07/21/17 Kim Ogg

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Kim Ogg, DA of Houston, Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno new head of DPA, Mason Tvert of VS Strategies, Phil Smith of Drug War Chronicle

Audio file


JULY 21, 2017


DEAN BECKER: Hi, this is Dean Becker. Thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. We have a busy show today.

There's all kinds of exciting news coming out of the Trump administration. Press Secretary Sean Spicer retired today, but also this week we heard some astounding news from his Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Here to tell us more about it is a reporter for Stop The Drug War and the Drug War Chronicle, frequent guest to the Cultural Baggage show, Mister Phil Smith. Phil, what's going on?

PHIL SMITH: Well, Donald Trump is backstabbing his Attorney General. I'm not sure exactly why. I mean, Trump says that it's because Sessions recused himself from the Russia probe. But, man, this is pretty mindboggling, I mean, you don't do this to your political allies. Just more Trump insanity.

From a drug policy perspective, you have to wonder how this impacts Sessions's ability to do his job. On the one hand, he's weakened politically by being targeted by Trump. On the other hand, I fear it may just encourage him to work all the more diligently to show his boss that he's a worthwhile, hardcore Attorney General.

And, he certainly is hardcore when it comes to drug policy. And he's bucking the historical trend towards a more rational and effective drug policy. I see it, see what Sessions is up to as sort of a desperate rearguard action in hopes of maintaining intact the horribly damaging and destructive prohibitionist approaches of Reagan and Nixon, and Clinton on autopilot.

And you can see what he's up to by looking at several different aspects of drug policy. I mean, if you look at sentencing policy, you see that he's moving to reverse Obama era policies that tried to reduce the federal prison population. He's said he's instructing Justice Department lawyers to pursue quote "the most serious readily provable offense" against drug offenders, so he can slap mandatory minimum sentences on them. And he also overturned an Obama administration decision to stop using private prisons.

So, on sentencing policy you can see he's very regressive. If you look at asset forfeiture, he just reinstated the Justice Department's Equitable Sharing Program, which allows state and local cops to do an end run around the state asset forfeiture laws. Those laws require -- they might require a criminal conviction first, or they might require that seized funds go to the state general fund, not for the cops.

But by reinstating this program, that Obama's Attorney General Eric Holder stopped, he's providing an incentive for cops to basically not listen to their own bosses in their own states, and get a real incentive to go after the money instead of going after the actual criminals.

DEAN BECKER: It does seem so retroactive, or, I don't know, today's editorial in the LA Times, Jeff Sessions Asset Forfeiture Plan is a Return to the Stormtrooper Days of Anti-Drug Frenzy. Your response to that.

PHIL SMITH: Well, nobody likes asset forfeiture except greedy cops, and very conservative law and order politicians. I mean, what you see in state after state for the past several years are moves to rein in asset forfeiture, moves to totally bar, ban civil asset forfeiture, that's taking your stuff without convicting you of a crime first. You see that in state after state, this year, last year, the year before.

You have conservative opposition to this kind of behavior, even among Republicans in the Senate. It's a very unpopular policy, except as I noted with a couple of groups who stand to benefit from it, either monetarily or politically. And it's another one of these very regressive policies that Sessions is pushing in the Justice Department.

DEAN BECKER: Well folks, this is just another example of the backward thinking policies that we're being presented with. Again, speaking with Mister Phil Smith, reporter with the Drug War Chronicle, Stop The Drug War, and you can find his writings out there on AlterNet.

You know, it's an honor, if you will, to be speaking to the new executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. She has more than a decade of experience in this regard, and I'm proud to welcome Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno. Hello, Maria.

MARIA MCFARLAND SÁNCHEZ-MORENO: Thank you so much for having me.

DEAN BECKER: If you will, please, tell us a bit about your experience. What brings you to this situation?

