04/15/08 - Jeff Blackburn

Jeff Blackburn, head of Texas Innocence Project, Tulia defense atty & Amarillo medical marijuana case victor + Drug War Facts with Doug McVay

Century of Lies
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
Jeff Blackburn
Texas Innocence Project
Download: Audio icon COL_041508.mp3


Century of Lies, April 15, 2008

The failure of Drug War is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors and millions more now calling for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century of Lies.

Dean Becker: Hello my friends. Welcome to this edition of Century of Lies. Never have I been so glad to back in studio. I’m back from several weeks travel producing shows on the road and, you know, I went to California, got to meet a lot of growers, a lot of sellers of marijuana out there. I got popped by the Border Patrol on the way back but because I had such a small amount they let me go. As it turns out if you have less than 500 pounds of marijuana, well, they’ll just let you go. That’s what’s going on.

Today I’m really proud to have with us, once again, a man I greatly admire. An attorney here in Texas who, well, we’ll just let him explain this, but he’s done a lot of good for us and we’ll get into the details here in just a second. I’m proud to welcome Attorney Jeff Blackburn.

Dean Becker: Hello Jeff.

Jeff Blackburn: Hi. Thanks a lot for having me.

Dean Becker: Well, thank you Jeff. Yeah, I’ve been talking to you a couple of times over the last few weeks and let’s just start with who Jeff Blackburn is and we’ll get into the details here.

Jeff Blackburn. OK. Well, as many of your listeners know I’ve done a lot of cases that have, I’m against the government pretty much almost all the time, and most of being against the government, of course, has to do with dealing with their insane and misguided drug war. I’m the lawyer that did the Tulia case and in the wake of the Tulia case founded an outfit called the Innocence Project of Texas, which is still doing a lot of work all around the state. And actually doing more and more work.

But another part of my job has always been to deal with the consequences of marijuana prohibition and the insanity of the drug war as we know it. Consequently we’ve been trying and working along with other lawyers, especially members of the NORML legal committee, to always find chinks in armor and ways to use the legal system to not only to win for the client but also, more important I think, to strike a blow against this failed policy.

So lately we’ve been doing that and I was very fortunate to have gotten a verdict in my hometown of Amarillo, Texas, not know as a real bastion of liberal thinking, but a verdict not very long ago that I think, and I hope, will have some good consequences and some far reaching ones for other folks. We got a not guilty based on an old legal doctrine called necessity on behalf of a guy, 53 years old, who was smoking marijuana in order to deal with his symptoms caused by HIV. As far as we know, it was the first medical necessity defense that had been successful in Texas.

Dean Becker: Well, Jeff, I want to let you know, as I said in my intro, out in California and people out there were astounded and just cheering for what you did because, you know, it doesn’t happen that often even in the United States at all. I don’t think it’s even happened in Canada. And it is a rarity if not a first. And I applaud your success in that trial.

Jeff Blackburn: Well, thank you very much. I think what folks need to know though is it may be first now but I doubt that it will be an only. I foresee a period opening up where more and more lawyers will aggressively fight these cases using the right facts. We’re going to be able to win. And reason we’re going to be able to win is real simple. It’s ultimately political.

Because what these cases do, when you’re dealing with somebody that’s sick and somebody that has done their best to deal with their own health problems and solve their own health problems and has had to resort to smoking because it is a proved great remedy for all kinds of health problems. When you have a person like that and they run up against the government, most people, average people, are going to say ‘Hey, give the guy a break. Let him do that.’ The government shouldn’t be controlling every aspect of that.

People are tired enough, not only of big government, but also the rule of pharmaceutical companies, to be wise enough to give people the right to control their own healthcare. And so in this very narrow way I think that we can see a lot more of these victories if lawyers will aggressively push them and if they have the right facts.

Dean Becker: Well, Jeff, I think it’s becoming more accepted, if you will, the concept of medical marijuana. They do polls in various broadcasts and print media and they find 60, 70, 80, 85 percent of people approve of medical marijuana. It is the politicians who are still lingering in the early part of the last century, right?

Jeff Blackburn: Absolutely. I mean the people are way, way ahead in their thinking of the authority structure right now. You know, one thing that this trial illustrated to me, and it’s nothing new, but it’s still kind of nauseating when you see it played out all over again is the absolute rigidity and dogmatic inflexibility of the authorities. You know, the attitude that was taken in this case was, you know, and just so folks will know, my client Tim Stevens was arrested for three grams of marijuana.

