06/28/15 Doug McVay

This week: we talk with Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies about World Drug Day, and we hear from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime about its new World Drug Report, drug legalization, and the drug war.

Century of Lies
Sunday, June 28, 2015
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL062815.mp3



JUNE 28, 2015


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization. Legalization. The end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network and is supported through the generosity of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and of listeners like you. And now, on with the show.

Friday June 26th was the United Nations' World Drug Day. The UN issued its World Drug Report, and nations around the world commemorated it in one way or another.

In the past, you'd find news reports about how places like Iran and China observed the day with executions of drug offenders but not so much these days. You do still find reports about how many people have been arrested, how many tons of seized drugs were destroyed, and some horror stories about drug use. There are still some nations with the death penalty for some drug offenses but they're not as vocal about the practice, they're more likely to be criticized rather than praised for it. Even Indonesia refrained from killing anyone on Friday June 26th, though that's only because of the timing: a report from Agence France-Presse quoted an Indonesian government official saying that no executions would be held during the holy month of Ramadan, which this year ends on the evening of Friday July 17th.

June 26th is also the Global Day of Action for Drug Policy Reform. Loyal listeners will recall that we've been talking about this for the last couple of weeks. Now, last week we heard from organizers in the UK and Canada. In the next couple of weeks we'll hear from activists and organizers about how the day went.

This week, we're going to hear from some United Nations officials about their World Drug Report and the global drug war, but first, we have an interview with a friend of the program, a good friend of mine, one of the best and brightest drug policy reformers I know, Sanho Tree. Sanho is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, he runs their drug policy project there. We talked about World Drug Day and drug policy reform in general. Let's just go to that audio. Happy World Drug Day, Sanho.

SANHO TREE: Yes, exactly. It's also the founding of the UN anniversary, and, a bunch of other UN celebrations today, and I don't know why they would spoil it with the, celebrating the drug war on such a day as well, but --

DOUG MCVAY: Well, we're trying to -- we're of course trying to claim it, claim the day back and, it's the Global Day of Action for Drug Policy Reform, take the, try and seize the day, as it were, and events have gone on around the world. And, let's talk about World Drug Day. I mean, this is a -- in some places we're celebrating it by talking about harm reduction, and by promoting the idea of Support Don't Punish, and in some nations, they're celebrating it in a much different way. Human rights is something that hasn't really entered into the drug policy debate until recently. Talk to me for a minute about some of these, about how this has evolved. I mean, you and I have been doing this for long enough that we've seen massive change. We were just talking about that, the, you know, from a period of time when people would, you know, look at you askance for even mentioning drugs, to now, when people, if you talk about marijuana, presume that you're simply another businessperson. I mean -- let's, yeah, let's talk about the evolution of this stuff.

SANHO TREE: Well, yeah, it's amazing to watch how these issues evolve over time. In a way, you could argue that, you know, gay marriage and marijuana legalization was inevitable in the sense that you could see it as a, almost like a freight train coming down the tracks, demographically speaking. At the time though, it looks like oh, it's here forever and nothing's going to change, but if you look at the demographics, those are, those move quite independent of political will, right? So a whole generation has now come on line, both literally and figuratively, and are changing the nature of the politics so the wedge issues that were so linked to the baby boomer generation, that played out for so many decades in our politics, are now abandoned, they're obsolete, and they're a hindrance now, politically. They're a liability, not an asset.

So, I remember in 2004 elections, when, you know, this is how George Bush got re-elected, one of the ways, Karl Rove placed anti-gay-marriage ballot initiatives on 11 state ballots, and brought out the vote. And now, they're falling over each other to reverse all that stuff. You know? The same with the confederate flag, same with marijuana, and this is slowly going to ripple out globally, I think, even though there are quite a few hold-out countries that are tougher than ever. But culturally, this is seeping out into the global discourse, by virtue of things like Hollywood, for better or worse. It does change attitudes around the world.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, you mention gay marriage, today of course is also the day when the Supreme Court handed down a landmark 5-4 ruling affirming same-sex marriage in the United States, a massive victory. And this is really, I mean, we've had 8 years of, 7-8 years of a Democratic president, but this is still a remarkably conservative Court, and yet we've got a 5-4 ruling on that, we had a 6-3 ruling affirming the ACA, the Affordable Care Act, just yesterday. You know? A ruling written by Chief Justice Roberts of all people. I mean, you know, it's too much a cliche to say, to quote the song "The times they are a-changing," but man oh man.