MARIA MCFARLAND SÁNCHEZ-MORENO: Sure. Well, I've been passionate about ending the war on drugs for many years. I worked for a long time covering the war in Colombia, for Human Rights Watch, and I was really struck by the fact that no matter how much I tried and how much many people tried to address the atrocities that were coming out of that war, the massacres, the killings, the torture, and the corruption that was associated with it, it just kept going and going, and a lot of that had to do with the enormous profits that organized crime was making thanks to the illicit market in drugs.

So that for me was a major reason to get interested in ending the war on drugs, to take away that enormous source of profits that was fueling these groups. But beyond that, I later did a great deal of work in the United States. I'm a lawyer, and working at Human Rights Watch, I directed the US program, and that meant working on criminal justice issues, on immigration issues, on surveillance, and again, I saw how all of these issues intersected with drug policy.

The fact is that the war on drugs has been a major factor driving excessive sentencing, overcriminalization in the United States, and the growth of the prison system, and the number of arrests of people who end up in jail. It's also a factor driving deportations. So many people who are being deported en masse right now are being deported for very low level drug offenses, for marijuana possession or other low level drug offenses.

And so, to me, many of the social justice issues that I've worked on throughout my career have a lot to do with the war on drugs. And for me, it's simply wrong to lock people up if they're not harming others, and simply for what they choose to put in their own bodies. So it's a matter of privacy, and of individual rights, as well as a matter of justice more broadly.

DEAN BECKER: I wanted to come back to a thought. You'd mentioned corruption, and I wanted to bring forward, I interviewed a gentleman, he was assistant drug czar, if you will, this was at a conference about nine or 10 years ago, perhaps I'll think of his name here in a minute, but, he talked about a $370 billion a year, approximate, that's being generated by this drug war, that goes to the terrorists, the criminals, and gangs, and he talked about half of that going to corrupt border agents, judges, prosecutors, on down the line, to grease the wheels, to keep it going. Your thought in that regard, please.

MARIA MCFARLAND SÁNCHEZ-MORENO: Well, I think that's absolutely a major problem related to the war on drugs. The fact is, when you have so much money being made, of course there are going to be people who are tempted to take that money, and it makes it very, very hard to enforce the law. The US is a country that has, you know, a pretty strong tradition of the rule of law in many respects, so people don't normally think of corruption as a big problem here, but, you know, I've seen it in Latin America, how drug profits are -- create massive problems, and make it very difficult for the system to function.

And even here, we've seen scandals involving Customs and Border Protection, and corruption, so, the US is not immune from that. It's certainly a concern, and when you have so much money, it's going to remain a concern unless you nip the problem in the bud.

DEAN BECKER: All right, folks, once again we're speaking with Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno. She's the new executive director at the Drug Policy Alliance. Now, Maria, I'm noticing here in the release that you worked with Human Rights Watch for about 13 years, and you're still going to serve as the co-director of the US program?

MARIA MCFARLAND SÁNCHEZ-MORENO: Right. I'm wrapping up now as co-director of the US program, so I'll be here for another couple of weeks, and the US program works broadly on issues of criminal justice, immigration, and national security, including surveillance, in the United States. So I've had a good sense of a variety of human rights issues here, but a big part of what I've tried to do here was also get us to focus on drug policy.

So, like I said, drug policy reform has been a passion of mine for a very long time, and Human Rights Watch a few years ago ended up adopting a position calling for the decriminalization of the personal use and possession of all drugs, and for drug reform even when it came to the drug trade more broadly. So, you know, due to the enormous harms that flow from the war on drugs. So I've been able to do that work while at Human Rights Watch, but I'm absolutely delighted to now have the opportunity to do this work directly with Drug Policy Alliance.

DEAN BECKER: You know, we have kind of a push me pull me thing going on at the state and more specifically at the local level, district attorneys and judges and folks are beginning to talk about ratcheting down the mechanism of the drug war, while at the federal level we have them talking about ratcheting it up and going for, you know, hell or high water. What's your thought there, please?

MARIA MCFARLAND SÁNCHEZ-MORENO: Yeah, it's really interesting, right? You see reform in Houston, and movement towards reform in Texas, on these issues, and yet at the federal level, it sounds like policy makers are just tone deaf. They're not hearing what people on the ground are saying about what works and what hasn't worked.

