Award-winning investigative journalist (and dad) Peter Gorman has spent more than 20 years tracking down stories from the streets of Manhattan to the slums of Bombay. Specializing in Drug War issues, he is credited as a primary journalist in the medical marijuana and hemp movements, as well as in property forfeiture reform. His work has appeared in over 100 national and international magazines and newspapers.
Peter Gorman's love affair with the Amazon jungle is well-known to people in the field. Since 1984 Mr. Gorman has spent a minimum of three months annually there generally using Iquitos
Peru as his base. During that time he has studied ayahuasca the visionary healing vine of the jungle with his friend the curandero Julio Jerena. He has collected artifacts for the American Museum of Natural History botanical specimens for Shaman Pharmaceuticals and herpetological specimens for the FIDIA Research Institute of the University of Rome. His description of the indiginous Matses Indians’ use of the secretions of the phyllomedusa bicolor frog has opened an entire field devoted to the use of amphibian peptides as potential medicines in Western medicine.
This story appeared in High Times Magazine in 2000
by Peter Gorman and Bill Weinberg
© all rights reserved
Recent history judges a president on two things: the state of the economy and foreign affairs. During his two terms in office President Bill Clinton presided over an economy that boomed and simultaneously managed to avoid any unseemly military quagmires. Thus, despite dozens of personal scandals and serious political—and perhaps criminal—problems, he’ll probably be looked on as a great, if flawed, leader. But not to the millions who’ve fallen prey to the Clinton Drug War machine, the most well-oiled policing apparatus America has ever known.
The Drug War legacy of Presidents Reagan and Bush included property forfeiture, expanded police powers and a zero-tolerance policy, along with an expanded prison system to accommodate all those who bucked the law. President Bill Clinton inherited these. But when he first took office many in the drug policy reform movement were optimistic that the man demonized by his right-wing opponents as an ex-hippie draft dodger would reverse this legacy. Instead, doomed by his politically disastrous “I did not inhale” campaign line, he has cravenly allowed federal, state and local law enforcement to expand all the tools left to him, giving rise to possibly the worst eight-year record in American Drug War history.
In the Clinton years, police overreach in the name of the Drug War shredded much of what remained of the Bill of Rights. And those most frequently caught in the Drug War web were not the kingpins legislators claimed to be going after. It was an epoch which saw mothers, fathers, smalltime dealers, medical marijuana users and even children caught in a criminal justice system so overgrown no one is immune to the new powers employed by Johnny Law to protect us from ourselves. And while it’s true that much of the recent Drug War horror heaped on the American public has occurred on state and local levels, the tenor of the times begins at the top—which places the responsibility squarely at Bill Clinton’s feet.
Join us now for a retrospective tour of shame through the Clinton Drug War legacy.
When Bill Clinton took office in January, 1993, the violent crack epidemic of the late 1980’s was already subsiding nationwide. Nonetheless, national law enforcement didn’t skip a beat in galloping expansion of police powers and the prison system, shifting to a new emphasis on marijuana as crack use declined. When he entered office, the prison population—state and federal—was hovering about 700,000, and as he leaves, that number has boomed to over two million, the highest rate of incarceration—as well as the highest total number behind bars—in the history of the world.
Hundreds of new prisons have been built nationwide to accomodate the mostly (perhaps as high as 60%) non-violent drug convicts, giving rise to a prison-industrial complex that defies imagination. Drug courts and judges have been added to state rosters, tens of thousands of police, with their attendant paraphernalia—guns, cruisers, station houses, and adjunct non-uniformed personnel—have been hired to search out small time drug users. More than 100,000 jail and prison guards have been added to state and federal payrolls. There has never been such a boon to the construction industry since the days of Roosevelt’s WPA. Our military and Drug Enforcement Administration forces overseas have exponentially expanded as well, particularly in Latin America.
All of this has been an enormous help to booming Clinton’s economy. The strategy was brilliantly devised: incarcerate more than a million, then add a couple of million workers to create and maintain their housing and the associated infrastructure and voila! Lower unemployment and a healthier economy. And to help pay for it all, the feds and states used a tool that only became available during the years immediately preceeding Clinton’s initial innauguration: Forfeiture.
