12/02/16 Clay Conrad

Clay Conrad a Houston attorney discusses drug policy at national, state and local levels, Jodie Emery of Cannabis Culture on Canadian cannabis policy + Phil Smith of Stop the Drug War & Alternet re US cannabis laws

Program: 
Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Date: 
Friday, December 2, 2016
Guest: 
Clay Conrad
Organization: 
Attorney
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CULTURAL BAGGAGE

DECEMBER 2, 2016

TRANSCRIPT

DEAN BECKER: Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

DR. G. ALAN ROBISON: It is not only inhumane, it is really fundamentally un-American.

CROWD: No more! Drug war! No More! Drug War! No More! Drug War!

DEAN BECKER: My name is Dean Becker. I don't condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison, and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

Hi, friends, this is Dean Becker. Thank you for being with us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. Got a great show lined up. Let's get started.

CLAY CONRAD: My name's Clay Conrad, I'm a partner with the law firm of Looney & Conrad. I'm a criminal defense and criminal appellate lawyer here in Houston.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Clay, we have over the years suffered the indignity of this drug war here in the city of Houston. I used to open my show with the phrase, "broadcasting from the gulag filling station of planet earth, this is Cultural Baggage." But the fact of the matter is that title, if you will, is probably currently being worn by the Philippines, with what they have going on.

CLAY CONRAD: I'd say that's probably pretty accurate.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir.

CLAY CONRAD: They're more of the killing fields of the drug war at this point.

DEAN BECKER: Yes sir, it is. But, you know, despite maybe some fallback at the federal level, certain politicians getting elected, we have an opportunity, I think in fact the potential for great change in the state of Texas, and maybe even more especially for the city of Houston. Would you agree, sir?

CLAY CONRAD: Well, I'm not sure about the state of Texas itself, but I think in Houston, the next year or so are going to be very eye-opening.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir, and for those that may not know, probably the primary changes will come from the fact we have a new district attorney, Kim Ogg, who came on my show and basically just eviscerated the logic of the drug war. Same holds true for our new sheriff, he'll be coming forward in January, who said pretty much the same thing. It's also, it's a chance for change with those two, am I right?

CLAY CONRAD: I think so. My understanding is that Kim Ogg does not believe that nonviolent people belong behind bars. That's -- I'm not sure how much she's going to be stressing drug treatment programs, for maybe people who are casual users and don't really have a drug problem, how much she's going to push the merits of the therapeutic state as opposed to the incarceral state, but most people would rather be in treatment than behind bars, and so it's at least a step in the right direction. And I also think that she's open to the idea that, you know, every kid with a joint doesn't necessarily have a drug problem.

DEAN BECKER: No, exactly right, and I'm hoping that that gets a chance to unfold the way that Kim outlined. We still have to of course deal with our city council, mayor, county commissioners, and judges, and so forth, but most of them are beginning to realize the futility of continuing down this same path. Would you agree there, sir?

CLAY CONRAD: Yeah, I do. I think that if nothing else, the cost of the drug war, the financial costs, have made it unsupportable, and I also think that there've just been too many people who've been rendered virtually unemployable for substance offenses, and that, you know, we can't have a society where a few percent of the people have no choice but to be parasites because no one's going to hire them for a decent job.

DEAN BECKER: Right. And this contributes to the homeless population, and the re-incarceration of so many people, does it not?

CLAY CONRAD: Well, and that contributes to the mental health backlog we have, I mean, the largest mental hospital I think in the state is the Harris County jail system.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. And --

CLAY CONRAD: We can't deal with taking people with substance abuse and mental illness problems, many of whom self-medicate, and using the criminal justice system as the first responder. You know, it's like trying to fix a television set with a hammer. No matter how many times you hit it, it might make you feel better, but it's not going to make the television set work any better.

And that's what we've been doing, we've been taking these people, some of them do have honest addiction problems and need treatment, some of them have mental health problems, and some of them were just going through a rough patch, and they get busted, and their lives are destroyed, which means there's one fewer taxpayer, there's one more tax-eater, on the system. It means that their family might lose their home, they might lose their car, they might go bankrupt. You know, the ramifications of tagging someone with a felony record are just, you know, it's like throwing a rock in a pond, the waves just go on for miles and effect everything else in the way.

