08/14/19 Sanho Tree

Century of Lies
Sanho Tree
Institute for Policy Studies

This week on Century of Lies, part one of our conversation with Sanho Tree, Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. Sanho talks with Doug about the presidential race, the rise of the authoritarian right, the drug war in the Philippines, and much more.

Audio file



SEPTEMBER 14, 2019

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 McVEY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I am your host, Doug McVey, Editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

We’ve got a good show for you this week, let’s get to it.

SANHO TREE: I am Sanho Tree, Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, D.C.

DOUG MCVEY: Sanho, I haven’t talked to you for a while. There is so much going on out there in the world it’s tough to narrow it all down. Our listeners may be aware that there is a presidential race coming up in a little over a year. The candidates on the democratic side are fighting to become the nominee.

For the most part, drug policy has been conspicuously absent from these debates – from this election. We’ll talk about weed, we may talk a little bit about marijuana at one level if their forced – but that is it. But that is it! 70,000 overdose deaths in the year in the number of opiate – Anyway. What’s going on?

SANHO TREE: It’s electoral politics as usual. Drug policy – the democrats are generally in favor of either legalization or decriminalization so that’s the fight. It’s not really something that they are going to go in to a slugfest over as an election issue when they are generally on the decrim/legalization side.

It was interesting however when Michael Moore was on Seth Myers show this week – or it may have been last week – but in that he talked about the politics in Michigan and how Trump won it by less than 10,000 votes or something and how the 2018 election had legalization on the ballot so in the midterms, they had the best turnout ever, especially amongst the young people. He has made a quick pitch for putting these things on the ballot in other states. This is what Carl Rove – you know, George Bush’s evil genius strategist – did in 2004, he put the anti-gay marriage initiatives on a bunch of state ballots right before the election and it helped put Bush over the top. When that election was – it was John Kennedy’s election to lose basically. The Iraq war was so unpopular, but it worked for the republicans. It looks like if the democrats can get enough interesting ballot initiatives especially marijuana legalization on key ballots that could really help boost turnout.

This is going to be a turnout election – it’s hard to model this one because it’s so unusual. A lot of the conventional analysts are going with the old tried and true polling methods and the Trump campaign is supposedly pioneering a different turnout model where they can micro-micro target people down to the individual level using Facebook, and probably some Russian assistance as well but they know exactly now who they think they need to turn out who haven’t voted before. It’s going to be a very close election – or a very interesting election to watch.

DOUG MCVEY: Interesting. Serious question – the news is still filled with stories about the overdose crisis, the numbers of people dying. We are now seeing that indicators – the indicators that I have been pointing out for the last couple of years – it sucks some times to be right – that show that there has been a trend toward increasing stimulant use whether its methamphetamine or amphetamine or cocaine. We are seeing more of that now, even in the overdose figures. Presidential race – 70,000 people dying from various kinds of controlled substances in a year – why is it off the radar?

SANHO TREE In some ways I am kind of glad that it is off the radar because this is not the best forum in which to talk about very complex problems, especially ones that have fairly counterintuitive solutions. It does not mix well with sound bite politics in the middle of a campaign. Historically, this is where we’ve gotten really bad legislation because politicians think people will only understand or remember easy answers and with drug prohibition, the easy answer is usually the wrong answer. What you don’t want is for candidates to get in to an easy bidding war because you only have 60 seconds or whatever before the moderators cut you off. It’s hard to really talk about different models of drug control or harm reduction in that kind of space so it turns in to a bidding war of who is going to be more restrictive, who is going to arrest more people. Joe Biden, once again, said I want to jail those pharmaceutical industries that sold us the opioids as though you can just jail your way out of every problem. It doesn’t lend itself to thoughtful solutions unfortunately. It’s such an important issue – but we need to have a better format in which to discuss these things I think.

DOUG MCVEY: Then of course Biden has experience with that exact thing having been an architect to the 1986 and the 1988 drug bills, speaking of bidding wars. My God.

