08/19/20 Katherine Neill Harris

Katherine Neill Harris of the James A. Baker III Institute at Rice Univ END THE WAR ON DRUGS TO HELP FIX AMERICAN POLICING + Tommy Chong visits to discuss racist drug war policies

Program: 
Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Date: 
Wednesday, August 19, 2020
Guest: 
Katherine Neill Harris
Organization: 
James A. Baker III Institute
Download: Audio icon FDBCB081920.mp3
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DEAN BECKER: (03:02)
it's my privilege. I get to work with a great group of folks out at rice university, the Baker Institute folks, the drug policy group. And one of those is a mrs. Catherine, that Neil Harrison she's with us now. Hello, Katie.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (03:17)
Hi Jean. How are you?

DEAN BECKER: (03:19)
Good. I'm glad to have you with us today. Now you've been developing some excellent writing, uh, of late a couple of things I want to talk about. Um, let's first talk about your latest one, which was a, we can end the drug war to help with some of the police, uh, problems, correct? Yes. Tell us about that if you will.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (03:42)
Sure. So, you know, when we talk about police reform, there are a lot of different kinds of reforms that we need. Uh, you know, obviously, you know, increased transparency is one of those as an example, and reducing the use of, of, uh, excessive force. But the reason that the drug war I think is such a large part of that is for two reasons. And one is that the pursuit of drug arrests, uh, increases the amount of encounters that police have with citizens. So if the officers are constantly trying to arrest people for drugs and they are, you know, essentially by definition, going to be in contact with more citizens in pursuit of those drug arrests. And in 2018, there were 1.6 million drug arrests, uh, the vast majority of those referred for just possession. And so, you know, we're talking about those 1.6 million encounters right there, you know, and then we don't even know how many more encounters have occurred in pursuit of those arrests.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (04:34)
And each one of those encounters then has the potential to become hostile or potentially violent. We also know from the data that people of color blacks, especially are disproportionately likely to encounter police for drug arrests, they account for roughly 29% of drug arrests, even under, they only meet up 12% of the population, about 12% of people who use drugs. So, you know, if we, if we scale back the war on drugs, if we stop, you know, if we tell police that we no longer want them to arrest people for drugs, and we're going to reduce so many encounters just by doing that one thing. Yeah. And then I'm sorry, go ahead. I was just going to say that the other component of this is that, you know, a lot of the tactics associated with the drug war are also violent. Um, and you know, the no not raids are kind of the prime example and that's how Brianna Taylor was killed was in a no knock raid.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (05:28)
We had a knock right here in Houston that also led to the deaths and the people that were in that home. And, you know, those are, were justify in pursuit of, you know, making drum arrests, but they're, you know, very violent, um, for obvious reason that you're entering somebody who's home without announcing yourself. You know, so people don't know it's the police, they might fire and then the police returned fire. And so, um, those could be very deadly. And again, it's, it's in the pursuit of these drug arrests that really aren't doing very much in terms of public.