SANHO TREE: I think it bodes well for, you know, upcoming cases involving marijuana policy as well. You know, the justices, they don't watch the polls every day, but they are cognizant of the fact that they're increasingly unpopular, although these latest rulings might change things a bit. But they don't want to be out of synch with the times, because it's their own legitimacy that gets called into question if they rule too often in reactionary ways. And so I think in many ways, legalization of marijuana, like gay marriage, is too big to fail. At this point, you know, to undo all this stuff would be, you know, nullifying god knows how many contracts and obligations and arrangements, business relationships, and even taxes and, you know, do you recriminalize people, all this stuff. So it's going to be very hard to put that genie back in the bottle.

And that was the case with gay marriage. I think it was the Solicitor General, the former Solicitor General Walter Olsen, who used the term, the normative power of the actual, that once you have gay marriage in so many states, people have entered into these relationships, these are legally binding contracts, they've bought houses together etc., how are you going to take that away from people and undo it without causing even more uproar and controversy than the original problem.

DOUG MCVAY: With marijuana we haven't -- in a way, we haven't really reached that point, I suppose, I mean it's only legal in four states and the District of Columbia for adults, and it's a limited legalization, but we have medical all over the country, and, I mean, I know that it's not just a question of hand a doc a few bucks and suddenly you get your recommendation, it's really not as easy as that, you really do have to have a condition, and in some states it's limited to only very serious conditions, I mean, it's -- and yet, there's been this sort of idea that with medical marijuana it's the next thing to legal, and it may as well just be, you know. And it -- I wonder if that's contributed to that, this notion that, well, sure, quote legal -- or quote "medical" end quote was, you know, that it's become so pervasive as a result that it's become normal.

SANHO TREE: Yeah, and it also shows that the sky hasn't fallen. You know? In the state that have gay marriage, the ones that have legalization of marijuana or medical marijuana, people go about things in an orderly way, there's no rioting in the streets, there's no anarchy, you know, kids still go to school, people are still employed, yadda yadda yadda, life goes on. And so in that sense, what was the fuss all about? All right. So, that's why it gets increasingly harder to undo, as these things get normalized.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, indeed. And it results in, well, massive changes, the -- I don't know how much of the World Drug Day stuff you've been following. The webcast of the release of the report came from Vienna at, it was 1 o'clock in the morning my time, would have been 4am your time. I'm sure you were up having breakfast, getting ready for your day at that point in DC, such a hard-charging person that you are. And they had the release in Vienna, they had a release in Geneva, and they just finished a news conference for the late risers in New York City. But Ban-Ki Moon, the secretary general, came out with a message on International Day Against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking. Let me read you part of this:

"In full compliance with human rights standards and norms, the United Nations advocates a careful re-balancing of the international policy on controlled drugs. We must consider alternatives to criminalization and incarceration of people who use drugs and focus criminal justice efforts on those involved in supply. We should increase the focus on public health, prevention, treatment and care, as well as on economic, social and cultural strategies."

And, that's from our secretary-general.

SANHO TREE: Yeah. And each of those words is fought over, and have been for many years, right? To get them to say something like that, from the secretary general, means lots of UN bureaucracies had to fight over the exact wording of this document, and it shows a lot of progress, the fact that they were able to get those words inserted means the drug warriors are losing ground in the UN. When you have the World Health Organization, UN Development Program, you know, and various other UN agencies now also weighing in, it's part of their human rights agenda, and indigenous rights, you know? So it's, the drug warriors no longer have free rein, the way they once did.

DOUG MCVAY: I think later in the show I'll play in some of the, if I have time, I'll play in some of the audio from the Geneva news conference, with delegates from the, representing rather the UNAIDS and the World Health Organization. It's that notion of bringing in public health and bringing in human rights, UNODC seems to want to rewrite history, it's like, Oh, we've always been about all this stuff, oh maybe a few countries out there were aberrant, but this is what we've always been about. I have too long a memory, and I -- not that I hold grudges, but -- yeah.

