The DEA Is Monitoring Your Phone Calls
On Sunday, the New York Times revealed the existence of a program known as the Hemisphere Project, which gives the Drug Enforcement Administration and local law enforcement agencies around the country access to a database of Americans’ phone records that goes back to 1987. You might think that a judge would have to sign off on a subpoena in order for the cops to view your phone records, but the process is actually much more streamlined (and invasive): the federal government reportedly pays AT&T to have the telecom giant’s employees sit next to DEA agents and local police detectives and show them whatever data they need. Technically, the information is stored by AT&T and not the government (this avoids some sticky legal issues), but in practice the cops have access to a database that logs billions of calls a day and includes not only who you called, but where you were when you placed the call. (Your call gets logged if it passes through an AT&T-owned system; you don’t have to be a customer of the company for them to have your data.) The current official Obama administration excuse for the program they were forced to admit the existence of is that it helps track down drug dealers and other criminals who tend to use difficult-to-track disposable cellphones.
This story comes on the heels of a story published by Reuters last month that detailed the NSA´s quasi-legal habit of passing on tips to other agencies, like the DEA, that don’t normally work on national security-related cases. After being given these tips, investigators then “recreate” where they got their evidence in a trick known as “parallel construction,” which allows them to hide where they got their information from defendants, judges, and even prosecutors. (Members of Congress have been pressing Attorney General Eric Holder about this, and he claims this is a common tactic used to protect sources.)
All these revelations about the scope of the information the DEA has access to are frightening, but it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Although the government originally claimed that it would only use its massive powers of data collection and surveillance in serious, rare, 24-type situations, of course they are using these same powers to go after more mundane criminals. For instance, “sneak and peek” warrants, which allow the police to search your property without informing you as they normally would, were legalized by the terrorism-centric PATRIOT Act but somehow wound up being used more often in drug investigations. This sort of codependent relationship between the war on drugs and the national security state makes it difficult to separate the two. It’s becoming clear that it’s unrealistic to ask the government to play by the rules law enforcement is supposed to be following except in situations where big bad terrorists are involved; mission creep is inevitable. More than one tentacle of government needs to be hacked off before Americans get some privacy back.
Read more about bad cops
The Feds Will Let States Legalize Pot… Maybe
Ever since Colorado and Washington state voted last November to legalize marijuana and treat it like alcohol or coffee or anything else that comes from nature, maaaaaaaan, the question has been how the federal government would respond. Would the people in charge of conducting the war on drugs really be OK with letting state law trump federal law? Well, the Department of Justice released a memo today and it turns out that yes, they’ll let everyone from Seattle to Denver light up legally—but there are some caveats, as always.
The memo (which can be read in full here) says that the DOJ has already been prioritizing stopping the really bad crimes that are connected to marijuana, like the sale of pot to kids, revenue going to cartels and other criminals, and violence that’s connected with the weed trade. It goes on to advise prosecutors that focusing on those activities is still a good idea before tackling the meat of the matter at hand: though some states have legalized weed, it shouldn’t change the Feds’ policy of going after drug growers and dealers who are killing people, growing pot on federally-owned land, or breaking the law in other ways.
Nope, the GOP Still Isn’t Libertarian
Above: Republican senator Ted Cruz speaking to a conference of social conservatives. When this guy is considered a leading figure in your party, you’re a long way from libertarianism. Photo via Flickr user Gage Skidmore
If you’re bored with the political news this summer—it’s not an election year and Congress is in recess after doing diddly squat for six months—you can always read about how the United States is having a “libertarian moment.” The idea is that after decades of being bandied about by eccentric middle-aged white men and collegiate stoners who made zines and unreadable websites, libertarian principles are finally entering the mainstream.