And, you know, when you start throwing hundreds of thousands of rocks in the pond a year, the water gets pretty choppy for everybody.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, good point, well stated, sir. Yeah, and there is another bit of optimism on the horizon. It seems that the bail bond system is being deeply investigated, I think around the country, and very specifically right here in Harris County. Would you talk about that situation, Mister Conrad?

CLAY CONRAD: Well, especially with people who don't have much money, people who are relying on court appointed lawyers. A lot of them end up essentially staying in jail, and they don't get a trial, they just stay in jail until they've served their sentence and then they plead guilty for time served, because they couldn't afford to get out on bond. You know, once you've spent six months in jail on a case for which you can only do six months, the victory of staying in jail until you get your trial and winning seems pretty hollow. And people are put in those choices because of the bail bond system. It is just the way you twist arms until you get a guilty plea, sometimes.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and --

CLAY CONRAD: Even for people who can afford a lawyer, they're often put in a position where the cost of getting out on bond is so great that they'd rather just plead guilty and go on probation than have to pay another ten thousand dollars in order to get back out to their family where they can work and maintain their home. They have no choice but to plead guilty, or to go bankrupt from paying the bondsman.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Clay, it's my understanding that Harris County is rather unique in its demand for cash bond, especially when compared to a city like Austin, where they give the public recognizance bond a lot more often than we do here, and then I want to ask this question. I did an investigation a few years back, I wonder if it's still true, that the main contributors to the election, re-election of judges in Harris County is the bail bondsman officials. Does that still hold true?

CLAY CONRAD: I don't know if it was true with this election cycle. The reason being that the Democrats swept the judicial offices in Houston, and I don't know if the bail bondsmen were contributing to the Democrats as deeply as they were to the Republicans.

DEAN BECKER: Right. But it --

CLAY CONRAD: So I don't know if that's true. I do know that basically half the felony judges in Harris County have changed. Now one of the problems is, the people most likely to get PR bonds are people who commit misdemeanors. They, the misdemeanor judges, get elected on the midterm elections, you know, 2014, 2018, 2022. Democrats don't show up on those elections. If Democrats and liberals would vote in the off-year elections, then the misdemeanor judges would flip the same way the felony, half the felony court judges did. But so long as the misdemeanors, where people are most likely to get PR bonds, stay firmly in the hands of the Republicans, I don't expect much to change there, except maybe a little bit around the edges for windowdressing in order to alleviate jail overcrowding.

DEAN BECKER: All right. Now, let's jump to the state level for a second. I don't know how much awareness you have of this, but last week, I heard that there have been 7 bills submitted at either the house or senate level here in Texas to nuance, to change our drug laws in one fashion or another. Is that not indicative of potential change this January?

CLAY CONRAD: We can hope so. We don't know who's backing what at this point, or what is likely to pass and what is just going to be a failed effort, but I think it is indicative that everybody is not happy, and that somebody is -- someone is going to change something. We just don't know what yet. Hopefully, we'll find out early in the year what bills have promise to improve things, so that the support they need.

DEAN BECKER: Yes sir.

CLAY CONRAD: At this point, I don't know, you know, there might be some bills in there among those seven that would make things worse and not better. I don't know.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. In a quick read-through, they all were at least slightly better, or at least the summaries I read. You never know what's buried in them, do you?

CLAY CONRAD: Well, when I first was in law school, interning with the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, it was my job to read and summarize every bill that had criminal law ramifications, and there were hundreds and hundreds of them. So, you know, someone probably does know what's in them. Not me.

DEAN BECKER: I think that's even true at the federal level, especially when they passed the Patriot Act, I don't know, 2000 pages and nobody read a word, as I understand.

CLAY CONRAD: Yeah, yeah, that's true.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. Well, Clay, I, you know, I'm an optimist, or I couldn't keep doing this I guess for so many years, but I do have some optimism for this January, and there's going to be a lot of good folks, veterans and many others, speaking to our legislators and explaining to them how we can all benefit from walking away from this draconian drug war. Any closing thoughts you'd like to share, Clay?

