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Flailing Trump Pivots to Drug Policy, Demands Hillary Drug Test, Pivots Away Again [FEATURE]

Wed, 10/19/2016 - 21:40

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

Reeling from allegation after allegation of sexual misconduct, Republican presidential contender Donald Trump tried to go on the offensive on drug policy over the weekend, but in a manner typical of his campaign, he touched only briefly on the topic before flying off on new tangents, and he began his drug policy interlude with a bizarre attack on Hillary Clinton.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]At a speech at a Toyota dealership in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Saturday, the GOP candidate claimed that Clinton was on performance-enhancing drugs before their last debate and suggested drug tests were in order.

"Why don't we do that?" he demanded, adding that Clinton was likely "getting pumped up" as the prepared for that debate.

"We should take a drug test prior cause I don't know what's going on with her. But at the beginning of last debate, she was all pumped up at the beginning and at the end it was like, oh take me down. She could barely reach her car," he claimed.

The claim didn't come out of nowhere. Trump was echoing an ad from two weeks ago from the pro-Trump super PAC Make America Number 1 that showed Clinton coughing and then stumbling to her van on the morning of September 11. The super PAC is bankrolled by Trump backer and big time conservative donor Robert Mercer, who dropped $2 million on the PAC in July.

The unfounded allegation of Clinton pre-debate drug use and the demand for a drug test grabbed media attention, but if Trump was attempting to turn a corner and shift the campaign's focus away from his peccadillos, his strange accusation against Clinton only served to raise more questions about his temperament and suitability for the nation's highest office.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]And it virtually smothered any discussion of actual drug policy proposals Trump made during the speech. While Trump has obliquely addressed the heroin and prescription opioid problem in the past, Saturday's speech was the first time he tried to put any flesh on his proposals for dealing with it.

If anyone were paying attention to the policy details amidst all the racket about the drug test challenge, they would have heard drug policy proposals rooted squarely in the failed drug war strategies of the last century.

Trump would, he said, block drugs from coming into the US by -- you guessed it -- building the wall on the Mexican border. He would also seek to tighten restrictions on the prescribing of opioids. And he would reinstitute mandatory minimum sentences for drug offenders.

"We have 5 percent of the world's population but use 80 percent of the prescription opioids," Trump said, eerily echoing former rival Jeb Bush, who used the same language while campaigning in the state earlier this year.

That statistic is aimed at showing that the US is over-prescribing narcotic pain killers, but according to the World Health Organization, the actuality is that in much of the rest of the world, they are underprescribing them. In fact, the WHO said that in more than 150 countries with 83 percent of the global population, there is virtually no access to prescription opioids for relief of pain.

And the under-treatment of chronic pain isn't just a problem in India or China or Africa. According to the National Institute of Health, more than 50 million Americans suffer significant chronic or severe pain. An opioid policy that focuses only on reducing prescriptions without addressing the need for access to pain killing opioids for actual pain is only half a policy.

When it comes to the border, Trump correctly asserts that Mexico is the source of most of the heroin in the US (it produces 45% itself and another 51% comes from Latin America, mostly Colombia and Guatemala, often through Mexico), but relies on a hyper-interdiction policy ("build the wall") to thwart it. Interdiction -- blocking the flow of drugs into the country -- has been a pillar of US drug policy for decades, but despite massive border build ups and the doubling of the number of Customs and Border Patrol agents in the past 15 years, the drugs still flow.

[image:3 align:left caption:true]Interdiction hasn't done the trick so far, and there is no indication that even a Trumpian wall would make a difference. The creativity of drug smugglers is legendary, and the economic incentives under drug prohibition are great. As the saying goes, "Build a 50-foot wall, and they'll bring a 51-foot ladder" (or a tunnel).

The third component of his drug policy is a Reaganesque "lock 'em up." In his New Hampshire speech, he saluted running mate Mike Pence for increasing mandatory minimums for drug offenders as governor of Indiana.

"We must make similar efforts a priority for the nation," Trump said.

