Civil Forfeiture: America's daylight robbery, courtesy of the War on Drugs

"Taken" is a blood-boiling, beautifully written expose on America's "civil forfeiture" laws by which people who are tangentially related to suspected drug offenses have their assets seized, even when no charges are filed and no guilt is found. The story, which Sarah Stillman wrote for The New Yorker, revolves around the notorious town of Tenaha, TX, a small town on US 59 where a corrupt system allowed cops to pull over people -- mostly brown people -- and simply take away all their possessions: their cars, their cash, even the gold crosses around their necks. The victims of the scam were threatened with the loss of custody of their children as well as time in jail, and the funds raised by this were used by the local District Attorney for frivolities like popcorn machines, as well as for donations to influential churches that helped elect her to her office.

But the story isn't limited to one town in Texas. From West Philadelphia -- where frail, elderly African-American couples have their homes seized in dawn no-knock raids because their children or even grandchildren are suspected of involvement in drug trafficking -- to towns across America, civil forfeiture is a cash-cow and an end-run around the Fourth Amendment, a way for cash-strapped towns and counties to pay for their law-enforcement infrastructure through literal daylight robbery. And it's a vicious cycle: the more the cops steal from the poor and powerless, the more money they have to hire more cops to commit more theft.

Read the rest

Raising funds for a sensible guide to cannabis regulation

Will sez, "Transform Drug Policy Foundation have created a manual which they would like to distribute to policy makers in the UK. They need £5000 in order to do so, and are seeking donations." Cory 5

Head-shop CCTV catches police informant/undercover planting crack


Charlie writes, "There is a smoke shop in Scotia NY, owned by a young black man. There are many, many smoke shops in the capital region, but the rest are owned by white people. Undercover police decided to send an 'undercover agent' (an informant facing his own jail time) to investigate. Shortly after, the owner was charged with possession of crack cocaine. He was facing almost a decade in prison. Just one hitch though: the owner had video cameras set up in his shop. The videos captured the informant dropped a bag of crack on the counter; planting the drugs. The charges were dismissed, the informant has suddenly "disappeared" and the owner is now considering a law suit."

Read the rest

How a Mexican drug-lord dines out

When Joaquín Guzmán Loera, leader of Mexico's notorious Sinaloa Cartel, wants to dine out, he engages some rather extreme security measures:

In 2005 on a Saturday evening, Guzmán reportedly strolled into a restaurant in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, with several of his bodyguards. After he took his seat, his henchmen locked the doors of the restaurant, collected the cell phones of approximately 30 diners and instructed them to not be alarmed.[26] The gangsters then ate their meal and left – paying for everyone else in the restaurant.[27]

Culiacán appearance

Later that year, Guzmán was reportedly seen in Culiacán, Sinaloa, repeating the same exploit at a restaurant.[28] According to a witness, in November 2005 Guzmán entered the restaurant in Culiacán with 15 of his bodyguards, all of them carrying AK-47s.[29] The restaurant was known as "Las Palmas", a lime-green eatery with an ersatz tile roof on a busy street.[30] A man in the restaurant told those present the following:

"Gentlemen, please. Give me a moment of your time. A man is going to come in, the boss. We will ask you to remain in your seats; the doors will be closed and nobody is allowed to leave. You will also not be allowed to use your cellulars. Do not worry; if you do everything that is asked of you, nothing will happen. Continue eating and don't ask for your check. The boss will pay. Thank you."[29]

Joaquín Guzmán Loera (via Reddit)

Drug Czar pretends the 1.5 million people arrested every year for nonviolent drug offenses don't exist

Tony Newman of the Drug Policy Alliance says: "Yesterday during a nationally televised event at the National Press Club, Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske repeated the federal government’s claim that they ended the war on drugs in 2009 and are now prioritizing drug treatment and prevention over incarceration. They cite an increase for drug treatment in President Obama’s proposal for the new drug control budget as evidence of their new approach. But their rhetoric does not match the reality – more than 1.5 million people are arrested for nonviolent drug offenses every year."

