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September 2014
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Living Canvas Rx

Shameless plug for the new show this year from The Living Canvas (I am the founder/artistic director).

This year’s show is Living Canvas Rx, and it focuses on drugs. Note, while the show is very definitely about drugs, it’s not about drug policy, so don’t expect it to be an extension of the legalization policy advocacy of this blog – still, the ensemble wrote an amazing show, and I think it’s going to be quite fascinating and entertaining to experience. I am producing and also designing the projections for the show, which opens August 1st at the Den Theatre in Chicago (through August 17). If you’re in the area, check it out! (Full release and details below the fold.)

Living Canvas Rx

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I’m scared of the cops, and I’m white.

Several have mentioned this in comments – it’s definitely worth watching. Bill Maher on the militarization of police.

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Manufacturing crime

You just can’t make this stuff up — the absurdities with which our criminal justice system operate.

The story is about an undercover ATF agent (Brancato) trying to arrest a man named Halgat.

Judge Says U.S. Gov. Generated ‘New Crime’ to Arrest Man With No Criminal Record

Brancato repeatedly tried to coerce Halgat into drug dealing and buying illegal guns, which Halgat refused to do.

At one point, Brancato begged Halgat for five weeks to buy cocaine because they were “familia,” but Halgat turned him down numerous times. Halgat once told Brancato, “I can’t f—— help. I can’t help.” [...]

Brancato pleaded with Halgat to be his armed security during a drug transaction set up by the U.S. government, which even included using a “drug cartel” plane that was rented by the ATF.

Halgat did protect Brancato, and got paid $1,000 for being his security guard, which finally led to the arrest of Halgat and charges that could mean a 20-year prison sentence.

Judge Ferenbach said this week that the “ATF had investigated Halgat for three years, found no contraband after executing two search warrants and indicted him for a crime designed and initiated by the ATF.”

“The function of law enforcement is the prevention of crime and the apprehension of criminals. Manifestly, that function does not include the manufacturing of crime,” Judge Ferenbach said.

Good for the judge.

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On addiction

The always excellent Maia Szalavitz has another good article: Most of Us Still Don’t Get It: Addiction Is a Learning Disorder

There’s a lot of misinformation pushed out there about addiction, and much of it is used to justify interventional drug policy – the whole notion that drugs enslave people against their will. And part of that is driven by “brain disease studies” showing that drug use “changes” the brain.

All experience changes the brain—it has to, in order to leave a mark on memory. If experience didn’t alter us, we couldn’t perceive, recall or react to it. So, simply changing the brain doesn’t make addiction a disease because not all changes are pathological. In order to use brain scans to prove addiction is a disease, you’d have to show changes that are only seen in addicted people, that occur in all cases of addiction and that predict relapse and recovery. No one has yet done this. [...]

Researchers long argued that the pharmacology of particular drugs is what makes them addictive—that, say, cocaine’s alterations in the dopamine system cause a worse addiction than sex or food do because the drug directly affects the way the brain handles that chemical. But since sex and food only affect these chemicals naturally—and can create compulsive behavior that’s just as hard for some people to quit—why should we see cocaine differently?

Of course, none of this is to say that addiction isn’t a medical disorder or that addicted people shouldn’t be treated with compassion. What it does show, I believe, is that addiction is a learning disorder, a condition where a system designed to motivate us to engage in activities helpful to survival and reproduction develops abnormally and goes awry. [...]

Addiction—whether to sex, drugs or rock & roll—is a disorder of learning. It’s not a disorder of hedonism or selfishness and it’s not a sign of “character defects.” This learning, of course, involves the brain—but because learning is involved, cultural, social and environmental factors are critical in shaping it. [...]

We’ve been doing the equivalent of trying to treat obsessive-compulsive disorder by banning hand sanitizer when what we really need to understand is why and how obsessions and compulsions develop in particular people.

Fascinating and useful stuff.

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Chief David Oliver of Brimfield Ohio is part of the problem

Yesterday, we discussed the idea of law enforcement visiting the holocaust museum to avoid the authoritarian mistakes of the past.

Of course, the problem is, even as the linked article admitted, it’s not so easy to see past your own blinders when you’re the person heading down that path.

Several people yesterday pointed out this piece by Brimfield, Ohio Police Chief David Oliver: Open Letter to The Police Officers Who Want to Legalize Drugs where he disparages one of the most intelligent and full-of-integrity groups of officers I know: Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

The legalization folks are quitters.

Of course, that’s not true at all, and if Chief Oliver had an ounce of integrity, he would do more research on LEAP and realize that they find ending the drug war only the first part of the job. As Peter Christ said (paraphrased): “Legalization is about solving our drug war problem. Then we can actually deal with our drug problem.”