SANHO TREE: They're notorious at rewriting history, UNODC. They -- I remember in the '90s, right, when they had the first UNGASS, UN General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, back in 1998, and at that time UNODC -- it was a different acronym back then -- had a slogan for that, for their ten-year goal, which is "A drug free world: we can do it!" So by 2008, we were supposed to have had a drug-free world. And, the director of the agency at the time, Dr. Costa -- well, actually, he came right after that. But then he went on a documentary show, on Irish television, and denied that the UN ever used that phrase, a drug free world. He said it over and over, we absolutely categorically deny it, you will not find any United Nations document that uses that phrase. And then of course the producers show him document after document from the UN with that slogan, "A drug free world, we can do it". So, yeah, they're no, they're not strangers to rewriting history.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, as long as it gets rewritten, as long as it keeps going in a good direction I suppose we can let them get away with it for a little while. But, so, I mean, we still have countries around the world -- Saudi Arabia and a handful of others, where executions are the way that they celebrate this day. Now, the human rights conventions push for an end to capital punishment. You're probably more informed on that particular topic in general than I am. How do you see that progressing, the fight against capital punishment? Not just for drug offenses, but for all offenses, I mean, it's a foolish, awful, cruel, and inhumane approach, it's counter-productive, it's never worked in the entire history of criminal justice. But, maybe that's just my opinion and historical fact. How do you think things are going internationally as far as that.

SANHO TREE: I think, you know, we're finally getting traction and getting the attention of a lot of these countries that practice these awful acts. But in the past, it's been, you know, a few NGOs would make a statement, maybe you'd get an article in The Guardian or, you know, some newspaper, something like that. But now, in the era of social media, average people can send things around to their friends and networks, condemning these kinds of acts, and so various countries are seeing themselves, you know, hashtagged on twitter and the internet, and they are beginning to realize, you know, our country's a little bit out of step with the rest of the world here, what's going on? So it, you know, it's small openings like that that begin to really transform the conversation, and what looks intractable today could flip in a very short period of time. It's difficult to predict tipping points, except in hindsight of course, but again, we saw today what happened with gay marriage, we're seeing what's happening with marijuana policy, so these things do change.

DOUG MCVAY: That was an interview with Sanho Tree, he directs the drug policy project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. You're listening to Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Now, as I keep reminding everyone, June 26th was the global day of action for drug policy reform. It was also the UN's World Drug Day. The UN Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual world drug report that day, they held news conferences at the UNODC office in Vienna, Austria, at the UN office in Geneva, Switzerland, and later on at UN headquarters in New York City. Here then is some audio from the Geneva news conference. Gabriela Sotomayor, correspondent for the Mexican news agency Notimex, asked the panel about the drug war:

GABRIELA SOTOMAYOR: Yes, Gabriela Sotomayor from Mexican news agency. If you can give me your thoughts about legalization of drugs, there is a new drug policy reform, there are former presidents and there's a big movement regarding that, so, if you can talk about that, and also, the failure of the war on drugs, militarization, is that the solution? Thank you.

ALDO LALE-DEMOZ: Thank you. I was surprised we didn't get that question earlier. Okeh, there's various -- I will do fair justice to your question, I think the question is a very valid one. It's a question as you say not only in the Latin America region, but I think in other regions of the world. Let's, there are various layers of analysis. First of all, to our knowledge, to our certain knowledge, there is today, not a single member state who in the context of international meetings and gatherings under the aegis of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, who are advocating for any shape -- for any deviation, let's put it this way, for any deviation of the current three drug control conventions.

That said, indeed, next year, in New York, from the 19th to 21st of April, there will be a United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, which is very much meant to be, to give an opportunity to all member states, and this time for the first time also to civil society organizations, to research institutions, to academia, to put on the table the evidence to what extent the drug control conventions are delivering results, where there might be gaps, what could be improved, and that is a very healthy exercise, and this time for the first time the exercise is really quite comprehensive. It is inclusive. UN agencies, other UN agencies, not just UNODC, are able to participate, are able to put documents and studies on the UNGASS -- the special session's called UNGASS -- on the UNGASS special website. It is a very sort of like, participatory approach.

But at the end of the day, the drug control conventions is 100 percent an issue of member states, and it is their, it's in their honest right to decide whether the conventions stay as they are, whether they are improved, whether they are changed. You can certainly not expect us here to, to, to, guide that process. That is very much a process of the international community, of member states. But as I said, I mean, there is very much a feeling that we, at least, need to put on the table the evidence.

And that leads me to your second question, the war on drugs. Let me tell you from the outset, nobody on up here on the podium, I've been in the UNODC for 22 years, and not for a single day did I go to work thinking that I was waging war against anybody. This is a language, this is a concept, that doesn't exist in us. We are bound by the international drug control conventions to make sure that health is up there, that all programs and strategies are human-centered, that they're respectful of human rights. It is a very very difficult arena to play, but we are not waging a war on drugs.

