10/31/10 - Alex Stevens

Alex Stevens, professor of criminal justice, University of Kent in the UK, author of "Drugs, Crime & Public Health" + Steven Gutwillig, Dir of DPA in California

Program: 
Century of Lies
Date: 
Sunday, October 31, 2010
Guest: 
Alex Stevens
Organization: 
Professor
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Century of Lies / October 31, 2010

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.

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Hello my friends. Welcome to this edition of Century of Lies. I’m so glad you could be with us. A bit later we’re going to hear from Mister Steven Gutwillig of the Drug Policy Alliance in California, talking about the portended or possible change in the marijuana law there.

No matter how that vote turns out, what he has to say is something I think you need to hear. But first up, we have this interview I conducted with Professor Alex Stevens at the University of Kent in the UK

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Dean Becker: Here in the US, we’ve been having quite a discussion of late about the “inherent dangers” if you will, in legalizing marijuana. We’ve even had a former Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders, once again saying that it’s a bunch of needless discussion that it is – marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol, tobacco and many other drugs.

In the UK, they have had a similar situation where folks have stepped forward and been chastised for having suggested that it is time to reassess our drug policies. So, to do it happen with Mister Alex Stevens, he’s Professor of Criminal Justice at the University of Kent. He is author of a brand new book, Drugs, Crime and Public Health and with that, I want to welcome Alex Stevens. Hello, sir.

Professor Alex Stevens: Well, thanks very much for having me on your program.

Dean Becker: Well Alex, as I was saying, we have this great discussion going on here about the situation with Proposition 19 to legalized marijuana in California and the two sides are just so opposed and so disparate, it’s makes you wonder if there isn’t some sort of middle ground. Your thought, sir?

Professor Alex Stevens: We’ve had some similar discussions, as you said, in this country over the past few years and it seems to be that this has gone beyond the realms of scientific discussion and is becoming a question of faith, where people are less influenced by what evisdence says and are more influenced by what their beliefs are, about what’s right and wrong about using certain substances.

Dean Becker: Right and I guess sir, the belief system, as you say – I talk about the proponents of Drug War have a church of their own, if you will. Their “morals”, of “Make them do this no matter the consequences.” Your response?

Professor Alex Stevens: Well, in the book that I’ve just published, I discuss some of the reasons why the evidence in this field is consistently ignored. One of the answers has due to with the inequality of power, between some people who use certain substances that they think are moral and the way that they use their economic and political power to project that power onto the bodies of other people, normally people how don’t share the influence that they have or that choose to use different substances than they do and their use of those different substances.

For example, opium by the Chinese in the 19th century or marijuana by Mexican immigrants in the 20th century or cocaine by Black people in the south of the USA. These uses have been used as ways of projecting power upon these people and controlling them, people outside of the pale that’s considered to be polite society. So, it’s not just that people have different beliefs, but these beliefs are useful in creating the social inequalities that continue to be behind a lot of harm that is caused by drugs.

For example, in my country, it’s wealthy people who are more likely to use drugs than poor people. Yet, it’s poor people that suffer the harms of drug use and drug control. They’re more likely to die from drugs than rich people are and they are more likely to be arrested and imprisoned than rich people are despite their lower rates of use.

So, it’s not about the belief system, it’s about the power structure behind that belief system and the way that it enables certain people to project that power onto other people’s reasons and choices of what they choose to ingest.

Dean Becker: Just last week there was a press conference held out in Oakland for the NAACP. They were standing in support of Prop 19 but one of the things they talked about was the disparity, the application of these laws and how these three, five, six, twelve times more blacks being arrested for marijuana than are whites. It’s a strong parallel there, right?

Professor Alex Stevens: Absolutely. The latest example in my book is that black men are six times more likely as white men in America and black women are three times as likely arrested as white women in America. These are shocking disparities and I am sorry to tell you that my country it is even worse.

The disparity of imprisonment between white people and black people for drug offenses is eleven times. Black people are eleven times more likely imprisoned in Britain and Wales for drug offenses then white people, despite the fact that there’s no evidences of higher rates of drug use or drug offenses.

