Celebrity Drug Bust in India Leads to Questions About Privacy & Civil Rights

It was lurid news in India when Aryan Khan — the son of Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, and a celebrity in his own right — was detained by the country’s equivalent of the DEA while on a luxury cruise ship headed from Mumbai to the party town of Goa. 

In the Oct. 2 raid, agents seized 21 grams of charas (hashish), 13 grams of cocaine, five grams of mephedrone and 22 pills of MDMA (popularly known as ecstasy). Eight of Khan’s fellow high-class revelers were also taken into custody.  

Denied Bail for 27 Days

The nine were locked up in Mumbai, and formally charged the next day with violating several provisions of the Narcotic Drugs & Psychotropic Substances Act. This was despite the fact that no drugs were actually found on Khan. 

The Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) said they had been eavesdropping on his WhatsApp chats and found evidence that Khan was a “regular user of contraband,” and might even be involved in international drug trafficking. On this basis, he was denied bail.

Khan’s powerhouse dad lined up India’s former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi for his defense team, but the special anti-drug chamber of the Bombay High Court kept on refusing to grant bail until Oct. 30. Khan and his fellow arrestees each had to put up a bond of 100,000 rupees (approximately $1350) and surrender their passports. 

Khan could face 10 years in prison if convicted. 

And the case has spawned a secondary investigation by Mumbai prosecutors into claims that NCB agents tried to shake down Shah Rukh Khan’s manager Pooja Dadlani for a bribe to release the younger Khan without bringing charges. Dadlani has been summoned to testify in this case but has twice failed to appear. 

Other High-Profile Busts 

This is but one of several cases in the headlines now that are shaking India’s elite. Another concerns the son-in-law of none other than the chief of the NCB, Nawab Malik, who is also a minister in the government of Maharashtra state, the second most populous state in India. The son-in-law, Sameer Khan, was arrested in Jan. in connection with a raid on a private home in an upscale Mumbai suburb that turned up almost 200 kilograms of cured cannabis. 

Sameer Khan wasn’t present at the raided house, but was nonetheless promptly charged with conspiracy to traffic on the basis of his WhatsApp chats. He was finally granted bail of 50,000 rupees on Sept. 27, and faces a maximum term of 20 years if convicted. 

Interestingly, authorities said the 200 kilos were imported into the country. Although India is a major cannabis producer, with a millennia-long tradition of spiritual use of the plant, Canadian hydroponic is said to be all the rage among the country’s fashionable classes, with authorities clocking recent large seizures of the stuff.

And in yet more grist for India’s yellow-press mill, actor Armaan Kohli, the son of legendary Bollywood producer Rajkumar Kohli, was arrested by NCB agents in August for possession of 1.2 grams of cocaine. He is being denied bail by a Mumbai court while the NCB investigates trafficking charges against him — again on the basis of his WhatsApp chats.

Privacy and Civil Rights Concerns 

Although these cases have won attention because they have ensnared scions of India’s elite, they raise issues that are of concern to the common people in a country where political space has been closing under seven years of right-wing rule.  

It has been speculated that Aryan Khan was targeted because he belongs to a prominent Muslim family that has failed to line up with the Hindu-fundamentalist government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Bollywood has been much criticized by the “Hindutva” right for supposedly eroding traditional values in much the same terms that Christian fundamentalists lambast Hollywood in the United States. 

Aryan Khan’s case has also brought public attention to how a citizen may remain locked up for a significant period without any conviction — even one from a wealthy family that can afford to put up bail. A full 70% of those behind bars in India are in pre-trial detention. At the end of 2019, more than a lakh (100,000) had been in prison awaiting trial for more than a year, The Hindu newspaper reported last year.

And then there’s the question of police surveillance in the digital age, in which every communication leaves an indelible record. A pair of Indian legal scholars, in a commentary on the Aryan Khan affair for Jurist website, write: “The case is also a fitting example of how easily a privacy infringement can be committed by authorities under the garb of national security by looking into our private chats on forums like WhatsApp… One can only hope that the Aryan Khan saga would bring much more to the fore than just another episode of Bollywood gossip.”

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New York Prison Being Transformed Into $150 Million Cannabis Campus

The site of a former state prison in New York’s Hudson Valley is being transformed into a $150 million “cannabis campus” by Green Thumb Industries, one of the nation’s largest producers of legal marijuana. The planned facility at the former penitentiary in Warwick, New York will produce tens of thousands of pounds of cannabis for the state’s upcoming, recreational marijuana economy, which was legalized by legislators earlier this year.

Until 10 years ago, the 38-acre plot of land purchased by Green Thumb Industries (GTI) was part of the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, housing inmates sent to prison for marijuana offenses and other crimes. The institution dates back to 1914, when it was opened as a drug and alcohol treatment center known as the New York City Farm. 

