12/04/11 Glenn Greenwald

Century of Lies

Glenn Greenwald opens debate against former Drug Czar John Walters at Brown Univ + Terry Nelson of LEAP re futility of drug war

Audio file


Century of Lies / December 04, 2011


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.


DEAN BECKER: Hi. This is Dean Becker. You’re listening to Century of Lies on the Drug Truth Network on Pacifica Radio. Today we’re going to tune into a recent event at Brown University.

A few days back Mr. Glenn Greenwald (he writes for Salon magazine, he’s author of “With Liberty and Justice for Some”) debated the former U.S. Drug Czar John Walters. This week we’ll hear from Mr. Greenwald, next week from the Drug Czar.

I think it kind of like Mr. President even after they’re out of office. Don’t you think?!


ANNOUNCER: Glenn Greenwald is a constitutional lawyer, a columnist for Salon magazine and a best-selling author – most recently, “With Liberty and Justice for Some: How the law is used to destroy equality and protect the powerful.”

John Walters is the Executive Vice President of the Hudson Institute and from 2001 to 2009 he served as the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy or as the position was more commonly known – he was the Drug Czar in the Bush administration.

So that’s it for me. Please join me in welcoming Glenn Greenwald.

GLENN GREENWALD: The War on Drugs is, in my view by far, the most profound and destructive policy failure of the last 50 years. Every generation has various policies that future generations look back upon – not with just disagreement – but with bafflement as to how the citizenry could possibly have failed to realize the irrationality and evil of very conventions and orthodoxies.

Like every generation we undoubtedly will have multiple policies that are viewed that way by future generations. Some of which are indiscernible but certainly the prime one, I believe, will be the War on Drugs.

Advocates of drug prohibition typically cite a variety of problems grounded in drug usage and related pathologies as to why that policy is justified and yet the amazing thing about the War on Drugs, about drug prohibition is that that policy, at best, has no effect on those problems and, in most cases, exacerbates them and makes them far worse.

One of the most comprehensive studies on drug prohibition was issued this year by the Global Commission on Drug Policy and it was composed by some of the world’s leading experts in the area including people like former UN Secretary Kobi Anan, the former Secretary General of NATO, multiple former presidents of a variety of countries, people like George Schultz, Paul Volcker and the report was incredibly well-documented but it’s bottom line was as stark and it is obvious. And that is:

“The global war on drugs has failed.”

Not is failing, not is likely to fail – but has failed.

I think the easiest way to understand why that’s so and the magnitude of the failure is to compare it to a historical precedent which is alcohol prohibition because alcohol prohibition, like the War on Drugs, did almost nothing to alleviate the problem it was intended to address which was the decision by many adults to consume alcohol. And yet what it did instead was spawn extreme amounts of violence in the form of gangs and others who, because alcohol was driven underground, engaged in violence to compete for dominance over the industry.

And there really are only two differences between alcohol prohibition and drug prohibition that I can see. One is that only took Americans 13 years to realize back then what a grievous error prohibition was and they repealed it - whereas we are now going on 40 years of this incredibly failed drug war. And the second is that the violence spawned by drug prohibition is so much greater than the violence spawned by alcohol prohibition.

The shootouts in the street between Al Capone and rival gangs is almost petty when you compare it the pervasive worldwide violence that drug prohibition has spawned and is continuing to spawn.

I think, in general, when accessing policy and whether or not policies are correct one needs to do rationally is to list the benefits that a policy produces and then list the cost and then decide if the benefits outweigh the cost. That’s just a general principle of how one rationally accesses the virtue of policies.

So I think the way to begin this debate is to highlight the cost of drug prohibition, of the War on Drugs. And, in part, because when accessing the possible legalization of drugs, we will know that one of the principle benefits will be that, by in large, the elimination of these costs.

So let’s look at the cost of this War on Drugs that has now been going on for decades. The first cost is that it has turned the United States into the world’s largest prison state. We imprison 2.4 million citizens – more than any country on the planet, by far – including countries that have larger populations than the United States such as China and India.

I think the most striking statistic in this regard is that the United States accounts for just under 5% of the world’s population and yet 25% of the world’s prison population is on American soil. 1 out of every 4 prisoners is in an American prison. The primary reason for that development, there are several, but the primary reason is our obsession with drug prohibition and the Drug War. In federal prisons, for example, 57% of inmates are serving time on drug charges and most of them were convicted on charges of possession not distribution.

