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.
by Peter Gorman
The past two months have seen a continuation of the horror known as the Drug War played out in several corners of the globe, with the body nazis edging out the rest of us about 5-2 during that span. As normal, most of the damage came from the US—which did show glimpses of compassion as well—while decency appears to be prevailing in Canada. Drug War weather over Colombia, Indonesia and even generally mild Australia is definitely turning nasty.
While the US continues to incarcerate its people at a rate roughly 8-times greater than Canada, with a huge percentage being non-violent pot smokers and simple drug users, there are cases now and then that make us all shudder. In November, 2004, 25-year-old Weldon Angelos was sentenced to 55-years in a federal lockup for selling a total of $700 worth of marijuana to a police informant while having an unregistered gun(s) in his possession.
Angelos, founder of Extravagant Records, which has Snoop Dogg on its roster, was convicted of twice selling $350 bags of pot to an informant looking to lighten his own load. The first sale occurred in 2001. According to the informant, Angelos had a gun in the console of his car during the sale. During the second sale, in 2002, the informant testified that Angelos wore an ankle holster. When the cops finally got around to investigating the less-than-two-ounces-of-pot crime spree and searched Angelos’ apartment in 2003, they found three unregistered guns. The informant said Angelos never took the guns out and never threatened him with them. Nonetheless, because of mandatory minimum sentencing, Angelos was given 55-years and one day. For the record, Angelos, a first-time offender, would have gotten a max of 25-years for hijacking an airplane, and only 13 years of he’d have beaten someone to death in a fight.
The Angelos’ story dovetails into the key story of the month, a Jan 12, 2005 Supreme Court ruling in the case of US v Booker, which dealt with the complicated issue of sentencing guidelines. In the US, federal sentencing is a two-tiered system. There are mandatory minimum sentences and then there are sentencing guidelines. Mandatory minimums are sentences that must be given a defendant found guilty of a crime regardless of extenuating circumstances. Depending on the type and quantity of a drug, for example, and whether it’s a first, second or third offense, the sentences are generally given as mandatory minimums of 5-10-15-20 years. If a person is found guilty of growing 100 pot plants—or if the government decides that three kids growing 35-plants each knew one another and add up the plants to make 100—that kid, or those kids, are automatically given five-year-sentences. 1000 plants and you get 10-years. That’s first offense only, and those sentences are like platforms—regardless of circumstances, if you’re found guilty of 100 plants you get the five and there’s nothing the judge, no matter how sorry he is for you because your plants were all yellow and dying, can do about it.
Sentencing guidelines are incremental steps in additional time given to defendants based on how much blood the prosecutor wants. If the kid with the pot plants denied they were his, the prosecutor can tell the judge the kid obstructed justice and he gets an extra 10 months. Prosecutor says there was a hunting rifle in the kid’s barn, it doesn’t matter that it wasn’t connected to the pot grow, hit him with an extra 60 months—or 55-years, as in the Angelos’ case. (If the prosecutor hadn’t included the guns in the charges against him, the Feds would never have prosecuted, and it’s doubtful that the state would have bothered either.)
The recent Supreme Court ruling said that it was not legal for the prosecutor and judge to add extra time to a defendant’s sentence based on things the jury never heard and of which the defendant was never found guilty. So those guidelines are now advisory only, not mandatory.
In the US v. Booker case, the defendant, Booker, was found guilty of selling 92.5 grams of coke to an undercover. The mandatory minimums for that crime were an automatic 23 years and 10 months. But at his post-trial sentencing, the judge—based on the word of the prosecutor—found that Booker probably had 566 grams of cocaine and had also obstructed justice, bumping Booker’s time to 30 years.
The Supreme Court ruling is certainly a step in the right direction. For a lot of people who got hit with an extra five or seven or 12 years on top of the mandatory minimum the ruling is a ray of light and it’s possible that many will get that extra time tossed. But it isn’t the end of mandatory minimum sentencing as much of the press has mis-written. And the changes won’t help someone like Weldon Angelos have even a day of his sentenced lifted. If you’re unsure, get to the Families Against Mandatory Minimums (www.famm.org) website. The time you lose is from the only life you have.
Another court in the US decided that enough was enough as well. In 2004, a rider known as the Ishtook Amendment (named after the bonehead Congressman Ernest Ishtook, a Republican from Oklahoma who came up with the damned thing), was put into a US federal spending bill that threatened to cut more than $3 billion in federal funds from any local transit authorities nationwide that ran ads that were critical of marijuana laws. The Washington DC metro line, rightfully fearful of losing vital funds, refused to run a Drug Policy Alliance ad. The DPA, along with the Marijuana Policy Project, Change the Climate and the American Civil Liberties Union, sued the US Department of Transportation on the grounds that the law violated the right to Free Speech.