In the 1930s, the facility was converted to the New York State Training School for Boys to house wayward youth from the city. In the 1970s, the location was changed to a prison for adult inmates before being shut down by Andrew Cuomo in 2011, the governor of New York at the time.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for the new cannabis production facility held earlier this month, GTI president Ben Kovler noted the significance of the new use for the site.

“The irony of building a cannabis facility near the grounds of what used to be a federal prison is not lost on us,” Kovler said. “Change is really in the air; change is happening in the country; change is happening here. And we’re able to go from a place where people used to be locked up for marijuana [to one] where we’re going to employ people and enable opportunity, create wealth and create a positive economic environment.”

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New York Leaders See ‘A Brave New World’ in Cannabis

After the prison closed in 2011, local leaders began looking for ways to replace the 400 jobs the facility had provided the community. Warwick town supervisor Michael Sweeton set up a nonprofit development corporation and convinced the state to sell 150 acres of the property to the new entity for $4 million, which was paid with a loan from a local businessman. 

In 2018, the development corporation began selling plots of land, including a $526,000 sale of about eight acres to Citiva, a subsidiary of New York-based cannabis company iAnthus. Since then, a cannabis testing laboratory and a CBD products manufacturer have also opened facilities on the property.

GTI has invested $2.8 million for its 38-acre plot of land in a deal that included millions of dollars in tax incentives for the company. GTI plans to develop the property in three stages, creating 100 union jobs in the construction process. The first stage of construction will feature a $60 million cultivation facility spanning 200,000 square feet. Cannabis products manufacturing operations are also planned for the site, resulting in a facility worth an estimated $150 million. When completed, GTI’s cannabis campus will employ about 150 people earning salaries ranging from $50,000 to $100,000.

“Our fertile soil, educated workforce and close proximity to New York City sets us up to be the Silicon Valley for the cannabis industry,” state Sen. Michael Martucci said at the September 9 groundbreaking ceremony.

Town supervisor Sweeton said that the deal with GTI, which included property and sales tax breaks, would be a boon for the local economy.

“I think it’s just a home run for us,” Sweeton said. “We are a farm community economy—we have a lot of farm tourism, a lot of active farms, but we don’t really have much of the corporate realm. This is a brave new world.”

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Ohio Program Trains Cannabis Offenders for Industry Jobs

An Ohio nonprofit organization providing services for formerly incarcerated people has teamed up with a medical marijuana cultivator to develop a cannabis jobs training program for individuals with past  marijuana convictions.

Dubbed URC Grows, the collaboration between United Returning Citizens and Youngstown, Ohio licensed growing operation Riviera Creek Holdings LLC aims to pair past cannabis offenders with industry jobs in the state’s legal cannabis market.

“This program will give [the past offenders] an opportunity to get back into the workforce,” Brian Kessler, chairman of Riviera Creek Holdings, told The Business Journal.

The new jobs program will be open to those with prior marijuana-related offenses including cannabis possession, sales or cultivation on their records. Dionne Dowdy, executive director of United Returning Citizens (URC), told a local television news team that URC Grows is an attempt to address the harms caused by the failed War on Drugs while ensuring that the economic benefits of legal cannabis are shared with the most impacted communities.

“There were so many people that were jailed by this and now that everyone is making money off something that they are already sitting in jail for, we want to give them an opportunity. Everyone needs a second chance and these are the things that they can do that [are] just natural to them, that they will thrive in, so why not give them this opportunity,” Dowdy said.

Dowdy added that she has already signed up two prior cannabis offenders for what she hopes will be an initial class of 10 students. Graduates of the cannabis job training program will be prepared to work in Ohio’s growing medical industry, which currently serves approximately 200,000 registered patients.

“We already have a problem with workforce now but if we’re taking the next people that are coming and we’re training them and giving them an opportunity; to have a job, to have a career, to take care of their family, not only would it help them – it would help our city, it would help our community, it will help with the crime,” Dowdy said.

Developing Cannabis Entrepreneurs

URC Grows will provide cannabis education and job training in three focused areas, with a certificate of completion awarded upon graduation from the program. Areas of study include: an agriculture program concentrating on hydroponics and aquaponics; an industrial hemp program designed to teach prospective farmers how to grow, process and sell hemp for fiber, grain, or CBD. The third track, a marijuana program, will provide education on cultivating medical-grade cannabis.

