02/13/11 Gabriel Sayegh

Gabriel Sayegh of Drug Policy Alliance re massive marijuana arrests in NYC + Broadcaster Tom Van Howe & Karen Gotch of the Sentencing Project

Program: 
Century of Lies
Date: 
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Guest: 
Gabriel Sayegh
Organization: 
Drug Policy Alliance
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Century of Lies / February 13, 2011

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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.

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This is Century of Lies. My name is Dean Becker. Here in just a second, we’re going to have our guest with us, Mister Gabriel Sayegh. He’s with the Drug Policy Alliance and he had a lot of good things to say of late and we have a lot of good things to say that are emanating from is organization, as well. Let’s just go ahead and bring him in board. Gabriel are you there, sir?

Gabriel Sayegh: Hi Dean. How are you doing?

Dean Becker: I’m good, Gabriel. I don’t know if you got to hear the other show with Matt but we were talking about the fact that progress seems to be accumulating a little faster on our side. It’s two steps forward and maybe one step back. What is your thought?

Gabriel Sayegh: Now, I think this is a tremendous time for drug policy reform. I think that we haven’t seen anything like what we are seeing now in the last thirty years in terms of opportunities to defend this miserable failed Drug War.

Dean Becker: Yeah and it has shown its misery more openly these days. More and more people are beginning to observe things. Especially like, how can you ignore what is going on in Mexico, right?

Gabriel Sayegh: Yeah that’s right. It’s actually nearly unbelievable for those of us who aren’t living through it to watch what is happening down there and try to consider what it must be like to live through the violence and the horror of the Drug War down in Mexico right now. It’s unbelievable.

Dean Becker: Once again were speaking with Mister Gabriel Sayegh with the Drug Policy Alliance. Now Gabriel, I didn’t bring it with me but you had a piece written just a few days back, talking about the situation in New York.

Let me preface it with this, Houston leads the world in its arrest rate in many categories but insofar as marijuana arrests, New York’s got us beat. Tell them about that situation, Gabriel.

Gabriel Sayegh: Oh yeah, that’s true, Dean. Houston may lead the world in a lot of categories here but in New York City we have you beat in marijuana possession arrests. We just got the new numbers from 2010 and it turns out that New York City is the arrest capital of the world in terms of marijuana possession.

There were 50,000 marijuana possession arrests in New York City in 2010. The actual number is 50,383 and what makes – a side from the remarkable size of that number on its own, something that makes it even more unbelievable is that marijuana possession was decriminalized in New York in 1977.

What that means is that possession of 25 grams or less or 7/8 of an ounce was made a violation. That’s not a criminal offence it’s an infraction. The maximum penalty is a $100 fine. That was passed in 1977, here in New York.

You know for about fifteen, sixteen years after that law was passed, there were very few marijuana arrests here in the state. But in the mid-nineties the city of New York police department changed its practices and from about the mid-nineties until today marijuana enforcement become the number one priority of the police force here. So, that’s what we are facing today in New York City and we’re working to end these arrests and get the police department to get more accountable and follow the law as it currently stands.

Dean Becker: And that brings to mind a question, I got to ask, if the law was written in the seventies and you say for fifteen years it stayed rather low. What changed? What’s going on?

Gabriel Sayegh: Now, that’s a good question, Dean. The principle thing that changed was the policing practices themselves. For many years, from the point that the law was changed in 1977 to the mid-nineties, the focus of the police department was on high level offenses felony offences and the rest and so quite often, from the research that we are aware of, when police would bring a marijuana arrest into the station, fellow officers would oftentimes make fun of the officer, like, “Oh, you’re bringing in a marijuana arrest. Thanks for making us safer. What the heck are you doing?”

In the mid-nineties, the NYPD started to change its strategy and started to focus much more into low level arrests. The main arrests that they focus on at this point is marijuana possession.

Most of these arrests are not for smoking in public of for what they’re charged with. Many people have marijuana in their pocket of in their bag and NYPD changes them with a part of the statute that they were smoking in public of had the marijuana in public view.

It’s our position that that’s actually inaccurate. It’s a false charge but NYPD is getting away with it for nearly twenty years and this charge has become the number one arrest in New York City.