CLAY CONRAD: Well, I do think that inevitably things are moving in the right direction. Texas is not on the forefront, but we saw a lot of -- of a lot of states that passed significant marijuana law reforms in the last election. We don't know what the federal government is going to do. I mean, the talk is Jeff Sessions, who is a completely unreconstructed drug warrior, is going to be the AG. Is he going to go after all these states that have medical marijuana and recreational marijuana laws? Can he, or is it too deeply ingrained at this point? We just -- there's a lot of reasons for optimism, but there is no reason for letting your guard down.

DEAN BECKER: No, there is not, indeed. Once again, we've been speaking with Mister Clay Conrad. Clay, please share the name of your law firm, if folks want to get in touch.

CLAY CONRAD: It's Looney & Conrad, PC., and the website is LooneyConrad.com

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Reye's Syndrome, destructive effects on the heart and blood flow in newborn infants, severe constipation, diabetes, dysentery, hemophilia, kidney disease, gout, upset stomach, and ulcers. Time's up! The answer, from the manufacter: Pepto-Bismol! Nausea, heartburn, indigestion, upset stomach, diarrhea, yo! Pepto-Bismol! Pink does more than you think! Word.

The following audio courtesy of Canada's CTV.

KERI ADAMS: Canada's task force on pot regulation and legalization is set to deliver its final report to the government today. Jodie Emery is a political activist and the owner of Cannabis Culture. She joins me this morning. What do you expect to be in this report?

JODIE EMERY: I expect a new style of prohibition with strict regulations to limit and reduce the access to marijuana, and that's all the messaging that we've heard from this government. We haven't had a lot of details about how they intend to address the criminalization of Canadians who get arrested every day for marijuana. We haven't heard anything about the opportunities for Canadians to have jobs with the retail, farming, agriculture, medicine, research, tourism. We haven't heard anything about the benefits that legalization can provide. All of the messaging has been similar to the Harper government, about the kids, about gangs, and about fear-mongering, really.

I am disappointed because the Health Canada-licensed producers have made no secret that they've lobbied this government, they've met with Bill Blair, they told the government they want to control this recreational market. The industry already exists, that's why dispensaries are so popular. Public supply and demand, market economics come into play, and people have access to marijuana already. But the government's messaging including Christy Clark talking about Fentanyl in weed, which was proven false by the police, all of this messaging is about keeping the dispensary industry and the existing industry illegal, and allowing the new licensed producers to control the market.

We also have to remember that Anne McLellan in charge of this task force represents the law firm who is representing a lot of these licensed producers, so we're seeing a lot of people angling to make sure that they profit and benefit, but we aren't talking about the criminalization of millions of Canadians, we aren't talking about the economic opportunities, we aren't talking about ending the arrests, which US states did when they had people vote to legalize marijuana.

Well, the government needs to start being open and honest about legalization. All of their talks have been kept secret, even in meetings that they had during the task force sessions were kept secret. They haven't even told people that they're going to stop arrests at all. They aren't even considering reducing records. Remember that everyone who gets arrested for marijuana becomes a second class citizen. They lose their job, their right to travel, scholarships, the ability to volunteer. They're actually criminalized by this government even though they're peaceful, honest people.

DEAN BECKER: Long time listeners to the Drug Truth Network will recognize the voice of my next guest. He did an ongoing series of corrupt cop stories of the week as well as other stories about the drug war, a good friend from California, I'm proud to welcome Mister Phil Smith. How you doing, sir?

PHIL SMITH: Just fine, glad to be with you, Dean.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Phil, tell us a little bit about the organization, the news that you report.

PHIL SMITH: Well, I work for two different organizations. The first one is a small Washington DC-based nonprofit interested in drug policy reform. That's StopTheDrugWar.org. For them, I've been writing the Drug War Chronicle for the past, good lord, 16 years now. And I also, my other hat is with AlterNet, the progressive news website, a news aggregator, we do our own content as well as grabbing content from other places. So, for AlterNet, I write less serious stuff sometimes, you know, like the five greatest marijuana songs in country music, stuff like that. So that's a bit of a break for me.

