02/13/18 Sanho Tree

Century of Lies
Sanho Tree
Institute For Policy Studies

This week we talk with guest Sanho Tree, longtime drug policy reformer and Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, about White House drug policy, harm reduction, Kamala Harris, and Joe Biden.

Audio file



February 13, 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.

This week, we're going to hear parts of my interview with Sanho Tree. He's a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and a good friend. Let's get to it.

Sanho Tree is the Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, and is a longtime -- you're a national security expert, a military historian, you've been working on drug policy for a little over twenty years now.

Recently, the Office of National Drug Control Policy, you know, the Drug Czar's office, finally released a new National Drug Control Strategy. I mean, I have it here on my screen, and really, it's, I mean, anybody, if you have five minutes, anybody could read the damn thing. There are 20 pages.

These things used to have like 150, 200 pages. they actually used to produce statistics and data, I mean, that was one of the reasons for ONDCP existing. Twenty pages. So have you had a chance to take a look at the 20 pages from the administration?

SANHO TREE: Well, I figure they're a year late in producing it, I'll take a year to read it. Not that it matters anymore, because, yeah, once upon a time these things did matter. It kind of set doctrine and direction.

But, as with anything in this Trump administration, policy is whatever the last tweet the president sent out, and he could reverse it on a dime. And so it's driving his bureaucracies crazy, to undermine people who are -- not to say they're doing good work, but, you know, a lot of -- traditionally, when you roll out a big policy, you have all this inter-agency coordination, you know, everyone weighs in.

It takes months if not years to coordinate this stuff, and then you have a roll-out. With the Trump administration, they do all this work and then Trump just changes his mind in a tweet, and, you know, a year's work goes up in smoke, and it's completely demoralizing for his bureaucracy that he's in charge of, that he's supposed to be leading.

And he wonders why people leak all the time. It's because they're pulling their hair out. There is no policy in this country, except what the king says it is.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, one of the things that is a policy is that he wants to build a stupid fence down at the border. Wall, fence -- it's a fence. You've spoken about this quite a bit, in fact I had a bit of your webinar on the show not long ago. But, could you give folks the quick and dirty version, why is the wall not going to work?

SANHO TREE: It's bronze age technology, basically, and humans have had, you know, thousands of years to develop countermeasures to walls, starting in the Middle Ages. Even back then, they were tunneling underneath the wall to cause it to cave in around castles.

There's catapults, there's, you know, and then, Trump says he doesn't want a solid wall anymore, it's going to be big, beautiful slats, as we have now, because the Border Patrol wants to be able to see what's on the other side.

And when you have four inch slats with four inch gaps, traffickers switch to three and a half inch wide packaging, and you can literally pass it through the wall. So when you think that a dose of fentanyl is a couple of grains of sand's worth of fentanyl, that's a lot of drugs you could pass through that wall over its 2,000 mile length, or however long Trump wants to build it.

So, there's also underground, the tunnels, there's submarines, there's ultralights, there's drones, there's every manner of way to to get around this wall. Plus, the most, the most overwhelming way by which drugs come into this country from Mexico is through legal ports of entry, not through these desert areas.

And so, why would they even bother going out and doing these risky things out in the desert, when they already have a good thing going through these checkpoints.

DOUG MCVAY: Because, yeah, the fence is just a stupid idea, but I wanted to talk about it for a minute just because it is a thing. One of the --

SANHO TREE: And we're just a couple of days away from the next shutdown, let's be clear about that. Trump has threatened it, and he's actually serious about doing it again, despite the fact his own party is just pulling their hair out saying don't do this.

DOUG MCVAY: This is true, as we record, we do not have a new budget, there's not a new continuing resolution, and so we're faced with the possibility of another federal shutdown. Again. It doesn't stop the DEA, doesn't stop the US Attorneys, but it does seem to -- but it certainly puts a crimp in a lot of other stuff.

Speaking of US Attorneys, before we even talk about the person who's about to be the new Attorney General, confirmed by the Judiciary Committee without much fuss, unfortunately.

Over on the east coast, up in Philadelphia, there's been an effort to establish supervised consumption sites, these sanitary injection sites, overdose prevention sites, hell, there's a lot of different names for them.