It comprises 15% of all arrests in the city. Keep in mind we have over eight million people in this city, so it is not insignificant by any means.

Dean Becker: And Gabriel, and it brings to mind another question then, more marijuana arrests and it’s my understanding that in this time of “eternal terror” that more and more police departments are wanting to get more and more named in their data base so they can cross reference and you know, I guess, track down people for other crimes.

But most of these people, as you say, that are getting arrested for open display, for having it pulled out of their pocket, what the cop asked them to pull out of their pocket. Most of them are Black or Brown are they not?

Gabriel Sayegh: Now, that’s true. Nearly 90% of everyone that is arrested for this charge in New York City are Black or Latino and this is a city where a majority of the population is – the single biggest racial class is white people.

We have a mayor, Mayor Bloomberg who is a millionaire, who when he runs for office in 2002 said that he smoked marijuana and he liked it. But the vast majority of people who are arrested here are Black and Latino.

You can be pretty sure that if the people who were arrested for this charge, the majority are white people from the Upper East Side, the law would change pretty quickly but because the majority of the people are poor and they’re people of color, then it seems to go on, without any real challenge or objection by the leadership of this city and that’s a real, real problem that we’re facing and we are trying to work against right now.

Dean Becker: Okay once again, we are speaking with Mister Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. Gabriel, when we come back, I want to talk to you about done by a recent op-ed your boss in the Huffington Post but first I want to share with you and the listeners, there’s so much being presented in the news and in entertainment about drugs in particular people awakening to problem, awakening to the need to fix that problem.

Here’s a recent piece that aired on Michigan television. I found it to an outstanding commentary. It’s a few minutes. Get yourself a Coke or something, while this playing but please give it a listen. I want to talk about it when we come back.

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The following comes to us courtesy of Western Michigan’s Channel 3 [WWMT] with commentary by Tom Van Howe:

Jack Cole is a former state policeman from New Jersey who spent twelve years as an undercover narcotics officer. He now heads an organization of about 12,000 people just like him called LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. You can find that on the internet.

He says the so-called war on drugs that began under President Nixon is an abysmal failure. It's a war, he says, that has cost us, so far, one and half trillion dollars so far, and simply cannot be won.

He uses government figures to offer these startling facts. In 1914, when the first drug laws were enacted, 1.3% of us were addicted to illegal drugs.

In 1970, when Nixon launched his war on drugs, a war that every president since has endorsed, 1.3% of us were addicted to illegal drugs.

Now, in 2010, forty years and 39 million arrests later, 1.3% of us are addicted to drugs. In nearly one hundred years, nothing has changed.

Yet, we continue to arrest and often imprison, 1.7 million people a year on drug charges that’s three arrests a minute, every day and nothing has changed.

It costs the State of Michigan about $33,000 to incarcerate a drug user, a year.

Fourteen years ago, former Secretary of the Treasury and Secretary of State George Schultz said he believed that, “the global war on drugs is now causing more harm than drug abuse itself.”

The late William F. Buckley and the economist Milton Friedman, both conservatives, agreed with that. They agreed that prohibition simply does not work. It didn’t work with alcohol early last century and it doesn’t work now.

The profit in cocaine, a 17,000% markup from the grower to the street, is so enormous that people fall all over themselves and kill each other by the tens of thousands just to get and hold on to their little corner of the market.

When booze was finally made legal again in 1933, ending thirteen years of probation, the Al Capones of the world were finished. Their violent reigns were over.

Logic says the same would happen to the drug smugglers of today, the cartels and the street gangs in cities big and small, from coast to coast and border to border. Drug money is what feeds them now. It keeps them alive.

Portugal legalized all drugs a number of years ago. In the beginning there was a spike in drug abuse and nervous observes said, “Uh-Oh,” but then it reversed itself. Drug use has since declined and treatment is up.

We can't talk about legalizing cocaine and heroin without government-sponsored treatment programs. Maybe a dispensary on one corner and a treatment center on the other. We'd be able to afford it by the money we save by not prosecuting and incarcerating.

