‘War on weed’ leaves one Myrtle Beach man paralyzed, costs city $11M in landmark civil rights case

Palmetto Pot War

MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WBTW) — Marijuana is now legal in at least 15 states and as legislation pushes forward here, the war on weed has left one Myrtle Beach man paralyzed.

Home surveillance video showed, in April 2015, a team of heavily armed officers used a battering ram to enter Julian Betton’s Myrtle Beach home to execute a search warrant. Three officers fired 29 times.

“They did hit him nine times, effectively crippling him, paralyzing him. He’s had multiple surgeries and still can’t walk, and then they lied to cover it up,” said Jonny McCoy, Julian Betton’s attorney.

A federal case revealed that. This is what one judge said during the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals oral arguments: “They lied or made false representations. Every single one of them said they knocked and identified themselves as police and it’s no longer contested that none of that’s true.”

Officers said Julian fired the first shot. A SLED report found that he did not fire his gun, but did say he pointed it at officers.

Judges from the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals said he pulled a gun from his waistband and had it down at his hip.

“Fighting for Julian was the best thing that ever happened to me, but also it has totally vexed my entire reality and the world that we live in, which is, ‘no one is watching the watchers,'” said McCoy.

McCoy said all of that happened because police pulled over a medically disabled veteran and found marijuana ash. He said instead of losing everything, the person became an informant, buying $100 worth of weed from Betton.

“Does it not matter that it was just a marijuana charge and they decided to go there where the door was unlocked and knock it down with a battering ram and run in with no identification. Does that not matter at all?” asked a judge with the United States 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

No criminal charges were brought against the officers, and at least one is working in law enforcement to this day.

Betton was awarded more than $11,000,000, one of the largest civil rights settlements in South Carolina.

News13 reached out to 15th Circuit Solicitor Jimmy Richardson, who is on the Drug Enforcement Unit board. He said since the Betton case, the DEU’s focus has changed to more of a federal model and focuses on intel gathering.

Richardson said they never did no-knock warrants. He went on to say the DEU does not do breaching of any houses, but if it has to be done they turn that part over to a SWAT team with local and state agencies. Richardson said the DEU has done some of its best work since the Betton case, including Operation Broken Branch.

The “War on Drugs” has been going on for decades, beginning in the ’70s with President Richard Nixon. Nixon’s public reasoning was an increase in heroin addiction, marijuana, and hallucinogen use by students.

Marijuana effectively became a schedule I drug on the controlled substance list in 1971.

“And here we are 50 years later,” said Scott Weldon, Executive Director of South Carolina National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML).

Marijuana laws politically, racially motivated, advocates say

Advocates for legalization like the group NORML believe marijuana laws have been politically and racially motivated. The group pointed to Dan Baum’s 1994 interview with John Ehrlichman in Harper’s Magazine. Ehrlichman was one of Nixon’s top advisors and said the Nixon campaign had two enemies, the anti-war and black people.

“If they could criminalize the hippies and the leaders in the black community with marijuana being illegal and heroin they could raid their homes, demonize them on the news every night, and prevent them from voting against Nixon and his party,” said Weldon.

The war on drugs has been used as a political tool since by both Republicans and Democrats. It also came up in the latest election cycle.

Just before the new Biden administration took office, the House passed the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act, also known as the MORE Act.

The legislation would remove marijuana from the controlled substance list and create a process to remove federal marijuana convictions. The bill also establishes a trust fund to support various programs and services in communities impacted by the war on drugs.

Only five Republicans voted in favor. U.S. Congressman Tom Rice of South Carolina did not.

“I decided early on that I would support if a state wanted to move to medical marijuana. That I would support a federal law giving states the flexibility to do that,” said Congressman Rice.

Congressman Rice does not support decriminalization or legalization due to law enforcement concerns, but is open to changing marijuana’s scheduling if that can lead to more research. As for the future of marijuana laws, Congressman Rice said, “That’s going to be determined a lot on what is happening in these various states that are doing in experimenting opening it up and we’ll see how it plays out.”

Democratic Congressman James Clyburn of South Carolina supports it. He sent News13 this statement:

“The House passed MORE Act would decriminalize marijuana, expunge non-violent federal marijuana convictions, and more. People of color are four times more likely to be arrested for cannabis possession than White people despite equal usage. They are also more likely to receive longer and harsher sentences. The MORE Act takes significant steps to right the wrongs of decades of marijuana criminalization and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to take up this important piece of legislation.”

“I do think there’s a good opportunity for that. It’s still a challenge. It’s still an uphill battle,” said Weldon.

Jonny McCoy said he has one message for those on the fence.

“What I always tell people to do is imagine that it’s legal now and now argue for the criminalization of it,” said McCoy.

There are efforts in the state legislature to decriminalize marijuana. McCoy proposed decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana into a civil citation within the City of Myrtle Beach in 2020.

That proposal has not been discussed by city council in depth.

To read the proposal click here.

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