DEAN BECKER: Maria, I, you know, I was talking about corruption, and there is a more silent, or invisible corruption that goes on, and that is the prison wardens, the police departments, the, maybe the prosecutors, all need more money to prosecute this drug war. And it's never really recognized, but it's a hell of a lot of money, isn't it?

MARIA MCFARLAND SÁNCHEZ-MORENO: Yeah, I mean, so much money has been poured into the drug war, and now it's a system, right, that kind of constantly needs to be fed. So, it's not going to be easy to take that apart. But we have seen progress at the state and local level, and the challenge now is to make sure that that spreads, and that federal authorities also start taking steps in that direction.

DEAN BECKER: Well, real good. All right, friends, once again, we've been speaking with Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, the new executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. You can learn more by going to DrugPolicy.org.

Seems I was wrong about $370 billion going to the terrorists, cartels, and gangs. The following is from Anthony Placido, speaking at a conference in El Paso. He was the DEA's chief of intelligence. Anthony Placido:

ANTHONY PLACIDO: The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that the global revenue from the drug trade is three hundred ninety-four billion dollars.

DEAN BECKER: It was not $370 billion, it was $394 billion a year. Please excuse me.

It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Responsible for countless overdose deaths, uncounted diseases, international graft, greed, and corruption, stilted science, and immense un-Christian moral postulations of fiction as fact. Time's up! And this drug is the United States' immoral, improper, bigoted, unscientific, and plain f-ing evil addiction to drug war. All approved by the FDA, absolved by the American Medical Association, and persecuted by Congress, the cops, and in obeyance to the needs of the bankers, the pharmaceutical houses, and the international drug cartels. Five hundred fifty billion dollars a year can be very addicting.

As we've heard earlier in the show, there's all kinds of news breaking, good, bad, indifferent, about the drug war. Jeff Sessions wants to ratchet things up even further than ever has been, but there's a new breed of prosecutor, if you will. So says the headline of a recent Christian Science Monitor offering, as well as there's a story breaking today in the New York Times, talking about a trying time on grand juries, which also references the district attorney of Houston, Harris County, Ms. Kim Ogg, and my friend who's joining us right now on the show. Hello, Kim.

KIM OGG: Hello, Dean.

DEAN BECKER: Kim, it is kind of -- I talked earlier about a push me pull me, there's all kinds of efforts going into this drug war one way or the other. Am I right?

KIM OGG: There are. And there's conflicting ideologies at work as we speak.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, ma'am, and the Christian Science Monitor talks about you and a couple of other district attorneys around the country being example of a new attitude toward criminal justice, and towards drug policy. Do you want to talk about that, please?

KIM OGG: I do. There is really a national movement that's driven by the public, and the grassroots, which I believe a new breed of prosecutors has been elected by. And so while I'd love to claim that we're all mavericks, we know that that word has been horribly misused --


KIM OGG: In political contexts. So, what I would suggest is that in truth, the public is fed up with the drug war, at least a majority -- a majority of the public. And it's centered around urban areas, and those urban areas are electing more reform-minded prosecutors. And we're getting together nationally and working through the problems that our offices face, trying to come up with solutions that work for our particular locales, but also that are based on best practices in cities and counties where they're already taking a different approach to drugs.

And, it's so interesting after 30 years in the business to have other professionals, who've shared the experience of seeing the same drug offenders come back through our system over and over, never getting better, and who the system has done -- made no progress in quote unquote "reforming," and so we spend a tremendous amount of money, taxpayer money, in a time of limited resources, on these very issues, and without a new approach, how can we expect a different outcome?

So, that's sort of the -- my take on the new breed of prosecutor, that we are really a reflection of a community that's tired of wasting people, and their lives, and wasting taxpayer money.