The forfeiture of illegally gotten goods is a tradition that dates back to British maritime law. But it wasn’t until the passage of the 1984 Omnibus Crime Bill that United States police agencies involved in
the forfeiture of property were allowed to sell the assets they seized and keep the monies they raised on them. That provision of the 1984 Crime Bill, bolstered in 1986, has led to police abuses unheard of in the history of the United States.
Tens of thousands have had their property seized for the tiniest drug law infractions, among the most grievous cases was that of 68 year-old Byron Stamate, a medical-marijuana provider whose common-law wife killed herself in 1994 rather than testify against him in an asset-forfeiture case stemming from his growing her medicine on his rural California property. Don Scott was a Ventura county rancher who was shot and killed by police in an unfounded raid on his home—a raid which was later found to be fueled by the authorities— desire to seize and sell his valuable ranch.
Then there was Marsha Simmons, a black woman in Washington, DC who repeatedly called police to have them remove her crack-selling grandchildren from in front of her house, only to have the police respond by seizing her home because her grandchildren had sold crack on the property.
So great was the lure of forfeiture funds and the power that forfeiture law engendered in the authorities that corruption was an inevitable result. Whole police forces and prosecutorial offices fell under itÌs sway. Two of the worst forfeiture-abusing prosecutors in the nation in the ë90s were Leslie Ohta, ìThe Dragon Ladyî, and ìForfeiture Kingî Nick Bissel. Ohta, a Connecticut prosecutor, once tried to seize a Hartford familyís home on the basis of the police having found a syringe on the premises, but never moved against herself despite her own son having been arrested several times for selling marijuana and LSD out of her own home.
Nicholas Bissel, a New Jersey prosecutor, got so addicted to the money and power afforded by forfeiture that he falsely set up citizens just to forfeit their property. When caught and found guilty of doing just that, Bissel fled New Jersey and killed himself in a Las Vegas motel room.
Oops! Wrong Address
A family in Ohio is at home singing carols on Christmas eve when masked men in black wielding machine guns kick down the door and wrestle Dad to the ground: the agents got two digits of the address mixed up. (WHEN?) An elderly Latino man in Texas is shot to death in his sleep when police raid his house; the informant who provided the address lied.(WHEN?)
These are not isolated incidents. Goaded on by the promise of big forfeitures to beef up police budgets, local anti-drug forces from the inner city to the redneck heartland are knocking down doors first and asking questions later. Often they rely on paid informants who lie to get a share of the loot. Sometimes they just read the address wrong on the warrant. Innocent residents pay with their Fourth Amendment rights, the sanctity of their homesÛand sometimes their lives.
Accelyne Williams, a Methodist minister from Boston died of a heart attack while wrestling with members of a SWAT team in 1994 who had raided the wrong apartment. Anna and Jerry Roman, a Brooklyn couple who, with their three children, were terrorized by a New York drug squad acting on an informant’s bad tip (WHEN?). No-knock raids became so common in New York that the NYPD created a special unit (WHEN?) just to replace the doors of city residents who had been terrorized by the drug squads.
The Sherman family of Renton, WA, were among those who at least managed to wrest some justice from the system when they won a $100,000 settlement in their suit against South King County Narcotics Task Force (WHEN?). The Shermans were watching TV when the knock came. Their 15-year-old son answered and eight armed men burst in and screamed at him to get on the floor. Father Ed Sherman was handcuffed naked and denied clothes as officers questioned him about drugs. The Task Force was acting on the tip of an informant who the next day admitted he had lied about the Shermanís involvement in hashish smuggling. Ed Herman told the press he hoped the settlement “will ensure others don't go through what we did.”
No such luck. Just a few months later, Clayton Root, 61, of Big Bay, MI, sustained cuts and a broken hand bone in a scuffle with ski-masked agents of the Upper Peninsula Substance Enforcement Team (UPSET) who barged into his home in a midnight raid without identifying themselves. ìI was fighting for my life,î said Root, who draws a disability pension from a back injury and recently had heart surgery. “I thought it was teenagers who had come to kill us. I saw the outline of a gun and pushed my wife behind me.” The UPSET search warrant did not have an address, but a description of the property provided by an informant. When police realized they had the wrong place, they took Root to the hospital.