That position flies in the face of a growing bipartisan consensus that the use of mandatory minimums for drug offenses is draconian, ineffective, and harms mainly minority populations. During the Obama administration, mandatory minimum sentences have been reduced with congressional assent, and Obama himself has granted commutations to hundreds of drug war prisoners serving those draconian sentences, with little dissent.

Trump's drug policy is but a sketch, but even its vague outlines reflect outdated approaches to the issue and a quickness to resort to cheap demagoguery on the issue. Still, while there is plenty of room for discussion of his approach, Trump has apparently already left the issue behind, barely mentioning it since Saturday as he tilts at other windmills.

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

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

Wed, 10/12/2016 - 07:36

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.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]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.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]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.

[image:3 align:left caption:true]"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."

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Weed is Going to Win Big in November [FEATURE]

Mon, 10/10/2016 - 21:17

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

A month out from Election Day, it's looking like marijuana legalization is going to be a big winner. Initiatives are on the ballot in five states, including California, and all indications are that they are going to pass in all of them, with one possible exception.

[image:2 align:left]In what is the closest thing ever to a national referendum on weed, states on the West Coast, in the Southwest, and in New England with a total of more than 55 million residents will be rendering their verdict. That's about one-sixth of the national population.

The four states that have already legalized marijuana -- Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, and Washington -- have about 17 ½ million residents. Even if California were the only state to see a victorious legalization initiative -- and it very likely won't be -- victory there would triple the number of people living in pot-legal states. A clean sweep would quadruple it.

Nationally, attitudes toward marijuana have undergone a sea change in recent years. Gallup's annual polls show that only a decade ago, support for legalization was at a mere 36%. But by 2012, when Colorado and Washington voted to legalize it, nationwide support had climbed to 50%, and by 2014, when Alaska and Oregon (and Washington, DC) followed suit, it was at 58%. It blipped down last year in the Gallup poll, but this year, it's back to 58% again.

The national polls are encouraging, but just as in the presidential race, they don't really matter when it comes to the nitty-gritty of winning state-level elections. What does matter are the state level polls, and at this point, they're looking pretty damned good for legal weed.

And a good November for marijuana legalization could be the turning point on the path toward ending federal marijuana prohibition. Championing an end to federal pot prohibition has been a lonely stance so far -- thanks, Bernie Sanders! -- but with more states, and especially California, set to go legal next month, the next Congress is going to have a considerable contingent of members whose constituents have already embraced legalization.

Now, the votes haven't been cast yet, there are opposition campaigns of varying strength in the different states, and there are untoward surprises that could happen -- say, a teenager on pot runs over a bunch of school kids -- but as we enter the final weeks of the campaign season, it's increasingly looking like weed is going to win big.

Here's the state-by-state rundown:


This is the tightest race, with the Prop 205 legalization initiative leading by 10 points, but only hitting 50% in an August Arizona Republic/Morrison/Cronkite News poll. Other recent polls have showed the initiative narrowly losing. Voters in this red state approved medical marijuana in 2010, but only by the narrowest of margins. If legalization can pass in Arizona this year, that will be a real sign that support for prohibition is crumbling.

Still, the initiative faces a vigorous and well-funded opposition campaign led by state officials, and it has more money in the bank right now than the pro-legalization forces. The Prop 205 campaign has raised more money than the opposition ($3.2 million versus $2 million), but the opposition still has $1.4 million to do damage, while the legalizers only have $170,000 in cash on hand.


The Big Enchilada is ready to pop out of the oven. California tried to be first out of the gate with 2010's Prop 19, but it came up just a few points short. This time will be different. Polls this year have consistently shown support for the Prop 64 legalization initiative at over 50% and mostly in the upper fifties. The latest poll, a September survey from the Public Policy Institute of California, had support at 60%. An August poll that did not ask specifically about Prop 64 but asked whether respondents believed "marijuana should be legal for adults to purchase and use recreationally" garnered 64% support.

Support for legalization has gone mainstream in California, with the initiative campaign fronted by Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), endorsed by the state Democratic Party (among many others), several sitting US representatives, and leading newspapers in the state, including the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle.