They've been hoping to do that in Philadelphia, and moving closer, there are a lot of cities around the country where they've been making some effort.

Some US Attorneys have spoken up and said hey, you can't do this, this is illegal. Recently, the US Attorney in Philly -- the US Attorney for Eastern Pennsylvania actually filed a lawsuit seeking to stop Safehouse from becoming a supervised consumption facility, and asking for a judicial opinion to say that these SCSs, these supervised consumption sites, are federally illegal.

Now, back in the Obama administration, we had two different drug czars attend a Harm Reduction Coalition conference, one in 2012, one in 2014. One of them, Kerlikowske, only sent a DVD, but still, they spoke up and were present at the Harm Reduction Coalition. Could you speak for a moment about the dramatic change in drug policy that we're actually seeing?

SANHO TREE: Well, it reflects the change at the top. So we've gone from, you know, a somewhat evidence driven policy under Obama to a visceral driven policy under Trump. And it's whatever his gut feeling is, whatever his gut tells him, what is popular with his rightwing base.

And so he's talked openly about, you know, mass murder, admiring President Duterte's drug war in the Philippines, and saying we've got to get tough, we've got to, you know, start killing people.

And his policies are going to start killing people. So I think, you know, what we have now is a policy of harm maximization, not harm reduction. They're -- not only are they clamping down on opioid prescriptions for people who are already dependent on these opioids, and then -- thus pushing them into the black market, into the underground market.

It is increasing harm and risk to people in life threatening ways, and it's something that, you know, that's red meat for Fox News and for that gut-level analysis, quote unquote analysis. But it's actually extremely dangerous, and harmful.

DOUG MCVAY: I mentioned the US Attorney's office. Of course, we now have a new Attorney General, or rather, at the time of this recording we're going to have a new attorney general. He's been confirmed by the Judiciary Committee, now we're just left with a pro forma vote of the Senate. It's a majority Republican, won't be a surprise, our next Attorney General will be William Pelham Barr.

The Eighties are coming back. Any thoughts about our new Attorney General?

SANHO TREE: Yeah, I mean, it's a real throwback. He literally was the Attorney General for H. W. Bush for less than a year, and he comes from that old school drug war thinking of being tough is the solution, and he doesn't have a problem with mass incarceration. He's been Mister Tough Guy.

However, he's bound by current realities, which have caught up to him. So he supports, he says, the Cole Memo, set under the Obama administration. So he says he wouldn't go and prosecute marijuana businesses that have complied with that thus far.

But he -- that's partly an acknowledgement to the political reality of what's coming up in 2020. So, not only are the public opinion polls dramatically different, so, twenty years ago it was less than 38 percent or something in favor of legalization, now it's 66 percent.

So there's a demographic shift in the country, but also a third of the Senate seats are up for reelection in 2020, including seats in Arizona, Colorado, Maine, Alaska, states where Republican Senators are going to have to defend their seats, and where they have legal marijuana.

And, you know, other state that are, you know, where marijuana is polling rather well, that Republican continue to have to hang onto those seats. And so Democrats need three or four seats to take back control of the Senate, for people like Cory Gardner in Colorado, this is a very big deal, and he needs security to make sure that the federal government isn't going to invade his state to overturn what the people of Colorado have already decided.

DOUG MCVAY: It's going to be interesting. I mean, we're going to hear a lot of -- we're going to get lip service, we're going to get a lot of pandering, and we may actually see some legislation, too. I mean, it's -- it feels like they're being forced. But this, it's safe.

You're listening to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay. We're listening to an interview with Sanho Tree, he's a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a drug policy reformer, as well as a national security expert and military historian.

So, there's an election in another two years, and at -- last time I checked, there were nine people who have announced that they are either running or considering running for the Democratic nomination.

What should be we be asking, if people get a chance to ask one of these candidates, what should they be asking them?

SANHO TREE: Well, that's a good question.

DOUG MCVAY: Thank you.

SANHO TREE: Let me think about this.

DOUG MCVAY: I try, that's this -- but, I mean, I'm not trying to put you on the spot, it's more a question of, like, I mean, for instance, we talked about harm reduction a minute ago, and the US Attorney in Philadelphia who is filing suit to stop the supervised consumption site that they're trying to put up there.