Beyond this sprawling prison state the War on Drugs is indescribably racist both in application and effect. So you can look at a whole variety of statistics that prove this to be true. The disparity in punishment for crack and cocaine offenses is the most well-known and obvious. It’s been reduced somewhat in the last couple of years but still exists. Even in that disparity one finds very stark statistics.

The reason why crack was punished more severely – or certainly one of the principle affects – was because it was more popular among minority populations. And yet, even given that, two-thirds of crack users in the United States are either white or Hispanic and only one-third has been African-American and yet 80% of defendants charged with crack-related offenses over the past 20 years have been African-American.

The Group Sentencing Project issued a report in 2010 that said, “African-American drug defendants have a 20% greater chance of being sentenced to prison than white drug defendants.”

And Jim Webb, the Senator from Virginia, pointed out on the Senate floor in 2010 that the usage rates of illegal drugs among demographic and racial groups are roughly equal. African-Americans, Latinos and whites use and consume illegal drugs at roughly the same rates. And yet, “African-Americans end up being 37% of those arrested on drug charges, 59% of those convicted and 74% of those sentenced to prison.”

As a result of these racial disparities he said, “America’s criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace.”

And, indeed, as Americans we have come to the conclusion by consensus that there is no more nefarious impact to a policy than a racial disparate effect. That it harms by intent or by affect racial minorities more than the majority and yet that is what the drug war was from the start and it has gotten worse over the years and it is certainly, in effect, an extremely racist policy. And now that is a cost that any proponent of the drug war should confront very seriously.

Now there are economic costs of the drug war which are astronomical. When you add up the costs of law enforcement, of arresting drug users, bringing them into the criminal justice system, prosecuting them, imprisoning them, and then add to that the extraordinary and always growing interdiction efforts that the U.S. government engages in both domestically and internationally – it’s called a drug war because we employ our military to a vast extent in order to find drug supplies and disrupt them. The costs are in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

And this takes place now in the age of austerity when all kinds of extremely valuable services are being cut for citizens domestically in the name of the budget deficit - including services that are directed at drug users and drug addicts to help them stop consuming drugs.

And so the economic costs, this hundreds of billions of dollars that have been expended in a variety of ways over those decades has huge opportunity costs – think of the things we could do with that money – but it also means that Americans have received very little benefit from all that money spent because drug usage rates in United States remains extraordinarily high. It’s basically flat. Some years you’ll see a little reduction but it’s gone up in many categories. Compared to countries that criminalize drugs far less the trend has gotten much worse. Countries that take health-based approach, not a criminal-based approach, to drug usage have seen far more benefits than these hundreds of billions of dollars on criminalization.

Then there’s the fact that the drug war has spawned a very under-discussed and yet glaring evil and that is the privatized prison industry. Our prison populations are simply too great due to the drug war for states to manage any longer and they’ve therefore outsourced prison functions (the maintenance of prisons and their operation) to private corporations. And, like all private corporations, the private corporations that operate prisons want to maximize their profit. To do that they need more bodies, more inmates. And to get more inmates they employ very expensive armies of lobbyist to ensure that no reform takes place in the criminal justice system that would reduce the prison population. They, in fact, work toward ensuring that more and more of our fellow citizens are put into their prisons and therefore more profit is generated. And that means, in the overall majority of cases, that drug laws are made ever harsher.

Not only that, but because they are motivated by profit, conditions within our prisons are among the worst of any western nation. It is a disgrace. Not only how many people we imprison but the conditions of which they suffer.


DEAN BECKER: OK. That is Glenn Greenwald. He’s a former constitutional, civil rights litigator. He’s author of two New York Times Best-Selling books. He’s opening up a debate at Brown University. His opponent - former Drug Czar John Walters. We’ll hear from him next week. We continue.


GLENN GREENWALD: Then there is the destruction of civil liberties that the War on Drugs has brought and ushered in and continues to usher in. I write a lot about the erosion of civil liberties and the War on Terror but the precursor to almost every one of those abuses is the War on Drugs.

