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Jul. 21 2010 — 5:52 pm | 155 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

My Last Post for True/Slant

A sad panda, aka: me.

Update: I’ve made a new domain for Brave New Hooks. Keep on following my work at BraveNewHooks.com!

Oh God, another True/Slant’er out the door? Yes, it’s true.

As of Thursday, I join the ranks of former True/Slant contributors.

It’s with some amount of sadness (thus the panda) that I make the announcement, though I’ve known about our pending split since June. The nature of my content is just not a very good fit at Forbes, and that much was pretty apparent from the moment the announcement was made.

In my 10 months as a True/Slant contributor, I’ve seen some really special things happen. I got to be on the leading edge of an upstart that broke 1.5 million readers a month in its first 12. I was even lucky enough to have one of my big stories called out by our ever-patient front page editor Michael Roston, who said my reporting on Barry Cooper’s wild tale was some of the most important work they’ve published.

Getting a popular story on True/Slant is like being constantly and completely flattered, especially to see my by-line up there with journalists like Matt Taibbi, Michael Hastings and Allison Kilkenny. My friends can attest, there was a celebration every time I cracked True/Slant’s top five most popular contributors.

Ah, well. Every good thing ends.

Before I go, an announcement: I am currently producing a manuscript about Barry Cooper.

I’ve never before made such a public claim of pending work, let alone something as lengthy as a book, but there’s a level of certainty to this project that’s rather unusual. Hollywood producer Brett Ratner has purchased film rights to Barry’s life story. Those rights were sold by a producer at SpikeTV, who I’ve since interviewed in my research on Cooper. While I have yet to speak with Ratner’s people, I’m sure they’ll be interested to see what I produce. While already weighing a number of options for publication, I’m still open to conferring with any interested literary agent.

So, yes, True/Slant and I are breaking up, but I am by no means going away. After two years of hard work as their contractor, RawStory.com has offered a salaried job and will be taking me on staff beginning August 1. We’ve got some big things in store for our readers, but I cannot say more for fear of death or censure. Basically: stay tuned.

Thanks to everyone at True/Slant and all of my readers, without whom none of this would have happened.

And always remember, individuals really can make a difference.



Jul. 21 2010 — 4:58 pm | 13,627 views | 0 recommendations | 35 comments

Retired Top Cops Slam Arguments Against Legalizing Pot

This fall, California will consider repealing marijuana prohibition by way of a voter-sponsored ballot initiative called Proposition 19. If passed, it would stand as a direct affront to federal law, representing the most significant change in a state’s drug policy since cannabis was first outlawed in 1937.

Though marijuana legalization is largely a liberal and progressive cause célèbre, it may be fair to say that the state’s elected Democrats aren’t exactly cuckoo for these coco-puffs.

Marijuana

Prominent California Democrat Sen. Dianne Feinstein has declared her opposition to Prop. 19, signing a ballot argument against legalization put forward by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Sen. Barbara Boxer and Democrat gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown were quick to adopt Feinstein’s position, and the state’s Democratic party, while apparently torn on the issue, officially elected to stay neutral fearing their support could damage state-wide candidates.

In spite of Democratic opposition, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), a drug policy reform group made up of former cops, judges and federal agents, seems to stand perhaps the best chance of swaying the state’s drug policy establishment. They’ve put forward a ballot argument in favor of Prop. 19, and three of their most prominent members from California law enforcement have signed it.

In an exclusive interview, the former police chief of San Jose and the former deputy police chief of Los Angeles County — both members of LEAP — took to task those favoring continued prohibition, insisting that both Sen. Feinstein and MADD level an “emotional, unreasoned” argument for keeping pot illegal.

Sen. Feinstein’s press office was contacted multiple times in seeking a response to these officers. Both times a returned call or e-mail was promised, but none were received after several days.

“I know Dianne Feinestein quite well from when she was mayor of San Francisco,” said former San Jose Chief of Police Joseph McNamara. “I’m kind of stunned by her stance on this. It’s contrary to everything she talked about as a politician in San Francisco.”

By contrast, post-Feinestein San Francisco was host this year to the first-ever International Cannabis and Hemp Expo, and the Hemp Industry Association is planning to hold its 17th annual meeting there in November. Last month also saw San Francisco hosting the first ever Medical Cannabis Cup: a competition among growers, to see who produces the best pot.