How can we get these candidates to make a good, positive statement about harm reduction? What kind of -- how should we be phrasing those sorts of questions?

SANHO TREE: I think, you know, it's important to put the value on human life, on keeping people alive, and healthy, regardless of whether they're using or not using. If you believe that their lives have value, then our end goal should be keeping those people healthy and alive, to the point where, when they perhaps are ready to give up using, then they're still alive and haven't contracted some, you know, terminal disease or overdosed already.

And to ask these politicians, who does it really help, at this point, to crack down on prescribers? For people who have long term issues and have been using these opioids for a long time, to suddenly get them, to force them to taper off or to stop using because you have some moral agenda that you think, you know, you want to make a point at their expense?

Which pushes them into the illicit markets, where they have to play Russian Roulette with fentanyl laced drugs, and where, you know, they once had access to a supply of legally prescribed drugs of known purity and dosage, to throw them into the, you know, the tender arms of the underground markets, where you don't know what you're getting and people really can die, very, very quickly that way.

How does that help people? And I think politicians need to come up with those kinds of answers. While they're prosecuting in Philadelphia at the federal level, look at Canada. they're going the opposite direction, at least in Vancouver, right?

So, not only do they have prescription heroin maintenance for, I think, up to fifty patients because of the paperwork involved, they have to cap it, it's too cumbersome, but fifty people are able to get pharmaceutical grade heroin from, imported from Switzerland, instead of being forced to go out and hunt on the streets for, you know, who knows what to inject.

And other patients who can't get into that program are now being able to receive prescription hydromorphone, or dilaudid, for a lot of injection drug users who've used heroin for a long time, they find that it produces very much the same or similar effect, and so it's been very -- shown to be very effective.

And so here, the state is allowing people to get, you know, pharmaceutical grade drugs of known dosage and purity, so that they can at least stay alive during these very dangerous times.

DOUG MCVAY: Indeed, and I -- as far as the supervised consumption sites, those have been springing up, and overdose prevention sites, which are, you know, basically a little more barebones, those have been springing up all across the nation of Canada. But you're right, as far as the heroin and injectable hydromorphone -- glad you caught that one.

There was an excellent, the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently held an excellent two-day public workshop on opioids and the, and opioid prescribing and harm reduction, treatment, and in fact I've played some of the audio from that on the show. It's -- it has just been, I mean, there's a lot of great stuff out there.

There's a lot of great information. It scares me that it won't go anywhere. You know, I mean, we've got -- the drug strategy comes out, it's 20 pages. The Bureau of Justice Statistics is, you know, it just, it's later and later, their reports come out later and later, they don't have as much information.

They've stopped -- they do this survey, the National Criminal Victimization Surveys. This year, they put in once again some information about the offender, the race of the offender as well as race of the victim. They took that out for several years, which was interesting, because when you looked at the data, you saw that in terms of sheer numbers, white men committed more crimes, more violent crimes, than any other population group.

We're not, I mean, it's, when you get into the arrests and the prosecutions and the imprisonment, those, you know, those numbers aren't reflected. But, anyway, they finally started putting that back in, which is great.

But more and more. The CDC, I haven't seen a Hep C surveillance for a year or so. They're a little behind on some of the other, on some of the other surveillances, the HIV/AIDS. On the other hand, they're putting out a lot of information before it's really even final on overdose deaths, on opioid related deaths and overdose deaths.

It worries me. There's this great information coming out, but it, you know, will it ever see the light of day. I guess we can -- I guess we just have to keep trying, right? Sorry, I just went onto a little bit of a rant there.

SANHO TREE: There, I mean, there is no adult supervision in this government anymore. You'd think, you know, at the secretarial level, at least, you know, they might take some interest in conflicting stuff coming out, or not coming out, or being produced or not being produced. That doesn't even matter anymore.

I mean, you've got these comic book characters, from Rick Perry to Ben Carson, in charge of these agencies. It's unthinkably laughable. You know, if someone had predicted this three years ago, you would have been laughed out of the room. And that is who's running our government now.

DOUG MCVAY: Recently, Joe Biden was in the news expressing regret for his role in the, well, in creating the drug war, the modern drug war, and all these bad laws. He expressed regret. He did that about a decade ago, too, he expressed regret, said that they were well intentioned but had been misinformed.

