01/16/19 Sanho Tree

This week, we hear from the DPA's Michael Collins about opposition to the nomination of William Barr as US Attorney General, from IPS's Sanho Tree about the folly of a border "wall," and from Compassionate Oregon's Anthony Taylor about the state of marijuana legalization.

Century of Lies
Wednesday, January 16, 2019
Sanho Tree
Download: Audio icon COL011619.mp3




JANUARY 16, 2019

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.

We’re going to hear about how marijuana legalization is, and isn’t, working, and we’re going to hear about the border wall that’s been proposed by the current president, but first:

As I’m recording these words, William Barr is on the first day of his Senate confirmation hearing. Barr was nominated to be the new US Attorney General. He previously served as attorney general under George H. W. Bush.

Several organization working on drug policy reform, civil rights, and social justice have issued statements opposing Barr’s nomination. Some of those groups, including the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the Drug Policy Alliance, held a news teleconference on the nomination on January Tenth. We’re going to hear parts of that news conference now.

Michael Collins is director at the Drug Policy Alliance's Office of National Affairs, in Washington, D.C., where he works with Congress on a wide variety of drug policy issues including drug war spending, syringe access funding, appropriations, and Latin America. Michael was on that teleconference. Let’s hear from him now.

MICHAEL COLLINS: Hi everyone, this is Michael Collins. Great to be in the call. Drug Policy Alliance is the leading organization fighting to end the war on drugs.

After the nightmare we had with Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, many of us felt that we couldn't go much lower, but William Barr certainly gives Jeff Sessions a run for his money in terms of his desire to pursue the war on drugs.

With Sessions, we faced challenges to marijuana legalization, sentencing reform, and an incarceration-only approach to an overdose crisis that is demonstrably a public health issue.

Our fear is that we will have the same problems with Barr. This is someone who was Attorney General during the expansion of the war on drugs in the early '90s, pushed to build prisons, and is partly responsible for the mass incarceration mess we have today.

It's very unlikely that he's changed his mind since the 1990s, not only because he signed onto a letter in 2015 opposing a modest sentencing reform bill, the Sentencing Reform and Corrections Act, in which he claimed, quote, "our system of justice is not broken," unquote.

The most frustrating thing is that many advocates, ourselves included, spent a lot of time and energy passing a criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act, which Trump signed into law in late December last year. Much of that legislation has to be implemented by the Attorney General, and putting Barr in that position raises questions about whether this administration ever really cared about criminal justice reform.

This is like if President Obama passed healthcare reform, then appointed Ted Cruz as Secretary of HHS. The fox will be guarding the henhouse, and that's a real problem.

On overdose issues, the consensus politically has been that we need a public health approach to this crisis, yet Barr is someone who has the same mindset as Sessions, and is likely to pursue the same failed drug war strategies of locking up drug users and pushing for tough sentences that do nothing to reduce overdose deaths, and serve only to increase the prison population, usually through the incarceration of people of color.

Indeed, William Barr's daughter, Mary Daly, is currently the point person on opioid prosecutions at the Department of Justice, and she has stressed the importance of, quote, "aggressive enforcement," unquote, when it comes to the overdose crisis. It's also very Trumpian to have the father and daughter working at the same agency.

In a 2001 interview, Barr also seemed to call for the extrajudicial killing of drug traffickers. Here's the quote, open quote: "Using the military in drugs was always under discussion. I personally was of the view it was a national security problem. I personally likened it to terrorism. I believe you can use law enforcement to some extent, particularly in the US, but the best thing to do is not to extradite Pablo Escobar and bring him to the United States and try him. That's not the most effective way of destroying that organization." Close quote.

My conclusion here is that he's advocating for extrajudicial killings, which is deeply troubling, especially given that Trump himself has already called for the death penalty for people who sell drugs like fentanyl.

The last thing I'll say is that Sessions was given an easy ride by Republicans during his Senate confirmation process. It was early in the Trump administration, he was a former Senator, so he got no tough questions from Republicans.

He then had very public spats with Senator Grassley over his opposition to criminal justice reform, Senator Gardner of Colorado fought with him about his position on marijuana legalization, even before -- even though we knew before the hearing that Jeff Sessions held these odious positions.

