08/05/18 Earl Blumenauer

Century of Lies
Earl Blumenauer

This week on Century, exclusive audio from Congressman Earl Blumenauer's community forum on ending the war on drugs, which was held in Portland, Oregon on August First. Speakers on this show include Congressman Blumenauer and Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. We'll have more from this forum on next week's show.

Audio file



AUGUST 5, 2018

DEAN BECKER: 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.

DOUG MCVAY: Welcome to Century Of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

On August First, Congressman Earl Blumenauer held a public forum on ending the war on drugs. No other media were in attendance, I was it. No online, no print, no radio, no TV, just little old me. So, let's get straight to it, shall we? First off, here's Congressman Blumenauer, opening the panel.

CONGRESSMAN EARL BLUMENAUER: As Shannon mentioned, I've been spending a lot of time dealing with various aspects of what I feel is a failed war on drugs. Some of you may be familiar with the work we've been doing dealing in the marijuana space. Actually, I was in the Oregon legislature when Oregon became the first state to decriminalize marijuana, before almost anybody here except Bob was born. And I've been deeply concerned for a long time that we've been on the wrong path.

It's been interesting that of late, in the last 21 years, we've taken a different course, where we have seen states move forward to legalize first medical marijuana, and notice it was the states that did that. Not the federal government. It was people who decided, advocates, decided that the access to medical marijuana should be uniform, should be legal, at least on a state level.

We have watched subsequently where the next phase of legalization of adult use started in 2012, with Colorado and the state of Washington. We followed two years later with our own initiative in 2014. Now we've got nine states that have adult use, we have 31 states where it's medical marijuana, and in fact, there are a number of other states that have a modified medical marijuana, so over 97 percent of the American public has access to some form of medical marijuana.

And I think that's been encouraging for me, because we're having a much broader national conversation, driven primarily at the grassroots level, but we're making some progress in Congress. We have a Cannabis Caucus, we have over forty pieces of legislation that are being pursued.

We've been able to make some progress dealing with legalization of hemp, which, when you think about it, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are probably spinning in their graves to know that a product that they grew on their plantations is illegal. Well, the products aren't illegal, it just has to be imported from Canada or someplace else. It's really stupid. But we're making some progress there.

I've been in encouraged that we're watching broader awareness, the evolution of a legal cannabis industry. Canada, last month, legalized nationally, and that goes live in October, for adult use. I'm even hearing from people in Mexico that they're -- the new administration there is looking at legalizing cannabis. We can foresee a North American cannabis market in the not too distant future.

There's also, I think, real excitement around the work that is being done in terms of the applications, of the therapeutic uses of cannabis. The research is really taking hold, moving rather rapidly. It would more rapidly if the federal government didn't make it essentially illegal to research cannabis in this country. The real cutting edge stuff is taking place for example in Israel, or in Great Britain. We see more in Canada.

I'm hopeful, and we again have bipartisan legislation that would change that, so that we can go forward to be able to understand what the therapeutic aspects are, to be able to know what people are buying, because right now we don't have the standards that we have in terms of the pharmaceutical industry, that's looking at this very nervously, and maybe they should.

We've been working to try and make sure that the Veterans Administration can work with American veterans dealing with aspects of medical marijuana in their lives. I've been working on this for years, and I will tell you, some of the most striking and touching stories I have heard are from veterans and their families about how access to medical marijuana saved their lives, transformed their existence. Dealing with chronic pain, PTSD, or other neurological disorders that cannabis helps.

I've had, in fact, one -- I had one session at a VA facility where we were talking about some of the challenges with the VA, and I couldn't let the -- let it pass without my indicating that I hope we would be able to change a stupid regulation so that VA doctors can talk to veterans in communities where medical marijuana was legal, that their doctor could talk to them.

And as I walked out, I had one of the staff come up to me and kind of take me aside and say that she's really glad that I mentioned that, because she's a VA employee and she couldn't, she says, get through the day without the use of her medical marijuana.

And you think for a moment about some of the challenges in our health care system. If we are able to have broader application, continue the research, enable it to be part of the health care system that the federal government is a part of, how much money could be saved having access for people on Medicare, Medicaid, VA, on a less addictive, more effective alternative for many people, that is medical marijuana, as opposed to opioids.

