07/12/18 Maia Szalavitz

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Maia Szalavitz

Maia Szalavitz author of Unbroken Brain, Brad Burge of Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies & Paul Armentano Dep. Dir of National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws

Audio file


JULY 12, 2018


DEAN BECKER: I am Dean Becker, your host. Our goal for this program is to expose the fraud, misdirection, and the liars whose support for drug war empowers our terrorist enemies, enriches barbarous cartels, and gives reason for existence to tens of thousands of violent US gangs who profit by selling contaminated drugs to our children. This is Cultural Baggage.

Hi folks, I am the Reverend Dean Becker. Thank you for being with us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. Today we're going to hear from Paul Armentano, who will describe why the state is burning tons of legal marijuana out there in California. We'll hear from Brad Burge from the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies. But first up:

MAIA SZALAVITZ: I'm Maia Szalavitz, and I'm the author of Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way Of Understanding Addiction, and I've written about drugs and addiction for about three decades now for publications ranging from High Times to the New York Times.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Maia, the heck of it is, we're getting a lot more allies these days. I mean, folks like me have come along and worked in support of what you have presented over those decades, but, more newspapers, magazines, and even politicians are starting to align with what you determined all these years ago. Your thought there, please.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Yeah, it's kind of amazing to see. I mean, it was obvious to me very early on that our drug policy was senseless, and was harmful. But at the time I started writing about this, the whole government and media was caught up in this war on drugs idea, and they really weren't thinking it through. It was just like, oh, if we, like, you know, cut the supply of this stuff then nobody will ever want to alter their consciousness, and nothing will replace the thing we cut down, and putting people in jail will help them.

You know, it all -- it's all really insane, but, at the time, a lot of people really didn't realize that our drug laws were not made based on science and rationality, they were made based on racism.

DEAN BECKER: Right. And that's the whole point, I mean, a lot of folks think that the doctors jumped up, and demanded this. It wasn't the doctors at all, it was law enforcement types, it was moralists. Charlatans, from my perspective. Your thought there, please.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Yeah, I mean, there has just been a sort of series of people who gained status and power and money from demonizing various forms of drug use and associating them with various racist tropes about particular people.

I mean, marijuana was made illegal because of fears related to Mexicans and blacks, and particularly jazz musicians weirdly enough. Opium was made illegal because of fears about Chinese railroad workers taking American jobs, and seducing white women. You know, cocaine was made illegal because it was seen as literally making black people impervious to bullets, and also better marksmen.

So, yeah, I mean, and so when you look at this stuff, it just like seems laughable, but it was -- it was used to panic people and people did believe it, and that's how these laws got passed, you know, and I mean, we have this idea that we have this like scientific regulatory apparatus, which is largely true of the FDA, but it is not true of our prohibition system for recreational drugs.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and it brings to mind that over the decades, certainly I've been aware of what happened in the '80s, where they kind of had another brainstorm, if you will, and they thought mandatory minimums will get it done, and locales thought stop and search would, you know, get it done, that, I use the phrase, that the drug war is a quasi-religion. It's a belief system that people just adopt as if it were something holy.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: It has been basically a religion. The idea that certain substances offer unearned pleasure, and that's sort of the devil's playground, is really what underlies, like, our attempts to ban these substances.

I mean, we have this idea that, you know, I mean, alcohol prohibition occurred during great fear about immigration, and the idea was that, you know, alcohol was what caused domestic violence, it caused poverty, it just made people, you know, act in all the bad ways that people can act, and if you just took the alcohol away, then all of those things would go away.

Now, it is certainly true that alcohol can enhance violence, but, the prohibition actually made violence worse. If you sort of settle on one complicit cause of all your problems, or one specific group of people that are the cause of all your problems, it makes a nice, neat political message, but it's not true, so you're solution is going to end up causing problems.

And, when you realize that, you know, people take drugs for a multitude of reasons, and sometimes people, you know, actually drink alcohol in order to like hype themselves up to be violent, so they were planning to be violent in the first place.

In other instances, you know, people take drugs to calm themselves down. Anything that has consciousness likes to alter it, whether it's a cat taking catnip, or, you know, birds drinking fermented fruit.

DEAN BECKER: I think it's kind of a sticky subject. I'm a pothead, I've been smoking pot for over fifty years. I want to legalize it. And, in America, the majority, the vast majority of those working for drug reform are working for that same goal, marijuana legalization, but my thought is that we're kind of wasting our efforts, that it isn't just marijuana that's the problem, it's the prohibition itself, the belief system I was just talking about, that is the problem, because it empowers terrorists, cartels, gangs, it ensures more overdose deaths, children's access.