Our hope is that in these hearings, Senate Republicans step up and hold Barr accountable on these and other issues, rather than giving him a free pass. They have a Constitutional obligation to advise and consent, and they should take that role seriously this time around. Thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Michael Collins, director at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Office of National Affairs, speaking on a news teleconference with representatives from several other social justice and civil rights organizations. They were discussing their opposition to the nomination of William Barr as the next US Attorney General.

Barr is a horrible choice for attorney general, but the Republican majority is determined to push this nomination down our throats, so there is a chance that by the time you hear me speak these words, dear listener. Barr may already have the job. God save the republic.

If those votes haven't been taken, please contact your Senators. Tell them to oppose the nomination of William Barr.

You are listening to Century of Lies. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Let’s stick with the current administration for a bit. Unless you’ve been hiding in a cave for the past few years -- and if there's a vacancy in a nearby cave please let me know -- you will know that the person currently occupying the Oval Office has proclaimed his wish that we should build a border fence between the US and Mexico. A wall. Donnie’s Folly.

It really is a fence, whatever you want to call it, but this administration, reality … Where was I? Ah yes. Donnie’s Folly, the border wall. The fence.

A lot of people are skeptical about this idea, and for very good reasons. Leaving aside the more basic question of whether this idea will ever be more than a jingoistic rallying cry, it just won’t stop anything. In particular, it’s not going to stop the flow of drugs, guns, and money over that border.

It’s a bad, dumb idea, and we’re going to hear from Sanho Tree about just how bad an idea it is. Sanho Tree is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is the director of their Drug Policy Project.

He is a longtime social justice and drug policy reform advocate, he's a good friend of the program, and Sanho is also one of my very best friends. He presented a webinar recently on the border wall and the drug war. We’re going to hear a portion of that now. Here’s Sanho.

SANHO TREE: On the issue of drug policy, Donald Trump, of course, has argued for a wall, that's why we're having a shutdown right now, but it's important to remember where this wall idea came from, and why it's so absurd that we're having the shutdown right now.

It's important to remember that the wall, the concept of build a wall, came as a mnemonic device to help Donald Trump remember to talk about the issue of immigration. Specifically, his advisers were worried that he wouldn't include immigration among his talking points, so they said, this is between Steve Bannon, Sam Nunberg, and one of his other staffers.

Anyway, Josh Green, the journalist at Business Week, first published this in his book Devil's Bargain. This came out in 2017. Last week, you might recall the New York Times did a similar story about the origins of the Trump wall, but it's important to give credit where it's due, so this comes from his book Devil's Bargain.

So it's Roger Stone, Steve Bannon, and Sam Nunberg, talking about the idea of a wall. At first, Donald Trump kind of didn't go for the idea, he didn't think it was that good, but then he tested it out at an audience in Iowa, and people went nuts for it. And then he embellished it, we're going to make Mexico pay for it.

The more racism, more humiliation heaped on top of that, becomes a very popular talking point during his campaign, and so he pledged this hundreds of times, both on twitter and live in front of audiences, that he's going to build this wall and Mexico's going to pay for it.

Well, his mouth is writing checks that Congress can't possibly cash, or appropriate. And so, we are now at this level of a shutdown.

But it's important to put into context what is actually happening at the border, that there is no crisis at the border. If you look at apprehension rates of immigrants, migrants, they're at record lows or near record lows, they're literally back down to about 1970 levels today.

And so, where's this crisis coming from? It's largely a political tool by the administration. At the same time, we've had border patrol personnel ramped up, and so, the situation is as well controlled as it's ever been.

But again, we have these racist talking points from the administration. So, when they talk about a border wall, we already have hundreds of miles of fencing, and Trump now wants to build more fencing.

Originally he said it would be a solid concrete wall, thirty feet tall. And then Border Patrol convinced him that we need some transparency, we need to be able to see if people are amassing on the other side. So it's got to be a semi-transparent wall, with slats.

So, Trump a month or two ago began talking about slats. It's going to be a slatted wall. Which is what we currently have, by the way. But, what's the problem with slats?

Well, number one, you can't build a solid wall in the middle of the desert, for instance. Google desert flash flood, if you're not familiar with the power of water and what happens when you have basically a really tsunami in the middle of the desert, when it hits an immovable object like a wall, solid wall. You can imagine what kind of destruction that would wreak on a wall.

And also, you don't want sand building up on one side of it and creating a giant sand dune. You could just walk over the wall, kind of defeats the purpose of a wall. So therefore you've got slats.

