08/30/09 - Ethan Nadelmann

Ethan Nadelmann, Dir of Drug Policy Alliance re progress in the 100 year drug war + "Johnny Appleweed" by Brian Ashley Jones

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Sunday, August 30, 2009
Ethan Nadelmann
Drug Policy Alliance


Cultural Baggage, August 30, 2009

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


It's not only inhumane it is really fundamentally Un-American... "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR"

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.


Dean Becker: Hello my friends. Welcome to this edition of Cultural Baggage. I am so glad you could be with us. Is the drug war over? Is it nearing its end? Many of us think so. I had a chance to talk to a gentleman who is working very hard to bring it to an end. He is going to be speaking to us about lots of events happening around this country as well. Please, take out your pens; be ready to jot down some of this information. It is time for you to do your part. Here is an interview I did with Mr. Ethan Nadelmann.


Ethan Nadelmann: I am Ethan Nadelmann, I am the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance which is the leading organization in the United States of people supporting alternatives to the war on drugs.

Dean Becker: Ethan, I notice more and more that the media is calling upon you for your opinions, your input in regards to this drug war.

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, it seems that way, Dean. I can tell you with respect to the whole issue involving the nomination of the drug czar and I see most recently with the events going on in Mexico more and more DPA seems to be on the call list of mainstream journalists both in the US and internationally.

Dean Becker: Now, there were two major stories just this – within the past week: The Wall Street Journal and New York Times. Do you want to kind of summarize what they were putting forward?

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, I mean, the most recent story was about the new law in Mexico decriminalizing possession of small amounts of drugs – of any drug more or less – for personal use. And this is something the Mexicans had talked about doing about three years ago. The congress had approved it, the president - Fox, President Fox supported it. And then there was a sort of hysterical backlash in the in the US and the Mexicans decided not to go forward.

I think what has happened is that calmer heads have prevailed so a similar law just went to the congress and President Calderon approved it. I think it is very much a step in the right direction. It essentially removes criminal penalties for people who are in possession of very small amounts of drugs – a few joints, a few lines of cocaine, what have you – for personal use. And it requires – it doesn’t mandate treatment until they stopped for I think the third time.

So, it is consistent with what we are seeing elsewhere in Europe and Latin America and even in a few places in the United States. I mean, it goes a bit further in some of these other places but I think it shows that the Mexicans are being very pragmatic about how to deal with the problem of drug misuse within their own country.

Dean Becker: Now, a prime example there in Europe is Portugal. I think they have now had seven years of a somewhat similar decrim bill and it’s had some areas of great success, right?

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, there was a nice report put out by Cato Institute a few months ago that evaluated the situation in Portugal. Most people were not all that aware of the situation in Portugal which was essentially a decriminalization and diversion to treatment from for people caught in possession of small amounts of drugs but the evidence suggested that this policy change had led to no increase in drug use or misuse, that it led to no new law enforcement problems.

It seemed to be overall quite a success and I think it helps make people in the United States and elsewhere aware of the fact that it’s not just the Netherlands or Switzerland or some other country that we traditionally see as progressive on drug issues in fact this is happening in Portugal and in varied ways, other countries as well.

Dean Becker: Now, let’s talk about some of the blowback, some of the ramifications of what goes on because of the – I think the US really insists for the whole world in many ways but, it hits here in America too. There was a huge forest fire out near Santa Cruz and the way I understand it, it was caused by some immigrants who were up there growing marijuana on the hillsides. Your thoughts?

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, that, I mean the first part of your question being about you know, my sense with the Obama administration is there is some movement away from the drug war policies of the Bush and the Clinton administrations. It’s not a bold step in a new direction but it’s a tip toeing in a new direction and I think one of the ways it’s playing out is the fact that when it comes to other countries pursuing alternative drug policies, at least domestically, that we are less likely to see the Obama administration being critical or being proactively hostile the way that the Bush administration and the Clinton administration and the previous Bush administration all were.