As it stands right now, if you're rich and can afford $17,000 a month for in-patient drug treatment, and that's what it costs, you stand a good chance of turning your life around. If you're middle class or poor, you're pretty much out of luck.

It appears now California is on the verge of legalizing marijuana, across the board. Taxing it would then mean an extra billion dollars to the state and taken out of the hands of street-corner thugs. It will be well worth watching.

But how dangerous are illegal drugs, while cigarettes – legal – contribute to as many as 450,000 deaths a year? Obesity and bad diets are maybe another 350,000 deaths.

Cocaine, crack, heroin, and meth do kill people, some 17,000 a year. But marijuana? Not a single one, not one.

It’s time for us and our lawmakers to establish a real dialogue about legalizing drugs, to ending the prohibition against them. What we've been doing over the past forty years hasn't worked, at all. Except to fill up our prisons and criminalize huge segments of our society.

Our war on drugs fits very nicely into Einstein's definition of insanity; to do the same thing over and over and over again, the same way every time and somehow expect a different result.

Our war has failed. It failed a long time ago. It's time for a change. Talk to your friends about it. Talk to your neighbors, your legislators, talk to me about it. It's time for dialogue, we simply have to do better and we can.

I'm Tom Van Howe.

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Dean Becker: Alright I found that to be just the most powerful broadcast voice I’ve heard in a long time, especially – maybe, not as powerful as we do on the Drug Truth Network, mind you but pretty dang good.

Alright, we have Mister Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance with us and Gabreil, I wanted to share that piece from Tom Van Howe with you because I think there’s many parallels in that broadcast with what Mister Nadelmann was stating the other day in the Huffington Post. Your response?

Gabriel Sayegh: Now, that’s true, Dean. It’s a remarkable history, if one pays attention to it. When Nixon declared the drug war as a Drug War in 1971, there was very few of the features that we understand to be the Drug War today in existence at that time.

Yet, in the last forty years we’ve normalized something that is utterly and very definitively insane. The number of people being arrested today and incarcerated for simple drug offences this idea that we can use prisons as means of accountability for anything, let alone for nonviolent drug offenses or any drug offenses. It’s simply outrageous yet, it has been so normalized that it’s probably a mark of a particular kind of craziness on the part of our society.

It seems as though today, we are beginning to for lack of a better way to say it, to sober up a bit understand what it is that is happening here and what we should do about it. I think there has been no other time than to change the circumstances with respect to our drug policy as now and that’s what Ethan Nadelmann’s article in the Huffington Post outlines.

Dean Becker: Yeah and again, Gabriel I look at it this way, you know, within the past several months, I think, I’ve heard it said that by the Drug Czar Kerlikowske and a few weeks back by Obama, that it’s time to move away for incarceration, at least from the extent that we do and to provide a more education and treatment.

This is all well and good. It’s a thought in the right direction but until they step in the right direction, until they move in the right direction, it’s just empty rhetoric isn’t it?

Gabriel Sayegh: No, it is and the fact, it’s not that we just need to stop incarcerating people it’s that we need to change to entire approach. I mean think about it, Dean, for the last forty years we’ve been addressing drug use as a criminal justice issue and what we’ve learned in forty years and that’s a long time to learn something, is that drug use is not a criminal justice issue it’s a health issue.

If we’re really serious about trying to take it on and trying to address it and trying to do so in a way that is effective and does not cause harm but helps people get on their feet and restores communities and provides the kind of supports that are needed and make sure that we are all better off, using the criminal justice system to do that is probably the least effective means.

So, the fact that the Obama Administration has indicated that approach to the Drug War has failed and we need to help its approach, that is very significant but until we begin to be on the federal level, the implementation of polices that suggest a health based approach, then it’s all rhetoric and we need to continue to press for those changes so that we can realize these reforms that are so desperately needed.

Dean Becker: Gabriel, we’ve got just a couple of minutes left and I want to just kind of turn it over to you because I admire you and I admire the work that all you good folks do at the Drug Policy Alliance but what do you see on the horizon? Are we going to – I mean, just last week Hilary Clinton said we can’t end the Drug War because there is too much money in it. When are we going to get away from that ignorance?