On the afternoon of Sept. 29, 1999, 13 SWAT team members stormed the upstairs apartment at 3738 High Street in Denver, CO, looking for drugs. They were executing a no-knock raid, one of about 200 approved by the Denver PD last year. Resident Ismael Mena, 45, worked the night shift at a Coca-Cola plant and slept during the day. After breaking open the front door, the SWAT team found the door to Menaís room latched, and kicked it in. Police say they found Mena, armed with a .22 revolver, standing on his bed. Officers claim they screamed “Police!” and “Drop the gun!” repeatedly. Mena started to put the gun down, asking, “Policia?” But police say when they then moved to disarm Mena he again raised the gun. Officers opened fire. Hit by a total of eight bullets, Mena, a father of nine, was instantly killed. No drugs were found. The next day, SWAT team officers learned they had raided the wrong residence—they should have gone next door, to 3742 High Street. Officer Joseph Bini, who obtained the warrant, is currently facing a felonious charge of first-degree perjury for his alleged fabrication of evidence. The Justice for Mena Committee insists that the incident is being covered up by the police and that Menaís gun was planted. Denver Police Chief Tom Sanchez, who left for a Hawaii police conference the day after the killing, has been forced to step down.
Police As Hit Men
One of the peculiarities in the Clinton Drug War was the development of special Drug Task Forces which combine the manpower of federal, state and local agenciesóbut frequently seem to operate without the oversight of any particular agency. Hundreds of assaults on innocent people have been catalogued by these paramilitary police squads. Several deaths involving alleged low-level dealers have been racked up by them as well.
When the state drug task force came to uproot his plants in August 1993, Kentucky pot grower and Vietnam vet Gary Shepherd said ìYou will have to kill me first,î took out his rifle and sat down on his front porch. That evening he was shot dead in front of his infant son. Despite the fact that he never fired a shot and his family was pleading with authorities for negotiations, state police sharpshooters appeared from the brush without warning and opened fire when Gary refused to drop his rifle.
In 1997, John Hirko, a 21-year-old unarmed Pennsylvania man with no prior offences, was shot to death in his house by a squad of masked police dressed in ninja-styled uniforms who never even knocked before tossing a smoke-grenade through a window which set fire to his house. Hirko, suspected of dealing small amounts of marijuana and cocaine, was found unarmed and lying face down on his stairway, shot in the back while fleeing the fire started by the police.
Police in these instances were found legally justified in committing the homicides because of the "no-knock exception" to
the Fourth Amendment in cases involving the execution of search warrants on drug suspects.
And the killing continues. The high-profile cases of Amadou Diallo, Macolm Ferguson and Patrick Dorismond in New York City are only the tip of a national iceberg of innocent blood.
In July 1998, Mexican immigrant Pedro Oregon, 23, reportedly locked himself in a bedroom after officers burst through his front door. Officers then broke down the bedroom door and sprayed the room with gunfire. Thirty-three bullets later, Oregon lay dead on the floor, shot a dozen times, including nine times in the back. One officer, David Barrera, fired 24 of the shots. An investigation revealed the officers had no warrant to enter the premises, and police found no drugs in the apartment.
Children Caught in the Middle
The unsung victims in the War on Drugs are the children used as weapons against their parents by police and prosecuting agenciesósomething those of us who grew up in the Cold War were told only the Commies did. Few people realize how frequently children are used as leverage to secure arrests and admissions of guilt—often where there is none—from parents terrified their kids will be taken away from them if they don’t cooperate with the law.
In 1993 in Vermont teenagers Jessica and Alice Manningís parents were caught in a forfeiture sting and sent to jail. The girls were subsequently encouraged to turn against their parents in a drug
sting so that the family property, in their names, could be forfeited to their state-appointed guardians.
In Georgia 8-year old Darrin Davis, made an admission to a teacher after an anti-drug lecture that there was white powder in his parents’ bedroom which led to their arrest and incarceration.
The Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program has produced hundreds of arrests using evidence initially provided by children. While the program, taught by police officers and National Guardsmen nationwide to school children, purports to educate kids against the dangers of drugs, the officers frequently put a black box near the front of the classroom during their lectures and encourage kids to put the names and addresses of anyone they know who uses drugs into the box. That information is often then used to secure warrants against those people.