You see it, for example, in the fact that the US State Department and international representatives of the US government are no longer going to be actively opposing the mention of harm reduction in international documents. You see it in the fact that you do not have a knee jerk reaction to the new law in Mexico. So, I think that is a step in the right direction.

Within the United States, there is still a lot to be figured out. On the one hand the Obama administration seems to be quite serious about getting rid of the mandatory minimum penalties with respect to crack cocaine. They did say that they were supporting federal funding for needle exchange and although they did not provide any leadership, at least they stopped providing the opposition that we have seen under previous administrations.

Medical marijuana it is harder to say. I mean, that’s an issue where candidate Obama said that the federal police should not be involved in going after marijuana in the states that had made it legal. Attorney General Holder reiterated that commitment a few months ago but the DEA keeps doing some things that sometimes seem inconsistent with the commitment of the Obama administration. And nobody is compelling them when they are raiding medical marijuana dispensaries to provide information about why this is or is not consistent with the commitment made by the Justice Department and the White House.

So I think there are some real things to be figured out. I mean, obviously medical marijuana is a tricky area for the feds to deal with you know. From the perspective of the Drug Policy Alliance, we would just like for the feds to get out of the way and allow states to move forward with medical marijuana the ways that work in their own context so I am not sure what is going on there right now. I don’t know if they know what is going on either.

Dean Becker: Ok, I want to – I kind of gave you a multiple question there a minute ago and I want to kind of come back to it. A few weeks back I did a story about some immigrants that were growing marijuana beside the highway near I think it was Dayton, Ohio. It is not just California but the cartels if we stop off the border, they are still going to find a way to get those products, marijuana in particular, to our neighborhoods, are they not? And I was talking about the situation in California with the major fire out in Santa Cruz started by some immigrants growing marijuana and you are thoughts on that?

Ethan Nadelmann: I mean, I’ll tell you, if we have to divvy up the issue, the first one is that when people are growing drugs illegally sometimes some of them are less likely to be respectful of the environment and take proper precautions. So the fire that was presumably started by some Mexican drug growers in the California hills, I mean that is not the first time that something like that has happened. It is not some thing that only involves Mexicans growing marijuana in the United States. It has undoubtedly happened with other people as well.

Dean Becker: Fair enough.

Ethan Nadelmann: So, I think that that is going to – that is just one of the costs of a prohibitionist policy. Same thing with all the illegal meth labs blowing up in peoples back yards and people getting hurt both people living there and their children and law enforcement raiding these places. That is once again a consequence of prohibition.

Same thing with people, you know, if you look at the people growing coca down in Bolivia, the ones doing it legally for domestic production you know are doing it in ways that are environmentally responsible. The land is properly terraced. They are using the proper sorts of fertilizers, what have you. There are no negative environmental consequences. In fact growing coca is probably the next best thing for the environment after leaving the jungle in place.

On the other hand when you look where coca is being produced illegally, you have people who are working often times for criminal enterprises. They are dumping the chemicals in rivers. They are not being attentive to the environment. Their number one priority is not being exposed, not being seen. And so you know these are all arguments for moving in the direction of having a sensible regulatory policy rather than continuing with the failed prohibitionist policy.

As for the question, Dean, your other part of your question about so if we crack down on the border what’s going to happen? Yes, people are always going to find a way to ship drugs to the United States and people in the United States are going to produce it that is why you see reports in the newspaper recently that meth labs are reappearing in the US because some of the effective crackdown on methamphetamine coming out of Mexico.

Now with respect to if there was a really intensive crackdown on the border as we had under Nixon with something called Operation Intercept and as we had under I think it was Ronald Reagan Commissioner William von Rob, the customs commissioner. What tends to happen when those sort of things happen is that you get a brief reduction in the flow of drugs from Mexico to the US.

But the best study on the impact of Operation Intercept in the early 1970s which shut down the border for a few weeks I think it was by a guy named Lawrence Guberman was that the export of marijuana to the United States dropped but that the export of heroin increased. That essentially traffickers who had the ability to switch from marijuana to heroin did so because that was going to be much more easily – that was going to be easier to smuggle and more lucrative.