Most articles on the subject first bring up Rand Paul—son of Ron, hater of drones and the NSA, would-be friend of Silicon Valley’s money, painfully awkward ambassador of the white race, and the most prominent libertarian-ish politician in the country. They then go on to mention that Paul’s antigovernment views and relatively liberal opinions on social issues make him a model for how Republicans can attract the young voters who have largely abandoned the party. (VICE itself took this tack last year.) The “libertarian moment” discussions will also invariably feature polls that show a majority of Americans favor legalizing weed and gay marriage, both issues that libertarians have been talking about for years. (Name something, and libertarians will be in favor of legalizing it.) The final ingredient in the libertarian article recipe is the Tea Party’s influence in Congress. When the Kansas City Star wrote about this, the paper referred to senators Ted Cruz and Mike Lee and representative Tim Huelskamp (along with Paul, of course) as “libertarian Republicans” and noted their opposition to NSA wiretapping and Obamacare. If you’re keeping score at home, the equation generally works like this:
Young People Hold Antigovernment Views +
Rand Paul! +
The Tea Party’s Influence (a.k.a. Stranglehold) on Congress +
Americans Tolerating Weed and Gay People =
A Strain/Rising tide/Explosion/Pick Your Metaphor of Libertarianism in America
The thing is, I’m not sure this math holds up in the real world. To start at the bottom of the equation, it’s true that America is a far more tolerant place for gay people who want to celebrate their legal marriage by lighting up a fat blunt. But though those causes have libertarian support behind them, the pro-weed and antihomophobia movements have been fueled by liberals; it’s Democrats, not right-wingers, who have advocated for gay rights and tried to push marijuana legislation at the federal level. And many libertarians favor decriminalizing all drugs in the name of individual liberty, which is several steps further than most pot activists are willing to go.
So on that token, do you think the war on drugs is effective? Especially on our border with Mexico?
I’m kind of agnostic on that subject. I don’t know if it’s the best possible way to go. I don’t know if decriminalization of certain drugs is the way to go, either. You’d think I’d have a stronger opinion on it, but I spend all my time thinking about this one character and not the politics at large. Having said that, I know there are a lot of well-intended men and women trying to stop the flow of drugs and I know these cartels in Mexico, to use one example, are the cause of a great deal of pain and suffering and death. Having said that, is it the right way to go to hit them even harder and keep it all criminalized, or should we suddenly take them out of the market by making all that stuff legal? Hard to say.
Have you ever tried meth?
No, definitely never actually tried it. I suspect I would be more of a downer drug guy than an upper.
—The Time We Tried to Talk Drugs with Vince Gilligan, Creator of Breaking Bad
DEA Raids Legal Weed Dispensaries in Washington Again
Last Wednesday, at least four medical marijuana dispensaries in Washington state—where even recreational use of pot is legal in small amounts—got quite a scare when the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)came calling. The clinics, all of which had been targeted back in 2011, were supposedly not abiding by state law, which is the often cited, albeit quizzical, justification for a federal raid.
In Washington, one dispensary owner initially worried he was being robbed. Other owners throughout the state feared this was the beginning of an official federal crackdown—the Department of Justice had decided to deal with states where recreational weed use is legal by sending in the DEA. But a source told Seattle’s King-5 that the raids took place because those specific marijuana outfits had the same problems they had in 2011, not because of any new federal policy.
In lieu an official federal policy toward states that have legalized medical marijuana, this ad hoc, willy-nilly method of policing has become the norm, and you might not be too off base if you assumed that the DOJ’s unspoken strategy was to kill the industry by a million paper cuts.
According to Americans for Safe Access, the Obama administration has spent $300 million on medical marijuana raids since 2009. Crackdowns have lead to serious jail time for dispensary owners in MichiganandMontana. No arrests were made this week in Washington, but several thousand dollars in marijuana was seized, along with cell phones, papers, and computers. The DEA also started the process of seizing a boat through asset forfeiture. Supposedly these dispensaries were laundering money and providing marijuana to nonpatients, which is possible. It should also have been up to the state to decide if state law was being broken.
Z-40 Is a Product of the American Drug War: You’re Welcome, Mexico
Last week’s capture of Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales made news all over the world, and was celebrated in the mainstream press as a blow against Los Zetas and a decimation of their leadership. The New York Times went so far as to claim his capture could represent a “crossroads” in the four-decade war on drugs.
