12/24/17 Doug McVay

This week we hear from US Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) about the Marijuana Justice Act, and from Professor Philip Alston, UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, about the criminalization of poverty in America.

Century of Lies
Sunday, December 24, 2017
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon col122417.mp3



DECEMBER 24, 2017


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.

On Monday, December 18th, Senator Ron Wyden appeared along with Senator Cory Booker in a tele-conference announcing that Senator Wyden was signing on as a co-sponsor to the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017. That's S.1689, which was introduced by Senator Booker back in August. Comprehensive marijuana reform legislation. Let's listen to that conference.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Senator, sir. Yeah, here we are.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: This is excellent.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Okeh. All right. So, I'm Cory Booker, I am otherwise known as a FOW, a Friend Of Wyden, and we're really here to talk about the Marijuana Justice Act, which I'm really excited that it's gaining some momentum and getting a lot more attention, a lot of interest groups, activists, are leading up to it.

But for me, to have Senator Ron Wyden on board, is like a stamp of gravitas, because he's not only been one of the few senators I knew before I got here, as a friend, but he's somebody that has an extraordinary presence here, and is somebody that's been a friend and a mentor to me while I've been here, so I'm just grateful to be sitting here with you, sir.


SENATOR CORY BOOKER: And you are probably the only senator that's a better basketball player than me, I would say.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: That is inflationary. By any measure.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Okeh. Well, for those of you, hopefully you're tuning in now, the Marijuana Justice Act is something that I introduced in partnership and helped to craft with a lot of great activists around this country, and it does a number of things.

Perhaps the thing that gets the most attention, Ron, is the de-scheduling, the un-scheduling of marijuana, which would effectively on the federal level make it legal, and all the states, the majority of states now that have medical marijuana laws, or decriminalization laws, or frankly have legalized marijuana, who are now not in compliance with federal law, this now lets the states do what they want to do in their legislation. That alone is a very important thing to me.

But it does some other things that are really also very important. Number two, is it automatically expunges people who have those marijuana convictions, and it allows people that are currently in prison to petition to get out.

In addition to those things, it does two things that I think are really important. In the same way that the 1994 crime bill incentivized states to ramp up the war on drugs, to double down on mandatory minimums, to build more prisons, the Marijuana Justice Act actually creates the reverse incentives. It incentivizes states to decriminalize marijuana, or to make for medical marijuana.

And one of the big reasons for that, is we as a nation have precious public safety dollars. This prohibition effort that's been going on for years and years and years has been destructive to many neighborhoods, including the one that I live in in the central ward of Newark, New Jersey.

It's been targeting different communities differently, you have wild disparities in incarceration. If you just use race as one lens, there's no difference between blacks and whites for using marijuana or even dealing marijuana, but blacks are almost four times more likely to be incarcerated for it.

And so we've got to get out of the war on drugs, which is really a war on people, a war on poor people, a war on, disproportionately on minorities, a war on mentally ill, and stop creating an environment where we're punishing good Americans, whether it's the American with PTSD who's just looking for something to give them a base towards recovery, or the parent that's trying to help her child with Dravet's syndrome.

And then the final thing I want to mention, the bill does a few other things, but the final thing I want to mention is because the marijuana enforcement has been so disproportionate, he and I both know Stanford really well, they're not setting up sting operations targeting Stanford University students who are smoking marijuana.

When I was in high school, like, I went to high school in a more privileged, relatively privileged area, lots of pot smoking, people doing it cavalierly, joking, and the like, but that's not where marijuana enforcement was done. It was done towards vulnerable communities.

And so what we do is, since it's really compounding, doubling down on the community, destroying, frankly, it, but also debilitating communities economically. This creates a pool of money to reinvest in those communities, communities again that have suffered disproportionately from marijuana enforcement, more and more people having criminal convictions, which we know, many of you know, is a life sentence. Because once you've got a criminal conviction, you can't get a Pell grant, you can't get food stamps, you can't get many business licenses.

It really focuses on rebuilding those communities, things like job training, things like education and more, to help try to, or do the repair of what the drug war has done. And so that's a general description of the bill. What I'm more excited about is to put the spotlight on my friend, who is probably, have you slept at all in the last month or two? He is the James Brown, right now, of tax policy. You are the hardest working man in the tax world, as one of our ranking leaders that's dealing with this atrocity that's been going through.

We're not talking about drug policy -- excuse me, tax policy right now, but if we were, he and I would be enraged, we probably, with this thing passing, in the Jewish tradition we'd probably rip our shirt, because of the death march that seems to be coming with all this vote. But that's not why we're here.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: I think I'm going to quit while I'm ahead.


