07/24/15 Ginger Thompson

Ginger Thompson, Pulitzer Prize winner re Chapo's escape, Inge Fryklund former Chicago prosecutor, Michael Collins of DPA re Senate vote, Dr. Jahan Marcu re use of cannabis vape pens + President Barak Obama

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Friday, July 24, 2015
Ginger Thompson
Pulitzer Prize Winner



JULY 24, 2015


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

DR. G. ALAN ROBISON: It is not only inhumane, it is really fundamentally un-American.

CROWD: No more! Drug war! No More! Drug War! No More! Drug War!

DEAN BECKER: 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.

Indeed. The drug war is ending. Still slowly, still bloody, but it is ending. This show captures a few of the positives that are helping to bring focus to bear and are helping to end this paranoid and delusional war on fear of drugs.

Ginger Thompson is a senior reporter at ProPublica. She's a Pulitzer Prize winner, previously spent 15 years at the New York Times. She had a stint as a Washington correspondent and as an investigative reporter whose stories revealed Washington's secret role in Mexico's fight against drug traffickers. And here to join us is Ginger Thompson. How are you, ma'am?

GINGER THOMPSON: I'm well, thanks for having me.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, ma'am. I caught a recent article you posted on ProPublica.org. It's titled "Up At Breakfast To Talk El Chapo, Drug War Veterans Serve Up Cynicism." Would you please inform the listeners what that was about?

GINGER THOMPSON: Well, the story was about a trip I took to San Antonio last week, where I essentially went to meet with a couple of long-time sources of mine, and one of those sources invited me to breakfast with two people who he described as friends, and so I went along, I tagged along. We had breakfast at a place called La Pipe Cafe, and, you know, they sort of, what was on their minds I think, was Chapo's escape. And essentially these were three veterans of the drug war. They'd all spent their entire careers on the front lines of this fight.

And I thought that, you know, I went basically wanting to hear their thoughts and their perspectives, and was surprised to hear them talk about this escape as sort of a part of some deal. You know, they all believed, none of them believed what the Mexican government had sort of said, or the explanations that were coming from the Mexican government. And all of them felt that there had been some deal made that allowed, that allowed Chapo to talk out of prison.

DEAN BECKER: Now, I've even heard some say that the tunnel was just an excuse, more or less, or a means whereby the prison authorities could, you know, pawn it off on another situation. Some have said he put on a prison guard's uniform and walked out the front door, but, he has the power through the plata or plomo to make a lot of people fear him, does he not?

GINGER THOMPSON: Well, he has a lot of money, like many people in the drug trade, to buy favors. He has, he has plenty of ability to pay off officials and have his way. He's demonstrated that ability previously when he escaped from prison in 2001, and the director of that prison later became one of the, one of the leading operatives in his drug cartel. And so, yes, he definitely has buying power, if you will.

DEAN BECKER: Now, these gentlemen you talked to, I guess former law enforcement, kind of sound like my brothers and sisters in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. People who, you know, put in the years trying to stop this drug trade and came to a final conclusion that it's just not working. Your response there, Ginger.

GINGER THOMPSON: Well, I don't know that I'd go as far as that. I think that, you know, what you have in these veterans is people who've seen, that the fight has not succeeded in stopping the drug trade. Does that mean that they, that any one of them is prepared to give up on that fight? No, I think they all remain, you know, at least two of them work for the government, as far as I can tell will continue to work for the government and will continue to try to push this fight. I don't think anyone was sort of throwing up their hands and saying Let's give up on the whole project. But they are, at least, you know, clear-eyed enough to sort of talk about the things that they don't think work in the fight. And I think that's just slightly different than saying they want to give up the fight altogether.

DEAN BECKER: It's not that unusual though, I mean I'm hearing former federal judges, and prosecutors who have now left the bench and have declared that we've been doing it wrong, been too extreme in our punishment of these drug users. Your response, there, Ginger.

GINGER THOMPSON: Well, I think that there is a national if not a global conversation going on now about, you know, all the resources that have been used to fight the quote unquote drug war, and what has been achieved with all of those resources, and I think there are a lot of people and I think you're absolutely right, there are people at very high levels in the justice system here and around the world asking, you know, is this the best way, is this the best use of law enforcement resources, and is this effective, or are we, you know, are we locking up the wrong people, are we over-punishing people? Because as all of us know, drugs continue to flow in enormous quantities around the world.

So, I think there is a conversation going on about whether what we've, you know, what the current strategies are, what the current techniques are, are useful, and where that conversation lands is still unclear. Right? I think, you know, there's still a lot of opposition to giving up this, for as much as there are people that you describe who are questioning it, there's also a group of people who are sort of still defending this as the best way. So, we're still a ways from having this resolved, and so my conversation with these guys is just sort of a look, a look inside of one of these conversations, and conversations not with, you know, just ordinary people, as valuable as our opinions are, but these are as I said, people who know this fight because they're involved with it.