Oliver also uses the tired old washed-up and completely inane analogy of legalizing murder:

Having laws against murder does not work, because people still kill other people everyday. As a matter of fact, why don’t we just legalize everything?! If everything is legal, we can do away with police, prisons and courts. The “war on crime” is obviously not working. It is evident it has failed because of the continued rapes, murders, burglaries and assaults. Prisons are overcrowded not because of the choices of the people committing the crimes, but solely because of the police officers who enforce laws which keep us safe and protect our quality of life. Blah, blah, blah.

I tire of having to explain this, as to a kindergartener, but there’s a difference between prohibition laws and laws against crimes such as murder, rape, burglary and assault. If you take a drug dealer off the street, because of the simple and immutable economic laws of supply and demand, another one will emerge to replace them. If you take a murderer or rapist off the street, there is no demand for murderers or rapists that causes them to be re-stocked. The economies of prohibition also insure criminal profits, and tough enforcement rewards those criminal enterprises that are more ruthless.

These undeniable facts demand a different kind of policy.

When you see Chief Oliver’s other postings, you get a reinforcement of his warped world view – police departments are not becoming militarized, we haven’t really tried hard enough to fight the war on drugs, and police officers are dying because of loose talk on the internet.

If you are one of liberal friends, you will hear that we will plant evidence, violate your rights and search your stuff after stopping you for no reason. We will then convict you and send you to prison by committing perjury. If you resist arrest, we will tase you and probably shoot your dog. These ideas and this vitriol all has one thing in common. It is all hogwash… every last bit of it. These sites are publishing lies.

If by lies, you mean case after case of documented proof in the courts? Sure, not all cops are doing that, and we emphasize that fact all the time, but as long as cops like Chief Oliver deny the existence of this corruption and the blue code of silence continues to protect those who are corrupt, then we have a duty as citizens to hold these public servants accountable, or we face the very real threat of walking that road from yesterday’s post.

I’m sure Chief Oliver considers himself to be a good cop. He has a number of authoritarian-cheerleading commenters for all his posts who like him. And, from reading his posts on Facebook, it seems that he genuinely cares about his community and many of the people in it. But because he fails to see the damage done to society by his approach to policing, he is a big part of the problem.

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You’d think this would be good training… (Updated)

This surprised the hell out of me…

FBI sends agents to Holocaust museum

We send every one of our agents to the Holocaust Museum before they’re agents to know and understand what happens when an agency goes rogue,” ex-FBI director Robert Mueller explained recently.

Agents take a private, guided tour of the museum. Then there’s a specialized class that highlights how everyday law enforcement played a key role in Germany’s descent into authoritarianism. It wasn’t only elite military units, like the infamous Schutzstaffel, or SS. [...]

Then he brings up dark moments in American history. Japanese-Americans were sent to World War II internment camps. Civil Rights protestors were beaten by cops. And the FBI’s own covert surveillance program, COINTELPRO, targeted athletes, journalists, politicians and grassroots movements for being “subversive.”

“We can’t afford to think we’re different, just because of our DNA or upbringing,” Friedman said. “If we’re not careful, all of us can slide down that slippery slope.”

The FBI isn’t alone. Nearly every federal law enforcement agency sends new recruits to the museum. The 90,000 who have been there since 1999 include agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Secret Service and U.S. Marshals, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

What a great idea.

And yet, from the things we read every day in criminal justice stories, it seems that the intended lessons may not have taken hold all that well.

Makes one wonder if some have come away from the experience mistakenly thinking that the admonition was, instead, a suggestion.


This video, which is getting some serious play, points out the problem we face today and the failure of law enforcement to learn those lessons. It’s not all cops, for certain — I work with a number of law enforcement officers who do amazingly good community policing. But it’s becoming the perception of how law enforcement generally works, which means that it’ll take a huge effort on the part of the entire profession itself to change that image.

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Drug War and Immigration

Report: Honduras President Blames US Drug Policy for Migrant Surge

Hernandez, who took office in January after winning on a pledge to be tough on crime, said only a drop in violence would curb the wave of families and unaccompanied minors fleeing Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras who have overwhelmed temporary detention facilities on the U.S. border.

“Honduras has been living in an emergency for a decade,” Hernandez told Mexican daily newspaper Excelsior. “The root cause is that the United States and Colombia carried out big operations in the fight against drugs. Then Mexico did it.”

So often, we are our own worst enemy.