DEAN BECKER: (05:58)
And then you mentioned the, the situation in Houston, there was a couple, um, that, uh, the police entered that they were dressed in plain clothes. No, not just coming through the door, just a horrible shootout situation, police shooting through the walls. Um, the, both the couple were killed and for the officers, I guess wounded one another with these random shots through the walls as well. And, um, you know, there were drugs found, but it was a, I think a third of an ounce of marijuana and a little smidgen of cocaine certainly doesn't seem worthy of such a dangerous endeavor, but, but that, it's kind of an example that whenever the word drugs is mentioned, um, you know, all Katy bar, the door, you know, everybody seems to think anything is, is legitimate and necessary. Um, well, let's talk a little bit more about that situation with, uh, the blacks, if you will, you mentioned they are more likely to be stopped and frisked and so on. And, uh, I believe it was in, uh, New York city, about eight or 10 years ago, had this massive stop and frisk campaign where they would, uh, you know, just pull blacks over or stop them on the street and stop them and frisk them and look for drugs. And, uh, that nine out of 10 times there were no drugs found. And it was just an excuse of your response to that, that scenario, please, Catherine.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (07:23)
Sure. So the sub stop and frisk has actually been around for, you know, going back decades. Um, and what happened in New York city around 2002 when mayor Bloomberg took office, as they really ramped up that effort. And it was actually done on the grounds of that was that they needed to get guns off the streets. So a lot of the times the stop and frisk was based on the premise of, of finding weapons on people. And that was sort of the intent of that, of it was more for weapons than, than drugs. However, like the way that we got to that step and first policy, it sort of was the kind of culmination of drug war tactics that legitimize, that kind of policing. And then you have the situation, as you said, where, you know, 90% of people that they stopped and frisked didn't have any weapons on them.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (08:10)
And we're, you know, we're completely innocent of any kind of crime whatsoever and, you know, black and, uh, Latino and Latina, uh, residents were disproportionately stopped. Um, you know, and so I think it was in, I wanna say 2016 that, um, you know, there was a lawsuit filed against, uh, the city for that by the ACLU and the, you know, that that program has declined precipitously since then. Um, but yes, that is a very egregious example of, you know, the way that, that aggressive style of policing that again was justified by the war on drugs. And I mean, we can go back further than that as well, but you know, it sort of culminates in these, in these policies that, you know, turn out to be really problematic and also unconstitutional. Exactly.

DEAN BECKER: (08:56)
Now, Katherine, we have, um, witnessed, you know, the, the video camera has been a, uh, uh, uh, detective, if you will, it has been a means to learn more about what goes on on our city streets, of course, the, the murder of George Floyd. And then you talked about, uh, Brianna, uh, her house being raided. They, I guess there was no video of that, but it's an example of, um, police going off the rails, I guess, as a way I would phrase it that they, they just have this jihad against drug users that, um, less time, less attention, less focus is given to more violent crimes, more, um, you know, crimes that have impact rather than just somebody that they're mad at cause they're using drugs. Right?

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (09:46)
Yeah. Well, I think that there's a couple different things going on, right? So, um, one of the things that that was with violent crime, usually the police response is it's a response, it's a reactive response, right? Because unless an officer witnesses, you know, um, robbery on site, for example, in our assault on site, they're usually responding to a nine 11 call and often that's how, I mean, that's how the majority of police work is done is responding to nine 11 calls. Uh, the thing with the drug offenses is that, you know, that provides more of an opportunity for police to be proactive. You know, and one example of that is sort of with these like pretext stops and then pretext stop is where an officer might, you know, pull somebody over for having an expired registration or, you know, something like that, um, with the intent of, you know, trying to search the car to find drugs.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (10:34)
Um, and so, you know, there, there has been that proactive style of policing for drugs specifically and with violent crime, it's a little harder to do that kind of proactive policing, I think. So there's just sort of a different nature of, of the job, um, in, in those ways. And then, you know, the other thing, um, with drug offenses, and this is why we kind of need to have another response other than the police is that, you know, not all police interactions with people on drugs or because, you know, they they're searching for people sometimes it's because there's a nine one one call because somebody, you know, there's, if there's either a concern that somebody who's a danger to themselves or to others, and they don't know what to do, they call the police, the police show up and, you know, somebody might be under the influence of a substance and the police don't really know how to handle it.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (11:20)
They don't really know how to deescalate the situation, especially, you know, when we talk about, uh, stimulants or hallucinogens, they don't necessarily understand the, the experience that the person is having, whether it's hallucinations or severe agitation. Um, and so, you know, deescalation from that perspective can be very difficult for them. And, uh, you know, cause they're not, they're not properly trained in it. And you know, I think that's why people are demanding. You know, that's why this kind of call for like having social workers or mental health responders for some of these calls is increasing in popularity because there's a recognition that, you know, there are some people that there has to be some sort of response to, you know, we need to do something to, to inter intervene in a situation, but it doesn't necessarily need to be the police and the police probably are not the best way to respond. And so I think that's why we're having that conversation a lot now. And I think that, you know, the increasing of, of the video footage of these things in the cell phone footage is know really putting it in a new light because I mean, these problems aren't new, right. It's just that now we have so much video evidence that people just are so repulsed by when they see it.

