Vice Squad
Friday, March 26, 2004
 
A Journey from Bloomington to Moscow (and beyond)


Despite Jim’s announcement that I would regularly participate in Vice Squad, I have been remiss in my contributions. In part, my excuse is that I have recently traveled to Moscow and have not had the time or the facilities to write for Vice Squad. Actually, I traveled all the way to Bishkek, but that could be viewed as a side trip (just a four-hour hop by plane) from Moscow. While I have not been contributing, I have been on a lookout for the relevant anecdotes along the way. Here are a couple of them.

“Liberalization” of the war on drugs, Russian style

The war on drugs is a global phenomenon. And so, apparently, are both the efforts to bring at least some sense into it and the resistance to such efforts. In Russia, the amendments to the Criminal Code aimed at reducing the punishments for drug-related offences were supposed to become law as of March 12, 2004. However, on the same day, another law was enacted, postponing these amendments until May 12. The current Russian law criminalizes not only the dealers, but also the users of drugs, because by law, possession is a crime even for relatively small amounts. (How barbaric! Are there any other more or less democratic countries that do that? Ooops… I guess there are.) The threshold for the criminal amount is currently determined according to a government regulation. The original idea of the amendments was to increase this threshold, so that possession would become a crime only if the amount is ten or more “average doses” of the drug. The Ministry of Health, Ministry of Justice, Ministry of Internal Affairs (i.e., essentially, the police), and the State Committee for the Control of Drugs were supposed to agree on the definition of these “average doses” by March 1. Interestingly, the latter two agencies apparently pushed for the old small thresholds and won, at least temporarily. There was also an alternative approach, according to which these thresholds were closer to the European standards. But this more “liberal” approach was losing out, and its proponents decided to push through the law that postponed the amendments, hoping that they will be able to improve them later. After the recent changes in the Russian government, the position of the liberals has become much stronger in this respect, because both the new Russian Deputy Prime Minister, Alexander Zhukov, and the new Chief of Staff for the government ministries, Dmintry Kozak, seem to be on their side. Of course, we have to wait and see to what extent the attitudes of these players expressed before they had risen to the highest rungs of leadership are going to be preserved in their current positions of power. We should find out around May 12.

To me, one interesting thing in all this is that the Russian police leadership is apparently for the greatest possible legal restrictions on the use of drugs. At first, this might seem surprising. After all, the illegality of drug use promotes both disorganized and organized crime, probably making police work more dangerous. However, one could easily think of the benefits for the police of the legal restrictions on drugs. The more restrictions are imposed on both the dealers and consumers alike, the greater are the opportunities for police corruption. Realizing this, the Russian police leadership is for toughening the anti-drug use restrictions.

This kind of reasoning would not, of course, be applicable to the good ol’ US of A, or would it?

The War on Drugs, New York style

On my way to Moscow, I was flying through New York City, where I picked up a copy of the New York Times (3/11/2004). Naturally, I immediately started looking for evidence of recent victories in the War on Drugs. However, I couldn’t find any mention of drug busts. Has New York already won the War? Unfortunately, it looks more like a defeat than a victory. Apparently, the regular drug busts don’t make the news in New York nowadays. The only drug-related story from New York was about a widening of the police corruption investigation in Brooklyn that now involves 12 current and retired members of the police. The investigation started in late November when one active and one retired detectives were videotaped taking $169,000 from a drug courier. The policemen have been accused of conspiring with the courier to steal the money the latter was dropping off to be laundered. It turned out that the courier was under surveillance by the federal agents. After some digging, the investigation has claimed that the two men have taken approximately $1.5 million in cash and drugs from dealers. Sometimes the accused have been hitting on dealers based on information gathered in the streets. They would detain a dealer or a courier, take their cash or drugs and let them go. In other cases, they simply picked up their targets in the streets. The policemen would then take the drugs confiscated from their victims to one of “their” dealers, who would in turn sell the drugs and give the officers their cut. This story has another vice angle: one of the accused claims that he has gambled away his share of the loot. Since the beginning of the investigation, the two detectives have apparently implicated some of their colleagues.

The surprising thing to me is not that these allegedly corrupt policemen were caught on videotape. What I wonder is how long it will take for the prosecutors to become sufficiently corrupted to start hitting up their targets for a cut.

The War on Drugs, Texas style

But it can’t be all about money, not in the good ol’ idealistic USA. The same issue of the NY Times reports on an outcome of an almost opposite case, where instead of letting off drug dealers or colluding with drug couriers, an undercover narcotics agent apparently used fabricated charges to have 46 innocent people arrested for allegedly being part of a drug ring in Tulia, TX. These 46 people, most of them black, have just obtained a $5 mln. settlement in their civil suit. In addition to the money, a federally financed narcotics task force covering 26 counties is going to be disbanded. The narcotics agent at the center of the case was named Texas Lawman of the Year in 1999 for cracking the Tulia “ring.” He will go on trial on perjury charges in May. He has plead not guilty, claiming at a hearing last year that the drug ring actually existed even though there has been no tangible evidence of any drug transactions and no drugs or large sums of cash were uncovered in the mass arrests in 1999. No weapons (either of mass destruction or of conventional kind) were found either. The judge presiding over the hearing found that the agent had committed “blatant perjury.” For example, one of those arrested in 1999 was able to prove that she did not sell cocaine to the narcotics agent by producing bank records demonstrating that she was 300 miles away at the time. A lawyer with the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which participated in representing the plaintiffs in the civil case said, “It’s not that [the agent] was simply a rogue officer. The problem is that federally funded narcotics task forces operate nationwide as rogue task forces because they are utterly unaccountable to any oversight mechanism.” Hear, hear. Let me add that making them accountable would solve only part of the problem.

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