If only they had known. If only, Sanho, if only they had known. I, I can't, the words. Just, what do you think of his expression of regret?

SANHO TREE: I think he needs to spend the next, the rest of his days expressing that regret, and undoing the horrors that he's caused. He was not just a bystander, he wasn't just going with the flow, he was one of the architects, one of the, you know, greatest cheerleaders of the modern war on drugs, and so he has special responsibility.

And it's not going to, you know, just saying you have some regrets is not going to cut it, not by a longshot. We have a number of former prosecutors, for instance, running now, that also have a lot of explaining to do, that you can't go by this, play the old school '90s playbook of being tough on drugs and thinking, you know, that's how you keep your nose clean and advance in politics.

Well, guess what? Justice has caught up with you now, and you've got some explaining to do. So for former prosecutors like Klobuchar or Harris, they also have some explaining to do. Just this morning, Kamala Harris was on a radio show and laughingly said, oh yes, of course, I smoked pot and I support legalization. You know, times have changed, all this, you know, stuff.

Well, she didn't support legalization when it was up for -- on the ballot initiative in California in 2016, and when she ran for reelection in 2014, for Attorney General, her opponent came out for legalization and her reaction to that was to literally laugh and say, well, he's entitled to his opinions, and mock him for his position.

And now we learn that she's, you know, supposedly been supporting legalization all along, or that she certainly smoked it, and enjoyed it. So she's got some more explaining to do. I mean, it's certainly not going to be amusing to the people who are behind bars because of her prosecutions.

DOUG MCVAY: See, and that's just it, we have, I mean, it feels like all someone has to do is say something that isn't stupid about marijuana and suddenly, you know, and suddenly they can be forgiven for all kinds of wrongs.

SANHO TREE: Yeah, and I also think activists really need to take the DA races very seriously. You know, those prosecutors matter, and they're not all awful. Most of them are, they're mostly not my friends, but there are some very good ones that need to be held up.

And we, you know, activists need to know that this is another way to really undo a lot of the harms of the drug war at the local level. So Philadelphia, for instance, not the federal prosecutors clamping down on the safe injection sites, but at the state level, Larry Krassner, or at the local level Larry Krassner has been a tremendous leader in terms of undoing the drug war.

Suffolk County, Massachusetts, is another place. So these races do matter, and all too often people leave that, you know, those names on the ballot, you know, they don't check them either way because they haven't really researched who to vote for. They're thinking it doesn't matter.

But if you do get a good prosecutor running for office, it's important to support them.

DOUG MCVAY: Of course, folks, I'm speaking with Sanho Tree, he's the director of the Drug Policy Program at the Institute for Policy Studies, he's a longtime activist and social justice activist, civil libertarian, national security historian, military historian. You have done so much cool stuff.

SANHO TREE: Or I can't keep a steady job. Either way.

DOUG MCVAY: More than twenty years doing this thing, so that's not too bad.

How much use do you get from your background, the national security studies and military history? How much use is that in this drug policy field that you're in?

SANHO TREE: It's actually tremendously helpful. You know, I've had everything, a career in human rights and military diplomatic history, investigative journalism, all these things come together when you're talking about the war on drugs, particularly the international war on drugs.

This is one of the most interdisciplinary issues I've ever encountered, and that means understanding how the different pieces fit together, and one of the reasons our government and our politicians and bureaucrats haven't been able to, you know, address and implement effective drug policies is that it's -- it cuts across so many different bureaucratic silos that have enormous budgets, and they're only focused on what they're doing.

So, the drug eradication people only care about wiping out, how many hectares can you eradicate? The interdiction people only care about how many kilos can you stop? The, you know, and so on and so forth. And so there, very often they're working at cross purposes, and there's no one whose job it is to look at this from, you know, forty thousand feet and look down on it, saying, wait a minute, this is insane.

But if you look at it from the ground level of all these different bureaucracies, they're doing what's in their interests, to secure their budgets, and meet their very limited, narrow goals for the next appropriations cycle.

And so, studying institutions and how bureaucracies work is key to understanding how the drug war works, and if you ever want to stop it, you need to tackle it from that kind of altitude. Right?