SENATOR RON WYDEN: Because I have now been described as a better basketball player than Cory Booker, which already has me with a serious career in the NBA, and apparently more appealing than James Brown. So, there's not much I can do here. But, I am really pleased to be here with my friend Senator Booker. We've known each other a long time, and it is great to be his senior partner.


SENATOR RON WYDEN: You know, my older daughter told me the other day, she said, dad, there are twenty some senators that are older than you, and she said, dad, are you in the only profession on earth where somebody your age is actually considered a pretty young guy? And, I guess that may be sort of the way things work around here.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Yes. I think you should shave it all off, but you --

SENATOR RON WYDEN: Shave it all off? All right.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Shave it all off. It keeps you looking young.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: All right. So, let me just pick up where Cory left off, because, a lot of times around here, something isn't particularly timely, and people say, well let's come back and talk about it again in six months or so. What Senator Booker is doing is especially important now, because we have just seen Jeff Sessions and the Trump administration launch again another push to fight this 1980s drug war that is socially unjust, economically backward, and against the will of the American people.

And let me tell everybody who's following this what's going on this week. We've just seen new reports that Jeff Sessions once again is trying to turn back the clock, and undo the bipartisan position that has blocked the federal government from raiding legal marijuana businesses and consumers since 2014.

Now, we've had a bipartisan law, and by the way, Senator Booker was one of the ringleaders in getting that bipartisan law. But, as Congress works to fund the government past the end of this week, once again, we are going to need to have Senator Booker, and Senator Leahy, and some of our friends, makes sure that we keep this critical safeguard in place.

I'm from Oregon, recreation -- recreational marijuana is safe and legal, and people know that the federal government is just lightyears behind the times. And I think, Cory, one thing you and I have talked about, it's important for folks that, you know, are following this, is people say, well, this is probably the progressive states, and that's kind of the end of it.

Well, voters of all political stripes are now speaking out about what Senator Booker and I, and all of you are concerned about. Nebraska, Missouri, Mississippi, have all decriminalized. Montana, North Dakota, and Arkansas all allowing medical use. And all of this exciting progress is taking place at the state level, when Jeff Sessions is trying to take everybody in reverse in turning back the clock.

So, I want to just wrap up with a couple of comments about why Senator Booker is spot on with this new bill, and then talk about how it dovetails a little bit with some of our past work.

I mean, the first is, we know that people of color around this country are sitting in jail now for marijuana offenses that millions of Americans really did the same thing and are not faced with the same kind of --

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Congresspeople.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: You've got it.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Senators. Two of the last three presidents admitted to drug use far worse than -- of far more serious drugs than marijuana.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: I've tried to tell Senator Booker that when he's logical, this place doesn't do logic all the time.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: To just do it well.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: But, he's right. Okeh. So, we've made it clear that I share his view about what this means for people of color. It's just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Second, what the two of us are trying to say is that, in effect, you can have a win-win here. You can have more investment in jobs, you can have more revenue for schools and essential services, when, as I'm sure you're going to see later this week, the two of us are going to be at the ramparts trying to prevent cutbacks in some of those services.

Third, the benefits of medical marijuana are enormously important, and we hope in the days ahead to pull a lot more veterans into this effort, particularly veterans who lived in rural areas where we know that we haven't had the kind of preventive services as it relates to opioids. And by the way, we think that you ought to be doing a lot more research in this area, as well.

Let me wrap up by describing why Senator Booker's legislation is so important, and how it fits with my plan. What Senator Booker is talking about is providing funding to the states, giving them the opportunity to invest in key social programs, make or break programs, like job training, health education, these kinds of services. And of course, as he mentioned, de-scheduling, and retroactively expunging criminal records.

What I try to do is basically the kind of work that I can do as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, where we have the ability to deal with controls on tobacco and alcohol, and the kind of stuff that you associate with regulations. So, what we're talking about here are plans that are very much of a complimentary fit, and we're going to continue to pursue both of those approaches.

I also want to make sure, as the two of us have talked about, that people who have marijuana businesses could get access to the banking system, so we put that in our bill. And heaven forbid, we think that the tax code ought to apply to everybody, so if your state votes to legalize, we don't think that Jeff Sessions and the federal government should deny you opportunities to equal tax treatment.

So, it's going to take a lot of work, at the grassroots level, for the community to catch, to catch lawmakers on Capitol Hill up to where the public is with respect to marijuana, but I'll close with one last point, and nobody rallies folks like my friend Cory Booker. But I'll tell you something. I know enough to know that political change doesn't start in Washington, DC, and trickle down.


SENATOR RON WYDEN: It's bottom up. It comes from the grassroots. We're starting to see close to half of the American people have already voted to legalize. So we want you to be loud, we want you to be outspoken, I want you to support Senator Booker's legislation. I am thrilled to be the first to co-sponsor it. There are going to be plenty of others. And what he's doing, and what I've been doing, really dovetail.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Yes. So, I'd like to go right to questions. We've got a little bit of time. Before we're running this, literally thousands of people have logged on to view this, so we're going to invite some questions here. This is going through too fast on mine for me to even catch the questions, but we've already got some, as well.