SANHO TREE: And here I think that is a good distinction to make. This is where drug policy is coming up in the presidential debates and it’s about the past, it’s about people’s records as prosecutors and as drug warriors. I think that’s an entirely valid debate. It’s a good one to have right now and it really does show some distinctions between the various candidates. Biden of course being the architect of the modern drug war in many ways and Kamala Harris has a long history as a prosecutor as does Amy Klovachar, and it’s good to hold these people to account because for so many decades, the conventional politics was that you couldn’t go wrong being a prosecutor and then going for higher office and you could usually brag about how many people you’ve put away. Now we have seen the results of mass incarceration and the war on drugs and now it’s not so fashionable and they’re nervous about talking and defending their histories visa vie the drug war and I think that’s a good thing.

DOUG MCVEY: I agree. I think that the real uncomfortable part is when it starts going beyond just the drug war – I mean we have had the last four years – its Eric Garner and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland and so many people – it’s too many to name, we wouldn’t have time in the show. The horrible levels of brutality and violence that we put up with by police – at some point you have to say that the prosecutors are implicit in this. They are condoning this. There is a legal term for this – they are suborning this violence and brutality. They are suborning the lies which police regularly do on the stand in the course of their investigations. They lie, they fudge, and they make stuff up. It’s not a pleasant thing to say – it hurts, but it’s true. I think those fundamental questions – I think that’s one of the reasons why all we are hearing about Kamala Harris is she said she listened to Tupac when she was Howard, but he wasn’t recording back then.

Honestly? That’s the level – oh dear God! How about we talk about what did she do when the police murder Oscar Grant in Oakland on that New Year’s Eve night/ New Year’s Day morning. How about we talk about what she did with any of the corrupt police officers and any of the other officials in the state of California or while she was the district attorney in San Francisco, and on the other hand, how much did she just have to put up with.

Prosecutors know that those cops are lying. They know that they are boing told a line of stuff but hey, you are gonna get the conviction – it’s the only way to get the conviction.

SANHO TREE I think it’s time that we have hit a tipping point in many ways where people are fed up with conventional prosecutors and I will be very blunt, I have a biased against prosecutors when they run for office because historically it has always been seen as a stepping stone to a higher office. You’ve had lots of these local prosecutors racking up as many notches on their belts as they can thinking that it’s an easy sell at election time, but now as people are waking up to the fact that it’s their family members and friends and neighbors who are being locked up for all kinds of ridiculous crimes that they see the excesses of this and I for one, presume prosecutors are not good candidates unless they demonstrate that they’re actively trying to reform the system like Larry Krasner in Philadelphia, now that’s a great model for a prosecutor – one that you could be proud of but historically these other prosecutors thought they could just score some wins and that’s the mentality that is so troubling. When you are a prosecutor it’s all about winning. Scaring a suspect in to the straight and narrow is not a win – you have to win. It all becomes half measures are no win. So how do you get a win? You throw everything at the defendant whether they deserve it or not because your objective is now to win at all costs – to put that notch in your belt. What’s best for the community, what’s best for the offender – these things don’t factor in when it comes .to this game mentality. They literally turn it in to a game they have to win but they lose sight of the fact that these are human beings. They come from communities; there are families associated with this and getting your 100% win by throwing the book at someone is not the same as justice or helping a community or repairing harms that have been done. We need to rethink the way prosecutors behave in this country and how we elect them.

DOUG MCVEY: We are listening to an interview with Sanho Tree, he is the Director of the Drug Policy Project at The Institute for Policy Studies. You can find out more about Sanho by going to his website: IPS-DC.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @sanhotree. We will have more from him in just a moment. You are listening to Century of Lies, I am your host, Doug McVey, Editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Seattle Hempfest is August 16, 17 and 18 this year. For the first time in many years I am unable to attend which hurts. It is the thrill and joy of my life to be associated with Hempfest and I just wish I could be up there this year but too much stuff piled up. I hope they have a great time. Here are some sounds from a previous Hempfest:

DOUG MCVEY: Three days of Hempfest and we are talking about food and well you would. Aside from getting hungry – I went to the Iowa State Fair every year when I was a kid because I lived in central Iowa and that is pretty much the highlight of my year, which tells you a lot about Iowa, and the midway with all that food and all these (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and there is more food than five Iowa State Fair’s.