DEAN BECKER: (12:28)
Exactly. Right. All right. Kevin, now the, the other, uh, uh, article your second, most recent was dealing with COVID-19 and, uh, the challenge to, uh, the major model of addiction. Uh, it, it has a significant impact at this time, does it not?

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (12:46)
Yeah. So you know that, and I think that's also kind of related again, to the larger topics of criminal justice and police reform is how we understand drug use more generally. Right. And so, you know, in this country, there's been a long, long history of, of moralizing it, right. And saying that people who use drugs are just, you know, bad people or weak individuals and it's, you know, their personal responsibility and that, that whole, for trope that we've had against drug use, um, more recently, we've sort of started to see this conversation shift, and it's not a new shift. I mean, you know, you can go back to the 19 hundreds of people were saying that addiction was a medical disease back then as well, but now it's sort of the newer technology we have for these very, uh, sophisticated brain imaging scans and that kind of thing.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (13:28)
Um, and also with the opioid epidemic, there's this renewed focus on talking about addiction as a brain disease. Uh, and there certainly are, you know, components of addiction that, that have physiological changes on people. Um, but I think, you know, we can't lose sight of the role that a person's environment plays in their decisions to use drugs. And I think that, you know, with COVID-19, I feel like that is going to really bring that into harsh light because they think that, you know, the way that people are struggling now, um, you know, whether or not they were using drugs and maybe stopped, or maybe they use drugs, you know, intermittently, um, and now they have, you know, more free time on their hands cause they're unemployed, or maybe they're more stressed because they're unemployed or lonely because of, you know, the social distancing that we're all trying to engage in all of these things, um, that, you know, could lead more, more people to use drugs more frequently.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (14:21)
And so, um, you know, I think we, I think that given that, that these certain, these circumstances that we have now that we need to be aware of the environmental causes of addiction. Um, and I think that also feeds directly into the conversation about criminal justice reform as well, because, you know, how do people get to the point where they're addicted and in such a crises that, you know, the police become involved? Why, why have every other, you know, tool of, you know, social assistance that we have failed so drastically that, that that's the situation that we're in?

DEAN BECKER: (14:55)
No, and, and another complication, uh, tied into all of this is the fact that I'm certain of my guests have told me that the, uh, importation of drugs has been stymied that, uh, the, um, the quality therefore of the drugs is even further diminished. And that in fact, the overdose rate is rising and it's been running right around 70,000, 72,000 for the last few years. And they're afraid that it's going to be even higher for the year 20, 20 it's it's another complication, is it?

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (15:27)
Yeah, it absolutely is another complication that we're seeing the, you know, the data that was released for 2019 showed that the overdoses were higher that year, then in 2018, I think they're up to close to 73,000 was the number. And you're absolutely right that the quality of drugs has a role to play in this. And, you know, part of it is the, you know, the fentanyl that we see in the opioid supply, but also if you look at the individual drug trends, you see that methamphetamines and cocaine are increasingly implicated in overdose deaths. And so, you know, that kind of speaks to the problem of why we can't just treat this as like an opioid epidemic, because it's not just about opioids, it's about drug use in general, and the challenges with the supply. You know, if people, if there are disruptions to the drug supply that can result in one drugs that are less safe, right?