The nature of the drug trade and the drug trafficking and of the size of drugs and the ease of which they’re concealed means in order to empower the police to disrupt the supply of drugs or the sale of drugs or to apprehend who are possessing or using them we have vest our state and police force with incredibly invasive authorities.

If you look at the way in which the fourth amendment has been eroded over the past several decades, the numerous exceptions that have been created to the point where the amendment is almost worthless, almost every one of those cases has been justified and taken place in the context of the War on Drugs.

In addition, we have created or we have diverted our domestic police forces into what are really paramilitary units which we’ve all seen in response to political protests and the like. So we’ve empowered the state, to a great degree, to invade our privacy rights, to use force and violence in the name of the War on Drugs and it has begun to seep into a variety of other realms as these powers always do.

Then there’s the strain that the War on Drugs puts on our relations with foreign governments. At exactly the same time that other governments around the world, our allies and on multiple continents on the planet, have moved away from a criminalization scheme and begun treating drug abuse as what it is which is a health problem, the United States has grown more focused on criminalization – especially internationally.

And we’ve continuously put pressure on other governments to be criminal in their approach as well. If you go and talk to European drug policy makers, as I’ve done, or South American drug policy makers, as I have done, you will detect incredible resentment at the United States for trying to bully and pressure and coerce them to imprison their citizens, to use a harsh criminalization approach even though their policy experts believe that so inadvisable.

Maybe the greatest harm from the drug war is the extreme violence that it spawns. We all the time hear about what is taking place in Mexico with drug cartels. We all know about what’s going on there. We’ve had drug gangs in the United States running rampant within inner-cities for a long time and bringing horrendous destruction and violence to those communities.

The reason that has happened is not because of drugs it’s because of drug prohibition. It’s because we’ve taken this industry and driven it underground and made it illegal that only criminals can engage in that trade and criminals use violence to protect their turf.

Again, during alcohol prohibition, it was common to see Al Capone’s gangs fighting in the streets with machine guns with rival gangs over territory. But you don’t see Budweiser and Heiniken shooting at one another over territory because that industry is legal and regulated. If we did that with the drug trade the violence that proponents of the drug war often cite to justify it would be severely reduced - if not outright disappear.

An additional cost to the War on Drugs and drug prohibition is that it breeds contempt for the rule of law. We have millions and millions of Americans regularly who break the law by consuming illegal drugs. It is a very high probability that the majority of people in this room have at some point in their life consumed illegal drugs. It is close to a 100% certainty that almost everybody in this room has someone very important to them, a family member, a close friend, a loved one, who has consumed illegal drugs at some point in their life and perhaps even does so regularly.

What’s amazing about that is that they probably have done that without any consequences of any kind if they’re white and middle-class or higher. So you have millions and millions of Americans routinely violating the law which breeds contempt for the law itself. On top of that you have this extremely disparate impact from these violations so that if you are relatively wealthy and white you almost will certainly suffer no consequences from this pervasive law breaking but if you are poor and/or a racial minority there is a high likelihood that you will be prosecuted and perhaps even imprisoned.

So we have not only contempt for the rule of law making the rule of law a joke by having such pervasive law breaking but we have an eviceration of the core principle of the rule of law which is that we are all treated equally before it regardless of our position, power or prestige. That is what the Drug War has done to the rule of law in the United States.

And then the final cost of the drug war is perhaps the most insidious. And that is that it destroys the lives of the very individuals whom you will hear from proponents of the War on Drugs that they are only trying to help.

So you can have an abstract debate about whether the government has the right to punish people for choosing to put certain substances into their body. You can the argument that the government has no right – that adults have autonomy to make that choice. What you’ll hear in response from proponents in support of criminalization is that the reason the government has a right to prohibit drugs for adults is because drugs are very harmful and we have to save people from themselves and save their families from the effects of drug consumption.

And yet what is it that we do to these people that we’re trying to help and to help their families? We take them and we charge them with crimes. We turn them into felons which, in this climate, renders them unemployable. We put them into cages for many years taking them away from their children and their families. Nothing devastates American communities, communities of color and poor people – not like drugs but like drug prohibition and the War on Drugs.

It is incredible, warped and perverse that people argue that the reason why drug prohibition and the drug war is necessary is because drugs harm people when their response is to take those people and turn them into felons and put them into cages.