MALE VOICE: You can get a chicken and waffle cone here. They’ll put some chicken in a waffle cone and then you can just walk around with maple sauce and whatnot. They also have the deep fried peanut butter and jelly sandwich is still here. The mini donuts place is still here. I haven’t seen the chocolate strawberry people in a while, but there’s pork buns – everything from pork buns to soul food. You can get anything you want here – it’s just one of the best festivals in the world. That’s how I feel about it.

DOUG MCVEY: I agree and aside from the food there is also all the vendors. It’s a dozen Shakedown Streets rolled in to one.

MALE VOICE: It’s if Shakedown Street was two miles long with better music.

DOUG MCVEY: Geeze, much better.

MALE VOICE: Fewer drum circles

DOUG MCVEY: (LAUGHTER). That’s the other thing that I was missing and I am so glad of it, too.

MALE VOICE: And no nitrous.

DOUG MCVEY: This is true. You know, fewer people than I have in years past. I mean occasionally you would hear people trying to sell joints once – once so far, and that’s been about it

MALE VOICE: What weed?

DOUG MCVEY: It was joints. Yeah.

MALE VOICE: Oh yeah. I mean you could still find them. There’s a couple of cats – they usually stick to the outskirts of the park now so you can pick it up on your way in or whatnot. The underground economy is still pretty good – the underground cannabis scene is actually still pretty interesting. I was just out at Eyeshot Island and a lot of those guys, they are still underground. This stick to underground. They don’t like any of this dispensary weed or this recreational weed. They find it overproduced and uncared for and not always cured correctly and sometimes flushed badly. There’s a lot of challenges in creating it. I think that a lot of people think that you just buy a license, open a farm and start growing good weed, and that is not how it goes, man. Weed is like craft beer. It’s like a good wine. It’s like Air loom tomatoes, you still have to take care and put love in your product to have anything viable in a lot of these legal states. Everybody is just thinking bigger is necessarily better and you’re just – I almost cussed – you’re just messing up the prices for everybody. You’re costing yourself money and you’re costing other people money and I don’t think it is necessarily the way to go.

DOUG MCVEY: That was Ngao Bealum, my good friend the comedian. He’s up there at Seattle Hempfest on the 16th, 17th, and 18th. He’ll be emceeing on stages. He will be doing a set – he will be doing all kinds of stuff and by gosh, I do miss him. I hope he does well – I hope that the whole thing goes well for everyone. Have a great time up there in Seattle the 16th, 17th, and 18th of August. Find out more at Hempfest.org.

Now let’s get back to that conversation with Sanho Tree, Director of the Drug Policy Project at The Institute for Policy Studies.

Talk to me about what’s happening in the Philippines. Give folks an idea of how bad it has been just in case we have new listeners who haven’t heard yet.

SANHO TREE: Its bloody, it’s awful. This is one of the dictators that Trump admires a great deal, President Dutuarte – Rodrigo Dutuarte of the Philippines.

He came in to the office about six months before Trump won his election and he has pioneered a lot of the fascist, authoritarian tactics that Trump adopts 6-12 months later, so it’s really worth following the Philippines to see because Dutuarte has really pioneered a lot of the Trump nastiness in terms of smashing through checks and balances, political norms, battering those things down, locking up his opposition. The most prominent Senator, Lyla Deleema who criticized his drug war since he came in to office was jailed on trumped up drug charges. She is awaiting trial, she has been held for about two years now. He has only been in office for two and a half years. So she has been behind bars! So when Trump says lock her up; Dutuarte has already done that and he’s gone after other politicians and journalists trying to silence them with fabricated charges and technicalities, any excuse to lock people up. That is how he is trying to silence his critics.