We're losing a hundred people a day, overdose deaths, to opioids. And, isn't it interesting that in the states that have medical marijuana, there are far fewer opioid deaths. It gives people an alternative that is safe, cheap, and effective.

I don't want to think that it's all a panacea, we've got work to do, we've got public education, we have research, but I think that progress that we are making here for me is very encouraging.

But, legalizing, researching, is just kind of the tip of the iceberg, because it's opened for me a whole array of issues that need to be addressed. We have spent over a trillion dollars since Nixon launched his war on drugs, which was really a war on hippies and black people, for political purposes. I mean, the tapes reveal this.

It wasn't based on research and compassion and god knows not respect for the law. It was deemed to be a political expedience. In fact, Nixon refused to accept the recommendation of his own blue ribbon panel, chaired by the [Republican former] governor of Pennsylvania and a bunch of blue ribbon experts that said no, we ought to go towards decriminalization. We ought to be able to open this up. We shouldn't have a heavy-handed prohibition law enforcement approach. It was not to be.

And it got ramped up with the Reagan "just say no." We spent massive amounts of money trying to disrupt the drug trade in Latin America, particularly Central America. Not very effectively. Drugs today are more readily available than when we started, and they're cheaper, and it's kind of interesting we can't even keep them out of our prisons.

And part of what we are seeing with unaccompanied minors and families fleeing the violence in Central America is the consequence of this drug war down there spinning out of control, and our inability to control the flow of illegal drugs in this country destabilizes south of the border with all sorts of unfortunate consequences.

And part of what we saw here over the course of the war on drugs was a decision that we were going to try and deal with a draconian effort at prohibition and ever stronger sanctions. Three strikes and you're out. Extraordinarily punitive sentences clogging prisons, some of them private prisons, with people with long sentences with -- serving no purpose.

And we're slowly, I think, getting to the point where the realization is coming that there is in fact a better way. We're watching other countries move forward with decriminalization. Portugal comes to mind. There are better approaches than putting people in jail, especially many people who are actually sick. They're addicted.

We've criminalized the addiction, not providing help, and ironically it is the low level addict that is the essential distribution system for the drug cartels, and if we catch the low level addict, who's the street dealer, we put them in jail for longer periods of time, making them virtually unemployable when they come out, allowing them to become much better drug dealers while they're in.

And, I don't mean to be glib, but, it does trouble me that we're wasting huge sums of money and we have concentrated the force of this war on drugs on a relatively small portion of the population.

It's not white kids in the suburbs, unless they do something stupid. It's young people of color, particularly African Americans, who've been arrested and incarcerated at a wildly disproportionate rate. And it has, I think, destroyed the lives of a million young black men.

And it -- and so it goes.

But I am encouraged that people are understanding. I am encouraged that we're seeing reform rather than prohibition. I'm encouraged that citizens have taken it in their own hands. We're going to have four more states that are going to vote on it this fall, I plan on spending a little time there with those efforts.

But I've been -- I'm also encouraged how the coalition is growing for different approaches to treatment, different approaches to law enforcement. Shannon spent the first part of her long career, as for such a young person, dealing with juvenile justice in Louisiana, where there was ample opportunity for reform. But she was able to see progress there.

Looking at failure, looking at opportunities to do it better. More recently, Louisiana, I'm encouraged with what they have done reducing sentences for people in prison, and taking a substantial amount of the savings that they've realized and investing it in the prisoners, as they're released, so that they stay out, that they get the support, the education, the health, the job training, to be successful. What an amazing concept.

And, I'll just conclude by saying that I am excited about the prospect of our using savings from the system and revenues that we can gain from legalizing, regulating, and taxing. We've started that in Oregon, we've raised tens of millions of dollars for education and law enforcement and drug treatment.

But think about the potential if we have a national program with national regulations, national uniform taxation, and before those taxes get swallowed up in the federal budget for tax cuts for people who don't need it, or nuclear weapons, what if we segregated those resources and dedicated them to treatment, for anybody who needs it, and for being able to use some of that money for their healthcare and housing?

Because these are all linked together. People who are addicted and homeless, very hard for them to be on a pattern of being able to get treatment, to be able to get healthcare, and released into the wild without support, they run into more health problems in the future, and end up in our emergency rooms.