Senator Wyden, why have you not shaved your head like Cory Booker? No, that's not a question. That might be my question, but we're going to go ahead here. What about if we were to stop privatizing prisons and jails? That's kind of a --

SENATOR RON WYDEN: I'll take that one, Cory.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Yeah, go ahead, it's on you.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: I really appreciate that question. As I mentioned, I'm the senior Democrat on the tax writing committee. I think these tax subsidies for building private prisons are just exactly what we don't need in this country. So I've introduced legislation, I hope we'll be able to get more sponsors for it, urge you to talk to your member of Congress, but we ought to at a minimum take away the federal tax subsidies for private prisons.

We're going to have to take on the Trump administration, because everything I can gather is that they're pretty close to the lobby for private prisons. But we all ought to be all in on this fight, because it speaks directly to what Senator Booker is talking about, which is coming up with some fresh policies that are no longer so unfair and so inequitable to people of color.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: And you know, I just saw a question when I was there, it's not one of these that our staff -- these are the sanitized questions. I saw one from the raw feed over here, where a person just said hey, I'm all for this, but I'm really worried that suddenly it's going to be taken over by big pharma and big conglomerates.

And I'm wondering what you're seeing in Oregon, because I kind of -- I'm concerned about, I kind of like the small business feel of this. I've been one of those folks that's saying it's unfortunate, this is why expungement in the bill is so important to me, is because a lot of people are being stopped from getting these small business licenses because they've before been arrested for marijuana, disproportionately also people of color, so that seems to bake in the injustices.

But I'm curious because you, because, again, he just casually said that he's the ranking member on the Finance Committee, I predict the future chairman of the Finance Committee, and this is -- that's a, he's got a big, he's looking at our economy as a whole, seeing a lot of these trends of consolidation. Do you worry about the marijuana business in Oregon becoming the purview of large pharmaceutical companies, or large businesses as opposed to what you're probably seeing now, which is a lot of small people, small businesses thriving?

SENATOR RON WYDEN: I think we're a ways away, but Senator Booker is kind of like Paul Revere here, he's making sure that people understand what's at stake. I mean, the two of us, as it relates to technology, as it relates to tax laws, as relates to making investments in computer technology, and all of the things that help young people to have a chance to get the jobs of the future, small business is where they get those opportunities. That's where you get a chance to be hands on and learn how to run a business.

So, that's why I've said, how about some tax equity? Why in the world, if you have one of those small businesses that Cory's talking about, why shouldn't you get the same tax treatment as somebody who's running another business? So, in effect, small marijuana businesses get hit twice. They don't get the same tax breaks that big businesses get, generally, and then, when the voters of a state legalize something, the marijuana business doesn't even get what another small business might get.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: Yeah. And, you're seeing the problem some of these small business people have to do in dealing with cash, where the large amounts of cash they have to keep there, which is a dangerous thing to do. Is that what you're seeing?

SENATOR RON WYDEN: What -- what I believe we're headed towards, unless it's possible for these small marijuana businesses to get fair access to the banking system, is these marijuana businesses are going to become magnets for gangs and sophisticated criminals. I mean, can you imagine the spectacle in America, Cory, of these small businesses carrying around, as far as I can tell, big sums of cash in bags and wheelbarrows? I mean, this is just plain old common sense, and so --

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: And we've seen this, I guess, before. I hate to almost, it's like, I didn't mean in any way that you might have been around during Prohibition.

SENATOR RON WYDEN: I'm already the Methuselah of this table, I get that.

SENATOR CORY BOOKER: That's the crazy thing. I feel old, in my staff, because we've got a whole bunch of millennials surrounding us right now. But, I mean, that, why can't we learn from American history? We had Prohibition, it was extraordinarily violent, gangs, all this underground economy. Very, very bad for our society as a whole when we had Prohibition for alcohol, and now we're creating that kind of climate around marijuana as well. It's unfortunate.

I'm going to ask, this is going to be -- that's the last question we're going to ask.

DOUG MCVAY: That was a news conference by Senator Cory Booker and Senator Ron Wyden, announcing that Senator Wyden, who's a Democrat from Oregon, would be signing on as a co-sponsor to the Marijuana Justice Act of 2017, that's S.1689, which is currently in the Senate.

You are listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Philip Alston is a professor of law at New York University's law school. Professor Alston is also Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights for the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. Professor Alston recently completed a visit to the United States, assessing our situation of extreme poverty and human rights. His report was scathing. Here is part of Professor Alston's news conference, from Friday December Fifteenth.