The UN Human Rights Commission voted about three weeks ago to block a formal investigation in to the human rights situation in the Philippines and of course President Dutuarte and his Foreign Secretary condemned this. This said they were not going to go along with it – they won’t cooperate – whatever that means. I don’t know if that means they are turning them away at the airport or they just don’t meet with them, or provide data but the UN voted to investigate because it’s gotten that serious. There’s been about 27,000 – 30,000 people killed by some estimates, over the past two and a half years under Dutuarte’s drug war. Police will confer, but I think 6,600 or so have been investigated as drug related killings, but the rest are under investigation. They are a poor country these things will never be finalized or investigated because I don’t think the police have an interest in doing that because it’s largely the police and the people that are hiring or working with that are doing the killings. We have these very murky numbers but tens of thousands of people have died basically. Killed either by death squads or by police in shoot outs, and they always say they were resisting arrest therefore we had to shoot them. So these investigations constantly turn up. Suspects who have been shot dead, but they have handcuff marks around their wrists meaning that they were probably handcuffed and the police excuse that they reached for a gun and were about to shoot us so we had to shoot them rarely holds up. They often plant a gun with no serial number next to the person they’ve killed. Very often it will be a left handed shooter, and they will plant the gun by the right hand. They’ve even been caught on CCTV dragging young people off to their deaths.

It’s not a mystery who is doing the killing for the most part in the Philippine’s and yet President Dutuarte still remains popular although he’s losing support amongst the poor because those are the only people he is killing basically. He still has majority support and it does not bode well for the rest of the world. Especially if societies haven’t been through a lot of drug reform, they still have these old stereotypes in their head about drugs and drug users it’s very easy for rightwing authoritarians to demagogue this issue and so that is how President Dutuarte has been able to do this. Basically it’s based on a series of monstrous, monstrous lies by the president.

It’s a highly networked Facebook nation – not so much Twitter, but everyone’s on Facebook and it allows him to bypass a lot of traditional media; fact checkers, so to speak. You see this in Brazil. President Bulsonaro, when he won his campaign last year it said that he won it through WhatsApp, the messaging app owned by Facebook. That allowed him to communicate his lies directly to voters and bypass the fact checkers. These are dangerous things. Dutuarte for instance, repeated one of the most heinous lies that if you smoke Shaboo, which is what they call meth in the Philippines – if you smoke meth for more than six months your brain will shrink to the size of a babies brain. I have had people tell me it will shrink to the size of a walnut and therefore they are a poor country. There is no treatment available when you’ve done that much damage – therefore we have to kill these people. So you will see interviews with average citizens off the street and police and other officials saying matter-of-factly, yeah, we have to kill them. There is nothing we can do. So there’s a basic lack of information fueled by a mountain of lies and unfortunately it has taken hold amongst the people and it’s not unreasonable for them to buy in to these easy answers. In Central America, for instance, where there’s so much bloodshed from gang violence and often drug prohibition fueled violence, you would think people would be tired of the drug war but if you’re a working class person trying to survive, you don’t have time to read The Economist every night and look at the counterintuitive nature of drug prohibition. What you see, however, is lots of blood. If it bleeds, it leads. That gets the headlines, it gets the front page gory photos in the newspaper and people see lots of drugs and violence and they want it to stop.

It’s understandable that people would fall for an easy answer. If drugs are bad – why not have a war on drugs. This is what this country had to grapple with for decades and it took us that long to realize, oh, wait a minute – it’s kind of counterintuitive that the more you fight the war on drugs the more valuable they become and it drives more people in to this economy, etc., etc., and prohibition is fueling a lot of this mess. That hasn’t reached the Philippines – that kind of messaging, or many parts of the world for that matter so people do fall for easy answers. I think a lot of authoritarian politicians realize this – this is one of those easy areas to appeal to people at a visceral, gut level of revulsion and hatred. So when you see Trump talking about infestation and vermin in Baltimore, he’s using language going straight back to the Nazi’s and their propaganda. In fact, one of the most vial propaganda films of all time is called The Eternal Jew put out by the Nazi’s that explicitly uses images of rats and vermin and dehumanization of Jews to link all of these things together and so you see that being used by Trump against immigrants. He’s appealing – as are many of these authoritarians and fascist around the world – appealing to visceral emotions. These are some of the most primal hatreds and biases that humans possess before what we would call civilization happened. Your primal fear is of the neighboring tribe at the other side of the valley. They don’t worship the same gods as we do, they’re not as hygienic and clean as we do, they poop near the water source or they have bad habits, or they steal. These are the oldest stereotypes of the ‘other’. As we became civilized and came together and realized that you can live in a community and shared values, etc., and you wouldn’t kill each other or steal from each other. We are going backwards and these authoritarians are pushing these very primal buttons about the ‘other’. So what they say about immigrants, what they say about drug users, what they say about Jews – they are able to dehumanize human beings at a very primal level. It’s the opposite of civilization is where Trump and these authoritarians are taking us.