After completion of the first phase of focused education, students will begin a second phase that includes entrepreneur and business development training. This means, assistance with developing a business plan and the filing of required business documentation. Those who complete the initial two phases of training will be offered a job or internship with Riviera Creek Holdings or the opportunity to maintain and grow a hemp crop for their own hemp-based business. To support the program, URC has received a grant from the Hawthorne Social Justice Fund to help students buy land or cover the startup costs of their business.

“We at Riviera are intending to help build the overall course work, what it looks like and as they graduate, Riviera is intending to bring some of those in-house so they wind up with jobs right after graduation and we’re excited for that program to begin,” said Daniel Kessler, COO of Riviera Creek Holdings.

More Jobs Would Come with Adult-Use Legalization

Although Ohio’s cannabis industry is currently limited to serving medical marijuana patients, legislators and activists are currently working to legalize cannabis for all adults. In July, two Democratic state representatives from the Cleveland area introduced legislation that would legalize, tax and regulate adult-use cannabis. A separate effort by the Coalition to Regulate Marijuana Like Alcohol was given approval to begin circulating petitions by state officials last month.

“It’s at the phase where it needs signatures,” said Daniel Kessler, who supports the effort to legalize recreational cannabis. “The goal is to approve adult use over the age of 21.”

Daniel Kessler said that Riviera Creek Holdings supports legal cannabis for adults as a way to replace the current system that forces consumers to accept untested and potentially unsafe cannabis while illicit cannabis operators face the threat of imprisonment.

“All of that becomes problematic for everybody,” he said. “If we can replace that with something that generates tax dollars for the state, controlled by the legislative body, works much like the medical program, and has social justice aspects to it – it shouldn’t be a partisan issue.”

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California Supreme Court Nixes Pot For Prisoners

The California Supreme Court ruled this week that inmates in the state prison system do not have a right to possess marijuana under Proposition 64, the landmark 2016 ballot initiative that legalized cannabis in the state. The ruling overturns a lower court decision in 2019 that found that prisoners could possess marijuana but could not smoke or otherwise ingest it while behind bars.

“It seems implausible” that the voters intended to essentially decriminalize marijuana in prisons with the ballot measure’s passage, Associate Justice Joshua Groban wrote in the court’s majority opinion.

2019 Decision Overturned For California Inmates

The Supreme Court’s decision was handed down in a case of five men who were convicted of marijuana possession after being found with cannabis in their prison cells. In 2019, California’s 3rd District Court of Appeal ruled that although smoking and ingesting marijuana in prison is illegal under state law, possession of cannabis was not specifically outlawed by statute. Under that ruling, the appeals court found that state prisoners could legally possess up to one ounce of marijuana. Other appeals court decisions, however, had found that marijuana possession in prisons is still against the law.

In a 5-to-2 decision released last Thursday, the Supreme Court overturned the 3rd District Court of Appeal’s ruling, agreeing with a state attorney general’s office finding that Prop. 64 did not apply to incarcerated individuals.

“We agree with the Attorney General that if the drafters had intended to so dramatically change the laws regarding cannabis in prison, we would expect them to have been more explicit about their goals,” wrote Groban.

“While perhaps not illogical to distinguish between the possession and use of cannabis, it is nonetheless difficult to understand why the electorate would want to preclude laws criminalizing cannabis possession in prison, but permit laws criminalizing cannabis consumption in prison,” he continued.

Two Justices Issue Partial Dissent

In a partially dissenting opinion, Associate Justice Leondra Kruger agreed that Prop. 64 did not legalize marijuana possession in prison. However, she argued that voters could have intended to provide a “limited measure of leniency” that precluded the filing of new criminal charges for those found possessing cannabis behind bars. Kruger was joined in the partially dissenting opinion by Associate Justice Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar.

But in the majority opinion, Groban wrote that there “is nothing in the ballot materials for Proposition 64 to suggest the voters were alerted to or aware of any potential impact of the measure on cannabis in correctional institutions, much less that the voters intended to alter existing proscriptions against the possession or use of cannabis in those institutions.”

Groban acknowledged that the provisions of Prop. 64 are not being applied equally to all Californians, but noted that prisons also prohibit possession of other items including alcohol and tobacco.

“We are sympathetic to the view that (existing law) creates extreme disparity between how our legal system treats the possession of cannabis generally versus the possession of such a substance inside a correctional facility,” Groban wrote. “That is also true of many other substances, including alcohol.” 

The court’s majority also noted that the repercussions for possession of marijuana behind bars can be severe. But Groban said that the mandated penalties for violating the law are not under the purview of the court.

“Some may well view an eight-year prison sentence for the possession of less than one gram of cannabis (one gram is the approximate weight of a single paper clip or a quarter teaspoon of sugar) as unduly harsh,” he wrote. “The wisdom of those policy judgments, however, are not relevant to our interpretation of the statutory language.”

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