PHILIP ALSTON: The final issue that I will talk about here, but my report is much more extensive, is what's called the criminalization of poverty.

It has a number of dimensions. First is the obvious one, where you make it a crime to be homeless. If you are sleeping on the street, if you are sitting on the street, it's a crime, in many jurisdictions. If you urinate in the street, it's a crime.

And, we might well think that it should be, because it's most unpleasant. But in cities which determinedly provide no public toilets, what do we expect? What would most of us do? It's a crime.

Once you are charged with one of those crimes, a fine is imposed. But you're homeless, and penniless, so the fine that you don't pay increases dramatically because the courts have linked all sorts of fees to it additionally, and so a hundred dollar parking ticket or a hundred dollar infraction for doing something as a homeless person, can blossom very quickly into a thousand.

That person is then guilty of a misdemeanor, and will be imprisoned. Then, they're really into the great circle. They come out, they still don't have a home, they have a criminal record, they can't get any help. We add to that then, often, the suspension of driver's licenses. Not just for driving offenses, but for a great array of offenses. Failure to pay fines.

So in cities, and most of the American cities that I've seen have either no or very poor public transportation, what you do to the poor is to take away their driver's license, their only possible way to earn a living, and again, the spiral downwards is fueled by public policy.

In a number of cities, I have seen firsthand what I would call the Ferguson dynamic. In Ferguson, the Justice Department did a detailed report that showed that the real problem was that the police force were primarily a revenue collection agency, and the more people they could ticket for whatever offenses, the better off the city would be.

No police department, certainly not in Ferguson, but anywhere, targets the well-off, because they can fight back. They target the easy victims. They pick up the poor. They levy endless fines. There will be no political pushback.

And so what we see in many municipalities around the country is that the costs of justice and indeed of other public services are actually being put onto the backs of the poor, because the criminal justice system is overwhelmingly for the poor. The rich avoid it. The rich can pay their way out, through lawyers, through defense, through other means, and don't have to suffer it. The poor are stuck.

Finally, in terms of criminalization, you've got the system of bail bonds, which is truly disgraceful. It only exists in one other country in the world, and what it means is that if a person is arrested for no matter how minor a crime, they go before a judge and the judge sets bail.

The trend has been for judges to set relatively high bails, but even a one thousand dollar bail, which would be stunningly low, is an impossibility for a homeless person. And so what happens is you can't pay your thousand dollar bail, off to prison. If you had a home, you lose it. If you had a job, you lose it. If you had a family, you're alienated.

Totally counterproductive policy, but one driven by economic objectives, and at the back of all this are the bail bond companies, which generally charge around ten percent non-refundable immediately. So if you get a fifty thousand dollar bond, you've got to come up with five thousand dollars, which disappears.

And I heard of many cases where the charges were actually dropped two days later. That five thousand is down the drain. And if the prosecutor decided to reinstate other charges, sorry, your five thousand's gone, that will be a new bond, please, another five thousand. And if people are living in poverty or close to the borderline, this breaks their banks.

I'll leave it at that. My report deals with a range of other issues. The gender dimensions of poverty, racism, disability, privatization, environmental degradation.

It's wide ranging. I mean, there were -- what I note in my statement is that there were good things and bad things. The bad things, if you're walking on skid row in Los Angeles, hundreds of encampments, people living in truly grim situations. If you're in San Francisco, and you see people being, as I did directly, being moved on by the police constantly. One woman was with a couple of others, and she obviously knew the cop because it's her sort of regular beat.

And she said, but where do you -- where should I go? And he said, I don't know where you can go. Well, then what can I do? I don't know, just move on. And that sort of futility is pretty distressing.

I think, I mean, one of the realizations that I had during the mission, which was something of an awakening for me, is that, when people who are middle class encounter homeless people, they are offended. Their senses are offended by the smell, by the appearance, by the inconvenience, et cetera. And they tend then to be both contemptuous and resentful. What the hell are you doing here, get out of my neighborhood.

And what suddenly occurred to me is that in fact when we have that encounter, we should actually be reflecting on ourselves, and saying, so, is this the society, is this the community, is this the government that is doing this?

In a country like the United States, homelessness could be eliminated very quickly. It's not, because we don't want to put the money into it. We want to see these people as losers, we want to see them as low forms of life. We don't want to acknowledge that in all of our own families, there are people who have immense challenges, and who are not able to make it entirely on their own.

And, if you've been a veteran, there were very high numbers of veterans on the street, traumatized, not fitting in, on the street. Surely, it's the obligation of society to ensure basic good treatment.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Professor Philip Alston. He's the Special Rapporteur for Extreme Poverty and Human Rights for the United Nations Human Rights Council.

And well, that's it for this week. Thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. IÔÇÖm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power. Follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty more minutes of news and information about the drug war and this century of lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.