Rare footage of a "normal person" given LSD in 1950s clinical research

In this video, Sidney Cohen (author of The Beyond Within: The L.S.D. Story, administers LSD under clinical conditions to an unnamed "normal person" (her description), some time in the 1950s. Her description of her experience is really wonderful -- you can tell she's going through something profound and amazing. As Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote in 2011,

The experience she describes includes familiar themes such as gorgeous colors, geometric patterns, microscopic particles suddenly visible, and a sense of transcendence, oneness, and ineffability:

"I can see everything in color. You have to see the air. You can't believe it....I've never seen such infinite beauty in my life....Everything is so beautiful and lovely and alive....This is reality...I wish I could talk in Technicolor....I can't tell you about it. If you can't see it, then you'll just never know it. I feel sorry for you."

Today all this may sound hackneyed, but what's striking about this woman's account is that her expectations were not shaped by the huge surge of publicity that LSD attracted in the next two decades. Although she had not heard what an LSD trip was supposed to be like, her experience included several of the features that later came to be seen as typical—a reminder that, as important as "set and setting" are, "drug" matters too.

Despite the similarity between this woman's description of her experience and testimonials from acid aficionados of the '60s and '70s, her presentation is so calm and nonthreatening that it is hard to imagine how anyone could perceive this drug as an intolerable danger to society.

'I Wish I Could Talk in Technicolor' (Thanks, Fipi Lele!)

Nexus: fast technothriller about transhuman drug crackdown

Ramez Naam‘s debut novel Nexus is a superbly plotted high-tension technothriller about a War-on-Drugs-style crackdown on brain/computer interfaces.

Read the rest

If you're suspected of drug involvement, America takes your house; HSBC admits to laundering cartel billions, loses five weeks' income and execs have to partially defer bonuses


Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi is brilliantly incandescent in his column about the HSBC drug-money-laundering settlement with the US government. HSBC was an active, knowing participant in laundering billions in drug money, and was fined a small percentage of its net worth (five weeks' income). Meanwhile, private individuals who are suspected of being incidentally involved in the drug trade routinely have all of their property confiscated, down to their houses and cars, under America's insane forfeiture laws. Then they often go to jail.

It doesn't take a genius to see that the reasoning here is beyond flawed. When you decide not to prosecute bankers for billion-dollar crimes connected to drug-dealing and terrorism (some of HSBC's Saudi and Bangladeshi clients had terrorist ties, according to a Senate investigation), it doesn't protect the banking system, it does exactly the opposite. It terrifies investors and depositors everywhere, leaving them with the clear impression that even the most "reputable" banks may in fact be captured institutions whose senior executives are in the employ of (this can't be repeated often enough) murderers and terrorists. Even more shocking, the Justice Department's response to learning about all of this was to do exactly the same thing that the HSBC executives did in the first place to get themselves in trouble – they took money to look the other way...

... So the executives who spent a decade laundering billions of dollars will have to partially defer their bonuses during the five-year deferred prosecution agreement? Are you fucking kidding me? That's the punishment? The government's negotiators couldn't hold firm on forcing HSBC officials to completely wait to receive their ill-gotten bonuses? They had to settle on making them "partially" wait? Every honest prosecutor in America has to be puking his guts out at such bargaining tactics. What was the Justice Department's opening offer – asking executives to restrict their Caribbean vacation time to nine weeks a year?

...How about all of it? How about every last dollar the bank has made since it started its illegal activity? How about you dive into every bank account of every single executive involved in this mess and take every last bonus dollar they've ever earned? Then take their houses, their cars, the paintings they bought at Sotheby's auctions, the clothes in their closets, the loose change in the jars on their kitchen counters, every last freaking thing. Take it all and don't think twice. And then throw them in jail.

Outrageous HSBC Settlement Proves the Drug War is a Joke (via Dan Hon)

(Image: [HSBC], a Creative Commons Attribution (2.0) image from willsurvive's photostream)

California pot decriminalization correlated to lowest youth crime rate in recorded history


California Youth Crime Plunges to All-Time Low, a paper from the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, analyzes recent data from the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center, and concludes that decriminalizing marijuana was correlated with an unheard-of 20% drop in the youth crime rate. The California youth crime rate is now the lowest it's been in recorded state history.