These disparities do not relate to any realistic response to drugs or the harms that the drugs cause. They are due to inequalities in our societies and in our criminal justice systems.

Dean Becker: Well, last month you had a piece posted in The Observer – The Guardian there in the UK. You were talking about the fact that in the Netherlands that it hasn’t – that they haven’t gone to hell, so to speak, for their decriminalizing marijuana.

In Portugal, they have even gone a step further with their across the board decriminalization, which solves some or most of the problems but it still leaves in place the violent gangs. You thought there, sir?

Professor Alex Stevens: Yes, there are two very interesting examples from Europe. One is the Netherlands’s experience. In 1976, the Netherlands prosecutor’s office decided to not prosecute offenses of small-scale possession or even small-scale supply of cannabis. So, that system has been in place with many people in the states will know who have visited Europe.

There are cannabis cafes in Amsterdam and other Dutch towns where you can buy a small amount of cannabis without being in the risk of arrest from the law. Apparently, there’s no higher rate of cannabis use in the Netherlands, than for example, in England, where we actually have a more repressive legal situation but a higher rate of cannabis amongst our young people.

There’s also the more recent example from Portugal, which in 2001, as you say, took the step to decriminalizing the personal possession of all types of drugs, as long as you’re considered to have less than ten day’s supply upon you at that time.

Instead of being arrested people are referred to the commissions of the dissuasion of addiction. The results there also suggest that there wasn’t an explosion of drug use and that in fact, drug use among sixteen year old have seemed to reduced since decriminalization of drugs in 2001.

At the same time as that decriminalization in Portugal and also as has happened in the Netherlands, there’s been a massive expansion in treatment availability. For example, low threshold methadone maintenance treatment for people who have problems with heroin has been expanded.

In Portugal, we’ve seen significant reductions in the number of people dying from heroin and a significant number in people – in the number contracting HIV and AIDS from heroin use. Similarly, we are also seeing reductions in the Netherlands, which now has an extremely low rate of injection drug use and the problems that are associated with it compared to US and the UK, which continue the reppressive and penal approach to drug use.

Dean Becker: Well, here in the US our Drug Czar, the Head of the ONDCP and the DEA tour the country, talking about the dangers of drugs, that marijuana leads to other drugs. All of this is nonsense, if you ask me.

I guess the point is, they are now pronouncing, “Yes, we understand that it’s medical problem. Yes, we understand that we need to make more treatment available but the dollars and the focus, doesn’t change. It continues down this same failed path, your thought there, sir?

Professor Alex Stevens: It’s been a long-standing imbalance in the US policy as there is in British drug policy with much more money going into the criminal justice response than into the health response. It was always the way it was.

Before the time that Nixon launched the war on drugs, more money was spent on the health response than the on the imprisonment of drug users. It’s not just a question of rebalancing the budgets. It’s not just the question of treating this as a medical issue.

We have a problem in both of our countries, not just with a lack of treatment availability for those with drug problems but a social structure and a social situation, which is behind the development of drug problems.

Drug problems in both our countries are concentrated in areas where people can’t find work, where people can’t find or have access to welfare, except if they’re imprisoned. You have situations where people on the streets in many cities of America and in my own country find better healthcare in prison than they can get on the streets.

These are situations where people will seek solace in drug use. They find it the only way of creating purpose and meaning in their lives is through dependant patterns of drug use and the routine of going out and scoring and using everyday. People find that they are spiraling out of control and into situations where drugs and crime become the only way that they can live a life.

Now to me, it’s not enough that we would provide treatment to help people get out of these situations. We also want to prevent people from getting into these situations in the first place and that is about providing a decent education, decent housing, decent healthcare and a decent welfare system for people to prevent them from having to reach the depths of existence before get any help.

Dean Becker: Once again, we are speaking with Professor Alex Stevens. He’s based at the University of Kent, there in the UK. He’s author of the book, Drugs, Crime and Public Health. Alex, I wanted to ask you, you know there’s a strong parallel, if you will, our former Surgeon General, Jocelyn Elders, spoke up decades ago saying it was time to legalize marijuana and yet she was immediately sacked.