It’s pretty clear that the city, by and large, has taken a position of favoring Prop. 19.

“[Feinestein's] position [as San Francisco's mayor] certainly wasn’t this law and order nonsense on stamping out marijuana,” McNamara said.

In a ballot argument against legalization (PDF link), Feinstein and MADD argue that Prop. 19 could cost California school districts $9.4 billion in federal funding, as they would no longer be able to meet federal drug-free standards. They also fret that colleges and universities in California will lose out on federal grants, which is a very real threat that LEAP did not address.

The main thrust of their argument is that due to the ballot initiative’s wording, officers or other public officials would not be able to take preemptive action against stoned drivers: they’d have to wait for accidents to happen. Much of the argument focuses on school bus drivers, and how they could be permitted to ingest marijuana and transport children, leaving the hands of authority bound until someone got hurt.

“Their argument is specious and I don’t think it’s based on any emperical evidence,” contended Steven Downing, the former Los Angeles County deputy police chief. “It’s kinda like, we make things up in order to pass laws. Well, come up with the facts.”

He and McNamara insist there is no evidence to support the assumption that officers or public officials could not enforce laws against driving while intoxicated. They argue that Prop. 19 has nothing to do with laws requiring sobriety while driving, and that it’s impossible to say, as MADD does, that legalization would turn California’s highways into a nightmare.

Similarly, though a recent study by the Rand Corporation predicted that usage is likely to go up because prices could plummet if cannabis is legalized, they too admit that estimating the number of stoned drivers is impossible.

“I think one of the strongest points to make is that there were no studies when these drugs were outlawed,” Downing said. “It was religious fervor and prejudice. Fear. We all know that’s how it all got started. That’s how alcohol prohibition got stated. It’s the same today for marijuana, which is kept illegal by emotional, unreasoned arguments.”

“Smoking may even decrease,” McNamara said. “Looking at the reaserch, 85% of high school students surveyed say it’s more difficult to get beer than marijuana. The reason for that is that beer is regulated. You need proof of identity and age to purchase it. That argument, that use will explode, is wrong. It may be exactly the opposite. It will be more difficult for people under-age to get cannabis.”

He adds that “marijuana is already in the mix,” as far as the sobriety of drivers is concerned. The former police chief, now a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, calls Feinstein and MADD’s argument on stoned drivers “speculation that doesn’t make any sense.”

Supporting McNamara’s position is the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, which reported in May that after a double-blind study of 85 drivers tested before and after smoking marijuana, “no differences [in motor control and response time] were found”.

“The laws today prohibit driving under the influence of drugs,” he said. “If they do that, they’re violating the law and can be punished under the present laws. By freeing law enforcement from making so many [marijuana] arrests, this would give them more resources to use against dangerous activities like driving under the influence.”

Downing’s argument was similar, and one of surprise at the lack of support from MADD. He said that fewer marijuana prisoners would mean more drunk drivers serving out their full sentence, thanks to reduced overcrowding in California’s jails.

“When you look at all of it, I think Prop. 19 offers an opportunity for rationality in an area that’s been so emotional,” McNamara said.

Prop. 19 will appear on California’s state-wide ballot this November. Should it pass, individual counties and municipalities would be able to opt in or out of the legalized system; those which opt in would be given additional tax and enforcement options, and residents would be allowed to transport up to one ounce and grow plants in a five-foot-by-five-foot area.

Even if the voters carry Prop. 19, it may not mean anything as it still conflicts with federal law. The Obama administration’s policy has been to not interfere with state-supported medical marijuana initiatives, but the president has said he is opposed to legalization. Whether or not the administration will take a hands-off approach to legalization in California is still an unanswered question.

A recent CBS poll found that while 42 percent of the state’s voters oppose legalization, 56 percent are in favor. Aligned with the majority is the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which endorsed legalization because of prohibition’s inordinate impact on minority communities. The California Young Democrats also endorsed Prop. 19, along with former United States Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders. The 200,000-member-strong United Food and Commercial Workers union, of the Western States Council, backs it as well.

LEAP’s full ballot argument in favor of Prop. 19 is available on their blog.