A large proportion of the drop in youth crime is directly attributable to a drop in arrests for possession of small amount of marijuana, but the rest seems to be a dividend from keeping kids out of the criminal justice system. That is, if you stop jailing kids for holding a little weed, they won't go to juvie and become career criminals.

California is still jailing some kids for holding, though, thanks to the provision in law that makes possessing marijuana in or near a school into a special offense.

Males said he suspects that many of the 5,831 marijuana arrests of juveniles in California last year may have occurred on school grounds. He doesn’t have data yet to check his theory, however.

In his police briefing, Males also notes that juvenile arrests in California were the lowest ever recorded since statewide statistics were first compiled in 1954. The decline, Males said, wasn’t due just to fewer marijuana arrests.

Drug-related juvenile arrests overall fell by 47 percent between 2010 and 2011. Violent crime arrests fell by 16 percent; homicide arrests by 26 percent; rape arrests by 10 percent; and property-crime arrests by 16 percent. Nationwide, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Reports, arrests of juveniles for all offenses decreased 11.1 percent in 2011 when compared with the 2010 number; arrests of adults declined 3.6 percent.

Marijuana Decriminalization Drops Youth Crime Rates by Stunning 20% in One Year [Alternet] (via Reddit)

Kidnapped radio engineers forced to build comms networks for the Zetas, never seen again

On Wired Danger Room, Robert Beckhusen tells how Mexican drug cartels, notably the Zetas, kidnap skilled radio engineers and force them to build out elaborate communications networks -- one comprised 167 antennas. The engineers are kidnapped and usually never seen again, and are presumed to have been murdered.

For at least six years, Mexico’s cartels have relied in part on a sophisticated radio network to handle their communications. The Zetas hide radio antennas and signal relay stations deep inside remote and hard-to-reach terrain, connect them to solar panels, and then link the facilities to radio-receiving cellphones and Nextel devices. While the kingpins stay off the network — they use the internet to send messages — the radio network acts as a shadow communication system for the cartels’ lower-level players and lookouts, and a tool to hijack military radios.

One network spread across northeastern Mexico and dismantled last year included 167 radio antennas alone. As recently as September, Mexican marines found a 295-foot-high transmission tower in Veracruz state. And while the founding leadership of the Zetas originated in the Mexican special forces — and who might have had the know-how to set up a radio system — relatively few of the ex-commando types are still active today.

One engineer, named Jose Antonio, was kidnapped in January 2009 while talking on the phone with his girlfriend outside a mechanics shop. He worked for ICA Fluor Daniel, a construction company jointly owned by U.S.-based Fluor Corporation and ICA, Mexico’s largest construction firm. Antonio’s family contacted the authorities, but were instead visited by a man claiming to be an ICA employee along with two Zetas. “They said they were going to help us, and that our contact would be ICA’s security chief,” said the kidnapped engineer’s mother. But the group’s message was implicit: Don’t pursue this, or else. The cartel members were later arrested, but Antonio never returned.

Mexican Cartels Enslave Engineers to Build Radio Network

64,000 drug-bust samples in Mass. were processed by a dirty lab tech who tampered with them, altered weight, faked positive tests for illegal substances

Michael F sez, "There's a Massachusetts state crime lab scandal that hasn't yet received too much national attention (outside of the state)--and I thought it was worth sharing. It's been alleged that a single chemist (with forged education credentials) may be responsible for tampering with drug evidence that could have affected the outcome of up to 40,000 cases over the past 10 years. Based on the local coverage and on conversations with friends who are affiliated with the state lab (in an unrelated department), there's a good chance that an unprecedented number of drug convictions will be contested and overturned in the near future. "

From a Phillip Smith story on StoptheDrugWar.org:

State Police have notified prosecutors that some 64,000 drug samples involving the cases may be tainted because of alleged misconduct by former analyst Annie Dookhan in conducting tests on substances submitted to her by them.

Dookhan worked at the Hinton crime lab in Jamaica Plain from 2003 until she resigned in June. According to the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, which was briefed on the scandal by the Deval Patrick administration last week, the meeting revealed why State Police are now questioning the reliability of the drug evidence Dookhan worked on.