You had a similar situation, was it earlier this year when your top drug – I’ll call him your Drug Czar, Mister David Nutt, was also sacked for talking about the futility of our process. Your thought?

Professor Alex Stevens: Professor Nutt was the Chairman of what’s known as the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, which is an independent body that advises our Home Secretary who’s the politician in charge of drug policy. Now, he was quoted in the press from an article that he wrote that said that ecstasy per episode is less dangerous than horse riding.

At that time, which was based on his experiences as a clinician, dealing with the after effects of accidents of people falling off horses, which happens more often to people who go horse riding than the harmful effects of ecstasy do.

At that time, he was told off by the Home Secretary but he went on to publish the results of a study that suggested that cannabis is less harmful than alcohol is and went on to talk about that in public arenas.

It was at that stage that the Home Secretary decided that he could no longer continue his post as the Chief Advisor. Not on the basis that the scientific advice that he was giving was wrong but that it conflicted on what the government wanted to say about the dangers of drugs.

So, here again we have another example of evidence that’s coming out of scientific studies not only being ignored, but being actually suppressed, where people have reached the situation where they’re an independent advisor are told, “You can’t tell the public what the results of your research are, unless it agrees with what the government happens to saying.”

So yeah, there is a parallel between the American situation. I think in both countries, the absurdity of this misuse of evidence is becoming clear and it is fascinating to see the legal moves like Proposition 19 in California and other states across the United States where there are moves to have more rational and sensible drug policies in place.

I am concerned, however, for some of the arguments for legalization. I think we can draw a parallel from history in the Netherlands and also by analogy to alcohol. The history in the Netherlands shows that after the 1976 decriminalization of cannabis, there wasn’t much increase until the coffee shops started to get going and commercialize and advertise their activities. They liked to promote the use of cannabis because they wanted to make profits. At that time, there was quite a significant increase in cannabis use and it has been shown by Peter Reuter, a very eminent researcher in your country.

A real time example of alcohol, which in our country as in yours, is it is legal to promote and sell. We’ve seen increasing advertising of the substance in our countries and a decrease in price and an increase in consumption, which has led to a massive increase in alcohol related harm, such as liver cirrhosis and liver cancer.

What I wouldn’t want to see is a system of legalization in place, which allows profit-making companies to promote, advertise and expand the use of substances like cannabis and other illegal substances, which after all do carry some risk of harm with them.

Dean Becker: Well, you know, I see some of the television adds, one springs to mind, I think it was for Miller beer and it ended the commercial with a logo, “The Elixir of Life.” So, I think I understand exactly where you are coming from. We don’t want to promote this to the young. There’s just no way, right?

Professor Alex Stevens: You know better than I do about the constitutional freedoms in America and whether they’d be a possibility to limit advertising of cannabis or marijuana, for example, if it were made legal.

So, I would be interested to see if Proposition 19 goes through in California. What they do with the limits on advertising and promotion because it seems to me already that in California, where I was earlier in the year. For example, there’s quite a lot of promotion of the medical cannabis there to people who have no medical need for cannabis.

I am more than worried that it can expand the attraction and the use of cannabis, especially amongst young people, for whom cannabis and marijuana are more dangerous than it is for adults.

Dean Becker: In that piece that you wrote for The Guardian, there was a mention of the fact that as a young MP, David Cameron himself acknowledged the failures of current policy. He supported fresh thinking on liberalization, heroin prescription and drug consumption rooms.

Here in the US, we have specific knowledge that George [W.] Bush, Al Gore, Obama and many other high elected officials used marijuana or other drugs in their youth. Yet, they still remain on the same old path. You thoughts there, sir?

Professor Alex Stevens: I think President Obama – in President Obama’s autobiography is especially fascinating actually. He talks in great detail about his use of drugs, of marijuana and “blow” as he calls it, of cocaine, when he could get it. He talks about how he was on the verge of going down the path of a junkie, as he said, “the final destination of the would-be black man America.”

So, to have his insight of what saved him from going down that path, which was the opportunity he had to go to college and also the support of his family to take up those opportunities, suggests to me that he would have been sort of outlook necessary about creating a social structural system that has good educational opportunities, which support the family through decent welfare that would help avoid going down that route of dependence and broken families.