DEAN BECKER: Well, my hat is off to you, ma'am. Now, let's talk about a couple the situations that are applicable here locally. We have the situation where the bail situation is being, I don't know, not eviscerated, but certainly changed drastically, I think, and we also have the new perspective on roadside tests for drugs, because we've had situations where people got busted for dry wall chalk, where they got busted for kitty litter, and, you know, even the National Institute on Drug Abuse is criticizing our prior methodology in this regard. Do you want to talk about that, please?

KIM OGG: Yes. With the opioid crisis in the country headed our way in unbelievable destructive proportion to the drug problem we only thought we had in our communities, we are finding that officer safety is at risk on routine drug busts, and that opening up a baggie of unknown white powdery substance can literally kill an officer with one breath [sic: this is not true].

There's drugs, fentanyl and carfentanyl, that we've seen now in the Houston market, and we know that because law enforcement has recently seized kilos of fentanyl, some of which the crooks may have even thought was some other drug, often meth. And so, with this advent of these incredibly dangerous drugs popping up now in arrests, first in big quantities, unfortunately we can expect to see them pop up in smaller quantities too, and we'll feel that repercussion in our emergency rooms, with more overdose deaths, and unfortunately we have the risk now of having it impact first responders, officers who are seizing drugs and making those arrests [sic: this is likely untrue].

And so if people are granted PR bond, where there's no probable cause found and we have to later come back and write a warrant, should they have actually been in possession of contraband that tests positive by a real lab, then so be it. The case won't be damaged. But we prevent the risk to the officer.

DEAN BECKER: Kim, I want to thank you for being one of those prosecutors that has a not guilty half to their attitude as well, who wants to prove people guilty rather than just slam dunk them behind bars. I don't know, any closing thought you might like to share?

KIM OGG: Well, just that times are changing, and our country's divided in more than one way, and with the national law enforcement push led by Attorney General Sessions to re-up the war on drugs, I think it is going to be more important than ever for local prosecutors, who answer to local voters, to take a different view in terms of how we treat drug addiction, and we can still make a difference by diverting people into treatment rather than always simply jailing them and locking up -- locking them up and throwing away the key. We already know that doesn't work.

And so I think this push toward more treatment, earlier on, and certainly advocating for drug awareness at the youthful stage of people's lives, when they're in elementary school, trying to make them aware of the dangers and trying to get them a better education, with some of the money that we've wasted on the drug war. Those are the things that will change America's demands for drugs.

DEAN BECKER: It's been my privilege over the last ten years or so to watch the growth, the progress, of a man who helped to define medical and legal marijuana, a guy who has worked for the Marijuana Policy Project for those years, and who has now become the vice president of public relations and communications for VS Strategies. I want to welcome Mister Mason Tvert. Hey, Mason.

MASON TVERT: Hey, Dean, thanks for having me.

DEAN BECKER: Mason, yesterday you guys had a presentation of a huge check. Tell us about that presentation, please.

MASON TVERT: Sure. Well, VS Strategies conducted an analysis of the tax revenues and other fees that have been collected by the state of Colorado since adult marijuana sales became legal in 2014. And we found that they have now added up to more than half a billion dollars, about $506 million has been collected in total revenue since 2014, and so we wanted to highlight that revenue and places to which it's been distributed and all the good it's doing here in the state.

And so we handed a large, symbolic, jumbo sized check over to one of our state representatives, Jonathan Singer, who's been very intimately involved in the marijuana tax discussion, and the fight to make sure that money is being spent wisely.

DEAN BECKER: Well, one of the highlights on the report you guys issued indicates that Pueblo County used $420,000 of those tax dollars to provide college scholarships for 210 local students. I say, hats off to you guys. Your thought there, sir, it can be used for all kinds of things, right?

MASON TVERT: Absolutely, and what's interesting is that that's even additional money, so the $500 million figure is, it's state revenue, and then you've also got local governments that have their own local taxes, and fees, that are bringing in revenue, and for example Pueblo County, which you just cited, is using that revenue for things like college scholarships. Other localities, like Aurora, for example, which is a very large city here, is using it to fight homelessness. Others are putting it towards road and other infrastructure projects.