"The lab analyst in question had unsupervised access to the drug safe and evidence room, and tampered with evidence bags, altered the actual weight of the drugs, did not calibrate machines correctly, and altered samples so that they would test as drugs when they were not," the association wrote in a letter to its members.

And of course, everyone knew about this long before the scandal broke. The dirty tech could process three times as many samples as her colleagues, so it was obvious something was going on. And of course, the Department of Public Health downplayed it, saying that the bad stuff was confined to 90 samples processed on one day. And of course, thousands of people went to jail because no one wanted to own up to this.

Mass. Crime Lab Scandal Threatens 34,000 Drug Cases [StoptheDrugWar.org]

Crime Lab Scandal Rocks Massachusetts [NPR]

(Thanks, Michael!)

Drugs: Without the Hot Air, now in the USA!

I wrote last June about Drugs: Without the Hot Air, the best book on drug policy I've read, written by David Nutt, the UK drug czar who was fired because he refused to bow to political pressure to repudiate his own research on the relative harms from illegal drugs and legal activities. Nutt's book has now been published in the USA. As I said in June, this is a book that everyone should read. From my review:

Like the other writers in the series, Nutt is both committed to rigorous, evidence-based policy and to clear, no-nonsense prose that makes complex subjects comprehensible. He begins and ends the book with a look at the irrationality of our present drug policy, recounting a call he had with then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who was furious that he'd compared horseback riding harms to the harms from taking MDMA. Smith says that "you can't compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal activity." When Nutt asks why not, she says, "because one is illegal." When he asks why it is illegal, she says, "Because it is harmful." So he asks, "Don't we need to compare harms to determine if it should be illegal?" And Smith reiterates, "you can't compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal activity." Lather, rinse, repeat, and you'll get our current drugs-policy disaster.

Nutt has been talking about harm reduction and evidence-based policy for drugs policy for years, and he often frames the question by pointing out that alcohol is a terrible killer of addicts and the people around them, and a disaster for society. But if he was to synthesize a drug that produced an identical high to alcohol, without producing any of the harms, it would almost certainly be banned and those involved in producing, selling and taking it would be criminalised. We ban drugs because they are harmful and we know they are harmful because they are banned. Drugs that we don't ban -- tobacco, alcohol -- are "harmful" too, but not in the same way as the drugs that are banned, and we can tell that they are different because they haven't been banned.

Nutt has choice words for the alcohol and tobacco industries, who often frame their activity as being supported by responsible choice, and claim that they only want to promote that sort of responsibility. But as Nutt points out, if Britain's drinkers hewed to the recommended drinking levels, total industry revenue would fall by 40% -- and the industry has shown no willingness to regulate super-cheap, high-alcohol booze, nor alcopops aimed at (and advertised to) children and teenagers.

Nutt compares the alcohol industry's self-regulated responsible drinking campaigns to a campaign that exposed students in East Sussex to factual information about the industry's corruption of public health messages, its ferocious lobbying efforts, and the cost of drinking to wider society. It turns out that exposing alcohol industry sleaze is vastly more effective at discouraging student drinking than anything sponsored by the industry itself.

From his discussion of legal drugs, Nutt moves on to factual accounts of the impact of illegal/controlled drugs, from "legal highs" like "meow meow" to opiods to cocaine to prescription painkillers and steroids to psychedelics. Each chapter is a bracing, brisk, no-nonsense inventory of what harms and benefits arise from each substance, the history of their regulation, and the ways in which changes to the means of taking the drugs changes the outcome. Laid out like this, it's easy to see that prohibition isn't ever the right answer -- not for science, not for society, not for justice, and not for health.

There's also a sense of the awful, tragic loss to society arising from the criminalization of promising drugs. A chapter called "Should Scientists Take LSD?" surveys the literature preceding the evidence-free banning of LSD, and the astounding therapeutic benefits hinted at in the literature.