And, as soon as you put up these slats, well, we've got four inch gaps in the wall. That's enough to stop people from crossing through the wall, but traffickers adapted fairly quickly. When you have a four inch gap in your wall, what's the first countermeasure they came up with? Create three and three-quarter inch drug size packages you can literally pass through the wall.

Now, you might not be able to pass tons and tons of drugs through the wall that way, it's not that efficient. But we're in an era of the fentanyl crisis, and fentanyl is far more compact than heroin. This is a semi-problematic graphic, but it gives you a rough sense of the power of these drugs.

So, if fentanyl -- if morphine is one dose, heroin is twice as powerful as morphine, fentanyl is about fifty times more powerful than heroin, or a hundred times more powerful than morphine. And then carfentanyl, which is elephant tranquilizer, it's not used for humans, but it's also turning up in our heroin supply. That's far, far, far more potent than anything, so that's -- we're talking about tiny, tiny, you know, amounts of drugs that are necessary to produce the same effect.

So, when you have a dose of fentanyl being about the equivalent of a couple of grains of sand, and you have four inch gaps in the wall, that wall is not up the task of stopping that flow of drugs.

But let's forget about fentanyl, let's say this wall, you know, was built. Well, again, the traffickers came up with early countermeasures to that as well. Number one, they started driving up the wall with ramps, off the back of these trucks, literally driving over the wall.

And then, they've gone back to, again, a wall is basically bronze age technology, right? My people are Chinese-American, we have a long history with walls, and it's easy to develop countermeasures. So for the bronze age technology, traffickers adapted Roman era technology: catapults, or technically it's a trebuchet, but it can fling giant packages of drugs over that wall.

And here's one that was found last year, it was literally bolted onto the wall itself. So what they do is they pull the string, and down comes the arm. They put the drug package there then literally chuck it across the wall.

But, they've also innovated. You've probably seen t-shirt cannons at sports stadiums or events, where they shoot out these, you know, t-shirts and goodies for the audience. Drug traffickers adapted that technology as well, so we have air, compressed air cannon mounted on the back of pickup trucks that can pull up to the wall and launch bales over the wall.

But, since we're talking about Donald Trump and his issues, size matters, and yes, you can make it much bigger. So this cannon here can launch, you know, hundred pound bales. And this literally comes out of the sunroof of a van, and uses compressed air, and you can launch very large payloads over that wall.

But, it's not just going over the wall, it's going under the wall. So unless Trump wants to build a wall up to a hundred feet deep, because that's how deep some of those people's tunnels are, they're never going to stop this problem.

We've discovered more than a hundred of them along the southwest border. They criss-cross our dual cities, that are on both sides of that fence. And, they only need to be a few kilometers or a few hundred yards long. They're very sophisticated, a lot of them have electricity, rail systems, ventilation, elevators, all kinds of sophisticated technologies.

Here's one with a concealed rail system there. And again, they can move lots, lots of packages, not just drugs, but they can also move materials south of the border. So, returning they can send guns, ammunition, repatriate cash, which is difficult to smuggle. Dogs are actually trained to sniff for cash going the other way.

So, those tunnels can work in both directions, they can work 24/7, once they're open. In fact, there was a tunnel found in Tijuana a couple of years ago, they raided just before it opened, and they found forty tons of marijuana on the Mexican side waiting to come over. So we're talking about a lot of volume.

Now, compare that to Trump's claim for a need for a desert wall along our entire border. Migrants are not carrying drug packages, you know, that's not what's fueling our crisis. We're talking about moving drugs at the tonnage -- the ton level, not the kilo level.

And so, you can imagine a migrant being forced by a coyote, a smuggler, to carry their water supply, their worldly possessions. How much more drugs can you possibly carry on your back in a very perilous journey that people don't want to make to begin with. And in these remote border areas, you can't carry enough water to get you across.

And so, unless we're talking about stopping tons of drugs, this is not an equation that's going to matter. And it's certainly not warranted, the five billion Trump is asking for, the twenty-five billion that it will actually cost if he builds a wall. Some estimates have gone as high as seventy billion dollars for a wall.

And so, again, the countermeasures are too easy for drug traffickers to get around the wall. Here's one of a very sophisticated tunnel. Nice work here with the masonry. I think Trump would approve of the construction quality of this wall. But, it's got a nice rail system, electricity, lighting, ventilation, all that stuff.