In 1995, this writer became personally involved in such an incident when the officer teaching my son Marco held up a copy of HIGH TIMES in a New York City public grammer school and asked whether anyone in the room knew anyone who read the magazine. When my son told the officer I wrote for the magazine and that I had told him marijuana was not a drug but a medicine, I was immediately called and threatened with both a search of my home and a charge of child abuse. I managed to keep the situation from going any further by suggesting that the heat from the press for a raid on a journalist based on a seven-year-oldís comment would not be helpful to the New York Police Departmentís image, but hundreds have not been so lucky.
Medical Marijuana Intransigence
When he was first elected, medical marijuana advocates thought that Clinton would at least be sympathetic to that cause. He did, after all, appoint Dr. Joycelyn Elders at Surgeon General, and she was outspokenly in favor of debating medical marijuana’s potential. Unfortunately, the Clinton camp quickly saw her as a problematic political lightning rod—she was also in favor of sex education, AIDS education and the rights of high schoolers to acquire condoms—and got rid of her before a serious nationwide medical marijuana debate could even begin.
Subsequently, the Clinton years saw a local grassroots upsurge demanding the right of the seriously ill to medicate themselves with marijuana. California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, Nevada and the District of Columbia all passed referendums or legislation to legalize the medicinal use of cannabis during Clinton’s years, but the Clinton Administration refuses to recognize these laws as legitimate, and has instructed the Justice Department to go after medicinal growers and distributors in those states. Doctors have also been advised that providing patients with the necessary documentation to acquire medical marijuana will be cause to revoke their prescribing licences, and those using medical marijuana in federally funded housing will be evicted. These were not empty threats. A suit by California’s doctors against the feds for the prescription licence threat is winding it’s way through the courts. And BE Smith, a Northern California grower who put his state’s medical marijuana law to the test by openly cultivating on a friend’s mountain homestead—with all the necessary paperwork indicating the pot was for medical patients—is now serving a two-year sentence in federal prison, denied bail while his appeal is being considered.
Perhaps the most famous case regarding medical marijuana during Clinton’s years involved Peter McWilliams and Todd McCormick. McWilliams, a best selling author who suffered from both AIDS and cancer before dying earlier this year, and McCormick, a cancer patient, were arrested in 1998 for cultivating marijuana in a Bel Air, CA, mansion. The marijuana was intended to supply buyers’ cooperatives that serve patients in California. As part of an agreement reached with federal prosecutors they pleaded guilty to conspiracy to manufacture and distribute marijuana. McCormick agreed to a five-year sentence with the right to appeal the ruling (precluding a medical necessity defense). McWilliams waived his right to appeal in exchange for avoiding a mandatory ten-year minimum. He was awaiting sentencing on those charges when he died in June 2000.
Even before this grassroots groundswell challenged the federal policy, the Clinton years saw outlandishly cruel persecution of the ill. Among the thousands prosecuted for their use of medical marijuana was Jimmy Montgomery, an Oklahoma paraplegic with no criminal record, who in late 1995 received a life sentence for possession of less than one-and-a-half ounces of medical marijuana—a sentence later commuted to life at home when it was discovered the state couldn’t afford to treat his condition in prison. Another Oklahoman with no prior arrests, arthritis sufferer Will Foster, received 93 years in 1997 for a small medical-marijuana garden he had in his basement, a term that has since been reduced to 20 years. And medical-marijuana provider Tom Brown from Arkansas was busted by the DEA in 1995 and is currently serving a 10-year sentence for growing marijuana for medical use.
Needle Exchange Funding
The inability of needle-using drug addicts to acquire clean needles in a legal way has long been identified as a key factor in the spreading of AIDS, hepetitis, and a host of other debilitating diseases. Junkies sharing needles are microbe collectors. Stopping the spread of those diseases is simply a matter of supplying clean needles. Dozens of major studies, including several paid for by the federal government during Clinton’s years, have confirmed that needle-exchange not only works but does not increase drug use. Still, the Clinton Administration, at the behest of Drug Czar Barry McCaffrey, refuses to allow federal funding for needle-exchange programs, saying that (in McCaffrey’s words)this “would send a message to our nation’s children that doing drugs is not wrong.” That intransigence in the face of science has caused thousands of needle-users to die needlessly.