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Open Thread

Programming note:


Judge Jim Gray to Advocate for Legalization Opposite Dr. Kevin Sabet

CO—Former federal prosecutor, judge advocate for the Navy JAG corps and Superior Court Judge Jim Gray (Ret.) is in the Denver area this week meeting with media and civic groups and preparing for a debate this Wednesday on the merits of marijuana legalization, regulation and control. Judge Gray is a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, a group of law enforcement officials who believe that prohibiting illicit drugs only serves to empower the criminal networks that sell them, wastes law enforcement time and resources, contributes to racial disparities in the justice system, saddles people who would be better served by treatment with criminal records and ultimately is ineffective at reducing use.

“The essential question is, would you rather have government regulators and legitimate business owners deciding how marijuana is grown, what it’s laced with, and who can buy it, or would you rather leave those decisions – and multiple billions of dollars in profits – to drug cartels and juvenile street gangs?”

He will be debating Dr. Kevin Sabet of Project SAM this coming Wednesday at the Colorado School of Mines in an event that will be broadcast live here. ( Judge Gray will also be available for interviews before and after the debate.

“I look forward to discussing with Dr. Sabet the lesson we all should have learned eighty years ago with the prohibition of alcohol: Prohibiting a substance doesn’t prevent its use; it merely makes that use vastly more dangerous to both users and the communities in which they live.”

WHO: Judge Jim Gray vs. Dr. Kevin Sabet

WHAT: A public debate on marijuana legalization

WHEN: Wednesday, July 16 10:45am MT

WHERE: Colorado School of Mines Student Center, Ballroom B, 1600 Maple Street Golden, CO 80401 or online at

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White House embracing ‘State’s rights’?

White House Opposes Republican Amendment Undermining D.C. Marijuana law Reform

So the District of Columbia essentially passed a law reducing the penalty for marijuana from jail to a fine. But U.S. Representative Andy Harris (R-MD) pushed forward an amendment in the U.S. Congress (which controls D.C.’s purse strings) that would prevent D.C. from even using its own funds to “carry out any law, rule or regulation to legalize or otherwise reduce criminal penalties for marijuana.”

Pretty ridiculous. Now, however, the White House has stepped in, opposing the amendment:

The White House Statement of Administration Policy reads: “Similarly, the Administration strongly opposes the language in the bill preventing the District from using its own local funds to carry out locally- passed marijuana policies, which again undermines the principles of States’ rights and of District home rule.

It’s unusual to see a Democratic administration pointing out the importance of State’s rights. It’s often seen as a loaded term, bringing back memories of segregation and slavery, and being used as a way to undermine any actions of the federal government.

And yet, “State’s rights,” more accurately defined as political powers reserved for the U.S. state governments rather than the federal government, are an essential part of the United States Constitution.

It’s an oddly sad victory when we astonishingly note the White House’s support of the U.S. Constitution.

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Radley Balko with more good stuff:

Daniel Chong is the entirely predictable result of dehumanizing drug offenders

“Drug people are the very vermin of humanity.”

– Myles Ambrose, director of the Office of
Drug Abuse Law Enforcement during the Nixon Administration.

After discussing several cases (including Daniel Chong and Jonathan Magbie, Radley concludes:

It’s important to understand that these stories aren’t the product of rogue cops, jail officials or prosecutors. For 45 years now, the government has been waging an all-too-literal war on drugs. Since antiquity, great leaders have known that to win a war — to condition the population to be comfortable with all the violence and sacrifice that winning requires — you first dehumanize your enemy. Understand that, and you’ll begin to understand why the DEA had no safeguards in place to protect Daniel Chong but plenty of safeguards in place to protect the privacy of the DEA agents who almost killed him.

This same dehumanizing of the enemy extended to those “traitors” who dared to give aid and comfort to the enemy by suggesting that there was anything wrong with this war.

Back in a 1999 Congressional hearing on drug policy in Washington, DC, here’s what some of our representatives, sworn to defend the Constitution of the United States of America, had to say:

“Legalization is a surrender to despair,” said Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman, Republican of upstate New York. “It cannot and ought not be any topic of serious discussion in our nation’s debate of the challenges of illicit drugs.”

Suggesting the depth of hostility toward the notion of legal drugs, Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., asked whether anti-racketeering laws could be used to prosecute people conspiring to legalize drugs.

That’s right. Congressmen actually suggested that opposing the drug war cannot even be discussed and that those who do so should somehow be prosecuted.

This is the kind of hostility that those of us who chose to stand up sometimes faced (and that made many in the population afraid to speak up).

There really was that “vermin” notion that speaking out for legalization of drugs was somehow akin to legalizing child abuse, and that drug offenders were not worthy of the considerations you would give to “real” people.

A lot, fortunately, has changed since then (Bob Barr even changed). But that historical ugliness still persists in certain quarters.

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