DEAN BECKER: Sure. Well, let's talk about now. It seems there are stories about the drug war, good and bad, kind of exploding across this universe. What's on your plate these days?

PHIL SMITH: Well, I mean, the election, and the fallout from the election. We had marijuana win in four out of five legalization states, and in four out of four medical marijuana states where it was on the ballot. That was great news. But we also had Mister Trump win, and that's not necessarily such great news for drug reform or for marijuana legalization. Not that Mister Trump has spoken out harshly against it, his, in fact his record on drug policy is, how can I put it, contradictory and incoherent. He says different things at different times, I mean, much like his pronouncements in many other areas of policy. We just don't know what's going to happen with him.

But, one early indication, and it's not a good one, is his selection of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions to be the new Attorney General. Jeff Sessions is a hardline drug warrior from way back, unreconstructed, doesn't think that good people smoke marijuana, he actually said that not too long ago. He's also said things, like, he was okeh with the local Ku Klux Klan down in Alabama until he found out they smoke marijuana. Now I thought that was pretty revealing.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. Well, his name alone, Jeffrey Beauregard the Third.

PHIL SMITH: Beauregard Sessions, that's right. Now, he was considered too much of a racist to be given a federal judgeship back in 1986, but apparently the country has changed. So he's now in line to be Attorney General. And he is, he could be very bad for marijuana. What he could do is tear up the Cole Memorandum, which sets Justice Department policy towards legal marijuana states, and basically says we're not going to interfere unless you're, you've got guns or you're selling it to kids, or it's leaking out of your state, or something like that. And that's why we haven't had a bunch of raids on legal marijuana states in the last half of the Obama administration.

But, Sessions could turn that all around. Now, what is unknown at this point is whether Sessions is going to get his head, if he does, that's probably what he would do. Or is Donald Trump going to say, well, wait a minute, I campaigned on letting the states have their own way on marijuana, and he did, so the big question is, well, first of all whether Sessions gets appointed Attorney General, gets through the Senate, and secondly, whether he's going to be running marijuana policy or whether Donald Trump is going to be running marijuana policy.

And I've got to say, it's not just marijuana policy. Sessions is bad all the way around, whether you want to talk about decriminalizing drug use, or sentencing reform, or anything like that. I mean, he's a real fan of mandatory minimum sentencing, for instance. It's not a good sign, it's not a guy we want to have as our Attorney General, and if we're stuck with him, there are going to be many, many battles.

DEAN BECKER: Well, you know, Phil, I was speaking the other half of this program with a Houston attorney, Clay Conrad, about the potential for progress, if not in the state of Texas, certainly in my city of Houston, where the new DA and sheriff were both calling the drug war a, you know, I don't know if the, use the words "a failure," but they don't show any support for it. But there are other states that might change their ways in the near future. What's your thought in that regard?

PHIL SMITH: Well, we now have eight states that have legalized it, that's about 65 million people, that's, you know, more than a fifth of the country now, California of course being the biggie. But, for the next couple of years, we're not going to see these initiatives on the ballot, because we're not going to have these elections until 2018 or 2020. So if anything's going to happen with marijuana legalization in the next couple of years, it's going to have to come in states where it's going to go through the legislative process, and that's a slower and more time consuming, and more complicated, and more compromised process than just writing an initiative and getting people to vote for it.

That said, it can happen. With medical marijuana, for instance, California legalized it via the initiative process in 1996, and then a few more states came on in '98 and 2000, and it wasn't until 2001 that Hawaii became the first state to okeh medical marijuana through the legislative process. Well now, it's been, 2017 will be five years since 2012, when the first states legalized pot, so I think we're due to see it happen.

And I produced an article for AlterNet and the Drug War Chronicle, I don't think it's up at either site yet, but I'll give you an early heads-up into what I'm seeing and what I'm thinking. I think we've got five states that have a decent chance to do it in the next couple of years. Three of them are in New England, and there's a reason for that. That's because two other New England states just legalized it this year, and, you know, the people in Connecticut and Rhode Island and Vermont are looking around and going, well, our people are going to just drive to Massachusetts or Maine and buy their weed, and pay their taxes there, and we're going to lose out.

