Prohibition is tearing Mexico apart (WARNING: GRAPHIC CONTENT)

Since I last wrote about the escalating violence in Mexico, things have taken a turn for the worst. With 12 journalists murdered and another 8 disappearing so far this year, freedom of the Mexican press is being threatened in an enormous way. Cartels also hurled grenades at one of the most powerful broadcasting companies in Mexico, Televisa, . In fact, the UN sent a mission to Mexico to examine these threats to the freedom of the press, and the Inter-American Press Association is asking Mexico to make crimes against journalists a federal offense. Cartels are infiltrating newsrooms through extortion and threats of violence against journalists and their families. Last Friday in the city of Tampico, cartels and law enforcement officers had a shootout on the main boulevard of the city, the governor-elect canceled a planned trip to the city, and a prominent business leader was kidnapped. Tampico news agencies didn’t report a single one of those incidents. In fact, most of the news on the drug war in Mexico is being posted anonymously on El Blog del Narco, because it’s dangerous to put a byline on a drug war story in Mexico. Any journalist who covers the drug war is a target, and make no mistake: the cartels are fighting legalization harder than anyone in the DEA, ONDCP, CIA or FBI. And when you look at the big picture, it’s a stomach-churning blend of funny and terrifying: Both the cartels and the members of many of these agencies depend on prohibition to make profits and keep their jobs.

The Late Mayor of Santiago, Edelmiro Cavazos

Mexico has become as dangerous as other countries that are in war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Last Sunday the cartels kidnapped 38-year-old mayor Edelmiro Cavazos of Santiago, a suburb of the industrial city of Monterrey. His body was discovered on the side of a road Wednesday, bound, gagged and displaying signs of torture. Mexican officials believe that this mayor was disposed of because he refused to take bribes and did not respond to threats by the cartels. And guess who’s been arrested in connection with his death? SIX CITY POLICEMEN. The corruption of the drug war is bleeding into and compromising every institution in Mexico.

It’s common practice now for drug cartels to invade private parties and open fire on guests. This happens several times each week, especially in towns where cartels are struggling to control turf. Last Sunday, a group of gunmen in the industrial town of Torreón showed up to a party hall, blocked the exits and opened fire on the crowd. 17 partygoers were killed and another 18 were injured, and the party as of yet has not been linked to any organized crime or drug gangs. The cartels are now just slaying people to create a state of fear and terror. Anyone can be a target, and this is what Mexico’s drug war looks like now:

Slain partygoers at the site of the Torreón massacre. Photo courtesy of El Blog del Narco.

This was the tamest photo of the bunch, which can be found on El Blog del Narco (WARNING: EXTREME GRAPHIC CONTENT). I’d apologize for showing such a gory photo, but I’m not sorry. This is what’s happening every single day in Mexico. People need to see this. This is the price of a War on Drugs. And here is my message, loud and clear: ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. How many need to die? How many cities must be compromised? What is it going to take before leaders of the Americas collectively end this needless violence with a stroke of the pen? Legalize drugs! That’s the answer, plain and simple. Take the cartels’ money and power, and they will not have a single reason left to slay journalists and politicians and innocent bystanders. Refuse to act, or worse, send in more soldiers and police in another “crackdown” effort, and the bodies will continue to pile up, the heads will continue to roll.

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Dan Viets: Local Attorney, Activist and Patriot

I just wanted to say a few words about my attorney Dan Viets, because he’s one of the hardest working reformers in Columbia. I first met Dan through necessity. I had some legal issues in the dorms when I was a freshman. My friends recommended I hire Dan Viets to take my case. His offices are downtown, and they had found his name in the NORML Legal Directory in the back of High Times Magazine. Dan took my case and was able to provide me excellent counsel during a case that without a lawyer’s aid could have made me ineligible for financial aid (I’ll write about the ridiculousness of that policy in the future).

Since then I’ve been able to work with Dan more often through our shared interest in civil liberties and drug policy reform. Dan, in addition to being on the NORML Legal Committee, is on the Board of Directors for NORML. In the 2004 Columbia elections, Dan had a key role in helping to pass both a decriminalization law which included a “Lowest Priority” provision for marijuana law enforcement (subsection f) and a medical marijuana ordinance, both ballot initiatives supported by high majorities. To top it all off, Dan hosts an excellent radio show on 89.5 FM KOPN, Columbia’s community NPR affiliate radio station. His show is called “Sex, Drugs and Civil Liberties” and you can listen in for it every Tuesday from 7 to 8 p.m. or listen online at KOPN.org. You can also listen to previous shows here.

Thanks, Dan, for all the work you’ve done in Columbia and all the work you continue to do in the community!