And the initiative campaign has big, big bucks. Yes on 64 has raised more than $20 million, including more than $7 million from tech billionaire and philanthropist Sean Parker and has a war chest of more than $14 million. The campaign has committed nearly $7 million to campaign TV ads that began airing last week, and that leaves a big, fat bankroll for any last minute expenditures. The opposition, on the other hand, has raised only a fraction as much money, mainly from law enforcement groups and conservative philanthropists.

The Golden State is going green next month.


New England aims to become the first region outside the West to embrace legal weed, and it's looking like Maine's Question 1 legalization initiative will help lead the charge. A March poll had support at 54%, while a Portland Press Herald poll two weeks ago had it at 53%. Only 38% were opposed, and the number of undecideds is smaller than the gap between "yes" and "no" votes.

There is virtually no organized opposition, nor any sign of opposition fundraising. And the Question 1 campaign had $1.7 million in the bank last month. That's plenty of money for last-minute ad buys in a small-market state.


The Bay State is the second New England state poised to go green this year, with the Question 4 legalization initiative polling at 53% in a new WBZ-TV/ UMass Amherst poll. Only 40% were opposed. Voting for marijuana reform is nothing new for Massachusetts residents: A series of non-binding district level public policy questions on pot law reform has won an unbroken string of victories since 2002 and voters approved both medical marijuana (2008) and decriminalization (2012) by nearly two-to-one margins.

Support for marijuana reform has typically outpaced the polls. When, for instance, voters approved medical marijuana with 63% of the vote in 2012, the last polls before election day had it only at 58%.

There is a serious bipartisan organized opposition campaign underway that includes both Gov. Charlie Baker (R) and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D), along with the usual suspects in law enforcement and some of the medical establishment. The opposition has been up to some dirty dealing and is getting some support from local alcohol interests.

There is some cause for concern with the state of campaign finances, though. While the pro-legalization side has out-fundraised the opposition by a wide margin -- $2.4 million to $363,000 -- the opposition still has $320,000 in the bank, while legalizers had only $22,000 left in mid-September. That could mean a late onslaught of unanswered attack ads.

[image:3 align:right caption:true]Nevada

Just across the Sierra Nevada from California, the Silver State looks to be catching green fever, too. The Question 2 legalization initiative appears to be pulling away. Earlier polls had support hovering around 50%, but a KTNV/Rasmussen Reports poll last month had support at 53%, and the most recent poll, just two weeks ago from Suffolk University, had support rising to 57%, with only 33% opposed. That's a huge gap.

Organized opposition has been all but invisible, with No on 2 campaigns reporting having received only $30,000 by mid-summer. That could have changed since then, but there is no sign of any big cash infusions by the opposition side. Conservative Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson bought the Las Vegas Review-Journal and managed to flip its editorial stance from "pro" to "con" earlier this year, but even the state's largest newspaper doesn't seem to carry enough weight to defeat legalization.

Meanwhile, the Yes on 2 campaign has raised over a million dollars, locked in $900,000 in TV ad buys back in June, has billboards up, and is ready to hit the airwaves in these final weeks.

Categories: Latest News

Powerful Coalition is Building Pressure on Feds to Think Again on Kratom Ban [FEATURE]

Wed, 09/28/2016 - 22:31

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

In a last ditch bid to stop the DEA from criminalizing an herb widely hailed for its ability to treat pain, depression, and anxiety, and help people wean themselves from more dangerous opioid pain relievers, a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a letter to the agency Monday asking it to reconsider its decision to place kratom on Schedule I of the Controlled Substances Act.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Kratom is a southeast Asian herb made from the leaves of Mitragyna speciose, a tree related to the coffee plant. In small doses, it has a mild stimulant effect, but in larger doses, it acts like a mild opioid. To be precise, the DEA has moved to criminalize not the herb itself, but two alkaloids, mitragynine and 7-hydroxmitragynine, which activate opioid receptors in the brain.