Dean Becker: Three grams.

Jeff Blackburn: Under an eight of an ounce, that’s right, ten bucks worth of weed. When the cops put him in the car he explained to them that he was an HIV patient, that he was sick, that that’s why he had gone to buy it, and of course what the cops on the scene told him was ‘So? You should have gone to a doctor instead of doing this. That’s not an excuse.’ They could have even written him a ticket for that because we now can do that under Texas law but in many jurisdictions, certainly my home town included, they don’t do that because they’re addicted. On the one hand they fill up the jails with people accused of petty crimes and on the other hand they complain that the jails are overcrowded and they need yet more money to build bigger jails.

Dean Becker: Very symptomatic of many States across this nation. I don’t know if you got a chance to hear the intro but I admitted that I got popped by the Border Patrol on the way back from California for a miniscule amount and the day I got back to Houston I saw where the U.S. Attorney in Tuscon is refusing to arrest people with less than 500 pounds coming across the border. It’s very hypocritical, this man with three grams brought to trial.

Jeff Blackburn: But I think in jurisdictions, not only Texas, but all over the country where you’ve got law enforcement running amuck and where you’ve got them believing that the surefire way to political popularity is to go after every single drug case like it’s the end all of law enforcement, you see this kind of thing. I mean at least 220 counties of the 273 counties in Texas, and I’m being liberal here, you’re going to see this same kind of law enforcement.

Dean Becker: Well, we had that situation, House Bill 2391, I think, through the last session which would allow district attorneys in the various counties to no longer arrest, to no longer incarcerate people for less than, I believe, it was four ounces of marijuana. And I think there’s only one DA who’s embraced that idea, that being in Travis County.

Jeff Blackburn: That’s right. That’s exactly right. Now they’re hopelessly addicted to imprisonment. They’re hopelessly addicted to bloated budgets. They’re hopelessly addicted to looking good by getting numbers. You know, that’s what the drug war has really become, it’s about numbers for these guys, it’s a racket. It’s about money and numbers. The Tulia fiasco, Hearn, the Sheetrock scandal in Dallas, these were all caused by law enforcement’s implacable desire to get more numbers, which gets them more money, which gets them bigger grants, which gets them fancier cars and so forth.

Dean Becker: Now, Jeff, we’re getting a lot of distortion. Maybe if I could get you to sit still that might help.

Jeff Blackburn: Sorry about that.

Dean Becker: Well, that’s all right, Sir. I appreciate you taking--he’s actually in a court proceeding today taking time out to visit with us because, I’m proud to say, we have a bit of a mutual admiration going on here and he’s willing to participate in this program.

Jeff, the West Texas Innocence Project, right? Tell us about that.

Jeff Blackburn: We used to be called that. We started being called the West Texas Innocence Project and it turns out we grew. We now have five schools all over the State, about 120 students, and our name is the Innocence Project of Texas.

Dean Becker: OK. But tell us about it, Jeff, I mean--I want to preface this question with this. The City of Houston has shut down it’s crime lab for the fourth time in six years for incompetence, corruption, and just plain stupidity. Our jails are over full. We don’t have enough room. We’re shipping them to Louisiana and most of this goes back, as you indicated, Jeff, to these drug crimes, where you’ve got a microscopic amount, conviction, a bag of marijuana, conviction, you pee bad, conviction. So many people sent to prison for basically nothing and it’s sometimes for evidence that doesn’t even exist. And that’s where you guys come in with the Innocence Project, right?

Jeff Blackburn: That’s right. That’s right although a lot of our work right now is in extremely--you know, we’re dealing with people who’ve been in prison 25, 26, 27 years, they were occasionally able to find DNA in places that are not run like the Houston Crime Lab. Actually, in truth, in Dallas because they kept samples.

We’ve been heavily involved in that work of course, but we’re also, you know, I’ve never wanted to limit the work of our Innocence Project just to those kinds of cases--the flashy cases that people see in the media and that gain instant publicity for a day or two--what we’re trying to do is to create a permanent institutional counterweight to the government, and institutional counterweight through our project that can eventually begin to address the number of people that are undoubtedly innocent, falsely convicted of low level drugs crimes which I think accounts for a huge percentage of people in the Texas Department of Corrections.