City Council meeting last night

Last night’s City Council meeting, although long and painful, did get interesting at times. I had the chance to address the council at the beginning of the meeting, which was simply me giving a few comments on how the Citizens Police Review Board has been operating and recommending that the Council amend the ordinance to mandate that appellants have an opportunity to directly address the board, as Angela Bacca and Ed Rosenthal were unable to do two weeks ago. For video of my statement, click here and then click on “1. Spencer Pearson: Citizens Police Review Board”.

The big issue last night (besides discussing the 2011 budget proposals) was the pending taser ban brought about by petitions from the People for a Taser-Free Columbia. The ban would prevent anyone, citizens or police, from using or threatening to use a taser or other conducted electrical devices. The council heard public comment on the issue from many citizens, most in support of the ban. One man claimed the ban was unconstitutional, citing the second amendment, but of course not only are there limits on the scope of the second amendment, but the right to bear arms applies to firearms, and a taser is not a firearm. One of the city council members expressed worry that by banning “other conducted electrical devices” we would in fact be making it a misdemeanor to use medical defibrillators. Let me address this absurd statement right now: First off, no one in their right mind would arrest an EMT for using a defibrillator to save a life. Secondly, the language in the taser ban is very clear that it would be unlawful to “use or threaten to use a taser or other conducted electrical device against a person.” I add the emphasis to the word “against” because I believe it is important in ruling out defibrillators from the ban. A defibrillator is never used against someone, it’s used for someone in a medical setting. Tasers, however, are designed to be used against people to control or subdue or otherwise hurt them. This argument is an idiotic scare tactic that sadly might lose some voters who are unable to see past it. The most common argument against the taser ban was an interesting one, namely that there are officers who are smaller than the criminals they must sometimes subdue, so they deserve this taser tool because they’re small. This seems at first a legitimate argument, until you realize that there have been small police officers for centuries, but tasers have only been used by Columbia police for 5 years. In that 5 years, officers have proven multiple times that they are incapable of following protocol, including giving citizens mandatory warnings before firing. Officers have pepper spray, night sticks, handcuffs and handguns. They don’t need another torture device in their arsenal, and the main reason I support the taser ban is this: Tasers have been branded as non-lethal, yet tasers can and do kill people. Cops find it too easy to tase tomeone, but they’re forced to think twice before pulling the trigger of a gun. Since City Council defeated the ballot measure, it’s up to Columbia’s voters to decide whether to ban taser use in our town. This means that this November, you have no excuse not to vote. Vote yes on the taser ban this November!

For video of the taser issue being discussed, including the public comment, visit the link above and scroll down to “4. B191-10 Amending Chapter 16 of the City Code to add a new section pertaining to tasers and other conducted electrical devices.”

Susan Smith compares marijuana cultivation to terrorism

I have a bit of the video from last week’s Citizens Police Review Board that I promised; we’re still in the editing process on a lot of it. Here is a clip of Susan Smith’s comments at the beginning of the meeting comparing cultivation to the Oklahoma City bombing, the Times Square bombing, rape and 9/11. This woman is completely out of touch:

These statements are obviously incredibly offensive for a number of reasons, but the main one is also the most obvious: Prohibition funds terrorism. Directly. Drug cartels in Mexico rely on cannabis sales for their main source of income and many middle-eastern terrorist organizations rely on the opium trade. These plants are only profitable because they are illegal. What’s more, someone who grows marijuana domestically for profit would actually be in direct competition with terrorist organizations, and therefore would be actually fighting terrorists economically. You might also have noticed Smith claimed there were two pit bulls at the Whitworth residence, but of course numerous reports have clarified that there was one pit and one corgi when the home was invaded. Susan, if you are interested in keeping your seat on this board, I’d suggest you actually read the facts before you make a complete fool out of yourself. Again.

By the way, this is the same woman who wouldn’t give Ed or Angela a chance to address the board that night nor let any of the public speak until after a vote had been reached. Something must be done; if this is really a citizen’s board, the citizens need to take action.

Ed Rosenthal and Angela Bacca: "The CPRB mishandled our appeal"

Friends: I’m reblogging a post written by Angela Bacca on Ed Rosenthal’s blog about the CPRB’s atrocious mishandling of their appeal last Wednesday. Please send a polite, professional email to the CPRB to express your concern over how this matter was handled (or its lack of handling in any way).

Please help us by reposting, re-tweeting, facebooking and etc. Please send a quick email to the Columbia, Missouri Civillian Police Review Board and let them know what you think about their handling of mine and Angela’s appeal.

1) The investigation of the officers excluded everything anyone complained about:

‘1. Scope of Investigation
The investigation does not attempt to address whether or to what extent marijuana laws should be enforced, whether probable cause existed to issue the warrant, whether SWAT Team should have been used to serve the warrant, the timing of the search warrant service, or the use of “dynamic entry” tactics by SWAT team.’

-Chief Ken Burton’s official investigation report

2) The board voted before hearing from myself and Angela as well as the citizens of Columbia.”