So I think we're going to see serious efforts to get it done in Vermont, in Connecticut, and in Rhode Island. I, if you asked me, and if I had to place a wager, I would put my money on Rhode Island to do it first. We shall see. There are also a couple of other states where things look like they could be happening. One in the Mid Atlantic, and that's Maryland, where they have medical marijuana, they have decrim. They have a Republican governor, but they've already managed to override his veto on a bill this year that would have decriminalized pot paraphernalia. They decriminalized marijuana last year and overlooked the paraphernalia part, so they wanted to clean that up this year, passed the bill, the governor vetoed it, and the legislature overrode him. I'm hopeful that Maryland can get legalization passed, with a strong enough majority to override the retrograde Republican governor once again.

Also, in the southwest, there's New Mexico. Strong interest in marijuana legalization there, it polls at around 60 or 61 percent in the opinion polls. There are -- the Democrats have just taken control of the state legislature, which had in the past quashed legalization bills. There will be at least two different ones offered in this next session, one of which is a straight legalization bill, the other would, if it were passed by the legislature, would put it up to a vote of the citizenry. But again, like Maryland, New Mexico has a Republican government who's not in favor of marijuana legalization, so again, either the Republican governor, in this case Suzanna Martinez, is going to have to have a pot epiphany, or something's going to have to pass with a big enough margin to override a veto.

But, those are the five states that I think have the best shot to do it in the next couple of years, and then with, when 2018 comes around, we may have more states doing it via the initiative process, although the conventional wisdom is that you should probably wait until 2020, the next presidential election year, when turnout is higher.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. Well, that's always the critical point, isn't it?

PHIL SMITH: Yeah.

DEAN BECKER: Well, friends, we've been speaking with my good friend, Mister Phil Smith, works for Stop The Drug War as well as writes for AlterNet. Phil, is there some closing thoughts, a website you might want to recommmend?

PHIL SMITH: Well, I just want to say one thing, Dean. You know, it matters when we legalize weed. I had to go to South Dakota in November, I spent the election in South Dakota, and then I drove back to California shortly afterwards, and I had my little bag of weed with me, like I always do. And I had to worry about South Dakota, it's a misdemeanor there, they can throw you in jail. Then I had to worry about Wyoming, because they can throw you in jail there, too. And then I had to worry about Utah, because not only can they throw you in jail, they'll take your driver's license, and suspend it for six months just for getting caught with weed in Utah.

But then, I drove into Nevada, and I realized that I didn't have to worry anymore. I was no longer a criminal. And it was that way across 500 miles of Nevada and into California. I mean, the day after the election, weed became legal in both of those states. Now it's going to take a while for legal weed commerce to get going, like I don't think that will happen in California until 2018, but as of the day after election, weed is legal here. We won. You know, my paranoia level just went way down, except when I have to go back to Utah, Wyoming, or South Dakota. Or Texas. Or those other states that haven't legalized it yet.

DEAN BECKER: Well, it's just two different countries I guess at this point, isn't it?

PHIL SMITH: It really seems like it. I mean, we saw that in the election in several different ways. Not only in Mister Trump's strength in the interior and the south, but also in the success of the marijuana initiatives on both coasts.

DEAN BECKER: I've got to throw this in, in case folks were wondering. My fair city of Houston voted for Clinton over Trump by 12 points. So it's not all the south, my friend.

PHIL SMITH: Right, well, all those electoral votes in Texas went for Mister Trump though, I'm sorry to say.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah.

PHIL SMITH: I'm sure you're sorry to hear -- know that as well. And, I continue to hold out hope for Texas, god damn, I mean, I used to live there, it's got to get better sometime.

DEAN BECKER: All right folks, that's about all we can squeeze in. Please be sure to join us on next week's Cultural Baggage, when our guest will be Nishi Whiteley, author of Chronic Relief, a guide to cannabis for the terminally and chronically ill. We'll also hear from the mother of a two year old in Texas who is benefiting from the use of CBD. I remind you once again that because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag, please be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. Cultural Baggage is a production of the Pacifica Radio Network, archives are permanently stored at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. And we are all still tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.