Just to give one statistic that underscores that point. In 1985 in America, 1 out of 125 children had a parent in jail. Today it is 1 out of 28. 1 out of 28 American children have a parent in prison. And for black children the number is 1 out of 9. 1 out of 9 African-American children in the United States have a parent in prison.

And if you add to that the people who have been in prison, parolees and others who have been released, the number is much higher. So you have this policy that is justified ostensibly to help people in communities which in reality it is destroying


DEAN BECKER: Again, that is Glenn Greenwald speaking at Brown University opening up a debate with John Walters, the former Drug Czar, who, I promise, we’ll have on next week. We continue.


GLENN GREENWALD: So those are the costs and that brings up the question of what happens if you were to legalize drugs? One obvious answer is that all of those costs, more or less, will disappear.

Now I think those costs that I just outlined are quite overwhelming so anyone who wants to stand up here and advocate for the drug war and drug criminalization should be able to provide you some very ample benefits to justify those costs.

Now what people will typically say is that we need criminalization because if we legalize drugs usage will skyrocket. Typically that claim will be grounded in nothing but pure speculation. It’s from the same people who have essentially been issuing deceptive claims about drugs for decades. They’ll tell you if we legalize drugs, usage will skyrocket.

But they have no empirical evidence to support that claim. The only real empirical evidence that we have about what happens when you decriminalize or legalize drugs is to look at what has happened in Portugal which is the subject of a report I wrote for the Cato Institute in 2009 and am presenting an update next week in Washington.

Portugal, in 2000, decriminalized all drugs, all narcotics, soft drugs and hard drugs. And the reason they did that was because throughout the 1990s Portugal had, by far, the most extreme and unmanageable drug problem in all of Europe. There were heroin addicts laying in the streets of Lisbon, the entire country was consumed by addiction and related pathologies of sexually-transmitted diseases and drug-associated crime.

And what the found was that the more they criminalized the worse the problem became. So they commissioned an independent study composed of apolitical experts that were given one mandate. And that mandate was to answer the question, “What can the Portuguese government do to bring this problem under control.” And what this panel of experts concluded…they examined all options with the exception of full legalization, and the only reason they didn’t consider that option is that Portugal is bound to treaties of United States forces that bar countries from legalizing drugs and if you’re a small country like Portugal you might actually have to abide by your treaty obligations so they weren’t able to consider that option.

But they did consider every other one and they found that decriminalization was, unanimously the conclusion of the panel said, the optimal way to bring these problems under control and because they had the endorsement of an apolitical panel of experts the parliament in Portugal legalized drugs in 1999 and the president of Portugal signed it into law in 2000.

We now have a decade’s worth of empirical data about what has happened and what has happened is that on almost category Portugal went from being one of the worst countries in Europe to one of the best. In numerous key demographic groups like teenage groups drug usage on an absolute level, in terms of raw numbers, actually decreased. In other demographic categories it increased slightly but far less than what other states, including those with harsh criminalization schemes in the EU, experienced.

I think it’s counterintuitive to a lot of people to show you that when Portugal decriminalized drugs or got rid of its criminalization scheme – things got better. So I just want to outline quickly the three reasons why policy makers in Portugal will tell you that happened.

The first is that when you criminalize drugs it creates a wall of fear and animosity between the citizenry and the government and especially the police. Then it makes it impossible for the government to offer services or education to citizens because citizens perceive the government not as their friend but as the entity to fear.

Norm Stamper who was the former Chief of Police of Seattle and the veteran of the police force of 34 years said of the drug war, “in cities across the country, young people, poor people and people of color have come to view as the enemy.” And so by decriminalizing drugs policy makers in Portugal have been able to speak to the population, offer services, reach out to them because they are no longer the enemy. They are not trying to convert their citizens into criminals and put them into cages. They’re trying to offer services on a health basis to those who want them.

The second reason why that happened is because when you stop spending hundreds of billions of dollars on putting drug users into the criminal process and prosecuting them and putting them into cages and then losing what they can contribute on employment level – huge amounts of money are freed up for things like drug counseling and methadone clinics and ways to educate people on how to reduce sexually-transmitted diseases or provide job programs that make people not have to go out on the street and commit crimes.