These media reports are mainly based on anonymous official sources and analysts who spend too much time on YouTube. Thankfully, there are still some people out there whose bullshit detectors work. These are the folks who can help us get beyond the official line and understand the on-the-ground impact of apprehending a guy nicknamed Z-40 and putting him in jail.
First, it’s important to have a sense of Treviño’s true role in the organization, a nuance that seems to escape even the most hardened stay-at-home keyboard warrior analysts. I asked Guadalupe Correa Cabrera, who teaches in the governance department at the University of Texas in Brownsville, across the river from Matamoros, Tamaulipas, if the mainstream media has oversold the importance of men like Treviño Morales and the role of hired killers within Los Zetas.
Bad Cop Blotter: Routine Raid Terror
On Wednesday, a 59-year-old nurse named Louise Goldsberry was in her apartment in Sarasota, Florida, having dinner with her boyfriend, when a squad of heavily-armed men appeared at her door. They said they were police, but Louise wasn’t so sure. One of them was pointing a gun at her through the kitchen window, and when they stormed through the door, a disconcerting light shining in her eyes, she was terrified. “We’re the fucking police, open the fucking door!” the cops were screaming. She grabbed her (legal) revolver—the men who said they were cops told her to drop it and she shouted “I’m an American citizen!” back at them.
It was the kind of situation where someone could have easily died. Luckily, Craig Dorris, Lousie’s boyfriend, had the presence of mind to ask the officers for ID and reassured her that these guys really were cops. She eventually put the gun down, and the officers cuffed her and her boyfriend, searched her house, and were gone in half an hour. No one was charged with any crime whatsoever.
The police were searching the apartment complex for a suspected child rapist eventually found in another part of the city. The cops said later that they had no reason to believe that the suspect was in Goldsberry’s apartment. But they told the Sarasota Herald-Tribune that nobody in the other apartments had reacted to their door-pounding, barked commands, or commando gear with hesitation, and that made them suspicious. So they opened Louise’s door without permission and—not surprisingly, since this is gun-happy Florida—found themselves looking down the barrel of a privately-owned firearm.
US Marshall Matt Wiggins, who was part of the raid, thinks everything the cops did was hunky-dory. “I went above and beyond. I have to go home at night,” he told the Herald-Tribune. He also suggested that since Goldsberry wasn’t arrested—merely cuffed for a half hour—or shot there was no reason to go to the media with her story. Though he said “I feel bad for [Louise],” he also scoffed at the notion that she didn’t realize immediately that the armed men at her door were the police.
Is the Zetas’ Leader’s Arrest Really Such a Good Thing? We Asked an Expert
VICE: Is the capture of Z-40 really “a major victory in the battle against drug cartels”?
Steven Dudley: I don’t know what a “major victory” is for the war on drugs, to be honest. But it certainly is an important step in slowing the type of hyper-violence that this group—and this individual, in particular—promoted. Whether it will slow the flow of drugs, I don’t know.
Is violence actually going to decrease?
In many ways, Z-40 was the last stich that held the Zetas together. His capture may cause a spasm of violence within an organization that is highly prone to violent acts, and with him gone it just throws everything up in the air again. Some individuals may attempt to control the organization and step into the power void, and then you will also have rival organizations looking to take advantage.
If you were a member of one of those rival cartels, what would you be planning right now?
I think that there’s no question that the epicenter of what comes next in Mexico is going to happen in Nuevo Laredo, the most important commercial crossing point between the US and Mexico. Around 10,000 to 12,000 trucks cross every day, making it the crown jewel in terms of trafficking, as it provides such an easy way to camouflage merchandise going north and weapons and money going south. This is where you’ll find other criminal organizations gearing up to make a move. It’s an area that’s been held by the Zetas for the past ten years.