And that's in addition to all of those state funds, which are being spent on things like public school construction, and mental and behavioral health services, youth services, and all sorts of other good things, so there's certainly a lot of revenue coming in, both at the state and local level, and this is all money that was otherwise being flushed down the toilet previously when marijuana was an underground market.

And, this is a huge net positive. We are controlling this product, we are, as we talked about, generating new revenue, and we are really eliminating the criminal element from marijuana in Colorado. It's no longer the case that it's being produced and sold by violent criminals, it's being produced and sold in industrial areas where there are licensed businesses that are following very tight rules and regulations to make sure they're testing their products, that they're producing them in a responsible fashion, and that they're selling them in a responsible fashion only to adults.

DEAN BECKER: Well, as I indicated earlier, you worked for the Marijuana Policy Project for a number of years, but now you're working with, well, I think many of the same allies you worked with in the past, Mister Brian Vicente being amongst them. He's the principal there at VS Strategies. Tell us a little bit about more -- a little more about VS Strategies. What do you guys do?

MASON TVERT: Well, VS Strategies is a strategic communications, issue advocacy, and government relations firm, and so it's really working to advance the legal cannabis industry in a responsible fashion, and to promote good, sensible marijuana policy, and really do what we were doing on the nonprofit advocacy side of this for so many years, but to now take it to the next step, and to make sure that these laws that we've passed are being implemented properly, and then to take the lessons that have been learned from these laws and to share them in other places, and pass more laws in other states, and localities, and even also in other countries.

So we are doing policy work and analysis, and also strategic communications work, and helping to share those lessons learned, and how we came about bringing a legal marijuana system to Colorado so that we can start to see other -- other jurisdictions passing similar laws. And then of course helping the industry, helping cannabis businesses, trade associations, and so on navigate these laws, and follow them.

DEAN BECKER: I know you've worked in Colorado predominantly, but you have worked, or assisted those in other states. I want to ask you a question. I hear that Nevada just started, just legalized, and suddenly they're running out and the governor declared an emergency.

MASON TVERT: The governor didn't really issue, or call it an emergency, he just issued a statement, an emergency statement, declaring that there was going to be a shortage of adult use marijuana, and it appears that they're going to be resolving this. They are starting to issue these licenses for distribution.

Essentially what happened is the law said that existing alcohol distribution companies would be able to be the first to apply for distribution licenses in Nevada, and initially none showed interest in doing so, at which time the agency that was responsible for the licensing determined that it would use its authority to open that process up to other distributors, at which point some of the folks in the alcohol distribution industry said, wait a minute, we actually are interested now, and so at that point, you had the system getting going, and so the legal stuff's come up that prevents it.

So now you have businesses able to sell the existing products they had on hand to adults, but there was this little wrench in, where they would not be able to access more adult use products once they run out, until this gets worked out or businesses get licensed to distribute. That is now being addressed, and hopefully it will get taken care of quickly.

But, you know, these are the types of problems that we see with legal products, it's not violence, or shootouts in the street over who's going to be distributing marijuana in Nevada, it is a discussion between agencies and companies, and it goes to court, and it gets settled. And that's certainly preferable.

DEAN BECKER: Well, I tell you what, Mason, I want to congratulate you on moving over there to VS Strategies. I, is there a website, closing thought you'd like to share?

MASON TVERT: Sure. Anyone who's interested in finding out more about VS Strategies and the work it's doing can go to VSStrategies.com. And I certainly encourage people to continue to support the Marijuana Policy Project, which they can find out more about at MarijuanaPolicy.org.

DEAN BECKER: All right, I'm going to let the liar in chief close out the program.

DONALD TRUMP: The marijuana thing is such a big, such a big thing. I think medical should happen, right, don't we agree? I mean I think so. And then I really believe you should leave it up to the states, it should be a state situation.

DEAN BECKER: Things got so busy this week I won't have time for this editorial I wrote talking about how we are all suspects, and because of the drug war we're in peril from the cops, the cartels, and the gangs, because we're so frightened that our kids might use drugs that we're willing to destroy their lives to prevent them from doing so. Again I remind you, because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.