Gabriel Sayegh: You know that comment that Hilary Clinton made is ridiculous and I think that many of who pay attention to what like you listeners, Dean, we need to look locally because if we look to the federal government for an indication of change it’s an important thing to do. Obama’s Administration has done a lot along these lines but it can just get depressing, frankly, if we just continue to look for the federal government to make these changes. We have to look locally and on the local level there is a lot hope here. There’s a lot of opportunity and there’s a lot happening and that is something that is very exciting.

The idea that we can’t end the Drug War because there is so much money in it or that we can’t end the Drug War because it has been going on for so long, we’re going to continue to hear that. In Egypt, which just has seen one of the most phenomenal revolutions in the modern times, there’s nobody – three weeks ago, Dean, nobody would have said that Hosni Mubarak, the President of Egypt was going to resign but today he resigned and he is gone. Why? Because of people power in Egypt.

It is a phenomenal time and I think we have to keep that in mind and remember that great things are possible and I think it is easy to get discouraged in these things but at the end of the day, when we wake up in the morning and go to sleep at night with these hopes in our heart. We have to believe that if we continue working for things that things are going to change and I think we will see the examples of that change happening all over the word and it’s certainly happen with the Drug War.

One thing I want to say, Dean, before we jump of here is, I know you that are in a pledge drive I wanted to say for years having worked in the world of drug policy and ending the Drug War, I’ve seen you at conferences and I’ve seen you at different meeting and so forth and I just wanted to say to the listeners:

You are a remarkable figure, Dean. You’ve been attending events and conferences. I’ve you all over the place and you’re always working to get the word out and for your listeners I want to say, as a person would worked in state legislatures and works on trying to change policies that without people like Dean Becker, working on getting the word out, we can’t get any of this stuff done.

So Dean, I just want to take a moment to really recognize you and thank you for all your work and say that you’ve been all over the country here to expose what’s going on and bring light to the circumstances around the Drug War and the efforts to end it.

I really want to thank you for that and encourage your listeners to donate because I think, without your work we wouldn’t be a far as we are today.

Dean Becker: Well, Gabriel Sayegh, thank you so much. Yeah, Gabriel what you were saying just a few minutes ago in regards to bringing it to an end, I can’t remember the gentleman’s name but he said the chance of ending alcohol prohibition was tantamount to the ability of tying the Washington Monument to the tail of a butterfly and hauling it to the moon and a year later prohibition ended. So, it is possible my friend.

Gabriel Sayegh: Absolutely, it absolutely is possible. You know I have a good friend of mine in Atlanta and she’s worked on a lot of difficult campaigns and she had a term that she used. She says,

“Our responsibility is to make the impossible, possible and make this possible, inevitable.” I think those days certainly that when we look at what’s going on and can’t help but to shake our heads and say this is absolutely crazy. And you know hat? It is.

What we are doing right now with the Drug War, it is crazy. In twenty five years from now, fifty five years from now, people will look back on this and this time and say, “What in the heck where those people doing?”

So, those of us who in it right now and we can’t give up hope and as we move forward we have to believe what we know to be true which is that there is a different way to do this. There is a better way that doesn’t cost as much money, it doesn’t cost as much lives that brings us a little bit closer to the democratic ideals that we believe in and we know to be true. So, we have to stick with that, even in the darkest moments when thing seen to be the crazies.

Dean Becker: Yeah.

Gabriel Sayegh: So, tomorrow is a new day and if we keep working at it, we’re going to make it a good one.

Dean Becker: Indeed we are. Well, Gabriel we’re going to leave it there my friend. We’re going to be in touch and as this year unfolds. Again, I want to thank you and all the good folks a Drug Policy Alliance. Their website is drugpolicy.org

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Kara Gotsch: My name is Kara Gotsch. I’m the Director of Advocacy in the Sentencing Project.

Dean Becker: Now Kara, there is so much news breaking internationally, really, about this Drug War but you guys have a new standard perhaps of where we can move forward, right?

Kara Gotsch: Well, recently a report called Smart on Crime was released, which was actually a combination of efforts from the Sentencing Project and about forty other national justice organizations.