And you would think the drug czar's office would be, you know, someone to look at this from the 40,000 foot level, but when Joe Biden and others helped create the drug czar's office originally, they put it in the White House. It's the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

So instead of, you know, removing it from politics and giving it some, a marginal degree of independence to really assess this thing without fear of political repercussions, they put it in the White House, so it becomes one of the most polarized aspects of White House operations.

Looking soft on drugs is something every administration has tried to avoid. And so that gets in the way of reasonable and evidence based policies, very often.

DOUG MCVAY: There was a, of course, which committee would be, would have oversight. The -- back when the thing was created, there was actually a little bit of a tussle between Biden in Judiciary and Glenn over in Government Affairs. Made more sense to me to have it in Government Affairs, because then you would have that, like, whole government kind of, you would be in position to break down silos and to actually take that forty thousand foot view.

But instead, Biden, who was the champion of this stupid office and of the stupid drug czar thing, Biden made it happen, made it stay in Judiciary. Judiciary, which meant that it was going to come from a law enforcement, criminal justice perspective. I mean, that's what they do.

SANHO TREE: Exactly. You want a big stick or a bigger stick? Those are the options. And, you know, when, I remember back in 2001 or 2002, I worked with Senator Paul Wellstone's office. This was at the beginning of Plan Colombia, and, you know, every study has shown that it's, you get far more bang for the buck if you fund treatment and prevention domestically than if you do -- try to eradicate drugs at the source.

And that was well understood. Study after study had shown that. And so we tried to get some of that money moved from the Foreign Operations account into Health and Human Services, where it could actually do some good in terms of prevention.

And you run into, instantly, the bureaucratic nightmare. First of all, no subcommittee of Congress, or committee, wants to reduce their budget. Ever. And they certainly don't want to give it to a different committee or subcommittee. And so you can reprogram some of that money in Foreign Operations, away from drug eradication, for instance, and into international tuberculosis or HIV prevention. You can do some of that here and there.

But to get it into domestic treatment, even though we all know that's where it needs to go? Is almost impossible. It's an incredibly heavy lift to work across committees, and across bureaucratic silos like that.

There's too much money involved and no one wants to give any of it up.

DOUG MCVAY: And that's where the big problem is. Like I say, it's the -- we need to start forcing law enforcement to just, okeh, prove it. Why should we think that, why should we believe that any of these programs, why should we believe that more police will help? Why?

Sounds -- just because it sounds like it should? I mean, hey, how do we --

SANHO TREE: Well, if you look at it from their perspective, again, bureaucratically, they're doing something very clever. All right? It's a win win for them. So if drug use rates start to, you know, go down a little bit, they say, ah ha, we've finally found the right formula, now let's ramp up our funding. If it goes the other direction, and people start using more drugs, they say, oh no, we have to redouble our effort, now let's really ramp up our funding.

This is how we built this incredibly huge drug war bureaucracy and squandered more than a trillion dollars in my lifetime on this problem.

President Duque, the new rightwing president of Colombia, has said that he wants to restart the aerial eradication of coca plants, this time possibly using drones. So, new and improved, with drones this time, which, you know, number one, there are lots of guns in the area, after five decades of civil war, so it will be a good opportunity for skeet shooting.

But you can't chemically eradicate your way out of this problem. You can't coerce farmers into not being hungry. You can't ignore the fact that they don't have, you know, the basic elements that we take for granted in terms of ever wanting to produce legal crops, or switching over to other types of crops.

You can't just make that happen overnight, at gunpoint, without investing in these communities. And that's what they're not doing. Next week, President Duque's coming to Washington, and, you know, the first lady of the United States is going to meet with the first lady of Colombia to talk about drugs.

I don't know what they're going to accomplish. They're not going to eradicate drugs at the source, but they can eradicate their respective husband's incredibly backwards policies, that would have much more effect.

DOUG MCVAY: That was my interview with Sanho Tree, he's a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs their Drug Policy Project. He is also a military historian and national security expert, as well as a long time drug policy reformer.

And for now, that's it. I want to 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.

The Drug Truth Network has a Facebook page, please give it a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power.

You can follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

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.