dealt with day to day, even before he turned on them after the Johnston raid.

The leader of the team of officers that he worked with most often, Gregg Junnier (pronounced “junior”), apparently set the tone. White said suspects would sometimes make the mistake of talking trash once handcuffed. Junnier would then slam them against a car or grab them on both sides of the mouth, supposedly to keep them from swallowing drugs. White remembers the time another officer he worked with had a suspect handcuffed and on his stomach; when the suspect began insulting him, White said, the policeman “kicked him in the mouth,” which made even his fellow officers flinch.

“One day Junnier come into my apartment,” White told me, “started throwing stuff around. He say, ‘Where’s the money?’ He knew I’d made some that week. He going through my dresser. He took $4,000. Junnier rough. He very, very rough.” White just accepted the situation. He was not a partner but merely a sub rosa subcontractor, a fact Junnier frequently reminded him of.

Junnier’s team drove around in a black Ford van with darkened windows that became notorious — Darth Vader’s own ride. “Everybody know that van,” White told me. Junnier also drove his own S.U.V., and one day he handed White, in the passenger seat, an envelope full of pictures.

“He show me this Jamaican guy,” White said. “Except only his head, on a fence. It had dreadlocks on top and veins below where it got ripped off. Junnier say he fell between buildings during a chase.” White said he felt he was shown the photo as a kind of warning.

Second, we learned from the FBI investigation that the sort of police thuggery apparent in the Johnston case was common and longstanding in Atlanta, which White confirms in describing his own interactions with the city’s narcotics cops. The lying, brutality, and corruption had been going on for years. Yet a local civil rights leader told Conover, and a local police official seemed to confirm, that the Johnston case was the first time a white police officer in Atlanta had ever been charged with violating the rights of a black person.

And there’s a good chance even those officers would never have been charged if not for Alex White. This wasn’t a few rogue cops. This was systemic.

Third, after all this died down, White was convicted of selling “a couple ounces” of marijuana to an undercover police officer in an Atlanta suburb. His sentence? Up to eight years in prison. The police officers who pressured an informant for a tip with threats of false drug charges, lied on a search warrant, gunned down a 93-year-old woman, left her to bleed on her own living room floor while planting drugs in her basement to cover up their mistake, then conspired to cover it all up by pressuring and threatening another informant to lie for them? They were sentenced to 5, 6, and 10 years, respectively.

Finally, Conover points out that one of the reforms the city put in place after the Johnston raid was a civilian review board to provide some police oversight. As of November of last year, less than five years after the raid, here’s how that was working out:

Cris Beamud came from Eugene, Oregon to Atlanta to found and run the Citizen Review Board after city ordnance established the police oversight panel in 2007.

The CRB came into being as a response to a botched drug raid that ended with the police killing of 92-year old Kathryn Johnston.

Beamud tells WABE she’s resigning out of frustration with city and police leaders who often ignore the board’s findings and recommendations.

“We’re constantly being faced with dismissals and rejections of recommendations that we believe, and I believe personally, would improve the quality of public safety services in the City of Atlanta,” she says.

Beamud points to the recent police fondling case, and the ongoing Atlanta Eagle raid. Before an outside investigation found police misconduct during the 2009 raid on the Midtown gay bar, the CRB had issued a report saying the same thing.

“You continue to beat your head against the wall, and then you decide that you’ve had enough,” she says.

Joy Morrissey, who chairs the CRB, says Atlantans are losing a valuable ally.

“Cris has been a police officer, a prosecutor, a police legal adviser, an assistant D.A., and yet [the mayor and police chief] don’t listen to her,” Morrissey says, adding that Beamud has established civilian oversight before coming to Atlanta.

“She produces very good reports – well reasoned reports – and the results have been maligned, ignored, criticized,” Morrissey says.

In fact, almost as soon as the board started work, the police department, with the city’s help, was already trying to neuter it.

The board was able to force the firing of the officers involved in the Atlanta Eagle raid. They were promptly hired by the Clayton County Sheriff’s Department.


“Everything changed forever, and everything stayed the same, on the night Miss Johnston died.”