Dean Becker: You know, just today I saw a report that these meth heads came up with a new way called shake and bake where they throw the pseudo-ephedrine in a soda bottle and some chemicals, shake it up and somehow produce it much cheaper and easier than before. We just keep driving this further into the abyss.

You know, Ethan, I hear the stories that you know state and local municipalities across the country are hitting the cash crunch and they are starting to think about you know, different ways to save money and one of those is to perhaps to stop arresting all these non violent drug users. But we have a situation here in Houston where there are thousands of people in jail now for, you know, tiny amounts of hard drugs and minor amounts of marijuana.

And I guess what I am leading up to here is that the state legislature wrote a bill, the governor signed it says we no longer have to arrest people for less than four ounces of marijuana and yet other than one district attorney in this state, they are all still arresting people and Judge Lykos, now DA Lykos, here told me that she can’t do it – she can’t stop arresting people because it would create too much paperwork. Your thoughts?

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, I mean, it seems like a ludicrous rationale from the district attorney to keep busting people because that is what they have always done and because they don’t want to look at an alternative policy so I think that is a real tragedy. You know it’s a shame that the law in Texas doesn’t have more teeth.

Texas actually has been showing some interesting movement on drug policy reform. They did have, you guys had a director of public safety there who really shifted the priority from making lots of low level marijuana or other drug possession arrests and focusing on the bigger and more violent drug trafficking organizations. That was a step in the right direction.

You had that promising new law where people can no longer be convicted on the word of a single informant; that you need at least two people where you had an interesting coalition of civil liberties groups together with Christian organizations who drew from the bible the fact that nobody should be convicted based upon the word of only one witness or one informant.

So there has been some movement in the right direction in Texas but what you see is that even when the public supports that movement, even when the legislators are finally willing to go along with it, there is a law enforcement complex, a drug enforcement complex, a prison industrial complex that is so wedded to the old ways of doing things and translating changes in law into actual changes in policy on this street is ultimately one of the greatest challenges we confront

We saw it with prop 36 in California where when the voters approved Prop 36 in the year 2000 and that was at that point the biggest sentencing reform in the history of the country and a major alternatives to incarceration law. You know in the first few years in California prison population dropped for the first time in fifteen or twenty years.

But what happens is the law enforcement establishment tries to get that track back – that train back on the old tracks to restore the old way of doing things. In New York where we just won a major victory on Rockefeller drug law reform this spring. You know, we are keeping our eyes out for how law enforcement, the DA’s are going to try to undermine it.

In Mexico where you had this decriminalization enacted by the congress and signed by the president. You know can I be confident that the police are not going to find new ways to extract bribes and throw people in jail? No, it’s very difficult. And so I think the next challenge for us in the drug policy reform movement apart from pushing for more far reaching reform in the legislature is going to be for pushing for more teeth and better assurance that the reforms are actually being implemented as intended.

Dean Becker: You know there are reforms being mandated out in California. The feds are demanding that they reduce their prison population by some forty thousand I think it is. And we have like here in Houston; the feds just did an inspection of our jail so totally overcrowded and gave it a D- for lack of security and medical services and so forth.

And just today the sheriff Garcia says we have really improved things and it’s an A now. And you know I guess it underlines what you were saying about that police mentality especially here in Texas that just latched on and hangs on to those positions of power.

Ethan Nadelmann: Well you know most law enforcement leaders give lip service to the need for more prevention and treatment. Most of them say that we can’t solve this problem you know on our own and really have to come down to others working on this as well.

But when push comes to shove and when it is about resources and when it is about changing old ways and doing things that’s not easy. I mean it is not as if, you know there are some very intelligent and thoughtful people in law enforcement but my impression often times is that there is not a huge number of them and that to the extent that they are, they are often times not thinking systemically. They are not thinking about the bigger issues.

You know when the police or the DA’s arrest huge numbers of people, there is nobody pushing back from the prison system saying, stop already we don’t have the money to keep locking people up for this petty stuff.