I think that there are all kinds of crimes that go without notice because they don’t have that flashy DNA evidence to get them out and what we’re campaigning, what we’re working for on a daily basis is to open people’s minds to the fact that there are hundreds, in fact thousands, of people in TDC that don’t belong there.

Dean Becker: It’s incrementally, glacier, in its exposing of those facts because it takes a lot to fight years of entrenched mindset, I guess it is, in believing in these district attorneys and the DNA labs of the past.

Jeff Blackburn: But, you know, back so--but I’ll tell you, people themselves, the average person, is not, I think the average person is willing to call a halt to this kind of government over-expansion and over-reaching. People are tired of it and I think that verdict in Amarillo, on our little marijuana case, is solid proof of that and it’s one proof that we see amongst many out there of the gap that exists now between the authorities on the one hand and the way real, ordinary people think on the other.

Dean Becker: Yeah, and Jeff, we saw a major awakening not just for Texas but for the nation on the heels of the, again, the expose of the situation in Tulia. And for those who don’t know or can’t remember, give us a brief summation of what went on there.

Jeff Blackburn: Tulia was a common place throughout Texas when we had regional drug task forces, where small counties in order to get money would stage a major arrest, you know, arresting in the case of Tulia, one tenth of the entire Black population, nearly all the breadwinners in the population, for supposed drug deliveries. All the cases were made by one cop. This was common throughout Texas for years, for many years.

In Tulia the difference was that this one cop was so bad that we were able to expose him successfully, not without five years worth of effort, and also not without many people going to prison on nothing but his word that they had delivered drugs to him. As we discovered, once we finally got access to test the drugs, once we finally got transcripts to show that he was a perjurer, we were able to bring him down.

But what people need to realize is that the amount of effort that you have to put into, into--you know, it takes ten minutes to convict somebody in this State and ten years to get them out. It’s, the effort that has to be made is completely out of proportion to the minimal effort the State has to make on shoddy evidence, cruddy witnesses, and virtually no truth at all, to put people in.

And until you rectify that imbalance and until we begin to make institutional changes to see that imbalance change and shift, we’re going to continue to see more Tulias. I’m convinced there are dozens of them out there that so far have gone unnoticed because some band of lawyers hadn’t been able to get together and do something about.

Dean Becker: Well, we see the headlines, most cities have it every six months or so, they’ll have a story and a picture with a big pile of money and a big pile of guns and the DA or the mayor sitting in front of it and say they’ve made a big difference.

Jeff Blackburn: Right.

Dean Becker: But it never makes a difference. It just changes the situation and creates a job opportunity for some other disadvantaged person.

Jeff Blackburn: Well, that’s right. Actually it creates a job, a permanent job opportunity for those politicians and cops. If we, for example, were able to lift the prohibition against marijuana overnight we’d have 30,000 cops around the country looking for a new job. Of course, I don’t know why they’d be really complaining about it, I think there’s room for lots, there’s always room for new liars, thugs, and criminals to come onto the scene. I’m sure they’d be able to find gainful employment as a thief.

Dean Becker: (laughter) Well, and all too often they do become thieves and criminals of one sort or another. We do a segment, usually on the Cultural Baggage Show, it’s called the ‘Corrupt Cop Story’ and it involves cops, border guards, military, various folks smuggling drugs or somehow getting involved in the drug trade. And it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. You get you choice, I’ve always heard it said, you get the silver or the lead. Most people choose the silver, right?

Jeff Blackburn: Absolutely. Absolutely. They go for the silver every time. Now those of us who are used to the lead are out here and there are good lawyers and there are great law students that make up our project and these folks are fighting and struggling and working all the time to do the right thing and rectify some of these wrongs.

Dean Becker: Jeff, it’s hard to, I don’t know, evaluate or determine but I think the work of good folks like you and folks at the Drug Policy Alliance, the Marijuana Policy Project, and others are making a difference but you can’t really judge what that is, but you see things like they’ve lowered the amount they’re now giving to those grants for the task forces, lowered it by about two thirds. So that will make a difference, won’t it?

Jeff Blackburn: It’s made a significant difference, and I’ll tell you another thing. We know if we get involved and pass incremental laws, laws that don’t seem great and certainly not exactly what we wanted, but still nonetheless make a difference, like we did in the wake of Tulia a difference does happen.