DEAN BECKER: Right. And I know you've, I believe you spent ten years in Mexico yourself, while working for the New York Times. And it's just been in the last five to ten years that the violence has really escalated and that's all been a result of the turmoil within who's in charge of these routes of trafficking drugs into the US. Am I correct?

GINGER THOMPSON: Well, a lot of the violence has been the result of rivalries, clashes between different drug traffickers fighting for control of different routes and different regions of Mexico. And some of this has been the result of, you know, increased law enforcement by the Mexican government. You know, they've increased the pressure on these cartels, and the cartels have fought back. And so, you know, there's, the previous Mexican president, Felipe Calderon, is, you know, has sort of been blamed by some in Mexico for starting this war by, you know, launching a campaign against these, these traffickers, you know, and with great support from the United States, and, you know, his supporters take great courage to try to finally take on these drug traffickers. The cost has been significant to Mexico, though, in terms of lives, in terms of quality of life, in terms of, you know, a sense of security. But that's essentially what's going on behind the warring between these cartels.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, we've been speaking with Ginger Thompson, former New York Times reporter, Pulitzer Prize winner, with some thoughts in regards to this war on drugs. Ginger, I thank you.


DEAN BECKER: I am the Reverend Dean Becker of the Drug Truth Network. Standing in the river of reform, baptizing drug warriors to the unvarnished truth. DrugTruth.Net.

INGE FRYKLUND: Hello, my name is Inge Fryklund. I'm a former Chicago prosecutor, back in the 1980s, and during the last ten years I've spent most of my time working overseas, including five years in Afghanistan. So, I have seen the damage and the futility of the drug war both in Chicago, where we were locking up mostly minority defendants, and the damage it's done to Afghanistan, where the place has become a narco-state because, I think, of our insistence on keeping drugs illegal. And that's why I joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, trying to stop the war on drugs and substitute a regime of regulation and control.

DEAN BECKER: Well, Inge, you just recently posted a piece on the Huffington Post, and you referenced the proposal if you will from President Barack Obama that we need to lessen the sentences for drug crimes. Your response to that thought, please.

INGE FRYKLUND: My response was, it may be a baby step in the right direction, but it's just nibbling at the margins. All it's talking about doing is reducing some sentences. These, what he refers to as low-level offenders, are still going to be convicted of a crime. My argument is that the basic problem is not the sentencing, but the fact that these drug offenses are defined as crimes. Think of the analogy back to prohibition of alcohol, back in the 1920s. During that time, anybody who was selling, transporting, having a cartel for alcohol, was committing a crime.

The minute prohibition was repealed in 1933, alcohol became a legitimate business, people could go to court to enforce their disputes, and the adults in the community could institute regulation, purity and potency, and keep alcohol out of the hands of children. And I think that's what ought to be done with drugs, because as long as something is illegal, you can't manage or regulate it.

DEAN BECKER: Well Inge, I have to applaud your thought, a mantra here on the Drug Truth Network is that we should judge adults by their actions, not the contents of their pocket and that we'll have plenty of room in prison then to hold anybody who would sell drugs to our children.

INGE FRYKLUND: Yes, absolutely. And right now, we are leaving all the decisions about selling in the hands of criminals, and I am willing to bet that they're not checking IDs to see if they're selling to people under 21. And as long as drugs remain illegal, we're essentially saying, hey, the responsible community is going to wash its hands of the problem, and leave all the decisions up to the criminals. That strikes me as a really poor way to manage.

DEAN BECKER: Indeed it does. You know, I think about --

INGE FRYKLUND: I could see Obama take the step of saying the drug war has to stop. Not just this nibbling around the margins, by reducing some sentences for some poor people caught up in it.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, I think about, people don't realize that before this prohibition, you could buy a week's supply of heroin for a couple of dollars at the drug store, that it was not the, it didn't have the incentive to go out and steal or somehow acquire hundreds of dollars for a daily fix. It has just gone off the edge, right?

INGE FRYKLUND: Right. And the experience of both Portugal and Switzerland with legalized heroin, I think is very instructive. Way back in 1994, Switzerland decided that heroin should no longer, usage should no longer be a crime. Any addict can go to a government clinic, shoot up with pharmaceutical grade heroin, and the result since '94 has been no deaths at government clinics, HIV and hepatitis rates down, crime is down, because as you say, people don't have to go out to steal to feed the habit. And I think most interesting, fewer young people are trying it, both because there's nothing glamorous about a substance you get at a government clinic, and also because the shooting galleries, those low-life places where people would share needles, have pretty much gone out of business. So, as social recruitment sites, they're just not there anymore to attract young people.