Jul. 2 2010 — 8:48 pm | 579 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

My Best Accidental Portrait Photo

I’ve snapped some shots of a few famous people in my day, but this image takes the cake.

While I was following Barry Cooper on his way to be arrested, I accidentally took a photo of him on the wrong lens setting. For the record, I used an Olympus FE-230 set on ‘indoor’ (for lower light environments) instead of ’sport’ (for quick movement and adequate lighting).

The brief image preview in the viewfinder made me curse, thinking I’d wasted some precious memory card space. I readjusted and kept shooting just before putting it into video mode and capturing some footage for YouTube.

It wasn’t until I returned home and adjusted several of the levels that a striking portrait of my subject emerged from a washed out, blurry mess.

I did not touch up this photo other than, as I said, adjusting brightness/contrast and color levels so the environment stood out a bit more. As it turns out, that also made Barry’s tattoos visible, which also made his fingers in front of his face visible. The full thing together looks to me like he’s meditating, clenching a glowing fist in front of his face and radiating white.

I’ve been told that cameras do not lie, but they can be manipulated. Guess I’ll just put this one out there as possibly a little of both. I still insist it’s a spontaneous journalistic effort, accidental or not.

Click for the full image …



Jul. 2 2010 — 12:50 pm | 6,006 views | 0 recommendations | 22 comments

Marijuana Activist Barry Cooper Arrested at Texas State Capitol

Update (below): Barry Cooper is free on $1,000 bond; (in comments) authorities not treating him as suspect in capitol bomb threat

Marijuana activist Barry Cooper turned himself in to authorities Friday morning … and he did it with an expected showman’s flare.

I was notified of his plans last night, but didn’t think he’d actually go this far.

We met at 9 a.m. inside the Starbucks on Congress Ave. in downtown Austin. The first thing I noticed was Barry’s unusual garb. On his forehead, a two word message: “JURY NULLIFICATION”; across his chest in marker ink, a rallying cry: “CONSTITUTIONAL OBEDIENCE”.

After a few minutes of summary and preparation, Cooper, his wife, a cameraman with the local Copwatch chapter and assorted members of the press began making their way down the street toward the state capitol building.

Barry lit a cigarette and took his time to smoke it.

Barry Cooper, preparing for his arrest. Photo by Stephen C. Webster

Walking onto the capitol lawn, I noticed an unusual media presence. That’s when we learned the grounds had been shut down since much earlier in the morning due to a bomb threat.

As it would happen, that threat ensured a media circus for Cooper’s arrest. With cameras already in-hand, television reporters swarmed around Barry.

I’m going to say that Cooper’s arrest and the alert were not correlated, but I don’t know that for sure. Barry, Candi and their attorney denied any prior knowledge of the situation and appeared surprised when told about the threat. I believe it was purely fortuitous coincidence, and I don’t think they would do something so foolish like call in a bomb threat to maximize media exposure. They’re in enough trouble already and have kids to worry about.

In spite of the heightened alert, Barry and the media walked right up to the capitol building. Police reopened grounds about 30 minutes later, stating that no suspicious devices were found.

Standing not 20 feet from state troopers, Cooper took a deep breath, pulled out his notes and began to speak.

“I’m here today to turn myself in because I have a warrant for my arrest from the Texas Rangers for a sting that KopBusters did in Odessa, Texas, that successfully released Yolanda Madden from an eight year federal prison sentence. I was explaining to everybody on the walk up here that it feels bad that I only gotta go to jail for one day. I have this kinda support: my lawyer here, and my wife. But Raymond Madden had to walk his daughter this same way to do eight years in prison. My good friend Marc Emery in Canada, two months ago just had to turn his self in for selling marijuana seeds. He turned himself over to the United States government and he’s doing five years in prison.

“It feels horrible to go to jail, and it’s still difficult for me to understand how and why we keep torturing our citizens in the U.S. for non-violent crimes. They say in the Middle East that if you steal something they cut your hand off, and we call that cruel and unusual. We can walk into our prisons right now and line our non-violent prisoners up, that are doing five years, ten years, 99 years, life, for just possessing a substance — and ask them: What would you rather do, continue serving your sentence or we cut your hand off? They will line up at the chopping block and gladly give their hand to get out of those torturous prisons for something that should not be against the law.”