We know that after we passed the law in Tulia, or in the wake of Tulia, that required undercover snitches to be corroborated we know that 631 criminal cases were dismissed within three months after the passage of that law. So we at least saved those people from clearly bogus cases, uncorroborated cases, from being convicted.

That was an incremental law, it wasn’t what we wanted, it was about a quarter loaf, because what we wanted was a law that would have required cops to be corroborated. But what we got was that incremental reform. Well, it made a difference.

So I think that if listeners out there can understand that progress is being made through fighting and through conflict, I’m hopeful that the verdict that we got will carry a message into the legislature in Texas this next time and that folks will begin to question the wisdom of, at least, having this prohibition on the medical use of marijuana. That’s a great start.

Dean Becker: Well, exactly. And you know, even for the hard drugs. I want methamphetamines at the Walgreen. I want to judge people by their actions and not by the contents of their pocket. You know the situation really, Jeff, to me is that people understand, they just don’t know necessarily what to do about it. They’re afraid to speak up in church, in school, at work because--

Jeff Blackburn: They’re afraid. They’re afraid. Especially on the issue of marijuana. I mean, you know, we know that there are large numbers of people that use marijuana on a regular, if not daily basis...

Dean Becker: Millions.

Jeff Blackburn: ...And they don’t talk about it and they don’t say anything about it, they carry around that secret smile all the time, and I think that now is the time for them to speak up and more, commence lobbying efforts. I really hope that on the medical front more medical marijuana users will, if they find themselves in trouble with the law, fight those cases and I also hope that those who are not in trouble with the law will speak up and come to the legislature and say ‘Look, enough is enough.’

Dean Becker: Well, Jeff, there’s been some amazing news come forward. You know, I think it was maybe six weeks ago, the American Academy of Physicians, 124,000 MDs, came out for changing the medical marijuana laws and just last week on the Cultural Baggage Show I had Dr. Donald Tashkin. He’s a NIDA scientist, National Institute on Drug Abuse, and he was talking about how most of the paranoia has no basis in reality. It is time for folks to speak up.

Jeff Blackburn: It is. It is and I’ll tell you something, you know, one thing that I learned even in the course of this case that I didn’t know before, was exactly and truly how widespread, dealing amongst doctors, researchers and people that are in the know on such matters really is that marijuana is a very, very valid medical remedy.

The information is out there and we presented that all to the jury, we found a way to get that in through evidence, and it impressed them too. I mean, people are ready to be open on things and let me tell you something, I can pretty safely bet, and it’s a highly educated guess, that not one person on our jury was a weed smoker. It just wasn’t there.

These are pretty square, regular people but they were also open-minded regular people and they were conscientious, just like you’re going to find with most folks that actually get on a jury. They want to be open-minded, they want to be conscientious, and I think they’re ready to reject the government on these issues.

Dean Becker: Well, I would agree with you, Jeff. I think that, given the opportunity, maybe a number of similar cases being vindicated, if you will, and DAs might begin to back down from their jihad against all marijuana users, right?

Jeff Blackburn: I think eventually. I think it’s going to be a push and pull reaction. I went to the blog site kept by the Texas District and County Attorneys Association and accessed their threads on this case. Scott Henson did a good job of that on this blog ‘Grits for Breakfast’ doing that, and I’ve got to tell you, you would have thought that we had just walked OJ Simpson from their level of outrage over this case.

Dean Becker: (laughter)

Jeff Blackburn: So there’s going to be an initial reaction if these people continue to cling to a system that doesn’t work, to an approach that nobody believes in anymore, but eventually it can give way and that’s where my sense of optimism really lies.

Dean Becker: The work of good folks like you, Jeff, gives me a sense of optimism as well, to know that there are people out there that are dealing on the truth side of this, wanting to expose all the facts and then let the cards fall where they may. Now, Jeff, you have a website for the Texas Innocence Project?

Jeff Blackburn: We do. If you go to something like www.InnocenceProjectOfTexas.org, we tried to keep it pretty simple there, you’ll find all about the cases we’re working on, who we’re made up of, and my incredible lawyer friends and colleagues that are on our, you know, on our board. And we’ve got some, we’ve managed to collect some really, really strong great fighters from all over the State, many from Houston. In fact, we’re doing a whole lot of work in Houston right now and dealing with that Crime Lab problem.