New Police Tools
Three ominous new legal tools in the War on Drugs emerged during the Clinton years. One was Dual Prosecutions, in which people are
prosecutions by both the state and federal authorities for the same crime. A second is the “Three Strikes You’re Out” law, which allow prosecutors to call for life imprisonment with no hope of parole after three drug felonies—even minor possession convictions. Finally, we have the use of “Courrier Profiles,” the targeting of travellers for investigation based on their physical characteristics. These tools were sold to a gullible public as necessary weapons in the drug warriors’
arsenal because they would allow government agencies to permanently rid the streets of violent, repeat offenders, but the short history of the application of each vividly shows that, like the other new drug-warrior weapons, they have been applied primarily
to low-level nonviolent drug users rather than to violent kingpins.
Terry Woodard, an Arkansas man, served two years in state prison after pleading guilty to possession with intent to distribute methamphetamine, but was subsequently sentenced to 102 years in Federal prison for the same crime after being convicted in federal court on kingpin charges.
James Melvin was serving six years for a 1989 state offence of selling an ounce of cocaine to a friend, when he was indicted by the Feds as a conspirator in a cocaine distribution ringófor selling the same ounce he was already serving time for—and subsequently sentenced to an additional 14 1/2 years in Federal prison.
Medical-marijuana activist Dennis Peron, faces “Three Strikes Yer Out” with his next conviction. Having racked up two felonies for selling marijuana, he is now exposed to life imprisonment for running the San Francisco Cannabis Buyer’s Club, which distributes
marijuana primarily to AIDS, cancer and glaucoma patients. James Deroy, a California inmate serving time for marijuana possession and shoplifting, now faces life imprisonment for a third felony involving
possession of a joint in prison.
And the misuse of ìCourrier Profilesî is best illustrated by the case of (X) a black horticulturist who, simply because he was travelling through Florida found himself targetted as a drug dealer and wound up losing all of the cash he was carrying to buy new plants for sale in the northeast.
While cases of individual police officers being corrupt have always existed, the goad of big money generated by the black market drug-trade—either legally through forfeiture, or illegally through protection rackets, blackmail and theft of drug profits—has turned several local law-enforcement agencies into criminal organizations as ruthless as La Cosa Nostra. Official Corruption begins with the lure of easy cash that can corrupt individual officers who, in turn, corrupt associates, until entire precincts, and sometimes departments, are involved in a web of criminal activity.
The New York Police Department’s scandalous “Dirty Thirty” precinct in upper Manhattan involved dozens of officers in the disappearance of confiscated drug money, the shaking down of witnesses, and warrantless paramilitary-style raids. At the height of the scandal, in January 1994, New York City police officers Patrick Brosnan and James Crowe pumped 22 bullets into the backs of Anthony Rosario and Hilton Vega while they lay face down on an apartment floor.
New York was not alone: In Philadelphia, city narcotics officers concocted drug-evidence against innocent people by using drugs in their own possession to justify warrantless searches, many of which
resulted in police robberies. The ongoing investigation has resulted in 160 drug convictions being overturnedóincluding a Baptist minister held in a maximum-security prison for three years—and the imprisonment of six narcotics officers. Several other officers are awaiting trial, and an additional 1,800 convictions are under review. Most recently, the Los Angeles Police Department faced revelations of institutionalized corruption and brutality from a former officer testifying in exchange for a reduced sentence on felony charges stemming from stealing eight pounds of cocaine from evidence storage facilities.
Officer Rafael A. Perez, formerly of Rampart Division, home to an elite anti-gang unit called Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH), cooperated with investigators as part of a plea bargain in which he received a five-year prison term. Perez described how he and fellow CRASH officers beat suspects in interrogations and framed “gang members,” winning convictions against them for crimes they did not commit. Hundreds of cases were suspected of being tainted and called into question by authorities.
Perez implicated himself and a former partner, Officer Nino Durden, in one incident that left an unarmed suspect permanently confined to a wheelchair and wrongfully imprisoned. After Javier Francisco Ovando was shot in the head and paralyzed for life in 1996, Perez and Durden framed him on charges of threatening the officers with a gun. Following Perezís new testimony, Ovando was released after serving two and a half years of a 23-year sentence.