Last month, the DEA exercised its emergency scheduling powers in announcing that it was moving kratom to Schedule I, effective at the end of this week. The drug agency said kratom poses "an imminent hazard to public safety," citing only press reports of some 15 deaths linked to kratom use. But in at least 14 of those cases, the victims were also using other drugs or had pre-existing life-threatening conditions. (Meanwhile, some 25,000 people died of prescription drug overdoses last year.)

Kratom users, who could number in the millions, immediately raised the alarm, organizing campaigns to undo the decision and lobbying Congress for help. That's what sparked Monday's letter from 51 lawmakers, including 22 Republicans.

"This significant regulatory action was done without any opportunity for public comment from researchers, consumers, and other stakeholders," reads the letter, drafted by Reps. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Matt Salmon (R-AZ). "This hasty decision could have serious effects on consumer access and choice of an internationally recognized herbal supplement."

Given the ongoing high level of heroin and prescription opioid use and the associated overdose deaths, he DEA was hypocritical in mounting a campaign against kratom, the lawmakers said.

"The DEA's decision to place kratom as a Schedule I substance will put a halt on federally funded research and innovation surrounding the treatment of individuals suffering from opioid and other addictions -- a significant public health threat," they wrote.

The lawmakers called on DEA Administrator Chuck Rosenberg to delay the emergency scheduling and instead "engage consumers, researchers, and other stakeholders, in keeping with well-established protocol for such matters."

Since first emerging in the US a few years ago, kratom has been unregulated at the federal level, although the Food & Drug Administration began seizing shipments of it in 2014. At the state level, a half dozen states have entertained moves to ban it, but such efforts failed in all except Alabama. In other states, kratom advocates have managed to turn bans into regulation, with age restrictions and similar limits.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]A ban on kratom would be disastrous, said Susan Ash, founder of the American Kratom Association. Ash said she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia in 2006 and ended up essentially disabled under the weight of 13 different prescriptions, including opioids, benzodiazepines, and amphetamines (to counter the opioids and the benzos). She became addicted to the opioids and finally tried kratom as a last resort.

"I didn't really want to have anything to do with a plant, but I decided to try it, and it worked day and night," she said Tuesday. "Within two weeks, I went from home bound to starting this organization."

With the kratom ban looming, her members are facing "our darkest hour," Ash said. "Our average member is a middle-aged woman, about 40% of whom have experienced addition, and tens of thousands of them are using it as an alternative to pharmaceutical medications because they believe it is safer and more natural. Now, people are saying they are going to lose their quality of life, that they will be re-disabled. People are terrified. What we need is regulation, not prohibition."

"Despite the moral, political, and scientific consensus that drug use and addiction are best treated as public health issues, the DEA wants to subject people with kratom to prison sentences," said Jag Davies, director of communications strategy for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which is also fighting the ban. "The DEA's move would also effectively halt promising scientific investigations into the plant's uses and medicinal benefits, including helping many people struggling with opioid addiction."

The scientific studies are promising indeed. Researchers at Columbia University just published a study on kratom alkaloids and found that they activate opioid receptors in a way that doesn't trigger respiratory depression, the lethal side effect of most opioids. Such research could lead to the "holy grail" of narcotic analgesics, a painkiller that doesn't kill users and doesn't get them addicted.

"Our research shows that mitragynine and its analogs activate the opioid receptors in a unique way compared to morphine or oxycodone," said Dr. Andrew Kruegel, one of the Columbia researchers. "They activate a certain protein pathway while avoiding other pathways, and that gives you a better safety profile, mostly for respiratory depression. The scientific data is consistent with an improved safety profile from the alkaloids and suggestive of the same with the raw plant," he explained.

"This new prohibition will really restrict our ability to purse new opioid painkillers based on alkaloids and new safer drugs for pain," Kruegel said.

And then some, DPA's Davies added.