But it's not just the land routes. There's always been the sea route. Right now, most of it is being smuggled from Central and South America up to Mexico, or to Guatemala and then through the border. But there's no reason they can't use it in the Atlantic and other places as well.

And these technologies have been around for a long time. So in the old days, they used to use, smugglers would use fishing boats, and they might throw a few kilos of drugs underneath a shipment of fish or something smelly.

But we got better at detecting that and inspecting those cargoes, so they went to faster speedboats, cigarette boats that could outrun the old Coast Guard speedboats. Then we got faster Coast Guard speedboats, we gave them helicopters with fifty caliber machine guns that shoot through engine blocks, and different ways of stopping those boats.

And then the traffickers, the past two decades, or more, actually, have been using semi-submersibles. These are not full submarines. They stay mostly underwater, about ninety percent underwater, and you can see the conning tower staying above. That's how they navigate and get air.

These can carry up to twelve tons of drugs per run, and they're difficult to detect. During the day they'll usually stay motionless, sometimes they'll throw a tarp over themselves to blend in with the water, and they travel by night. As one DEA agent put it, you try finding something the size of a log floating in the Pacific Ocean. It's very, very difficult.

Nonetheless, we've gotten better at detecting boats. You know, detect the conning towers, and interdict some of these shipments. Very rare, but it does happen.

And so we've captured some of these. The Colombian military, the Colombian Navy has captured some of these semi-submersibles. You see the size of this thing, made out of fiberglass, these are custom made by drug traffickers. They hire very good engineers to do the construction.

And in more recent years, they've actually gone and built proper submarines that can actually dive up to fifty feet underwater. This is a very troubling development, but it shows you how much money they have at their disposal and how much these drugs are worth.

Which warrants an explanation. These drugs aren't worth very much money to begin with. When we're talking about the war on drugs, and all these various different substances, whether it's marijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, heroin, these are basically minimally processed agricultural and chemical commodities that cost pennies to produce in a free market in the real world.

There's no reason these drugs should be so expensive, but it's our policies of prohibition, the war on drugs, that make these drugs so valuable. And one of the ways it does that is through us splitting the risk premium that drug traffickers can charge.

So, as our drug warriors get tougher and tougher every year as they vow, you know, we'll get them this time, we'll double the sentences, we'll, you know, put more patrols out. Well, the higher the risk to an individual drug trafficker, the higher the risk premium they can charge the next person down that smuggling chain.

And so this commodity starts at a very low value in South America and by the time it reaches the United States, it's snowballing in value. And the more difficult the border crossing, the more dangerous to the trafficker, the higher the prison sentence they may have to serve, or the higher the likelihood they'll get killed or caught, then the higher they can charge the next person in the smuggling chain.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and the director of their Drug Policy Project. He was presenting a webinar on the drug war and the proposed US-Mexico border wall. If you are on twitter, you should be following Sanho, he is @SanhoTree.

You’re listening to Century of Lies, I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org and @DougMcVay on Twitter.

We just have time for this last segment. I was talking about marijuana recently with a good friend of mine, Anthony Taylor. Anthony is a long time drug policy reformer, marijuana legalizer, and medical marijuana patient advocate. He is a co-founder of Compassionate Oregon and works as their legislative liaison. We spoke recently about marijuana legalization and how it’s been working in Oregon, and about Compassionate Oregon’s plans for this upcoming legislative session. So let’s hear part of that conversation.

ANTHONY TAYLOR: There's an oversupply, which means prices are way down, which helps the patient in the long run. The problem is, none of these patients can find growers anymore, so they can't get their cannabis for free, so they're forced into these stores or into the black market to get their product.

The stores are very expensive. I mean, you go into a store and you buy a half gram cartridge right now, it costs you fifty bucks. The patient can't afford that if they're blowing through a couple of those every couple of days.

Patients can't afford a syringe -- a one gram syringe of RSO [Rick Simpson Oil] that's sixty or seventy dollars, and they're using one of those a day. So the regulatory structure that's been put in place is not serving the patients very well.

There's lots of stuff available, but if you're buying it in the stores, it's out of the price range for most patients. Fifty-three percent of all our patients qualify for a reduced fee on their cards. So you can see that the problems facing the patients are not so much related to access, but cost.