As of early 2000, a dozen officers had been suspended or fired in the scandal.
The traditional use of police stings has been greatly expanded during the 30-year War on Drugs, and never more than during Clinton’s tenure. Where once undercover police simply pretended to offer their services to criminals in order to catch them in illegal acts, it has become routine for police in the Drug War to encourage illegal activity in order to trap otherwise innocent people.
REPLACE THIS WITH NEWER STING--George Fazekas, of Philadelphia, turned down a pot deal set up by a desperate former associate and a DEA operative, but was arrested despite there being no marijuana or money in the case. Found guilty of attempted possession of marijuana, and because of a prior record, Fazekas received a 32-year federal sentence. Seven years into his incarceration it was discovered that a substantial part of his prior record involved a misdemeanor for which heíd received community service and nearly 20 years of his time was knocked off. Fazekas was so happy with the good news that he jogged around the prison yard, had a heart attack and died.
Marylander Pamela Snow, had her business and home confiscated when one of her kids received a UPS package which contained marijuana. Part of the official ìjustificationî for the forfeiture was the Grateful Dead poster in her son’s bedroom—supposed evidence that the house was a “narcotics-related” meeting place. Pamela still doesn’t know who sent the UPS package but suspects it may have been a police agent.
In some cases police went so far as to operate garden centers aimed at catching marijuana growers. In one particularly onerous case, Scott Jones, the owner of a garden center in Pennsylvania, was threatened with 70 years for cultivating marijuana, but allowed to remain free if he would help incarcerate other growers. Over a period of several years Jones not only encouraged gardeners to grow marijuana, but actually provided marijuana plants and set up indoor gardens in return for a share of the profits, all with police approval. Before it was exposed by HIGH TIMES, the sting produced more than 10 arrests and the forfeiture of several homes.
Goodbye, Posse Comitatus
The Posse Comitatus Act prohibits the use of the military in domestic law enforcement, but once again our nation’s War on Drugs has perverted not only the spirit but the letter of the law, permitting the military to operate in several regions of the country.
In the lush woodlands of Northern California, epicenter of America’s outdoor marijuana cultivation, multi-jurisdictional teams of county, state and federal officers survey the mountains and forests for marijuana every fall as part of a coordinated effort called CAMP—the Campaign Against Marijuana Planting, which uses US military helicopters and other equipment illegally.
In Hawaii, the Pentagon-backed eradication effort against pot growing has been waged for more than 10 years. Pesticide-spraying choppers patrol the jungle in what authorities openly view as a test program for eventual export to the mainland. On the Big Island, Air Force RF-4C Phantom reconnaissance jets survey the ground for crops—followed by police choppers with specially-designed pesticide spray-guns, which have caused hundreds of physical ailments and several deaths as a result of poisoning groundwater supplies and edible crops.
And on the Mexican border, for the past several years, quietly and with little media coverage, elite Pentagon troops have been moved into position along the Rio Grande and the southern deserts of Arizona and California to back up Border Patrol and state police in anti-drug operations. In 1996 a camouflaged Marine fatally shot an 18-year-old Mexican-American goat herder named Ezequiel Hernandez near Big Bend, Texas, bringing the program before public eye—and throwing it into question before Congress.
Even as elements in every level of government—from local precincts and sheriffís departments to the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency—are ensconced in the drug trade, the media have successfully demonized drug users to the extent that dissent to the frightening wave of Constitutional violations and police overreach has become almost verboten.
And while he leaves office with the economy strong, Clinton’s economic gains have at least partly been fueled by a vicious war against small-time drug users and dealers. He also leaves setting the stage for another Vietnam in Colombia that may well spill over into Venezuela and Brazil—all in the name of fighting drugs. But the millions of man-years lost to prison, the families and communities ravaged, the billions spent to wipe out drugs at their point of origin—all have been futile at ending, or even lowering, drug use. Teen use of drugs is substantially higher than it was when he entered office, the price of both heroin and cocaine has never been lower, and the purity never higher. And he has overseen it all, America’s decent into hell, with a smile.