Perhaps, some member states in the past thought they were waging a war on drugs, perhaps misinterpreted the conventions. If you look carefully at the conventions, there is not a mention of waging a way, there is not mention of aggression, it is quite the opposite. What we are trying to promote is the health approach, is the access of people to legitimate medication. So the war has neither been lost or won, I don't think it ever existed. What we have is a war on ignorance, we have a war on wrong policies, we have a war on practices as I mentioned earlier. Informed, non-evidence drug abuse treatment practices, maybe we're waging, perhaps not a war, but we are really trying to avoid that.

And as I said, the UNGASS 2016 has already entered its preparatory process. A lot of meetings are taking place all over the world. Whether it is in the area of drug law enforcement, whether it's in the area of HIV and treatment prevention and care, whether it's the area of drug abuse prevention, I -- we do look, as UNODC, as international civil servants, all of us look forward to an informed debate where all the evidence is placed on the table, but in the final analysis, it's for member states to decide what they do with the international drug control conventions. And I might only add, very objectively, that to the -- for the time being, we have not seen any single member state making a move outside the three international drug control conventions. Thank you. I don't know if anybody here wants to add -- Dr. Gerra?

DR. GILBERTO GERRA: Only one second to say that, for sure, UNODC never promoted, my director has said, the war on drugs, that there was in reality a war on drugs, because member states, in my opinion, misinterpreted -- I can say openly -- misinterpreted completely the convention, or they did not take the time to read correctly the convention. They started to do a war, you cannot imagine to whom. I think that the real war against the drug dealers, has done, has been done with a relative level of motivation. But the war was done against drug users, and this is completely crazy, because drug users are vulnerable population affected by a chain of disadvantages, social, neurobiological, genetic disadvantages, they develop a mental disorder or a health problem, and also they are prosecuted, put in jail, and they receive this kind of punishment that is a real social cruelty, it's completely not corresponding to the reality.

So, we have to stop this war against drug users, but it has not been generated by the UN, it's been generated by some member states misinterpreting the conventions. But there is I think a movement inside member states, to completely redesign this kind of approach, and now the health approach, the health-centered approach is becoming really at the center stage in the Commission on Narcotic Drugs.

But, I want to try to think about the pure issue of legalization. Making these drugs available from a dispensary instead of making them, these drugs available from a drug dealer, belonging to a criminal organization, is probably improving something, but it is not, we are not to forget that this is not taking away the dangerousness of drugs. I always said that if my school bus driver, no, driving my children to school is going to drive under the effect of marijuana, bought in the dispensary instead of bought in a criminal organization, we are still in trouble. And, there are huge number of social categories that cannot say in public, I am cocaine addict, and then going to do the neurosurgeon, for example. You know what happens? All these categories would go to buy again in the drug market, to protect their own situation, and we would have a double market co-existing, the black one and the white one, going to complicate things.

The other very big issue is, we have an example of legalization of psychoactive substances, alcohol and tobacco. We have these business companies now doing a lot of money on the skin of people and on the health of people, for both people -- alcohol producers and tobacco companies. Do we want to duplicate or triplicate or multiplicate this kind of business on the skin of people, or do we want to organize better our protection for children, our support to families, our fighting against social inequalities and social exclusion, to avoid the people are in need of drugs?

ALDO LALE-DEMOZ: Thank you. If you allow me, I will add an additional layer, because I think that the media can play an important role here. When people parade as legalizers, and then they come out with their arguments, for example, let me -- the ones that we listen, that we hear rather frequently, that we have to decriminalize drug abuse, that we should not punish drug users, that prisons are way too full with drug users, that we should invest in education, drug abuse prevention, that we have to promote alternatives to incarceration, that drug use is not a criminal justice problem, that drug use is a health problem.

Many people who advocate for legalization, these are the main tenets, these are the main arguments, and let me tell you something, what I just mentioned is exactly what the conventions call for, is exactly what all of us here are working toward. So, I believe, I suspect that many people who parade as legalizers, in fact, are our biggest allies, because they're calling for things which all of us are actually doing. Then there are those who straightforward say no, the international drug control conventions have to be torn down, there should be real free markets, that, those are the real legalizers, but I just call this to your attention, because many people who come forward with apparently new thinking strategies, we welcome them, because actually they are promoting precisely what all of us want to achieve.

DOUG MCVAY: That was from a news conference at the UN offices in Geneva, Switzerland, announcing release of the World Drug Report. The question about drug war was posed by Gabriela Sotomayor of the Mexican news agency Notimex. The somewhat surreal responses came from Aldo Lale-Demoz, Deputy Executive Director and Director of Operations for UNODC, and Dr. Gilberto Gerra, Chief of the Drug Prevention and Health Branch of UNODC.

And that's really all the time we have today. I want to thank you for listening. This is Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

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