The Root of the Drug War problem

We have taken many baby steps toward ending the drug war all over the country. Legalizing medical marijuana, decriminalizing small amounts and adopting ‘treatment over time’ sentencing guidelines are some of those small victories. Another tactic that is becoming more common, and one that Columbia has tried, is to assign marijuana law enforcement to be the police department’s ‘lowest priority.’ But our local and state law enforcement agencies have incentives to ignore this law through a procedure that lets them profit from seeking out and raiding non-violent marijuana users at the expense of real crimes like rape, assault, and murder. It’s called Civil Asset Forfeiture.

I had the privilege of meeting Eapen Thampy, a policy analyst for a group called Americans for Forfeiture Reform and a former student at Mizzou. He explained to me what Civil Asset Forfeiture means and how it connects to the drug war, and I’m going to try to explain it as best I can.

There are two basic kinds of forfeitures that happen in the U.S.: criminal forfeitures and  civil forfeitures. Criminal forfeitures must come after someone has been found guilty of committing a crime. Civil forfeitures work under the premise that property itself can be charged as having been involved in a crime. Even if, for example, you were to borrow my car and, without my knowledge, go pick up a pound of pot, then you were busted in my car, my car can be taken and put on trial because it was involved in the crime of drug trafficking. The same goes for any hard currency that happens to be anywhere in the area (the cops just love to find that cash, but we’ll get into that later).

Civil forfeitures are extremely difficult and costly to challenge. First of all, the burden of proof in my car example would lie with me, the car owner. In other words, to even have a chance at getting my car back, I’d have to prove my car had nothing to do with the drug trafficking in question. My car is guilty unless I can prove its innocence. There is also a very slim time window to work within, which is why a majority of these forfeitures go unchallenged. If the property owner doesn’t challenge the forfeiture, then prosecutors can refile it as an administrative forfeiture, which deals with unclaimed or abandoned property. The restrictions on administrative forfeitures are looser and prosecutors have fewer obligations to report this money.

So what the hell does this have to do with anything? Stick with me, I swear it all comes together!

The Missouri Constitution, Article IX Section 7, states, in part, that “…the clear proceeds of all penalties, forfeitures and fines collected hereafter for any breach of the penal laws of the state, the net proceeds from the sale of estrays, and all other moneys coming into said funds shall be distributed annually to the schools of the several counties according to law.” In layman’s terms, all that money from fines or seized property (including the cash from auctioning off seized cars and homes) must be put in a fund that is earmarked for the construction of public schools. This law is essential because it removes direct motive for law enforcement agents to basically steal citizens’ property.

However, since the early ’90s the Department of Justice has been advising many local and state law enforcement agencies that they can transfer these forfeiture cases to their department, which has federal jurisdiction, and the education fund requirement can be circumvented. The reward for local law enforcement? An 80% kickback. 80% of every single dollar seized from citizens is thrown right back into the law enforcement agency’s budget. Booyah.

So we can now see that not only have the police found a way to fund themselves without taxpayer money, but they have a damn good reason to keep marijuana busts a high priority: it’s a killer moneymaker! Marijuana users are especially sought out because they pose little to no risk of harm to the officers (don’t worry- they always bring along full riot gear and sub-machine guns… just in case). They also have a good reason to serve search warrants late. Citizens were appalled and surprised when the raid on Jonathan Whitworth’s home last February turned up no pot–but according to case documents, police waited until Whitworth was scheduling a re-up before serving the warrant. That’s because they were waiting for that cash on hand I mentioned earlier. Because of how these forfeiture laws work, cops have no incentive to actually seize a bunch of drugs. They have to burn all the confiscated drugs (ha!), and they certainly can’t auction them off and keep the money. So they wait until the drugs have been distributed, kick down the door and grab all the money. Then they zip it of to the Department of Justice (ha!) and get 80%. If a business did this, you know what they’d call it? Money laundering!

So to recap this vicious cycle:

Step 1: Police bust into non-violent marijuana users’ homes and seize all cash and property that they can find, and assume whatever they find is linked to a crime.

Step 2: Even without a conviction, the seized property can be sent over to the Department of Justice. The DoJ takes their cut and sends the rest back to the police.

Step 3: The police buy military equipment, surveillance equipment, riot gear and high powered weapons to better outfit themselves to make more busts, seize more money, and increase their own budget (yes, that means law enforcement is actually profit motivated instead of being accountable to taxpayers).

This is a monster that is out of control. Without reforming the way forfeiture laws work, we can never expect marijuana enforcement to be the lowest priority for any police department. When cops have a motive to seize property from citizens, this is a huge blow to the Fourth Amendment and the entire Democratic process. For a much more detailed account of what forfeiture laws are and how you can help reform them, visit http://forfeiturereform.com/how-you-can-help/