5 Ways Law Enforcement Has Bungled Drug War Raids

The drug war would be comical if it weren't so tragic.

Drugs have always been part of the collective human experience, and they forever will be. But bungled drug raids that terrorize citizens for no good reason should end up in the dustbin of history. 

Is there another takeaway from the harrowing story of University of California San Diego student Daniel Chong, who drank his own urine to survive a subhuman five-day abandonment in a holding cell? Chong was awaiting release after a Drug Enforcement Agency raid on his apartment complex -- on 4/20, for that extra kick in the crotch. Notwithstanding the DEA's inevitable apology to Chong, who also had to survive three days in intensive care thanks to his careless jailers, the incident will only fuel the drug war's perennial public-relations nightmare. 

But added value will surely arrive in the form of other increasingly high-profile rebukes. Like the statement from House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi -- released after news of Chong's drug-war torture went viral -- that openly criticizes the Obama administration's dangerous federal disregard of state medical marijuana laws. The 200 (and counting) cannabis facility raids launched since Obama took office now exceed those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. 

"I have strong concerns about the recent actions by the federal government that threaten the safe access of medicinal marijuana to alleviate the suffering of patients in California, and undermine a policy that has been in place under which the federal government did not pursue individuals whose actions complied with state laws providing for medicinal marijuana," Pelosi wrote. Her core query to Washington from the Left Coast seemed clear: Why are you high on drug raids?

Here are five more highly stupid recent raids and surreal dramas demonstrating that the drug war is glory bound for a hall of shame.

1. The Oaksterdam Outrage

The House Minority leader's admonishment of the Obama administration's Bush-like excesses may have had nothing to do with Chong proper, as it was greenlit after San Francisco locals leaned on Pelosi after too many Bay Area dispensary crackdowns messed with their lives and heads. But you can draw a line through those recent San Francisco dispensary shutdowns back across the Bay to Oaksterdam University, the Oakland-based for-profit college created by activist Richard Lee and punitively raided for tax arcana this April. As the force behind California's Proposition 19 and Oaksterdam University's conscientious cannabis curriculum, Lee was the effective leader of the Bay Area's legalization movement. But now he's dethroned, Oaksterdam is displaced, and the tolerant Bay Area has evidently been made an offer it can't refuse. The gangster jargon is on purpose: "Every time you close down someone like Richard Lee, no one is cheering louder than Mexican cartels," cannabis law attorney Lisa Gygax told the San Jose Mercury News after Lee relinquished his cannabis-related business ownership in preparation for possible federal indictment. Speaking of gangsters...

2. D'ope! Mexico's Going to Get High, Dude

Like the lucrative-for-some war on terror, the war on drugs' global bungle stumbles onward. Lately, it's been stomping drug warriors right in the church pews of President Felipe Calderon's native Michoacan, prompting outrage from Mexico City's Catholic bishops caught in the crossfire. The irony that the ongoing Mexico drug war is the logical afterbirth of America and Mexico's joint Operation Michoacan -- whose hypermilitarized response to an increasingly permissive drug culture either has no future or is the future -- is lost on no one. Even the cannabis is laughing: One of Mexico's biggest recent drug busts ever uncovered tons of tightly wrapped packages with noted pothead Homer Simpson woo-hooting, "I'm going to get high, dude!" A deeper irony is even more laughable: Mexico used to smuggle pot from South America, but like the rest of us recessionary strivers has decided to rely less on foreign imports and grow at home when possible in a warming climate. Maybe they'd stop shooting up Tijuana and Rosarito for economic primacy if we stopped sending middle-class partiers there in search of cheap drugs and thrills. 

3. (Masturbatory) Police Story

Officer Joseph Harvey got off easy, so to speak. During a drug raid in Philadelphia, Harvey allegedly had nothing better to do than order a woman to strip and watch him masturbate. But he seems to have friends in the right places: The case against him has been thrown out thanks to a laggard district attorney's office that took too long to prosecute it, and thereby denied Harvey his constitutional right to a speedy trial. The DA's greatest bungle would seem to be that it already had what ruling judge Barbara A. McDermott complained was "the benefit of an extensive investigation resulting in solid physical evidence" courtesy of an Internal Affairs probe. But I guess that depends on whether you're a seven-year police vet, or a poor kid holed up in an abandoned Kensington house with a creepy guy with a gun who's asking you to watch him do horny things. Or the frail Korean couple in Philly a couple years previous who were forced to the floor of their store during a baggy raid by narcotics officers who destroyed cameras and raided cash registers. Different strokes for different folks.

4. Beam Me Up, Peace Officer

Lame paramilitary drug raids aren't just ludicrously performed on empty houses, warehouses and for-profit universities, but also cars. That's what two Trekkies found out the weird way after Illinois police officer Michael Reichert pulled them over after a convention, in search of contraband. (What, robots?) The good news is that, like in Star Trek itself, nothing really bad happened, but there were lots of dangerous, dystopian impulses at work. Using a variety of tricky tactics and canine training, Reichert more or less coerced the Trekkies into giving up their Fourth Amendment rights without even knowing it, which then allowed him to search their car without probable cause and is evidently an at-will perk of the policeman's job. At the other end of Reichert's spectrum disorder are the Minneapolis State Patrol officers recently accused of getting citizens -- including some Occupy Wall Street activists it wanted to turn into snitches -- "high as fuck" as part of its excellently named Drug Recognition Evaluator program. Sure, the plan sounds simple: Get a bunch of people high, so you can spot high people. But like most drug raids, er, interventions, this doomed enterprise had little future from ignition. By the time a shocked (shocked!) City Hall sorts out the hypocrisy, the drug war may have its funniest black eye yet.

5. Unfunny Knock-Knock (and No-Knock) Jokes

Things that don't go well together: Gun-happy citizens and no-knock raids, or those with alleged knocks. The latter met a sad fate in January, after Utah's Weber-Morgan Narcotics Strike Force raided a home paramilitary-style, after allegedly knocking and receiving no answer, only to be met with a hail of gunfire that killed two officers. The target? A military veteran with PTSD named Matthew Stewart, who evidently grew cannabis at home for personal use. 

He's lucky to be alive, which can't be said about Todd Blair, whose family is suing the same Narcotics Strike Force for killing Blair, who was armed with only a golf club, during a no-knock that ended up as one of 2011's most controversial raids. 

And that's when peace officers actually land at the right house, which they didn't in the September case of two California parents of a newborn, one of whom is a CBS correspondent, wrongly terrorized during a drug raid. 

In March, upstate New York drug enforcement officers also bashed down the door of 76-year-old Fred Skinner and held him with guns drawn, until they searched the place and realized they were at the wrong house. Like Stewart, Skinner is lucky to be alive. John Adams wasn't so lucky: The 61-year-old and his 70-year-old widow, were wrongly targeted in a lethal drug raid whose cops got their faulty address from an evidently unreliable informant. 


Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.
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