And then the final aspect of what patients have to deal with that the guy stopping in on a Friday night to pick up his ounce for the weekend is never going to even think about, because he's never had to go to the doctor with THC in his system, where a patient that's using cannabis every day has THC in their system at levels that most consumers would never have, and they can suffer discrimination at the hands of the standardized medical care community, and that's the biggest problem facing patients.

Patients that are drug tested for illegal substances, patients that are fired for having illegal substances in their system, patients that are suffering chronic pain, whose doctors tell them no they cannot have an opioid because they have a medical marijuana card. Patients that want to be daycare providers that can't even apply for a daycare provider certificate because they have a medical marijuana card. These are issues facing patients that are never addressed in any of the legalization conversations.

As we saw in 2015, when the legislature came in, the first thing they started doing was trying to ratchet down the amount of cannabis being produced by the OMMP [Oregon Medical Marijuana Program] growers because at that time, the first year that OLCC [Oregon Liquor Control Commission] growers harvested, they harvested 1.5 million pounds of wet cannabis, that turned into several hundred thousand pounds of cannabis, and we're all talking about that, but what we're not talking about is at the same time, the medical growers were producing virtually the same amount of cannabis.

That has been ratcheted down now, and that of course affects patients, but if a patient can't find a grower, or the growers won't do it because it's too expensive or the rules are too burdensome or change too often, you've got a situation where now the state has to step in and figure out how to subsidize the cost of these medicines for these patients.

Well, one of the first things that our organization, my organization, Compassionate Oregon, is trying to do is address the oversupply issue by allowing the OMMP growers to transfer out to any patient that they have a personal agreement with. Right now, they're only allowed to transfer to patients that are actually registered at the grow site.

The Oregon Liquor Control Commission does not have that requirement. It should be the same for the medical growers. This will help bring down some of those inventory levels.

The other thing we're trying to do is, through subsidization, give relief to those medical growers for the annual METRC user fees, and for some relief in the purchase of the state certified scales that are required to be part of that system.

Other things we're trying to do is expand the list of attending physician that can sign an attending physician statement to qualify for Oregon Medical Marijuana card, as well as eliminating the petitioning process for getting a condition added and allowing the doctors the ability to recommend cannabis and to qualify for a patient card for something that's not on the list.

One other thing we're trying to get done, this is a trickier one, and it's a huge lift, is to exempt medical patients and growers from the restrictions on outdoor cultivation within city limits in cities like Grants Pass and Medford.

Right now, patients cannot -- nobody, no one can cultivate cannabis outside within those city limits, and that's an unfair burden on patients. So we're going to try and -- we're going to see what we can do there.

And that's about it. I think the, you know, the report out of the Cannabis Commission goes directly to the chairs of the Judiciary and Health Care committees, and we have gotten support from all of those chairs. Take a look at it and I know that Senate Judiciary is very interested in introducing the one for creating the revenue and some of the other issues that the Cannabis Commission has recommended, so, it's going to be a busy session for Compassionate Oregon.

It's going to be a very busy and opportune session for patients. So that's one thing I would say is, patients stay -- really stay in touch with what's going on in the legislature, because bills are starting to come out already, and, you know, we'll see what our -- how ours come out, and if you like them, support them and make sure that your representatives, your own representatives and senators, are aware of your concerns and to support or not support.

So, the Oregon Cannabis Commission can be followed through the Oregon Health Authority website. There's a direct link to the Commission, all the typical stuff, the agendas, the meetings, minutes, all that sort of stuff, can be found there, who's on the Commission, you know, what their agendas are and all that sort of stuff.

And so, that's the best place to find it. And we're going to be, some of our recommendations out of our report, that was required, that will be submitted sometime to the legislature here in the next couple of weeks, outlines our recommendations, provides the subcommittee reports as well as the general recommendations, and some of those, I think, will pretty easily become legislation or amendments to existing legislation.

So, that's a place to follow the Cannabis Commission, is at the Oregon Health Authority website.

DOUG MCVAY: That was a conversation with Anthony Taylor, co-founder and legislative liaison at Compassionate Oregon, a medical marijuana patient advocacy organization. We were talking about the state of legal marijuana in Oregon and Compassionate Oregon’s plans for the upcoming legislative session.

And 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. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs, including this show, Century of Lies, as well as the flagship show of the Drug Truth Network, Cultural Baggage, and of course our daily 420 Drug War News segments, are all available by podcast. The URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

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We'll be back in a week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. 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.