"Placing kratom in Schedule I would place regulatory and funding barriers in front of research, drive users into the black market, and leave them facing lengthy prison terms," he said. "It's troubling that the DEA is moving hastily to criminalize kratom at the same time Congress and the president have been made sentencing reform a priority this year and when communities are grappling with unprecedented rates of heroin and opioid overdoses, the DEA is threatening to punish people for using it instead of potent pharmaceutical preparations. Kratom has a role to play in mitigating the opioid crisis."

But not if the DEA refuses to budge from its ban plan. If the DEA cannot be moved, kratom is illegal as of this coming Friday.

Categories: Latest News

Seattle Aims to Open the First Safe Injection Sites in the US [FEATURE]

Wed, 09/21/2016 - 21:48

Seattle and surrounding King County are on a path to establish the country's first supervised drug consumption sites as part of a broader campaign to address heroin and prescription opioid misuse. A 99-page report released last week by the Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force calls for setting up at least two of the sites, one in the city and one in the suburbs, as part of a pilot project.

[image:1 align:left]The facilities, modeled on the Canadian government-funded InSite supervised injection site in Vancouver, just 140 miles to the north, would be places where users could legally inject their drugs while under medical supervision and be put in contact with treatment and other social services. There have been no fatal overdoses in the 13-year history of InSite.

Although such facilities, which also operate in various European countries and Australia, have been proven to reduce overdose deaths and drug use-related disease, improve local quality of life, and improve the lives of drug users, they remain controversial, with foes accusing them of "enabling" drug use. Thus, the report refers to them not as "safe injection sites," or even "supervised consumption sites," but as the anodyne "Community Health Engagement Locations" (CHELs).

"If it's a strategy that saves lives then regardless of the political discomfort, I think it is something we have to move forward," said County Executive Dow Constantine, discussing the plan at a news conference last week.

The safe sites will address the region's high levels of opioid and heroin use, or what the task force called "the region's growing and increasingly lethal heroin and opioid epidemic." As the task force noted, the number of fatal overdoses in the county has tripled in recent years, with the rate of death rising from roughly one a week (49) in 2009 to one very other day (156) in 2014. The current wave of opioid use appears centered on young people, with the number of people under 30 seeking treatment doubling between 2006 and 2014, and now, more young people are entering detox for heroin than for alcohol.

[image:2 align:left caption:true]Overdose deaths actually dropped last year to 132, thanks to Good Samaritan laws that shield people who aid overdose victims from prosecution and to the wider use of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. But that's still 132 King County residents who needn't have died. Task force members said the CHELs would help reduce that number even further.

"The heroin epidemic has had a profound effect not just on our region, but across our country as a whole," said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray. "It is critical that we not only move forward with meaningful solutions that support prevention and treatment, but that we remove the stigma surrounding addiction that often creates barriers to those seeking help.

Not only are key local elected officials on board, so is King County Sheriff John Urquhart. He said the safe site plan was workable.

"As long as there was strong, very strong, emphasis on education, services, and recovery, I would say that yes, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks," he said. "We will never make any headway in the war on drugs until we turn the war into a health issue."

The region may willing to embrace this ground-breaking harm reduction measure, but it is going to require some sort of federal dispensation to get around the Controlled Substances Act and the DEA. How that is going to happen remains to be seen, but Seattle is ready.

The task force wasn't just about CHELs. In fact, the safe sites are just a small, if key, component of a broad-based, far-ranging strategy to attack the problem. The task force report's recommendations come in three categories:

[image:3 align:right caption:true]Primary Prevention

  • Increase public awareness of effects of opioid use, including overdose and opioid-use disorder.
  • Promote safe storage and disposal of medications.
  • Work with schools and health-care providers to improve the screening practices and better identify opioid use.

Treatment Expansion and Enhancement

  • Make buprenorphine more accessible for people who have opiate-use disorders.
  • Develop treatment on demand for all types of substance-use disorders.Increase treatment capacity so that it’s accessible when and where someone is ready to receive help.

Health and Harm Reduction

  • Continue to distribute more naloxone kits and making training available to homeless service providers, emergency responders and law enforcement officers.
  • Create a three-year pilot project that will include at least two locations where adults with substance-use disorders will have access to on-site services while safely consuming opioids or other substances under the supervision of trained healthcare providers.