Unfortunately it works. You can mobilize people through hatred and fear much more easily than rational discourse if the conditions are right and we are seeing that in Hungary, we are seeing that in the Philippines, in Brazil, and other countries and I am very, very fearful. This messaging works – it gets traction, and the right wing is on the march. No one thought this was possible a decade ago. People thought if you go that racist, that primal surely enough educated people will rise up and it will backfire, but as Donald Trump has shown us, you can’t go too low. We’ll see if his turn out model works or not, I sincerely hope it doesn’t. It is a very dangerous time politically.

DOUG MCVEY: I just hope that we end up in the same concentration camp – at least somebody to talk to.


DOUG MCVEY: There’s a handful of things – I mentioned the rise of stimulants and of you’ve been working doing policy analysis and actually doing visits down to Columbia for a very long time. I don’t know if you’ve been down there lately but one of the people I would talk to about what’s going on down there. I have heard reports about increased cocaine production in South America. I have also heard some real problems with implementation of the peace process, that mostly the government is simply – dragging its feet isn’t the right way to put it – they are standing firmly and unwilling to move. Nothing is dragging.


DOUG MCVEY: How are things going in Columbia and should we be worried about that?

SANHO TREE: Yeah. The killings are – especially in the former Guerilla controlled areas – are staggering. The number of killings by various armed groups that has filled a vacuum so when the FARC Guerilla’s finally laid down their weapons after five decades of civil war in Columbia – the longest running civil war on this hemisphere – when they finally put down their weapons people cheered but we warned, even before the demobilization that if the state did not fill the vacuum and take over those areas that previously occupied by the Guerillas and with legitimacy build infrastructure so that farmers have other options rather than growing coca – and do all of the things necessary to fill that vacuum left when the Guerilla’s put down their weapons and demobilized then others would fill that vacuum and that is exactly what has happened. You have organized criminal groups, you have former rightwing paramilitary death squads that are now operating as drug gangs, and you even have some Guerilla factions that refuse to put down their weapons and are now trafficking drugs and growing coca in these regions. It’s a free for all. You have got people interested in land grabs so big farmers or agra-business or well-cut gold mining, emerald mining, people are just invading these territories, many of which are environmentally extremely fragile. A lot of these are indigenous territories or belong to peasant farmers but it’s easy to grab land unfortunately when you don’t have rule of law, when you don’t have state security forces to enforce those laws so that’s what is happening. The social and human rights defenders in these regions are the ones being targeted. The ones who are raising their voices to say there is something going – bad things are happening, we need help. Those are the ones being assassinated and its many, many dozens in the past year.

DOUG MCVEY: That was part of my conversation with Sanho Tree, Director of the Drug Policy Project at The Institute for Policy Studies, and he is a good friend. Its good talking to him. We will have more from him on next week’s show. For now though, that’s it. I want to thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies, we are a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network – on the web at DrugTruth.net. I have been your host, Doug McVey, Editor of DrugWarFacts.org

Drug Truth Network programs are available by podcast. The URLs to subscribe are on the network homepage at DrugTruth.net. The Drug Truth Network has a Facebook page, please give it a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook, too, give it a like and share it with friends. You can follow me on Twitter I am: @dougmcvey, and of course also @drugpolicyfacts. We’ll be back in a week with 30 more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVey saying so long.