Higher Ground: A matter of justice

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It's been pretty well documented that the War on Drugs is in large part a war on black people (read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow). New allegations from Dothan, Alabama, could be revealing one of the most insidious cases ever to come to light.

The Henry County Report (HCR), a police watchdog blog, recently ran a piece that had some of the most salacious allegations one can find: crooked cops in a secret club, cover-ups, evidence planting, and young African-American men systematically victimized by the police.

The report alleges that police in Dothan planted marijuana, cocaine, and guns on more than 1,000 African-American men over a 10-year period in the 1990s and early 2000s. All of the officers involved were members of a neo-Confederate organization. A photo of the officers holding up a Confederate battle flag at a secret meeting appears in a local newspaper. Three of the men pictured currently hold key positions in the Alabama law enforcement hierarchy: Carleton "Bubba" Ott is commander of the department's Criminal Investigation Division; Steve Parrish is chief of the department; and Andy Hughes is assistant director of Homeland Security for the state.

While these men enjoy power, responsibility, secure jobs, and good wages, hundreds of the wrongly accused and convicted are still in jail. Many others have had their lives destroyed due to felony convictions. How'd this come to light?

In 1998, white officers who were not a part of the conspiracy complained about the felonious practices. Those complaints led to an internal investigation that the HCR says was covered up by District Attorney Doug Valeska. Also, federal law enforcement was not notified as required by the police department and Alabama policies. The group of officers who made the original complaint against the conspirators, some of whom had their lives threatened, continued to try to alert various authorities.

The documents supporting the HCR story aren't conclusive, but writer Jon B. Carroll claims that he will be releasing more documents slowly over time in an effort to get the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate.

This is an example of law enforcement taking you down even when there is no reason to. That brings us to Michigan, where the Michigan Medical Marijuana Act has been unsettling for anti-drug enthusiasts these past seven years. It has recently been revealed that prosecutors have been pressuring state crime labs to characterize THC concentrates in a manner that criminalizes patients. A few weeks back, Southfield attorney Michael Komorn released a series of communications between state police and state crime lab officials in which scientists were told not to classify concentrates as being derived from marijuana but as THC of unknown origin.

Here's the trick: Medical marijuana is legal in Michigan but THC is not. State police claim that if no plant material can be found in the concentrate (which is typical) then the THC is of unknown origin. Scientists at the state crime labs were told to classify the substance as THC and to give no opinion as to its origin — that way possible misdemeanor offenses could be turned into felonies.

This revelation came out because Komorn obtained the communications in the course of defending his client Max Lorincz, a medical marijuana patient in Spring Lake. A little over a year ago, when Lorincz called medical emergency for his wife at their home a police officer responded. The officer spotted a smudge of hash oil there. Lorincz was first charged with a misdemeanor for possession of hash oil. That charge was eventually dropped and replaced with a felony THC possession charge.

The reason for the change was detailed in the communications that Komorn forced the state to turn over under the Freedom of Information Act. Many of the lab workers expressed concern that marijuana-derived THC would be considered to be of synthetic origin. They were told this was not their concern; their job is to determine if THC is present, not where it came from.

Ken Stecker of the Prosecuting Attorneys Association of Michigan wrote in one email, "That is my opinion, THC is a schedule 1 drug regardless of where it comes from."

There is a lot of back and forth in these communications as the pressure from prosecutors mounts for scientists to adapt their view. You can find more of this here.

The Michigan and Alabama issues are related because they are both instances of police twisting evidence in order to create their desired outcome. In Alabama, police planted evidence on young African-American males in order to advance their racist agenda. In Michigan, prosecutors are doing the equivalent of planting evidence by declaring marijuana-derived THC to be of unknown origin, in order to continue fighting the War on Drugs in an arena where marijuana has been made legal. Either way they use their position and authority to pursue an illegal and unjust cause.

That brings me to my next point, which is that the coming year is going to be a big one in the fight to stop using marijuana as a pretext to oppress people — which prohibition of marijuana has been from the very start.

Here in Detroit the hysteria and fear of marijuana has been expressed in a proposed ordinance to curb the "explosion of illegal marijuana stores." This is basically an attempt to zone them out of sight. In the long run, this is a bump in the road. The bigger question is what will these prohibitionists do when buds are legalized for recreational use — which could be as soon as next fall?

Next year is going to be a turning point year in the legalization movement. It's a presidential election year and it's already being discussed in nomination debates. It will be especially big when candidates go to states where it's already legal or where pending initiatives or legislation are on the ballot. Candidate Hillary Clinton has already cracked a marijuana joke while in Colorado, and has come out in favor of the Drug Enforcement Agency rescheduling it as a less dangerous substance.

There are probably going to be a lot of places where that discussion will be in play next year. In Nevada an initiative has already qualified for the 2016 ballot. In Arizona, Maine, Massachusetts, and Michigan there are petition drives that are moving along pretty efficiently that look like they will probably make the ballot. California looks to be in the "go" column, although there are some 18 different initiatives battling it out right now. And there is a good legalization initiative in Missouri. Some of the folks who backed the recently failed issue in Ohio say they will come back next year with another legalization initiative. In Rhode Island and Vermont the state legislatures are looking at possible legalization. In Florida there is an initiative to create a medical marijuana system. There is some movement in other states but these are the most advanced initiatives.

If you look at a map of medical and recreational marijuana legalization it's pretty clear that the states that said yes to marijuana are clustered out West and in the Northeast. Michigan, Illinois, and Minnesota are beachheads in the Midwest. Although there are a few Southern states with very restrictive CBD-only laws, not one of the Old South cluster states has even an enlightened medical system. Florida could change that. In 2012 a Florida medical marijuana initiative got 58 percent of the vote. The problem is the initiative was a state constitutional amendment and it needed 60 percent to pass. The new initiative stays away from the constitution — which is where Ohio went bad. Maybe folks should stay away from mucking around in their constitutions and just pass laws.

Out West, successful initiatives in California and Arizona would create an awesome geography of legality when hooked up with Oregon and Washington. If even half of the states with proposed recreational legalization have successful ballots then the number of legal states will double in one fell swoop. If they all are successful that would mean dancing and tossing buds into the air across the nation.

The investors smell money and the marketing people are preparing their campaigns. That's why I know this is going forward. However, the bottom line is that injustices like those discussed in Alabama and Michigan at the beginning of this column will be put away. Justice is at the root of prohibition repeal. And taking away the stick that police have illegally used to bludgeon us with for so many years will be liberating.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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