So, it’s not just the hypocrisy of having used drugs one’s self, like some of our senior politicians have and then still supporting the criminalization and punishment of people who use drugs. It’s also the need for that awareness of what it is that prevents people who do use drugs from getting into the most serious forms of problems with them.

Dean Becker: Alright, once again, we’re speaking with Professor Alex Stevens from the University of Kent, there in the UK. He’s author of Drugs, Crime and Public Health. We’ve got just a couple of minutes left here and I want to – I would beseech you to teach my listeners a lesson. Help them to better understand the need to redefine these laws.

Professor Alex Stevens: I think it’s well known in both our countries that drug prohibition has failed to achieve it’s stated aim, which is the elimination of drug use. Drug use is relatively high in both our countries. Internationally, we have some of the highest rates of drug use.

Perhaps more worrying even is that we have increasing levels of drug related harms such as the detraction of emergency departments and drug related death such as the increasing rather worryingly in the United States. So, we need to find a more effective way of dealing with this issue. There are two ways of doing it.

We can either intensify our current failed approach, which has been tried significantly in America and I’m afraid we might be on the verge of trying it again in our country and shown to fail. We have increased in both countries the imprisonment of drug offenders without reducing the levels of problems we face.

The alternative is to go down a to route of trying to find bolder and more liberal ways of dealing with these problems, not eclipsing the harms and criminalization and punishment but trying to provide the necessary treatment for people who have problems with addiction but also trying to prevent people from getting into these problems in the first place.

That involves, as I said, attention to the social welfare systems that are in place for people who have been the victims of the mass – the creation of mass unemployment in both our countries of the outsourcing of jobs to places where it’s cheaper.

Now, if corporations are going to make profits by outsourcing those jobs, then there’s going to be social consequences for that loss of employment. We can’t pretend that’s not happening and to keep tightening the screw of drug control to try and deal with the results.

Dean Becker: Well, Professor we have one other plank, if you will, in the reform platform and that deals with the situation in Mexico. Just two days ago, another fourteen children were shot down at a birthday party, I guess through some sort of confusion in the cartel’s part. But that’s playing a powerful part in redefining or refocusing our efforts, right?

Professor Alex Stevens: Well, the situation in Mexico is, as you say, absolutely frightening and it is interesting to look back and what some of the origins are here.

The outburst of violence started a few years ago after the President of Mexico launched a war on the drug gangs that were controlling the pathways between Mexico and the USA of these drugs.

It’s just another example of the counterproductive effects of trying to crack down on drug control – or drug supply when you have a large, ready market for drugs in the USA and people who are prepared to go to any length whatsoever to fill the – to get the profits that are related to filling that need or that demand.

It is very interesting to me that many countries in Latin America, including senior politicians in Mexico have called for decriminalization and called for better ways of regulating the use, transit and supply of these substances, which don’t provide opportunities for these murderous gangs to continue their activities and their corruption of the state of Mexico.

Dean Becker: Alright, Professor Alex Stevens, author of Drugs, Crime and Public Health. I want to thank you for being with us here on the Drug Truth Network. Is there any closing thought or a website that you would want to point people towards?

Professor Alex Stevens: If people are really interested in these issues, I would encourage them to go to the website of International Society for the Study of Drug Policy in which I am a member. The website is www.issdp.org.uk and at that website you’ll find a lots of interesting material on systemic drug policy and what can be effective.

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Let us celebrate day number 32,809 of being led to salvation by our dear Drug Czars.

(Percussive medieval music)

Tens of millions of witches arrested
Thousands have died from our black market drugs
Orphans of prisoners will be our next harvest
In the name of God we ever march on

Monsters and demons using powders and potions
Must be stopped no matter the cost
Kneel down and pray for the new inquisition
Pray for success of the new Dark Age
All this in the name of God

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Steven Gutwillig: I am Steven Gutwillig. I am the California State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is the nation’s leading organization that it works to advocate alternatives to the war on drugs.