So by freeing up their money and spending it not to put their drug addicts into cages but to send them to counseling and offer them clinics, drug addiction decreased and therefor drug usage did as well.

The third reason why this happened was because when people now are caught using drugs in Portugal they don’t go to criminal courts with a judge sitting in a robe judging them guilty and sends them to prison – they go to a panel composed of health experts and drug experts who encourage them to seek drug counseling and provide the mechanism to do so.

So instead of sending people to prison and turning them into hardened criminals who are unemployable – they are turned into healthy citizens who no longer are criminalized but are offered help.

And what’s most amazing is that when Portugal first decriminalized drugs – Portugal is a very conservative and Catholic country that still criminalizes abortion – this policy was incredibly controversial – as you might expect. A decade later there is no controversy in Portugal over this policy. There is no significant political faction that advocates repeal of decriminalization. It is one of the sources of national pride about the incredible success that decriminalization has brought about.

So when you think about decriminalization or legalization and think that the reason you are opposed to it, if not in all cases then in least in some, is because it will lead to a massive increase in drug use then I would say two things. Number one the cost of the policy that you are advocating is vastly more substantial then that cost – even if you are right. And the one purely empirical case that we have to know whether or not that’s true – in Portugal – disputes that assertion and says that there really is no substantial increase in drug usage. You actually make every single problem better.

I think if I had one wish for drug policy debate is that it would be in purism and rationality rather than moralizing, fear-mongering and speculation because I think the evidence is so overwhelming about just how destructive this policy has been and continues to be.

With that I thank you very much and will turn it over to Mr. Walters.


DEAN BECKER: Once again, that was Glenn Greenwald, best-selling author, speaking at Brown University opening up a debate with John Walters, the former Drug Czar, whom I promise will be on next week.


TERRY NELSON: This is Terry Nelson speaking for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. The war on drugs drones on and on and there is no end in sight. Much progress has been made to lift the prohibition of drugs and many discussions are taking place in academia, the news channels, facebook and many other social media. And while the winds of change are blowing there are still desperate government officials that are reaching for extreme measures to use in the war on drugs.
Many years ago our government suggested to the Colombian government that they might use a fungus to kill the coca plants. The Colombian government in 2003 nixed the idea and the U.S. would not apply it unilaterally because they would then be liable if things got out of control.

The government is still studying the use of possible mycoherbicides to attack the coca plant. Mycoherbicides are toxic fungi that have been used as an environmentally friendly alternative to chemical weedkillers. They can also be targeted to specific plants, and can reproduce themselves, staying in the soil for many years.
According to the article: Using fungi to kill coca and other illegal drug crops would be a risky tactic, as there is not enough data about how to control these killer molds and what effect they could have on people and the environment, according to a U.S. government study released on Wednesday.

The U.S. Congress asked scientists to look into whether some types of fungi, could stem the flow of illicit drugs into the United States by killing the plants used to make cocaine, marijuana and opium. But scientists from the National Research Council, one of the national academies of science that advises U.S. policymakers, said evidence about the fungi was sketchy and incomplete.

"There are too many unresolved questions regarding efficacy -- whether they'll really perform in real-time conditions, and whether they'll be safe to non-target plants," said Raghavan Charudattan, chair of the committee that prepared the report and professor emeritus in the University of Florida's department of plant pathology. "We did not see any data where a high level of control could be achieved," he said.

What’s next? These guys are so desperate to have some success that they will try anything, destroy who knows what, damage lives and endanger the ecosystem. They are like a blindfolded child trying to hit a pinata. And I apologize to all children that ever have tried to hit a Pinata blindfolded for comparing them to adults that Just don’t get it.
Everything that can be tried with prohibition has been tried and they have all failed. It is time to admit the failure and change the policy.

A failed public policy that has caused far too much harm already. It’s time to adjust the strategy to one of legalization, education and treatment instead of arrest and incarceration. We can educate our way out of our drug problems but we will never arrest our way out. This is Terry Nelson of LEAP, www.copssaylegalizedrugs.com signing off. Stay safe.


DEAN BECKER: Prohibido istac evilesco!


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.

Transcript provided by: Jo-D Harrison of www.DrugSense.org