There is no sense of a kind of coordinated policy in which one of the priorities is to reduce the unnecessary reliance on the prison system and the criminal justice system for dealing with prime drug offenses which are essentially causing no harm to anyone and oftentimes no harm even to the individual involved in drug use. And I think that is one of the hardest things about turning around this massive enterprise of the prison industrial system.

Dean Becker: You know the sad thing is I mean it is a positive step for Mexico they there are you know no longer going to have the draconian measures if you will for those using drugs but this still leaves the cartels in power, does it not?

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, exactly and I think that people should recognize that this decriminalization of drug possession is essentially an internal issue for Mexico that really has nothing to do with the major drug trafficking organizations that have been creating all this violence an mayhem where president Calderon is trying to crack down on them with the military and all this sort of stuff.

And I think that is why we need to go back and look at what that very distinguished Latin American Drug Policy Commission said in the spring. You know the commission that was chaired by former presidents Cardoso of Brazil, Gavira of Columbia and Zedillo of Mexico and essentially said, look, there may be a growing drug problem here but we have a problem with drug prohibition as well. And that we need to break the taboo on open dialogue about alternatives to this prohibitionist paradigm.

So in the final analysis Mexico if its not going to keep repeating all of the costly mistakes of the past needs to open up its own debate about ways of ending prohibition and the United States and Mexico need to get a lot more thoughtful about finding ways to allow people to obtain drugs from legal sources which they would otherwise obtain from illegal sources.

I mean we are not going to see any radical end the 18th amendment of drug prohibition and a total legalization of these drugs. What is going to happen is inevitably going to be an incremental process but those options need to be on the table. Which is one of the things for example that senator Webb from Virginia has called for. We need more voices in Mexico saying the same thing.

Dean Becker: Alright folks we have been speaking with Mr. Ethan Nadelmann, director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Their website: drugpolicy.org. Ethan, you know, our talk about the cartels, the situation in Mexico brings to mind.

There’s three upcoming conferences I think you and I will both attending the first being in El Paso. They are doing a conference on the drug war September 20 – 22 and you will be part of that. Tell us your understanding of that conference.

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, my understanding is that there is a lively group of people very engaging group of people in El Paso who really have fundamental questions about the drug war and we saw some of them step out on the city council in January led by a fellow, [ ] a city council person there, which called on congress to open up a debate on legalization because of the growing drug related violence, prohibition related violence in Mexico.

I think that there is also however and important and innovative academic community at the University of Texas at El Paso and so they have taken the lead I think in collaboration with other academics and political officials in pulling together this gathering which is going to include people from the reform community and people from the conventional government policy, law enforcement, treatment, I think people from Mexico as well. And I think that it is wonderful that a city that is not typically been associated with bigger drug policy debates you know sees them self in the hot seat on the border there and it has decided to jump forward with this.

Dean Becker: Alright and then the next of course being the NORML conference September 23 – 26. Promises to be quite an event as well, right?

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, I expect it will be. I know I’ll be flying from El Paso with a day in Phoenix and then up to San Francisco for that conference. I mean so much s going on on the marijuana front right now.

I mean on medical marijuana around the country, the new ballot intiative that Richard Lee the quote unquote mayor of Oaksterdam is trying to put on the ballot in California. Discussions of other marijuana decriminalization initiatives for 2012. The successful marijuana decrim initiative that NPT led in Massachusetts last year. Some growing activism in New York City where I am around marijuana reform.

So there is a lot and unlike the NORML conferences that I went to ten or twenty years ago where a lot of this was much more abstract now there is a lot of real talk about politics and really moving policies forward and engaging with local officials about how to actually change the way we deal with marijuana. I think it is great too that this is happening in California at the same time as it was few months after governor Schwarzeneggar said that we need a debate about legalizing marijuana.

Dean Becker: And then of course, the third conference, the Drug Policy Alliance conference out in Albequerque November 12 – 14 and that promises to be a huge event as well, right?