Barry Cooper on his way to be arrested. Photo by Stephen C. Webster

Cooper said his main reason for pulling the media stunt was to raise awareness of jury nullification, a generations-old, rarely used legal tactic available to citizens on a jury who have no sympathy for the government’s argument. Even if the defendant is guilty of the crime with which they are accused, a jury may yet nullify that law as it applies to that individual if they consider it to be immoral.

A recent example of nullification would be the acquittal of Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who clearly violated laws meant to prevent assisted suicide but was let off by a jury who found the laws to be repugnant and not correctly applied.

Barry continued:

“Americans need to use a very powerful weapon: We’re calling on America to start using what’s called jury nullification [...] when members of a jury vote not guilty, even though the accused clearly broke the law. Juries do this when they believe the law itself is morally wrong or is being unfairly applied. So if you get on a jury and even though you know that person is guilty, if you don’t agree with that law and it bothers your conscience, you can vote not guilty and release that citizen. As a jury member, you have more authority than the judge. That’s the final process in our judicial system, is a jury trial, because it gives the vote back to the citizen.

“Although jury nullification is still legal and still constitutional, most judges and public school teachers lie to the people and tell them they don’t have this right. The jury is made up of we the people. The jury is the only true check on government power. [...] It is the most important right we have as a citizen. [...] Citizens of America, get into juries. On all non-violent drug crimes, vote not guilty and release your citizens.”

He concluded with a signature sign-off: “Peace, love and Never Get Busted.”

Barry then approached officers standing in front of the capitol and informed them of a warrant for his arrest. A few moments later, they ushered him away in handcuffs.

Candi Cooper stands aside as her husband is arrested. Photo by Stephen C. Webster

“I’m sorry and sad that humans still treat people like this,” Cooper said. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

Barry’s wife Candi was arrested earlier in the week outside the family’s home in south Austin after the Texas Rangers tricked her to come outside by claiming her vehicle had been damaged and insurance information would have to be exchanged. The charge stemmed from a sting they pulled on the Odessa Police Department in Dec. 2008, in which they baited officers to raid a phony marijuana grow operation.

Police charged Barry and Candi with Making a False Report to a Peace Officer, a Class B misdemeanor. It is the same charge leveled separately by Williamson County, which raided their former home just north of Austin after Cooper claimed to have caught an officer in Liberty Hill stealing what he’d been tricked to think was drug money.

Barry in cuffs, but still smiling. Photo by Stephen C. Webster

Shortly after arriving home, I got a call from an unknown number. It was Barry, who decided to use his free phone call to contact me. Speaking from the Travis County jail, Cooper said …

I’m booked into jail. They said I should see a magistrate in a couple hours to set the bond. Odessa could hold me here for 10 days, but they told Candi that as well and that didn’t happen. They’re treating me very good in here. This place is very depressing and all the prisoners I see are depressed. I’m just talking to them and letting them know it’ll be okay. Everybody has treated me very polite and very nice. Tell Candi I love her and that everything is going to be fine.

Here’s a video of the arrest, shot and edited by yours truly …

The whole weird affair was also broadcast live via UStream, which archived the improperly formatted clip.

Update, 6:40 p.m.

Candi just confirmed that Barry has posted bond, which was set at $1,000. Oddly enough, Candi’s bond was set at $2,00 for the same alleged offense, with her arrest coming even before her husband’s.

It was possible that authorities could have kept Cooper for up to 10 days, but his attorneys believed that would not happen, according to Candi.

An earlier version of this update speculated that Cooper could have spent the night in Travis County, but that does not appear likely any longer.

I’d further like to add, upon further recollection and examination, Barry seemed kinda stoned in that video, but he’s told me repeatedly that he refuses to smoke marijuana after what happened with the Williamson County raid. I understand Barry’s appearance was also part of the overall “statement” he was making (Candi’s word), but I didn’t really even think to ask why exactly he didn’t go into this morning’s theatrics with a suit on.

I think I’ll ask about both these items when he gets out, which could be any time now.

Update, 10:45 p.m.

I’ve just spoken with Barry. He is free at this hour and headed somewhere for Margaritas.

When I confronted him about his appearance and asked if he had ingested any narcotics before his arrest, Cooper insisted the weary expression evident in the YouTube clip above was that of exhaustion and not intoxication.