And, in 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs, and they've seen crime drop, addiction drop, HIV and hepatitis drop. And in this country, we've got about 3,500 to 4,000 people a year dying of heroin overdoses. Our policies are killing people.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Inge, you were a prosecutor, and I want to ask you a question. You know here locally, we have a district attorney who thus far has been unwilling to come on my radio show to discuss the drug war. It seems we have an increased murder rate here in Houston, and yet we are arresting about a thousand young people every month for minor amounts of drugs -- in fact, for amounts that they could just write them a ticket. But they're choosing to take them to jail, and we're so overcrowded that we're now busing people to other counties because our jails are near unconstitutionally full. Your response, please.

INGE FRYKLUND: Well, during the years of the war on drugs, which really took off under Nixon in 1971, the jail population, jails and prisons, has skyrocketed, mostly due to these drug arrests. And the clearance rate for the violent crimes like rape and murder and arson have gone down, which certainly looks like a mis-allocation of police and prosecutorial and general tax purposes. If we were putting our efforts into the crimes that really affect people, we'd be doing a lot better job of handling murders, and also remember that as under prohibition of alcohol, whenever a substance the people want is illegal, you're going to end up with crime and corruption. There are going to -- just like with Al Capone, I mean Chapo Guzman is sort of in the same business, there is going to be violence as these drug gangs and cartels fight over market share.

And that's just inevitable. So, by continuing the drug war as we have, I think we can be quite confident in predicting that the murder rate is going to continue, and that the rate of solving these things is going to go down.

DEAN BECKER: Well, you know folks, this is the Cultural Baggage show, and we're speaking with Inge Fryklund. She's a board member of my band of brothers, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I think I'm the low man on the totem pole, as far as experience, but it's good to have people like you, Inge, with that experience speaking so boldly. Any closing thoughts you'd like to relay?

INGE FRYKLUND: I've just been thinking about President Obama. If he can talk to Iran, and Cuba, he ought to be able to take the step of stopping the war on drugs, especially given that this goes back to President Nixon, and remember one of the things Nixon said on the Nixon tapes, when putting marijuana on schedule one, he said, this is a black thing, but we can't say that. So, this is then a war on drugs for no apparent reason other than racial animosity, and it's causing terrible damage to our country. So, I certainly hope that the president is going to use the rest of his term to move beyond mere sentencing reform, and effect some fundamental change here.

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Depression, pain during sexual intercourse, reduced libido, suppressed fertility, progesterone deficiency, spontaneous abortion, metabolic disorders, fetal starvation, and chemical castration. Time's up! The answer: Depo-Provera, another FDA-approved product.

MICHAEL COLLINS: Michael Collins, policy manager at Drug Policy Alliance.

DEAN BECKER: Michael, I'm looking at a release here from the DPA dealing with a US Senate Appropriations Committee's actions. Tell us what's going on, please.

MICHAEL COLLINS: So, I think you know last year in the funding bill that was passed by Congress, allowed DC to move forward with legalizing possession of marijuana, then prevented DC from taking any further action to tax and regulate marijuana and set up dispensaries. This Senate Appropriations bill that was passed out of the committee does not include any language that prevents DC from moving forward with tax and regulate, so if this was to make the final bill, and signed by the President, well then, DC would be able to open up dispensaries and tax and regulate marijuana, and it's significant because obviously the Senate is under Republican control, and so, you know, we see this as a bill that's been drafted by Republicans and its a step in the right direction.

In addition to that, there was an amendment also to the, to that bill by Senator Merkley of Oregon and Senator of Washington, to allow banks to provide financial services to marijuana dispensaries, both medicinal and non-medicinal dispensaries, and that vote passed as well, 16 to 14.

DEAN BECKER: And Michael, again, this is an example of just recognizing the need to control the money that, millions of dollars, they have to hire private security guards etc., buy big safes and hope that the criminals don't show up. Am I correct?

MICHAEL COLLINS: Yeah, I mean, this is a bipartisan vote today, you know, we had Republicans and Democrats that are joining hands and saying, look, this situation we have where, you know, marijuana dispensaries are operating as cash only is very dangerous, problematic from a public safety point of view, and at the end of the day, you know, marijuana legalization is about, you know, eliminating that black market and making sure that there is a level of control, and, you know, passing amendments like the one we passed today is going to lead to a better situation for marijuana legalization in general.