The book closes with the War on Drugs, and the worlds' governments own frank assessments of the unmitigated disaster created by Richard Nixon's idiotic decision 40 years ago. Nutt analyzes the fact that policymakers know that the War on Drugs is worse than the drugs themselves (by a long shot), but are politically incapable of doing anything about it, not least because politicians on all sides stand poised to condemn their opponents for being "soft on drugs."

Drugs: Without the Hot Air

Google execs: our technology can be used to fight narcoviolence in Mexico

In a Washington Post op-ed, Google's executive chairman (and former CEO) Eric Schmidt and Google Ideas director Jared Cohen argue the case for technology as a tool to aid citizen activists in places like Juarez, Mexico. Schmidt and Cohen recently visited the drug-war-wracked border town, and describe the climate of violence there as "surreal."

In Juarez, we saw fearful human beings — sources — who need to get their information into the right hands. With our packet-switching mind-set, we realized that there may be a technological workaround to the fear: Sources don’t need to physically turn to corrupt authorities, distant journalists or diffuse nonprofits, and rely on their hope that the possible benefit is worth the risk of exposing themselves.

Technology can help intermediate this exchange, like servers passing packets on the Internet. Sources don’t need to pierce their anonymity. They don’t need to trust a single person or institution. Why can’t they simply throw encrypted packets into the network and let the tools move information to the right destinations?

In a sense, we are talking about dual crowdsourcing: Citizens crowdsource incident awareness up, and responders crowdsource justice down, nearly in real time. The trick is that anonymity is provided to everyone, although such a system would know a unique ID for every user to maintain records and provide rewards. This bare-bones model could take many forms: official and nonprofit first responders, investigative journalists, whistleblowers, neighborhood watches.

I'll be interested to hear what people in Juarez, and throughout Mexico, think of the editorial. The notion that crypto, Tor, or other anonymity-aiding online tools might help peaceful observers is not a new one, and not one that activists in Mexico need outsiders to teach them about. There are plenty of smart geeks in Mexico who are well aware of the need for, and usefulness of, such tools. But Google execs speaking directly to the conflict, and how widely-available free tools might help, is a new and notable thing. Red the rest here. (thanks, @martinxhodgson)

Top US drug cop can't tell the difference between marijuana and heroin

Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart, a Bush appointee, was questioned by Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) in a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing. Polis asks Leonhart about the relative harms arising from prescription painkillers, marijuana, heroin, and crystal meth. She is incapable of distinguishing between them, and stonewalls on questions regarding whether some substances are more addictive than others. It's a rather astonishing performance, and an amazing example of politicized science -- one of America's top drug cops can't bring herself to say what practically every adult knows: marijuana's harms, whatever they are, are not in the same league as heroin or crystal meth.

“Is crack worse for a person than marijuana?” Polis, who has called for an end to marijuana prohibition, asked.

“I believe all illegal drugs are bad,” Leonhart responded.

“Is methamphetamine worse for somebody’s health than marijuana?” Polis continued. “Is heroin worse for somebody’s health than marijuana?”

“Again, all drugs,” Leonhart began to say, only to be cut off by Polis.

“Yes, no, or I don’t know?” Polis said. “If you don’t know this, you can look this up. You should know this, as the chief administrator for the Drug Enforcement Agency. I’m asking a very straightforward question.”

Leonhart said that heroin was highly addictive, but accused Polis of asking a “subjective” question. After being pressed further, she conceded that heroin was more addictive than marijuana, but added “some people become addicted marijuana and some people become addicted to methamphetamine.”

Top DEA agent won’t admit heroin more harmful than marijuana (via MeFi)

Update: In the comments, Rep Polis sez, "So hi! I've been a dedicated Boing Boing reader for many many years, more than I care to say. And I was so excited that *I* am on Boing Boing! So I photographed myself in my Boing Boing shirt, which I wear every day of course, and posted it here. I wanted to get the mention of me in the background but it kinda came up overexposed no matter what I did. Oh well. I'm psyched to be on Boing Boing!"

Drugs Without the Hot Air: the most sensible book about drugs you'll read this year

Cambridge's UIT Press has established a well-deserved reputation for publishing clear, engaging, evidence-based books on controversial subjects. Titles like Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air and Sustainable Materials - with Both Eyes Open remain two of the best books I've read on the relationship between environmental responsibility, climate, material wealth, science and engineering -- books that profoundly changed the way I understood these subjects.