Will Seattle and King County be able to actual implement the CHELs? Will the federal government act as obstacle or facilitator? That remains to be seen, but harm reductionists, policymakers, and drug users in cities such as Portland, San Francisco, and New York will be watching closely. There have been murmurs about getting such sites up and running there, too.

Categories: Latest News

A Long Hot Summer of Drug War Deaths [FEATURE]

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 04:35

The killing of a young, black, unarmed Tampa man by a SWAT team that raided his home in an operation that turned up two grams of marijuana has sparked angry protests last week, including demonstrations last Thursday where people damaged vehicles, lit fires, and threw trash at police, leaving five people arrested and a community outraged.

[image:1 align:left caption:true]Levonia Riggins was shot and killed in his bedroom by Deputy Caleb Johnson of the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office as the SWAT team executed a search warrant based on purchases of marijuana from Riggins by undercover officers earlier this summer. Police said they used the SWAT team because they had found guns in the house a year earlier.

When deputies arrived, they broke through a window and found Riggins in bed. "Mr. Riggins then jumped up and moved his hands toward his waistband," a police spokesman explained. Johnson then fired, killing Riggins in what police called "a split-second decision." The Hillsborough State Attorney's Office is now investigating the killing, as is a sheriff's internal team.

Riggins was only the last person to be killed in drug law enforcement operations this summer that left 10 other people dead in separate incidents, including a Tennessee police officer. According to the Drug War Chronicle, which has been tracking such deaths since 2011, the year's drug war death toll now stands at 33.

That's a rate of about one a week, a rate that has held constant throughout the five years the Chronicle has been counting. Also consistent is the ratio of civilians killed to police officers killed. It has been running at about 10:1 over the five-year period, and with three officers killed so far this year, that ratio is being maintained.

Here are the rest of the summer's drug war victims and the circumstances of their deaths:

On August 18, in Apache Junction, Arizona, a Maricopa County sheriff's SWAT Team member shot and killed Larry Eugene Kurtley, Jr., 53, as the SWAT team attempted to take him into custody on drugs, drug paraphernalia, and weapons charges. A woman who left the residence as police arrived told them he could be armed, and the SWAT team then began to negotiate his surrender, police said. But Kurtley refused to come out, so police fired tear gas into the home. When he emerged from the house, he was armed, police said, and one of the SWAT deputies opened fire, killing him. Kurtley had served multiple prison sentences dating back to the 1990s. The Pinal County Attorney's Office and the sheriff's office professional standards bureau are investigating.

On August 16, just outside Augusta, West Virginia, a sheriff's deputy shot and killed John O'Handley, 55, of Yellow Springs as he reportedly grabbed the deputy's gun while being transported to jail after being arrested on methamphetamine and other charges. Deputies had originally gone to O'Handley's residence in search of a stolen motorcycle, but discovered an active meth lab in the home, as well as homemade bombs and stolen property. O'Handley allegedly reached between the front seats of the police car and grabbed the arresting deputy's gun. "A struggle then ensued," and the deputy fired one shot, striking O'Handley in the head and killing him. The shooting is being investigated by the West Virginia State Police.

[image:2 align:right caption:true]On August 9, in Jackson, Tennessee, a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent was shot and killed while conducting an undercover drug buy. Special Agent De'Greaun Frazier, 35,was assisting Jackson Metro Narcotics and was in the front seat of a vehicle when the man he was supposed to buy drugs from instead tried to rob him, shooting him from the back seat. That man, Brendan Burns, has now been charged with murder in his death. Frazier had earlier served on a DEA task force while working at the Millington Police Department.