Last June Federal District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman ruled against the Feds, saying the Ishtook Amendment did indeed violate free speech guarantees. But the Feds threatened to appeal the decision, and asked the Justice Department to back them. But in a late January, 2005 letter to Congress, the Solicitor General Paul Clement wrote that “the government does not have a viable argument to advance in the statute’s defense and will not appeal the district court’s decision.” A spokesman for the Justice Department called the law “indefensible.”
Good for the Justice Department. Good for US. Ladies and Gentlemen, you may now run you anti-marijuana laws any goddamned place you want. Free Speech 1; Ishtook, a big zero.
Meanwhile, down in George Bush’s little country called Colombia, on January 12, 2005, President Alvaro I-run-the-blow-around-here Uribe made an announcement inviting the world’s bounty hunters and mercenaries to come to his country and hunt leftist rebels for government cash.
“Hopefully, all the bounty hunters of the world will come here to capture these bandits,” Vice President Francisco Santos told reporters.
But while bounties of hundreds of thousands are being offered for the capture/killing of rebel forces in Colombia’s ongoing civil war, no rewards are being offered for the capture or killing of Uribe’s paramilitary buddies, the AUC, the organization responsible for most of Colombia’s bloodshed and nearly all of its cocaine trafficking.
Must be great to be king.
Serene little Bali, the South Pacific Paradise-turned-tourist-mecca, also jumps into the drug war fray this month, with the prosecution of Schapelle Corby, a 27-year-old beauty student from Australia. Corby faces the death penalty under Indonesia’s draconian anti-drug laws if found guilty of importing 4.2 kilos of cannabis into Bali. The pot was found by Customs agents in her bodyboard bag as it was searched when she entered Bali in October, 2004.
Australian authorities initially promised to help with Corby’s defense, but her lawyers say they have done nothing. It’s Corby’s contention that the marijuana was planted in her bodyboard bag somewhere between Brisbane and Denpasar airports, during the time it was in the luggage areas and out of her control. Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer offered to have the Australian Federal Police test the cannabis to establish where it was grown—which could prove Corby’s innocence—and say the Bali police turned down the offer. The Bali police, on the other hand, say the Aussies never suggested testing the cannabis.
“The AFP never asked to test the drugs,” Bali anti-drugs squad director Bambang Sugiarto told reporters. “We have our own forensic lab and our tests are enough to prove that what Corby brought into Bali is marijuana.”
Sugiarto also said it would be impossible to check for fingerprints on the bag containing the cannabis because it was “contaminated” by too many prints.
Corby’s trial is expected to begin and end by the time we go to press. If someone doesn’t do something soon she’s going to fry. That sucks. I wonder how much help the Australian government would be if it were the Foreign Minister’s daughter over there instead of Ms. Corby?
Canada remains a unique—if not perfect by a long shot—beacon of decency in all this madness. On December 21, 2004, the Canadian government announced that it is ready to approve Sativex, a natural marijuana extract sprayed into the mouth, as a prescription drug. It will initially be available for the treatment of neuropathic pain in multiple sclerosis sufferers.
Sativex, developed by GW Pharmaceuticals out of England, is expected to hit pharmacy shelves in a matter of months. The product is extracted from plants bred for specific levels of cannabinoids—something the old pot breeders at GW know a great deal about.
The decision to approve Sativex in Canada comes at almost the same time that the US has turned down the application of Lyle Crater, a University of Massachusetts botanist who was seeking approval to grow cannabis for research purposes. The US government, via its one marijuana-growing facility at the University of Mississippi under the directorship of Mahoud ElSohly, PhD, claims that the marijuana produced at the DEA-licensed farm is sufficient for any research that needs to be done. But Rick Doblin, founder of the Multidiciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who was working with Crater on the application, says that the single-strain grown by ElSohly simply doesn’t have the variances in THC-strength and cannabinoid levels needed for research purposes.
In turning down Crater’s application, the DEA said the research would not be “consistent with the public interest,” primarily because current research involves the use of smoked marijuana, a delivery system that “ultimately cannot be the permitted delivery system for any potential marijuana medication due to the deleterious effects” caused by smoking.
Obviously, the overuse of steroids have gotten to the lunkheads over at the DEA: One of the studies sponsored by Doblin’s organization deals with vaporization as a delivery system for marijuana medications, and then there is the spray-delivery system being utilized by GW Pharmaceuticals for Sativex.
I can’t wait to see what happens when the US government realizes that all of its arguments against marijuana as medicine have just been undermined by the Canadian Health Ministry. George W is gonna blow a gasket for sure.
It would all be funny if people weren’t dying and the prisons weren’t full.