The latest in this series is Drugs: Without the Hot Air (UK), by David Nutt. If Nutt's name rings a bell, it's because he was fired from his job as UK drugs czar because he refused to support the government's science-free position on the dangers of marijuana, and because he wouldn't repudiate a paper he wrote that compared the harms of taking Ecstasy to the harms of horseback riding (or "equasy").

Like the other writers in the series, Nutt is both committed to rigorous, evidence-based policy and to clear, no-nonsense prose that makes complex subjects comprehensible. He begins and ends the book with a look at the irrationality of our present drug policy, recounting a call he had with then-Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, who was furious that he'd compared horseback riding harms to the harms from taking MDMA. Smith says that "you can't compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal activity." When Nutt asks why not, she says, "because one is illegal." When he asks why it is illegal, she says, "Because it is harmful." So he asks, "Don't we need to compare harms to determine if it should be illegal?" And Smith reiterates, "you can't compare harms from a legal activity with an illegal activity." Lather, rinse, repeat, and you'll get our current drugs-policy disaster.

Nutt has been talking about harm reduction and evidence-based policy for drugs policy for years, and he often frames the question by pointing out that alcohol is a terrible killer of addicts and the people around them, and a disaster for society. But if he was to synthesize a drug that produced an identical high to alcohol, without producing any of the harms, it would almost certainly be banned and those involved in producing, selling and taking it would be criminalised. We ban drugs because they are harmful and we know they are harmful because they are banned. Drugs that we don't ban -- tobacco, alcohol -- are "harmful" too, but not in the same way as the drugs that are banned, and we can tell that they are different because they haven't been banned.

Nutt has choice words for the alcohol and tobacco industries, who often frame their activity as being supported by responsible choice, and claim that they only want to promote that sort of responsibility. But as Nutt points out, if Britain's drinkers hewed to the recommended drinking levels, total industry revenue would fall by 40% -- and the industry has shown no willingness to regulate super-cheap, high-alcohol booze, nor alcopops aimed at (and advertised to) children and teenagers.

Nutt compares the alcohol industry's self-regulated responsible drinking campaigns to a campaign that exposed students in East Sussex to factual information about the industry's corruption of public health messages, its ferocious lobbying efforts, and the cost of drinking to wider society. It turns out that exposing alcohol industry sleaze is vastly more effective at discouraging student drinking than anything sponsored by the industry itself.

From his discussion of legal drugs, Nutt moves on to factual accounts of the impact of illegal/controlled drugs, from "legal highs" like "meow meow" to opioids to cocaine to prescription painkillers and steroids to psychedelics. Each chapter is a bracing, brisk, no-nonsense inventory of what harms and benefits arise from each substance, the history of their regulation, and the ways in which changes to the means of taking the drugs changes the outcome. Laid out like this, it's easy to see that prohibition isn't ever the right answer -- not for science, not for society, not for justice, and not for health.

There's also a sense of the awful, tragic loss to society arising from the criminalization of promising drugs. A chapter called "Should Scientists Take LSD?" surveys the literature preceding the evidence-free banning of LSD, and the astounding therapeutic benefits hinted at in the literature.

The book closes with the War on Drugs, and the worlds' governments own frank assessments of the unmitigated disaster created by Richard Nixon's idiotic decision 40 years ago. Nutt analyzes the fact that policymakers know that the War on Drugs is worse than the drugs themselves (by a long shot), but are politically incapable of doing anything about it, not least because politicians on all sides stand poised to condemn their opponents for being "soft on drugs."

After this, there is a frank chapter on talking with your children about drugs. Nutt is a parent and has some regrets about how he approached the subject with his own children (one of his sons was stalked by a British tabloid journalist, who tricked him into friending him on Facebook, which gave the journalist the opportunity to gank photos of the young man smoking marijuana). As a parent, this stuff really resonated with me -- sensible advice that focuses on establishing and maintaining trust.

Drugs: Without the Hot Air