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (16:13)
Because they have more additives in them. And then people who are more feeling more anxious about their drug supply, you know, which can also cause complications in terms of the way that the market works and in terms of, you know, how they choose to buy and how they choose to use. And there's, so there's so much going on there that we really haven't had a chance yet to study. Um, but certainly, you know, that the issue of safe supply is a really important one as it relates to the overdose epidemic. And, you know, one of the things that we don't do in this country, but that, you know, we should consider is providing people with a safe supply of drugs so that they don't overdose, or at the very least, if we're not going to do that, provide them with the means to test their own drugs so that they can see what they're getting. Um, you know, we, we really should start thinking in those terms, because there's nothing that we're going to be able to do. That's going to completely eradicate, you know, the drug supplier, people trying to get high. And so we, we really should be considering other options

DEAN BECKER: (17:10)
And on what people don't consider. And I guess, I don't know, 70,000 is certainly not a minuscule number as compared to the current. I think it's 160,000, uh, uh, COVID deaths as of today, if I'm correct, put it, it is, it's an ongoing thing. It's it's, um, over the years, it's, it's over a million, I'm certain, uh, over the lifetime of the drug war of people who have died because, well, I closed my radio show with the thought that be careful, you don't know what's in that bag. And that is, uh, it continues to this day because we forced people to buy an unknown, use an unknown quantity. And with the COVID, um, social distancing, as you say, now, people perhaps are using these drugs alone and, and therefore I'm more susceptible to overdosing and di your thought there, Catherine.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (18:06)
Yeah, I think that you're completely right. I think that the isolation of the pandemic, you know, not only does it increase, you know, the likelihood that some people might use more, but right. That they also might use alone. And then in that case, there's not somebody there to, you know, call nine one, one or administer Naloxone if it's an opioid overdose. And so that also, you know, as that challenge, um, so yeah, I mean, I think, again, there's, there's sort of multiple different problems that we have going on here. Um, you know, and I think at the base of it is just that, you know, we have a lot of people that, that are going to use substances and we don't provide a safe way for people to do that.

DEAN BECKER: (18:45)
Yeah, no, a couple of other guests in my series here, um, one is dr. Uh, um, Kristoff Burkey who, uh, uh, helped pioneer the Swiss heroin injection program. He tells me they've had 20 million, uh, safe injections. In other words, uh, supervised injections of pure heroin with zero overdose deaths. And another guest dr. Perry Kendall out of Canada is talking about, he wants to start purchasing heroin and providing it at cost to the citizens of Canada to help stop their overdose crisis. Common sense as a lot to do with this, does it not?

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (19:27)
It does. Uh, and what you see in other countries is a very pragmatic approach to this problem. Uh, we don't have that in the U S we just, we never have, um, you know, we have a hundred years over a hundred years of sort of this criminalization approach to drug use. And, uh, it's a really difficult thing to change the, you know, not only is it the policies, but it's also just the sort of ingrained cultural response that we have to drug use. Um, we've seen that change a lot with marijuana. Uh, and I think that that is just partly because so many people, you know, eventually had tried smoking, you know, themselves or knew someone that did. And so, you know, we really started to see the change in public opinion on that issue. Um, with other drugs, we just haven't seen that. And that's probably because, you know, it's a small segment of the population that uses them.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (20:15)
Um, but you know, with PR with prescription opioids and the opioid epidemic, what you have there is, you know, a changing, uh, you know, understanding and perception of opioid use, especially when it's related to the prescription pills. That's because so many people can relate. They say, well, you know, I've gotten Vicodin for, uh, you know, back pain or, you know, tooth getting cold, you know, or whatever. And so it's something that they can relate to. Um, and so they're, you know, not to mention, at least in the beginning of this, of the epidemic, you know, the majority of overdose victims were white and that has also a lot to do with sort of the narrative. Um, but the point there is just that, you know, we, we need to change the culture and the understanding around drug use so that we can have that pragmatic conversation that, that you're seeing in other countries. Um, and that they've been doing so well for, for so much longer.