I truly think that we can have that conversation here, about how we use resources, what our priorities are, to be able to not spend money on failure. And I think of every addicted homeless or mentally ill person that is default a public safety problem, or in the judiciary, or in prison, spending money on failure.

If we're able to work together to think about how we invest in success, how we divert, how we're able to empower agencies and individuals to be able to stop wasting the trillion dollars war on drugs, the money in the corrections system, that is in excess of what we need to do, the unnecessary law enforcement activity that could be minimized or eliminated if we were able to help people up front, until they spiral out of control.

I really appreciate your willingness to be with us, to talk about this this evening. Shannon indicated that we'll be, after we hear from some of our experts here, that they'll have -- you'll have a chance to ask questions. I hope that you'll be free to make an observation, if you have comments, thoughts, suggestions. I'm interested in hearing that, and I think our other friends are as well.

Because this is as important a challenge as our community faces. You see it every day on the streets. We have terrible outcomes in terms of mental health in our community. We have challenges in the criminal justice system, and we're fighting in terms of getting health care to people before they spiral out of control.

So thank you for being here, I look forward to hearing from our panel, and then being able to hear your questions, comments, observations. Thank you very much.

DOUG MCVAY: That's Congressman Earl Blumenauer, opening a forum on ending the war on drugs. He was speaking in Portland, Oregon, Congressman Blumenauer organized that panel. One of the other panelists was Bobbin Singh, the executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. We'll hear him in just a moment.

You are listening to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net.

We'll get to Bobbin in just a moment. First, here's a brief interview I got with Congressman Blumenauer.

There are a lot of advocates around the country that are ready to push for things like, not just syringe exchange, but supervised injection sites. The Justice Department has already threatened that they're going to go after people who do, directly, up in Connecticut [sic: Vermont], in New York. What would you say to advocates who are saying, we don't care, come ahead.

CONGRESSMAN EARL BLUMENAUER: Well, in some instances, that might be a good strategy. There is overwhelming evidence that there are better approaches than the punitive, heavy-handed denial of an opportunity for safe injection, creates disease, it leads actually, to more likely to have overdoses, and these are solutions that have been tried here and in other parts of the world. We need to be open to that, and at some point, people standing up and at least calling the bluff of Sessions and the Trump administration probably has a role.

I mean, in a sense, that's what we're doing with the entire legalization of medical and adult use with marijuana, and so maybe pushing the envelope a little bit with safe injection might be reasonable.

DOUG MCVAY: Envelopes are made to be pushed. Again, Congressman, thank you so much.


DOUG MCVAY: Now, let's get to Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, speaking at the public forum on ending the war on drugs which was organized by Congressman Earl Blumenauer.

BOBBIN SINGH: But as the Congressman mentioned, the war on drugs is actually a war on people, particularly the people that have been most brutalized by this war are communities of color, brown and black folks, poor people, people with mental health issues, so on and so forth.

So, to say that we have a war on drugs I think is incredibly inaccurate, and, you know, we need to start moving away from that language and calling it what it is, which is just really a war on people, and the human condition.

So, part of what I want to talk about is just, just sort of a global overview, or, you know, continue to build on what the Congressman has done in sort of setting the stage for this conversation.

And, you know, in thinking about terminology or framework, one of the things that I think that's really important for us is to change how we think about drug use, addiction, substance abuse, and begin to be more honest about it, be more open about it, be more accepting about it. We need to embrace complexity, embrace science, embrace compassion.

And, what that looks like is that we have to begin to reject what we've been doing in the past, which is a criminal justice strategy around drug use and addiction and substance abuse, and move towards a public health approach.

And this begins, for us, to have to think about what are our goals in society? What are we trying to achieve? From our organizational perspective and even my own personal perspective, my hope is always to try to create a safe and healthy community, try to ensure people are safe and healthy.

That should always be the goal of what we're trying to accomplish. When we use the criminal justice system, the intent of the criminal justice system is to punish. This is a power and control system, it's a system that uses both those dynamics to coerce behavior, to hold people accountable, and when it comes to drug use or substance abuse and addiction, this is just fundamentally a flawed approach. It does not work, as the Congressman said.

It's a failed approach, it's a failed war, in part because we're conducting a war, or using a strategy, for something that doesn't make -- a strategy that doesn't make any sense for the problem that we're facing.