Dean Becker: All right. Well, Jeff Blackburn, I look forward to the next time we can get together. I want you to pass on to all the good folks working with you my thanks for their commitment and their courage and I’m sure long nights determining the truth of this matter.

Jeff Blackburn: Well, with us it’s a hobby, a job, and a religion all rolled into one, Dean.

Dean Becker: That’s what I do here. Maybe that’s the similarity. Well, Jeff, thank you so much and we’ll do this again soon, all right?

Jeff Blackburn: Thank you so much for having me on and to all your listeners out there, you just keep fighting, you just keep struggling and know that there are people in the system that are ready to help you out.

Dean Becker: All right. Thank you Jeff.

Jeff Blackburn: You’re welcome.

Doug McVay: The Canadian Health Ministry, Health Canada, recently completed a review of Insite, Vancouver, B.C.’s supervised injection site, or SIS. The agency concluded ‘Similar to SISs in other countries, Insite provides clean, supervised environments for injection drug use, clean syringes, needles and swabs, and ensure safe disposal of used needles. The sharing of drugs and needles is not permitted.

Condoms are supplied to promote safer sexual practices away from Insite. Insite staff also provide safer injection education. Similar to the findings associated with SISs in other countries, users of Insite rate the services as highly satisfactory. They view the staff as helpful, trustworthy, and respectful and they appreciate having a safe place to inject drugs and pick up injecting equipment.

Letters of support and surveys show that health professionals, local police, the local community and the general public have positive or neutral views of Insite services and the majority wish to see the service continue. Some local police are neutral but not antagonistic. Opposition to the service tends to decrease over time.’

They also found that ‘Insite encourages users to seek counseling, detoxification and treatment. Such activities have contributed to an increased use of detoxification services and increased engagement in treatment. VCH has now increased access to detoxification by opening a number of beds for detoxification in rooms above Insite.’ Also, ‘Insite staff has successfully intervened in 336 overdose events since 2006 and no overdose deaths have occurred at the service. Mathematical modeling suggests that Insite saves about one life a year as a result of intervening in overdose events.’

‘Self reports from users of the Insite Service and from users of SIS services in other countries indicate that needle sharing decreases with increased use of SISs.’

‘Observations taken six weeks before and twelve weeks after the opening of Insite indicated a reduction in the number of people injecting in public. Self reports of SIS users and formal observations suggest that SISs can reduce rates of public self injection.’

‘There was no evidence of increases in drug related loitering, drug dealing or petty crime in areas around Insite. Generally, European SISs have had similar experiences though took additional security measures and one was closed due to littering and loitering.’

‘There is no evidence that SISs influence rates of drug use in the community or increase relapse rates among injection drug users.’

The Government of Canada is considering whether to extend the charter of Insite for another year. The current Canadian Federal Government of conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper is ideologically aligned with the U.S. on many issues including drug war. Our U.S. Drug Czar, John Walters, wants Insite closed because it proves him wrong. Hopefully, Mr. Harper will listen to his experts rather than to our demagogues.

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay, Editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Dean Becker: All right. I want to invite you to listen to this week’s Cultural Baggage. Our guest will be Jack Cole, Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. And we’re going to send this out to the folks on the West Coast that maybe are working exclusively on marijuana, medical marijuana. We’re going to talk about the fact that there is a bigger fish to fry and that is ending prohibition outright.

I want to make an offer to the listeners out there that the first person who guesses the closest to the date that the Drug Truth Network first hit the airwaves I’m going to send them a tee-shirt. It’s a World War Infinity Squared tee-shirt. And send an email to Dean@DrugTruth.net.

I think you’ll like the shirt and I’d like to hear from you, want to have you folks get more involved in just speaking up and sharing the truth that you hear on the Drug Truth Network in talking to your elected officials, calling them up and doing your part in being full citizens of this nation and controlling what these politicians do, how they run amok and created this inquisition of drug war because, well, we let them. So did the doctors and others allowed this to happen and its just gotten incrementally worse. It’s time to bring it to an end.

You know, you folks are the answer.

And I want to remind you once again that there is no truth, justice, logic, scientific fact or medical data, in fact no reason for this drug war to exist. We’ve been duped. The drug lords run both sides of the equation.

Please do your part to help end this madness. Visit our website, EndProhibition.Org.

Prohibido istac evilesco.

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition.

The Century of Lies. This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Transcript provided by Gee-Whiz Transcripts. Email: glenncg@zoominternet.net