DEAN BECKER: (21:03)
I tell you what, Kevin, I might just leave it right there. I think that might be a good ending. Uh, we, we covered those, those two, uh, writings, I guess. I, I, um, I don't know what else to say other than, you know, we own the moral high ground. Uh, one thing I almost forgot. Um, you touched on it, you, you, you mentioned the heart of it, that this has not exactly been a moral, uh, scenario. We would, this is more a vindictive process. Like you say, set in place a hundred years ago to, to go after the people who use drugs as if they were demons, so to speak. Um, but do you, do you currently think there is anything that is moral about this drug war?

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (21:54)
No, there's not. Um, I think at this point, you know, it was, it's been racially motivated from the beginning. And I think that now we're in a situation where, you know, there's the, the racial component of it is still there. And then there's also the fact that, you know, a lot of people that are, you know, in elected office, I mean, for one thing, they're just sort of, they are not interested in hearing information that doesn't comport with their worldview or their understanding. And I also think that for a lot of them, it's politically expedient to sort of continue this, the idea of fear around certain things. And we see that, you know, with some of the rhetoric that president Trump has had around, Well, you know, drink urinals and, um, there's a, there's a political

DEAN BECKER: (22:40)
President Trump has had around, and then you froze.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (22:43)
Yeah. So I said, uh, you know, there's, there's a political advantage, right. To have of, of, uh, you know, playing on the fears that some people have and, and connecting drug use and crime to those fears is an old, old tactic. And we still see it continuing today. And you see some of it in president Trump's rhetoric about cartel, violent cartels from Mexico and drug trafficking. And so, you know, I think for some people that are in elected office, you know, it doesn't really matter if you show them evidence that, you know, needle exchange programs, you know, cut down on the spread of HIV, or if you show them that drug arrest, you know, disproportionately affect black communities. That's not that those aren't really things that they care about. They care about getting reelected. And so, you know, they don't, they still don't want to look soft on crime or soft on drugs. And again, it's, it's politically advantageous for them to kind of have the, to be able to play on the fear of some of their constituents. And I just, I think that's just an unfortunate reality of the situation,

DEAN BECKER: (23:43)
Right? They, they like to claim that moral high ground, despite all the evidence to the contrary. And, and one of the hopes is that this, um, special will somehow circulate perculate make it to the office of Donald Trump and Joe Biden. And to what would you say to them, how would you challenge them to face down this, this issue?

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (24:08)
Well, I mean, I would say that, you know, let's, let's look at the evidence, let's look at the scientific evidence about drugs and about drug use. Let's look at the damage of the war on drugs, and let's look at the trade offs there. You know, if you do a purely cost benefit analysis and look at the, you know, the cost of provision versus the benefits, I mean, it's not, it's not a difficult decision if you take out the political calculations, you know, in the, in the moralizing rhetoric. Um, again, I, like I said, I think that we're going to need more than that for this to change. I think that we really do need a broader conversation about drug use. And just to kind of give you an example of what I mean, you know, with the around COVID, I'm hearing a whole lot of conversations about mental health and I hear it, and I think it's great.

KATHERINE NEILL HARRIS: (24:53)
I, we, you know, I hear it on the radio. I see it in the paper, you know, people talking about like, you know, the, the concerns around mental health and the concerns around people staying well and during this crisis. Um, but what is often not mentioned as part of that is drug and alcohol use. And that has to be part of the conversation. I think that we really need to normalize it as a response that people have as a coping mechanism, so that it's not such a stigmatized behavior. And so that we start to understand the reality of it. Um, because still, you know, other than marijuana, when we talk about other drugs, you know, the, the continued narrative is that, you know, you use and, you know, maybe you had your life together and then everything falls apart, you know, and you're living on the streets. I mean, that's still the narrative that we tell people. And that's true for some, for some people that does happen, but that's not the majority. And so, you know, I really think that, that there has to be this broader shift in that conversation in order for people to be more willing, to listen to all of this evidence that we have, and that we know exists about, you know, the benefits of a harm reduction approach and decriminalization.