Drugs & Repression
by Alexander Cockburn, June 13, 2012
A heart in love will decipher every squiggle in a letter as a kiss. In the final days of the 2008 campaign and in the opening ones of his administration, Obama and his top legal aides seemed to the eager ears of marijuana legalizers on the West Coast to be opening the door to a new, sensible era.
Here was the basic line as dispensed by Attorney General Eric Holder on March 18, 2009:
“The policy is to go after those people who violate both federal and state law. To the extent that people do that and try to use medical marijuana laws [such as California’s Prop 215] as a shield for activity that is not designed to comport with what the intention was of the state law, those are the organizations, the people, that we will target. And that is consistent with what the president said during the campaign.”
The next day drug activists exulted in a big win. “Today’s comments clearly represent a change in policy out of Washington,” Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance told the LA Times. Holder, Nadelmann added in the New York Times, had sent a clear message to the DEA that the feds now recognize state medical marijuana laws as “kosher.”
Striking a different sort of exultant note, the US Attorney’s spokesman in Los Angeles, Thom Mrozek, told the LA Times: “In every single case we have prosecuted, the defendants violated state as well as federal law.” On January 22 (two days after Obama’s inauguration) DEA agents conducted a raid on a South Lake Tahoe cannabis dispensary run by a wheelchair-bound entrepreneur named Ken Estes. They seized about five pounds of herbal medicine and a few thousand dollars. No arrests were made. “It was a typical rip-and-run,” Estes said. On February 3, the DEA raided four cannabis dispensaries in the LA area. Eight days later DEA agents busted the MendoHealing Co-operative farm in Fort Bragg, California.
The love-flushed Obamians had forgotten how to read political declarations with a close and realistic eye, and to bear in mind the eternal power struggles between federal prosecutors and enforcers — e.g., the DEA and equivalent state bodies. The feds wanted to make it completely clear that, whatever Obama might hint at, they weren’t going to be hog-tied by wussy state laws. Bust a guy in a wheelchair, bust a dispensary, make your point: I’m the man.
Meanwhile, what has been happening out in the fields, dells, plastic greenhouses, indoor grows in the counties of Mendocino and Humboldt? The timeless rhythms of agriculture: overproduction, plummeting prices, the remorseless toll of costly inputs like soil and fertilizers.
Back in the early 1990s the price to grower per pound was around $5,000. A couple of years ago, the average had dropped to about $2,000, more for really skilled growers, who “black box” their greenhouses, darkening them earlier each day to trick the plants into putting out an early crop. Right now, it’s down to maybe $1,000 a pound in the fall, dropping to $600 in the Christmas rush. Do these prices bear any relation to the prices in the fancy dispensaries in southern California? Guess.
Bruce Anderson, editor of the Boonville-based Anderson Valley Advertiser, describes the realities:
“Do a Google Earth on your Mendo neighborhood. Now knowing what to expect, we did one on Boonville. As the satellite camera zeroes in, the grows look like lemon groves, neatly arrayed in the backyards on both sides of Highway 128 from one end of Boonville to the other. Of course the in-door grows can’t be googled, but they are just as numerous throughout the Anderson Valley and every other area of vast Mendocino County. When you hear statements like “Everyone in this county is in the pot business” it’s not that far short of the reality. In an imploding economy does anyone seriously expect an enterprise that pays lots of off-the-books, tax-free cash can be stopped short of full-on legalization? In just the last week, raids were conducted on two homes, one in Eureka, one in Redwood Valley, where better than $400,000 cash was confiscated by the forces of law and order. Every time the cops make big cash hauls more people are convinced that they, too, should get into the pot business. A smaller number of people, of course, are convinced to try to find dope houses to rip off, hence X-number of annual home invasions, most of them unreported. Looked at objectively, and all things considered, the nebulous legal status of marijuana is perfect for Mendocino County’s financial well-being: Every year the cops take off just enough dope to keep pot prices to at least a thou a pound, with prices falling around Christmas to five or six hundred a pound as surpluses are unloaded for spending cash. Legalization would further depress the Mendocino County economy, and depress it big time.”
But legalization is not a realistic prospect and so the status of the herb will inevitably remain cloudy. For its part the DEA is announcing big impending raids in Mendocino county, some targeting the vast stretches of the (federally) controlled Mendocino National Forest, and the growers drawing on the waters of the middle Eel. There are serious environmental and criminal issues here. Obama said at the start of his administration, “I can’t ask the Justice Department to ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books. What I can say is, ‘Use your prosecutorial discretion and properly prioritize your resources to go after things that are really doing folks damage’.”
As Mark Scaramella, also of the AVA, ticks off the list, “there are growers, many of them violent, using public lands. Who wants to go hiking and run into a criminal operation? These same growers are responsible for associated illegal water diversions and serious environmental degradation. In one recent raid they took a mile of black plastic irrigation pipe out of the Mendocino National Forest.”
Fine for the Feds to go into action here. What’s not fine is a far-reaching national campaign against medical growers right across the US. All the usual arsenal of harassments have been brought into play by multiple agencies, starting with the IRS, bankrupting dispensaries by simply denying elementary business expenses.