On August 9, in Los Angeles, LAPD officers in Boyle Heights shot and killed Jesse Romero, 14, as he fled from them while they investigated a report of possible "gang writings" and drug activity. According to the LAPD account, Romero and another youth split up and took off running when police arrived, and a witness saw Romero shoot a handgun toward pursuing officers. One officer returned fire, striking and killing Romero. But another witness said she saw Romero pull a gun from his basketball shorts as he ran, then toss it toward a fence. The gun fired when it fell to the ground after hitting the fence, startling Romero. "He didn't shoot," she said. Police recovered an old revolver, but it is unclear how near it was to Romero's body. The officers involved were wearing body cameras, but under LAPD policy that footage is only released to the officers involved before they make an initial statement -- not to the public. The ACLU of Southern California released a statement saying it was "particularly concerned" about Romero's death and criticizing LAPD's body camera policies.

On July 7, in Clovis, California, Clovis Police serving an arrest warrant on narcotics and related charges shot and killed Adam Smith, 33, as he attempted to flee in his vehicle. Police and his girlfriend's family lured him to the family residence, but he and his girlfriend tried to escape, jumping in his van in an alley. According to police, when they confronted the pair in the alley, the girlfriend jumped out of the van, Smith slammed it into reverse, nearly hitting her, then accelerated his vehicle toward the officers. Two of the three offices opened fire, fatally wounding Smith. He was not named in initial reports, but was later identified. In another report, an acquaintance said Smith was on heroin and had repeatedly said they he would die in a "suicide by cop," especially when he was on heroin.

[image:3 align:left caption:true]On June 30, in Douglas, Wyoming, a US marshal shot and killed Jasen Scott Ramirez, 44, in the parking lot of a Catholic Church as he was leaving his father's funeral. The federal agents were seeking Ramirez to serve an arrest warrant on methamphetamine and weapons charges. Local police called to the scene after the shooting discovered 3.5 ounces of meth and two pistols in the vehicle he was driving, but it's unclear to whom the car, the guns, or the drugs belonged. It's also unclear whether Ramirez was brandishing or reaching for a weapon when he was shot and killed. The US Marshals Service has issued only a one-paragraph statement, short on details, including the name of the marshal who pulled the trigger. The agency said it would not be saying more until all investigations into the incident are concluded, including one by the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation. After the killing, an unconfirmed death threat was made against law enforcement, prompting authorities to temporarily lock down the county courthouse, city hall, and the hospital where Ramirez died.

On June 16, in Westminster, Colorado, a Westminster police officer shot and killed Nicholas Damon, 30, after Damon allegedly dragged the officer and ran over him with his car. Police were attempting to arrest Damon on outstanding drug and assault warrants when he hopped into his car and attempted to flee the scene. The officer involved was briefly hospitalized with "non-life threatening injuries." The killing is being reviewed by an Adams County special investigatory team.

On June 14, in Chula Vista, California, an undercover ICE agent shot and killed Fernando Geovanni Llanez, 22, as agents met with a half-dozen suspected marijuana traffickers in an apparent buy-bust deal at an Eastlake-area strip mall. The agent was part of the Homeland Security Investigations Operation Alliance drug task force, and the agency said Llanez attacked him in what could have been a robbery attempt. The agent fired several times, fatally wounding Llanez. His five companions fled, but were all chased down and arrested on charges of possession of marijuana for sale, conspiracy, and suspicion of robbery. Chula Vista police declined to confirm that it was an undercover operation and would not say if any cash or drugs were seized. There was no mention of any weapon.

On June 8, in Kansas City, Missouri, members of a DEA task force executing a search warrant shot and killed Carlos Garcia, 43, after he fired at officers from inside the house and then refused to exit, leading to an hours-long standoff. Finally, after police shot tear gas into the house, Garcia ran out the back door of the residence aiming his rifle at officers, police said. Task force members then opened fire on Garcia, killing him in the back yard.

On June 7, in Turlock, California, two Modesto police officers who were members of the Stanislaus County Drug Enforcement Agency "involved in a narcotics investigation" shot and killed Omar Villagomez after the vehicle he was driving collided with unmarked police vehicles as they attempted to arrest him. The passenger in the vehicle was not shot, but was injured by debris from the collision. He was charged with suspicion of meth possession with intent to sell, transportation of meth, possession of a controlled substance while armed, and possession of a loaded and concealed firearm.

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