The Drug Policy Alliance and the William C. Velasquez Institute are releasing a report on arresting Latinos for marijuana in California, which documents a report that’s being released in both English and Spanish that’s available on the Drug Policy Alliance website and soon on the William C. Velasquez Institute website.

What this report does is it documents very significant and widespread disparities in the arrest rates for low-level marijuana possession. Specifically, it documents that Latinos in California have been arrested at double and triple the rates of Whites, particularly in the last few years.

The context for this report is an extraordinary escalation in possession arrests of people in California for possessing small amounts of marijuana in the last twenty years. Misdemeanor, low level, petty possession of small amounts of marijuana arrests for low level marijuana possession has tripled in this state since 1990 from around 20,000 to well over 61,000 last year. Police arrested more than 850,000 people in California for low level marijuana possession since 1990 at a time when arrest rates for all other crimes in the state dropped dramatically.

Low level marijuana possession has been an outlier when it comes to arrest rates in this state and at the heart of the dramatic increase of arrests of people possessing small amounts of marijuana in California have been substantial race based disparities, specifically the targeting of African Americans and Latinos for this offence and specifically the targeting of young African Americans and Latinos.

That’s particularly important because US government surveys, for years, indicate that young African Americans and Latinos consume marijuana at lower rates than young Whites. US government surveys indicate that young African Americans and Latinos consume marijuana at lower rates than their White counterparts.

Despite that, in the last twenty years the possession rates for possession of small amounts of marijuana by Latino teenagers have tripled. In the last twenty years, the arrest rates for Latino teenagers possessing small amounts of marijuana have increased – has tripled.

So this report documents possession arrest rates in thirty-three cities in the state over the course – it averages three years data to indicate that the data is not anomalous to any one year.

The report finds that the highest arrest rates for Latinos for possessing small amounts of marijuana are Glendale, Burbank and the City of Orange. In addition to indicating that Latinos have a triple – a double to triple likelihood of Whites being arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, the report indicates that Latinos are also arrested at rates that are substantially disproportionate to their percentage of their population in those cities.

An example of that would be that in Irvine, Latinos represent less then 9% of the city’s population, yet 20% of all people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. In San Jose, Latinos are just about – just over 30% of the population of that city, yet represent about 55% of all people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

I’m going to conclude with just a couple of observations. The first is that we are convinced that Latinos are actually are substantially undercounted in the criminal justice data in California and that, as some of you know, is a substantial amount of subjectivity built in to the ethnic classification of arrestees in California.

Since the FBI does not break out Latinos in the national arrest data, California is not required to track it and report it to the federal government.

Second, the disparities that are documented in this report are the result of routine, pervasive system wide police practices. The disparities in the arrest rates of Latinos and African Americans for possessing small amounts of marijuana is not the result of racist cops here and there or even racist police departments. This is a statewide, system wide phenomenon.

Arrests for having small amounts of marijuana have serious consequences. They create permanent drug arrest records that can easily be found on the internet by perspective employers, schools, banks, credit agencies and landlords, creating obstacles to education, to housing, to employment for young African Americans and Latinos who already face substantial obstacles.

One guilty plea for marijuana possession can deny a legal immigrant reentry into this county.

Two, a guilty plea for marijuana possession can trigger mandatory deportation.

Finally, the recent downgrading by the governor of signing Senate Bill 1449, which lowers the penalty – which lowers the marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to an infraction is absolutely a step in the right direction but we anticipate that the targeting of young African Americans and young Latinos will continue in California because of citations for marijuana infractions do not trigger the court costs that police may be concerned about and they’re no longer required to publicly report the number of infraction citations that they issue.

So, a year from now we won’t be able to tell you the number of citations that have even been issued by law in enforcement and the bottom line, of course, is that police practices are unlikely to change simply because the nature of the offense has.

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Dean Becker: We’re flat out of time. Please remember that there is no truth, justice, logic, scientific fact, medical data, no reason for this Drug War to exist. We have been duped!

Please, visit our website: endprohibition.org

Prohibido istac evilesco!

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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 Pacifica Studios at KPFT, Houston.

Drug Truth Network programs, archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Policy Studies.

Transcript provided by: Ayn Morgan of www.eigengraupress.com