What it does is really review the entire criminal justice system and makes recommendations for advances both in drug policy but also sentencing reforms, reentry advances in extending reentry; reducing incarceration, improving prison conditions. It’s an extremely comprehensive document in advancing issues related to drug policy it is just one segment of it but certainly an important part of it.

Dean Becker: This drug policy was kind of set loose decades ago and kind of developed a life of its own, despite whatever disadvantages have grown from the policy.

Kara Gotsch: Twenty five thirty years ago, certainly at the federal level when harsh criminal policy and sentencing policies were passed for drug laws— drug offenses that was a time of great fear around drug use and the effects of drugs. There wasn’t a lot of information, science and research to back up policy makers’ concerns and they just sort of took – used the void in knowledge and despite having this lack of knowledge, went ahead and very draconian policies.

I think it’s very hard to change the status quo. This is sort of the environment that the policy makers have grown up in, tough on crime, lock ‘em up and throw away the key. It’s been very difficult to get away from that.

I do think there’s been progress. I do think that particularly at the state level that policy makers are reevaluating the wisdom of going after and spending scarce resources on low level drug offenders and other low level kinds of offenders because it is just – first of all, it’s not effective and it’s hugely expensive. That’s why you see, for example, shrinking numbers of people in state prisons for the first time. In 2009, you actually started saw a decline in state prison populations. That is not happening at the federal level.

Unlike the states, the federal government incarcerates more than half; more than half of the people that they have incarcerated are for drug offences. You don’t see that at the state level now. There is a lot more innovation at the state level and more opportunity need to be averted from incarceration to perhaps get treatment outside of the incarceration setting. Obviously, that’s not the ideal.

We would like to see more people who need treatment or assistance getting that assistance outside of the criminal justice sphere but we – and there needs to be more investment in that but at the very least they need to not be getting locked up. I think there is advancement going on a states about the Feds haven’t gotten the clue yet and they are still keeping the same practices that have been going on for decades.

Dean Becker: Kara, earlier you reference the fact that the sentencing project along with forty other drug reforming organizations are calling for a reexamination. I think that newspapers and broadcasters around the world are beginning to dabble in, at least calling for that same discussion.

Recently, President Obama said that perhaps it is time to talk about drug policy. The fallacy of the belief system of many of these politicians is beginning to wear rather thin as exemplified recently by Hilary Clinton, saying that there’s too much money in the Drug War to end it. Any closing thoughts that you would like to relay?

Kara Gotsch: Well, I think that the recipe for success really is – lies with brooding out and having as many people policy makers leader and the general public weighing in on this debate. I think, until there is a demand from the public and a broad cross section of leaders in our communities calling for the government to reevaluate or drug sentencing laws and our criminal justice laws generally, we’re not going to see the change that I really essential.

I’m encouraged, honestly that we are seeing more conservative policy thinkers speaking out on this now. I think we’re at a new – were facing a new day in that there really is growing consensus that the current status of how we regulate drugs and how we punish people who use drugs is not something that we should continue.

Kara Gotsch: Our website is www.sentensingproject.org and we certainly invite everyone to check it out.

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Dean Becker: We want to than our guests today, Mister Gabriel Sayegh. Gabriel’s quite a guy you know he’s been at this for quite some time. He works to educate and embolden folks but basically, right there in New York City, he sees the unfolding of this, how fifty thousand mostly Black and Hispanic people were arrested last year and mostly young people that don’t know that you don’t have to do what the cop says.

In other words, you don’t have to reach into your pocket and pull that weed out and show him because the cop’s going to say, “If you got something and you just show it to me everything is going to be alight. We’ll make it easy on you.” Of course, the cop is lying from the word go because they seldom make it easy on anybody, if there’s an arrest available.

If you appreciate the work that and the Drug Policy Alliance is doing, we do try to bring them on, on a regular basis. Show your support, please.

And as always, I remind you that there’s no truth, justice, no reason for this Drug War to exist. We’ve been duped.

Please, visit our website: endprohibition.org

Prohibido istac evilesco!

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For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker. Asking you to examine our policy of Drug Prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

This show produced at Pacifica Studios at KPFT, Houston.

Drug Truth Network programs, archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Policy Studies.

Transcript provided by: Ayn Morgan of www.eigengraupress.com