Has the drug war — as a war on the poor — slowed down? In 2010 some 850,000 Americans were arrested for marijuana related offenses of which the vast majority was for possession. That means since Obama took office it is likely well over 2.5 million Americans have been arrested for marijuana. This under the aegis of a President who cosily discloses his marijuana habit as a young man. One bust, Mr. Obama, and you’d be still on the South Side. But then, your sense of self-righteousness is too distended to be deflated by any sense of hypocrisy.
Last week there was much rejoicing when Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York, flanked by Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly came out in support of ending the practice of arresting individuals for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view.
The details here are very important. These arrests come in consequence of “stop and frisk” police powers — used across the country — otherwise known as a Terry Stop (okayed by the US Supreme Court in 1968) under which a cop may briefly detain a person upon reasonable suspicion of involvement in a crime but short of probable cause to arrest. When a search for weapons is also authorized, the procedure is known as a “stop and frisk.”
In the Bloomberg years in New York City “stop and frisks” have gone through the roof. In 2002, when Bloomberg had only just stepped into the Mayor’s office, 97,296 New Yorkers were stopped by the police under Stop and Frisk.
80,176 were totally innocent (82%).
By 2009, 581,168 New Yorkers were stopped by the police.
510,742 were totally innocent (88%).
310,611 were black (5%).
180,055 were Latino (32%).
53,601 were white (10%).
289,602 were aged 14-24 (50%). (For reference, according to the Census Bureau, there were about only 300,000 black men between the ages of 13 and 34 living in the city that year.)
In 2011, 685,724 New Yorkers were stopped by the police.
605,328 were totally innocent (88%).
350,743 were black (53%).
223,740 were Latino (34%).
61,805 were white (9%).
341,581 were aged 14-24 (51%).
There are continued protests about New York City’s racist application of an already essentially racist law. (Last week the New York Civil Liberties Union unveiled “Stop and Frisk Watch” — a free and innovative smart phone application that will enable New Yorkers to monitor police activity and hold the NYPD accountable for unlawful stop-and-frisk encounters and other police misconduct.) But last week no public official was talking about Stop and Frisk. They were addressing the issue of what happens after the initiation of Stop and Frisk when the person “complies” with an NYPD officer’s directive to “empty their pockets.” If up to 25 grams of marijuana stays out of view, that constitutes only a violation. If the cop forces the weed into public view we’re looking at a misdemeanor, with potentially devastating career consequences for the target. Low level arrests for possession of marijuana in New York have gone up from about 2,000 in 1990 to 50,684 arrests in 2011 for possession of a small amount of marijuana, more than for any other offense, according to an analysis of state data by Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College, cited in the NYT.
From 2002 to 2011, New York City recorded 400,000 low-level marijuana arrests, according to Levine’s analysis. That represented more arrests than under Bloomberg’s three predecessors put together — a period of 24 years. Most of those arrested have been young black and Hispanic men, and most had no prior criminal convictions.
Cuomo is proposing that 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view will, if his bill passes the New York legislature, constitute only a violation, no longer a misdemeanor. Will the bill pass? The Democrats control the Assembly in New York. Late last week New York Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos announced his opposition to Governor Cuomo’s proposal to standardize penalties for marijuana possession offenses in New York. Skelos told the New York Times that “Being able to just walk around with 10 joints in each ear, and it only be a violation, I think that’s wrong.” Just kidding, maybe. Perhaps the fix is in.
Obviously anything that crimps the cops’ lawless actions is good. Maybe there are future Obamas who will be able to keep a misdemeanor off their record. But let’s retain our sense of reality. “Together, we are making New York fairer and safer, and ensuring that every New Yorker has access to a justice system that doesn’t discriminate based on age or color, said Cuomo last week. “
Doesn’t discriminate? In the first three months of 2012, 203,500 New Yorkers were stopped by the police.
Commissioner Kelly obviously didn’t feel he faced a mutiny by his men, an inventive lot when it comes to construing the law. Don’t forget. Drug policy in the US is about social control. That’s the name of the game.
A tumbril (n.) a dung cart used for carrying manure, now associated with the transport of prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution.
The keen blade of justice must fall swiftly on the word “tsunami” which has turned into a cliché through over use with astonishing speed. This happened rapidly after the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami and its use reached epidemic proportions after the Tsunami in Japan in 2011. Its use is mainly to add verbal spice and drama to usually mundane events by suggesting that what is happening is massive, devastating and unstoppable.
Users of the word can often hope to see their use of the phrase “a tsunami of….” promoted into a headline. For instance, take the case of identity theft tax fraud in southern Florida. Whatever else this is doing, it is not, unlike Sri Lanka in 2004 or Fukushima in 2011, killing a lot of people. But the chief federal prosecutor for the Southern District of Florida, Wilfredo A. Ferrer, first described it as an “epidemic” and then added “The IRS is doing what they can to prevent this, but this is like a tsunami of fraud.”
And sure enough “tsunami of fraud” was in the headline in the International Herald Tribune version of the New York Times story. Charge lodged by citoyen actif Patrick Cockburn.
Alexander Cockburn can be reached at email@example.com.