Ethan Nadelmann: Well, it should be, it should be, Dean. You know the International Drug Policy Reform Conference organized by DPA but it is co hosted with six or seven other drug policy reform organizations ranging from LEAP to NPP to Open Society Institute, the ACLU and dozens of additional partners from national, international, local organizations, in California, NORML, what have you.

So it’s going to be – should be a fantastic conference. Those of your listeners who were in New Orleans in 2007 or Long Beach in 2005 they know that these are an amazing bringing together of people from across the political spectrum, across the drug use spectrum, united really by only one thing which is the conviction that the war on drugs is really a profound evil in our society and that we need to find fundamentally different ways of dealing with drugs that reduce as much as possible our reliance on criminalization and the criminal justice system.

If people want more information about that they can go to drugpolicy.org. They should register soon. I know that hotel rooms are going to fill up pretty soon. So it’s going to be an amazing gathering and for people who have never been to one of these conferences all they need to know is that there is no better three day crash course in drug and drug policy issues than this biannual gathering.

Dean Becker: The seminars are amazing. There is wide spread areas of expertise. I do urge folks to join in as well. Ethan we are going to have to wrap it up but I want to close it with this thought. I talk to many politicians behind closed door and I think you do too and I believe that the majority of them know that this drug war is a failure, know we need to do something about it but they don’t think the others agree with them. I think that there are more people who agree than disagree these days. Your thoughts?

Ethan Nadelmann: Well I think that there is a new generation of legislators who really get what we are talking about and often times agree and if you look at the political leadership in the congress right now with Nancy Pelosi and George Miller and Barney Frank and Henry Waxmen and John Conyers and people like Bobby Smith and Dennis Kucinik chairing key subcommittees.

I mean there is just remarkable sympathy with our view on the need to end the drug war. And even though most of them shy away from the bigger issues of and prohibition and legalization, they understand that there is something fundamentally flawed with the current policy and that the answer is not to add on more repression.

So, they are all difficult to prioritize this when there are so many other things going on. People are always afraid of having this issue demagogue against them in an election campaign but there definitely is a movement in the right direction nationwide.

Dean Becker: Alright. You know that was Ethan Nadelmann director of the Drug Policy Alliance and he was talking about Houston – the DA’s failures and its moving in the right direction. I urge to be sure to tune in to the next Century of Lies which is following this show on many of the Drug Truth Network affiliates. Our guest will be Paul Wright, editor of Prison Legal News whose next issue will focus on the gulag filling station of Houston Texas and our great abiding and ever escalating love of drug war.


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This is Dr. Joel Simon [ ], the executive director of the Nation Foundation for the Treatment of Pain and I am coming to you with guidance for would be overdose victims.

If you are considering using drugs to change your mood, to get high, because your friends are doing it, in combination with other mind altering substances, particularly alcohol to cope with stress, to escape, in a party situation, alone with potential help unavailable, for the first time and you are unfamiliar with the drug, get a dose higher than you are used to or you don’t know how strong it is, when you have health issues that might effect your breathing or your ability to metabolize that drug and for opiates you don’t know about meloxone but it’s not available anyway…

Then the possibility that you may kill your self is very high. Proceed at your own risk and do not blame the drug, for you took it, it didn’t take you. Relax, though. If you kill yourself your parents will blame the drug, not you and they will think about you every day for the rest of their lives.


Dean Becker: Alright, you know last week when we came in the studio, there was a music show just before us and there was this gentleman played this song, his name Brian Ashley Jones and I wanted to share this with you.

cuts to song
“Johnny Appleweed” by Brian Ashley Jones


Dean Becker: OK. Brian Ashley Jones. Like many Americans he sees a right, a wrong and he is trying to right it. Tune in to the next Century of Lies and you’ll get a chance to talk to our guest Mr. Paul Wright. You can call 1 877 9 420 420 and we are going to talk about the gulag filling station of planet earth right here in Harris County. And as always I remind you 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.

This show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT, Houston.

Tap dancing on the edge on an abyss.