“I’d been up for almost a couple days, man; didn’t really sleep a whole lot after the Rangers arrested Candi,” he said. “That was purely exhaustion, I do not smoke marijuana anymore, not after what Williamson County did to us.”

He added that his appearance — dreadlocks, t-shirt, jeans and tattoos displayed, was in fact intentional, and that his wife had the “suit talk” with him “a million times.”

“I just wanted to show that I’m pretty much like anyone else: an American citizen who is not violent and enjoys being free.”

Barry Cooper is “at large” once again.



Jun. 30 2010 — 5:10 pm | 1,937 views | 0 recommendations | 5 comments

CBS affiliate: Pot activist Barry Cooper ’still at large’

Photo credit: WILLIAM DESHAZER / Dallas Morning News

A West Texas CBS affiliate dedicated a segment last night to Candi Cooper’s arrest by the Texas Rangers. It was actually quite comprehensive and good, and none of what’s to follow in my ruminations should be considered a slight to their work.

Still, the reporter’s final words made me choke with laughter and surprise: “Barry Cooper, himself, is still at large.”

Still at large. For a Class B misdemeanor? We’re talking about a citation-level offense, not Al Capone. These people are not felons and they are not violent, but Barry is “still at large”? I love that this comes from a CBS affiliate. Yes, this is in fact accurate, but it also illustrates the Benny Hill-like nature of this weird tale.

While I appreciate the political sensitivities at stake for our resident power structure, it’s offensive to think that a minor infraction like False Report to a Peace Officer deserves attention by the Texas Rangers. I’m certain the Odessa police are more than capable of handing their own affairs.

The Rangers occupy a position of greater lore in this state, and stooping to this level … is below them. Worse yet, by their mere presence they make Cooper notable again. They’re helping to turn a minor thorn in their side into an anti-prohibition rock star, just like I suspect Barry has planned all along.

Here’s what Michael May over at the Texas Observer had to say

Barry also posted a video on youtube that shows a conversation he had with a Ranger who threatened to “whup his ass.” The video shows Barry’s charm with law enforcement . . . he’s clearly taunting the Ranger, calling him “son” and “boy” and swearing at him several times. It’s not surprising that the Rangers want to put him in his place, but our police should be above petty vendettas — and it’s hard to see how putting elite officers on the trial of a misdemeanor offense is anything but a petty vendetta. In short, they’ve done nothing but prove Barry’s contention that law enforcement priorities in this state are skewed at best, and corrupt at their worst.

And furthermore, ‘Cheers!’ to him for transplanting my ‘drug war insurgent‘ meme into the Observer’s headline.

Yes, Barry Cooper “is still at large,” though I’m told he’ll be turning himself in sometime rather soon.

Regaining his freedom via bail bond will cost $200: a paltry sum compared to the value of the ironclad image our most elite law enforcement unit decided to tarnish this week. A swift, snarling reaction should have been expected from Williamson County, which raided the family’s home on a Class B misdemeanor, but every Texan holds the Rangers in higher regard than this.

Barry and Candi are weaving a modern day Bonny and Clyde story, and we all get to watch. Thanks to Williamson County and the Texas Rangers, this man could well soon be the goddamned Erin Brockovich of pot.

Until there’s more to tell, enjoy this video from CBS 7 in West Texas.


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    About Me

    My name is Stephen. I am a News Junkie and an assistant editor at RawStory.com. My work has appeared in publications both printed and online, including The Dallas Business Journal, the cover of Fort Worth Weekly and in the pages of The Dallas Morning News, Austin Monthly, Envy Magazine and others. I also covered the rebirth of the U.S. peace movement first-hand for The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, starting with the city's first public screening of 'Fahrenheit 9/11' all the way through the end of Cindy Sheehan's stay. I've seen my reporting discussed in publications such as Time, Wired, Reason, The Washington Post, D Magazine, The Guardian UK, Media Matters, ThinkProgress, Alternet, Cannabis Culture, 1-UP, Destructoid, Kotaku, GameSpot, G4TV and many others. I am currently open for freelance assignments and actively seeking a literary agent. You can follow me on Twitter @StephenCWebster, or from Facebook.com/StephenCWebster.

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