Read the whole interview
Adrian Grenier and Matthew Cooke on How to Make Money Selling Drugs
Yes, Adrian Grenier is that pretty boy from Entourage
with the entourage. But in 2008 he created a show that featured himself and a team of environmentalists showing us how to, you know, stop screwing the planet. In 2009, he co-founded the now burgeoning green lifestyle site shft.com
. He also spent three years making that surprisingly good HBO doc, Teenage Paparazzo,
with fellow producer Matthew Cooke. Now he and Cooke are using a grip of former and current drug dealers, kingpins, narcs, and celebrities like 50 Cent, Susan Sarandon, Eminem, Woody Harrelson, Russell Simmons, and The Wire
creator David Simon to wake people up to just how sickening America’s drug policies are, and how a street dealer can become a cartel lord with relative ease in their new documentary, How to Make Money Selling Drugs.
Also, what the fuck did you do today?
VICE: What are some tips for getting away with selling drugs?
Matthew Cooke: Well, like any other product, you try and bring it to market and try to sell it. You already have a ready-and-waiting customer base that wants the drugs. All you have to do is pull them out and… start.
While the War on Drugs is obviously a failure, it brings in tremendous revenue for all levels of government. What can we do to end the addiction our lawmakers have with the money it rakes in?
Adrian Grenier: The conservative answer would be, let’s shrink government. Let’s certainly get out of people’s personal lives and get the SWAT teams out of their homes.
Matthew: The biggest myth that needs to be dispelled is that we need government to legislate morality, and that we need government to legislate that morality with a police force. That is the prevalent view of those who think we should keep the laws the way they are. A lot of people think that when you talk about decriminalizing drugs it’s for potheads and druggies who want to take to the streets to do their crazy drugs and wreak havoc on society. We need to bridge the gap and let people know that we’re all on the same page and we all have the same objective. Which is how can we limit harmful drugs and treat those with addiction?
Adrian: It’s lazy governance and lazy police work. We don’t really want to deal with people who have substance abuse problems. We don’t want to deal with people who have chemical imbalances… we’re taking non-violent, personal-use offenders and turning them into criminals.
3500 Cops Who Want to Legalize All Drugs
“Just so we’re clear,” began Peter Christ during our first phone conversation, “if you look in Webster’s Dictionary at the word hypocrite, you will see a picture of me. I believed that this drug war was a stupid fucking idea even before I became a cop.”
For 20 years Officer Christ patrolled the town of Tonawanda, New York, a community of 80,000 just outside of Buffalo. Retiring from the force in 1989 as a Captain, he founded Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, an organization of 3,500 former officers working towards the legalization of all drugs. I flew into Buffalo to join Peter for a drive around his old precinct and a discussion of drug policy. It was immediately clear which of the many idling cars in front of the arrivals hall was his. The license plate simply read: CHRIST.
We greeted one another and shook hands. “How did you beat all the Christians in the state of New York for that one?” I asked, pointing back towards the vanity plate.
The youthful 66 year old, with his ponytail and gold earring turned up his hands and grinned. “I was a cop,” he offered puckishly.
“OK, fair enough. Let’s talk about drugs.”
“My favorite topic.”
Peter drove as we talked.
“As an officer, what was your experience with the drug war?” I asked.
“I’ll tell you,” Peter began with a voice like a disc jockey - every word played for maximum effect. “By the time I was on the job four years, it became very evident to me that no matter how vigorously I or my brother and sister officers worked, it didn’t make any difference. We would have a series of burglaries or rapes in our community, somebody would arrest the burglar or the rapist, and for a while we wouldn’t have any more of those crimes. But no matter how many drug arrests we made, it didn’t make any difference. Because those people weren’t victims, they were willing participants in an economic transfer. It’s called business.”
“So, what’s your rationale for legalization?”
“Let me ask you, Roc,” he began, pausing dramatically “do you believe we can win the war on drugs?”
I took a breath.
He raised his hand. “Now, before you answer, let’s define what victory means. Nixon never told us what victory would look like when he declared this war, but it’s a war after all and we know how wars end - they end when you defeat the enemy. We won the Second World War. That means that we don’t fight the Germans or the Japanese or the Italians every six months, right? So, I’m gonna say, if we win the war on drugs, we’ve taken the words marijuana and heroin out of the dictionary. The drugs are gone. Let’s move on. Do you believe that is possible?”