DEAN BECKER: Fact of the matter is that the truth about these drug laws, these failings of these drug laws, is coming forward at a rapid clip, what with the pronouncements recently of President Obama, President Clinton, and many others, and this is just an example of a need for change, is it not, Michael?

MICHAEL COLLINS: Yeah, I mean, there's a lot of consensus on the side of the drug war has failed, and then the question is just how do we move forward and both sides of the one we had today, you know, take us in the direction of certainly ending the federal government's failed war on marijuana, as well as the larger war on drugs.

DEAN BECKER: All right folks, there you have it. I do appreciate it. Michael Collins of the Drug Policy Alliance. Their website by the way, DrugPolicy.org.

JAHAN MARCU: Hello, my name is Jahan Marcu. I received my PhD for studying cannabis and cannabinoid receptors, studying the chemistry of the plant as well as pharmacology and basic research into therapeutics, such as cancer as well as basic receptor signalling and, you know, like the function of cannabinoids in bone, and things like that. And presently, I wear a couple different hats right now. The two main are that I'm the research and development director for Green Standard Diagnostics, and I'm the chief auditor for Patient Focused Certification, so I do a lot of, I do method development, do some research, and I also audit medical cannabis operations such as laboratories, dispensaries, and manufacturers for certification under botanical safety, handling, best practices.

DEAN BECKER: Jahan, I'm a Texan, but occasionally I get into states like California, Colorado, where they use these vape pens, and they seem on first blush to be a safe alternative to smoking for those who may have asthma or a history of COPD. But, are there dangers, perhaps, involved in using these vape pens?

JAHAN MARCU: Well, I think first off, you know, the cannabis plant, whether it's in a whole plant form or a pure oil, it is non-toxic. It can be safely, in reasonable quantities, taken orally or inhaled. Where we get into areas of concern is when we start adding things to a non-toxic substance, such as excipients, to change the nature of the oil, because cannabis extract is very sticky, it has a consistency of a paste or a tar, and it doesn't flow very well. So, in these portable vaporizers, they need this oil to be in a very kind of liquid form to flow through the device. The tobacco companies, like R. J. Reynolds, they can -- they came out with one of the first ever sort of e-cigarettes over 20 years ago, and the e-cigarette companies have been using propylene glycol, which is something that the cannabis industry has been phasing out of late.

But there still are a fair amount of products that use this. And the concern is that the things added to these vape pens are inherently dangerous. It's that you're putting these products which have to be, you're making these products that have to be used at specific temperatures, and if you put them into a device that isn't calibrated or standardized, fluctuates greatly in how much heat and energy it passes off, that's when things become dangerous. And so many of the vape pens overheat the product, or they have a setting and the user doesn't have the proper information or has not been informed that they shouldn't set it to the maximum setting, because when you overheat some of these things that are excipients like propylene glycol that turns into what is called formaldehyde releasing agents. There are safe ways to use these products, and basically, you know, low voltage, low heat is the way to go, but when you overheat these products, that's when you run into dangers.

DEAN BECKER: It seems that we're always, you know, hearing from the prohibitionists that, you know, these things are inherently dangerous no matter what, but when used properly, they do in fact pose very little threat if any, correct?

JAHAN MARCU: Yeah, very little risk for the user. And I think we have to remember that vaporizers have been published in clinical research by US researchers in high quality journals, so not too long ago there was a study with a herbal cannabis vaporizer, looking at HIV/AIDS patients and painful neuropathy. But that vaporizer was built to standards. When you're importing things like from China, or other places, that are following the same standards, there might be some issues there with the quality of the product, and especially if the design of the product you're using is 20 years old, it's outdated technology. But it's cheap, it's easy, and, you know, we don't have any safety data on these products. While, you know, we just, have lessons we can learn from the tobacco industry, which has already struggled with this.

DEAN BECKER: All right. Once again folks, we've been speaking with Dr. Jahan Marcu. Is there a website, some closing thoughts you'd like to relay?

JAHAN MARCU: I would encourage people to check out PatientFocusedCertification.org. This is a medical cannabis standards program that many folks in the industry are trying to reach and so if you have concerns about the safety of products, about standardized products, I think that site can answer a lot of questions and address a lot of concerns, whether you're a patient, a regulator, or just a concerned citizen.

DEAN BECKER: I want to thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. I want to thank Michael Collins, Dr. Jahan Marcu, Ginger Thompson, and Inge Fryklund. Here to close us out is our President, Barack Obama, but I want to remind you once again, because of prohibition, you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful. Prohibido istac evilesco.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: These are young people who made mistakes that aren't that different than the mistakes I made, and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is they did not have the kind of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes. What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. But if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are. That's what strikes me. There but for the grace of god, and that, I think, is something that we all have to think about.