War by definition is something you're trying to conquer, trying to dominate, trying to destroy, and so when we use this framing "war on drugs," war on these communities, that's what we're trying to do. We're trying to dominate, we're trying to control, we're trying to, you know, use power to effectively control these populations on the margins, or push them out of the way.

As Shannon was talking about, Michelle Alexander talks about how this evolution of how we control segments of our population through either segregation or mass incarceration, but this is just an iteration of that.

So, I think the first thing is, you know, just understanding what the problem is, and, you know, you'll hear from a medical professional to be able to frame this as a public health issue, but, the truth is, is most people that consume drugs aren't addicts. Right? There's a smaller percentage of people who actually consume drugs, or use drugs, that are actually addicts.

So what is driving drug use? When we have, you know, if we ask that question, one of the things we begin to discover is it's usually other underlying factors, like trauma, housing, unemployment, poverty. So once we begin to correct those factors, we can actually begin to correct some of these other factors.

But to think that we can sort of use the criminal justice system, arrest our way out of this, incarcerate out way out of it, and use that as a way to deter people from using drugs, is just completely nonsensical. It's inconsistent with all evidence, all research, all science.

So, for us to continue to put money or resources into a criminal justice strategy around drug use or substance abuse, or addiction, it's going to continue to be a failure, and it's going to continue to divert resources away, and the people that are paying the biggest prices are these communities of color, black and brown people, poor people, and it's not that they're paying the price, you know, just through incarceration, but as the Congressman said, there are people dying each day because of this.

People are dying because we're not asking the right questions, we're not actually addressing addiction or drug use in the right ways. I mean, a couple of examples here in Oregon in the past, I think, two years, there have been a couple of in-custody deaths. These are deaths that have occurred in jail, because people had, they've been regular users of heroin, and when they go into the jails, the jail staff actually does not have a detox program in place, so these individuals end up dying because of dehydration.

And so, it's this type of mentality or approach that's so destructive. And then the ripple effect, as was commented on, it's not only the individual but it's the families that end up also paying the price for this approach.

So, you know, the first thing, and it's hard to believe that in 2018, that we're still having this conversation about using science, embracing a public health model around what is a public health issue, but we are making some headway. I think marijuana legalization is helping the conversation, but it's also harming the conversation because, as Shannon was saying, as we move and end certain things, we have to remember how these things morph and how these power and control dynamics end up looking differently.

And what we see, again, with the marijuana legalization, is communities of color being left behind in that conversation, in the legal market, in that industry, and again, not actually benefiting from legalization in ways that, you know, you really hope. And we're not talking about the other drugs, or other substance abuse issues that are out there. There's methamphetamines, heroin, crack cocaine.

At the end of the day, it's going to be bringing use out into the public, decriminalizing or legalizing this, allowing medical oversight, purity tests, what have you. Safe injection sites. They're actually going to save people's lives, and that's the hard conversation, I think, as a a community that we have to have.

And, to be honest, you know, the last person I want to see interacting with anyone that's having drug issues is someone in uniform with a gun, and, I would assume that most police officers probably feel the same way, at least in my interactions with most law enforcement professionals.

So, it's really hydraulics that we have to begin to think about. How do we begin to ask our law enforcement and our prosecutors, our DAs and our judiciary, the legal system, to stop dealing with this problem, and how do we begin to create resources and infrastructure outside the criminal justice system to begin addressing this problem.

That's really where the problems with the challenges and the difficulties lie right now, is that there is, in Multnomah County, I think we have better examples of support services that are outside the criminal justice system, but once you begin to go to the more rural counties, that's just not the case.

And so, you know, when we are starting to ask, to end the war on drugs, we have to really begin to ask, and begin to push for, solutions that are outside the criminal justice system, and not just decriminalize or legalize drug use.

And so these are all the sort of attentions, or like, some of the things that I think we have to begin to think about, but, ultimately we have to begin to reframe what our goals are, and that's really the goal to keep people safe, keep people healthy, and not to punish people for what is essentially a health issue.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Bobbin Singh, Oregon Justice Resource Center, speaking at a public forum on ending the war on drugs that was organized by Congressman Earl Blumenauer and held in Portland, Oregon, on August First.

Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

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We'll be back next week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the drug war. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.