Prohibition is the real problem, is it not?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Yeah. I mean, it's, you know, it's certainly not the case that we want to have, like, Philip Morris crack or Philip Morris fentanyl, right? Like, that would not be a good idea.


MAIA SZALAVITZ: By letting gangsters sell it, it's not a good idea, either. The reality is that what we would like to do is have a system of regulation for highs that are so-called recreational, similar to the way we regulate medical drugs, although better, because we don't -- I mean, it's insane to me that it was and still is legal for drug companies to push doctors to, like, have people have quotas on like how many sales you must make in order to like, you know, get a commission for pushing a doctor to, like, you know, prescribe more Oxycontin.

Like, that's a problem, too. So, while prohibition just gives all this stuff over to the gangsters, and means that there's zero control over it. If you go too far the other direction, and, you know, have no rules about advertising and marketing and promotion, then you could have a system that's almost as bad.

Now, marijuana, that's not such an issue because if you, given that we have, you know, alcohol and tobacco legal, and both of those are more harmful, you kind of want the marijuana industry to not be, you know, pushed back by those two forces, in a sense. Ideally though, you would not have people making profits from addictive substances.

And you would have, you know, really good control over the way that supplies are, you know, regulated, and this doesn't mean that some things might not be, you know, illegal to sell. I think, you know, most people don't want fentanyl. They are usually seeking heroin when they end up with fentanyl, and if you gave them reasonable alternatives that were safer when they were not ready to stop, you could save a lot of lives.

So I think, like, in order to develop a good way of regulating recreational substances, you need to l look at the quality of the individual substance, the context in which the demand for that substance exists, the things that substitute for it, the things that complement it, and then work from there.

I mean, I think that it is very clear that one step, you know, the next step we need to take after marijuana legalization is to decriminalize possession of everything. There is absolutely zero support for throwing somebody in a cage for using a substance.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. We shouldn't throw people in a cage if we're mad at them, for their habit, it just seems preposterous.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Exactly. Yeah, I mean, that makes no sense. I mean, you could have a better argument against like, oh, let's sell cocaine to everybody, because that is a truly quite dangerous drug. But you need to figure out, like, when is the prohibition more harmful than the drug? How do you deal with, you know, sales, and terrorism, and cartels, and all these kinds of things, and balance out the harms so that they are minimized?

DEAN BECKER: You know, last week I had an editorial on my show, I talked about when will the harms of prohibition be examined, be recognized, and, you know, we've been pointing out some of the failures, the futilities of it, but one of the bonuses, I think, the benefits of legalization that I included last week was the fact that once it's legal, law enforcement will have millions of new allies, instead of people hiding from them. Your thought there, please.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the tragedies of prohibition is that it undermines trust between communities and law enforcement. And when people can be open about, you know, things like their immigration status, or their drug use status, or any of these things we've tried to, like, push underground, you will do a lot better at solving crimes that are actually predatory and actually harming people, because people will not fear for their own future. You know what I mean?

This is one of the things that's so damaging about trying to prosecute people for so-called drug induced homicide, when they -- when somebody overdoses on fentanyl. You know, usually in that instance, what happens is the person who's charged could just have easily have been the person who died. It's like, you know, a couple of users are together, they, you know, one of them goes out and gets the drug for everybody, and then another of them dies.

Like, it could have just been the next day that the other person would have been the one buying the drug. It's not, you know, it's not -- these are not kingpins. And if you prosecute them for overdose deaths, people are not going to seek help when they need medical help when somebody's dying.

And that is just wrong. The whole thing about understanding harm reduction is basically that the most important thing is saving people's lives.


MAIA SZALAVITZ: It's more important that we save your life than we prevent you from getting high. I don't think the government has any business, like, determining whether or not you experience unearned pleasure or not. You know, that's between you and your own spirituality or morality, or whatever you want to call it.

What we should be worried about is, are you doing something that is harmful to yourself or others? And how can we reduce that harm? Well, we're not going to reduce the harm of marijuana by putting somebody in jail, because putting somebody in jail is more harmful than marijuana could ever be.

DEAN BECKER: Yep. So true. Well friends, once again we've been speaking with Maia Szalavitz, she's an author, mentor to many of us, an expert in the field of drugs and drug war. Maia, thank you for being with us. Is there some closing thoughts, a website you might want to recommend?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Well, if you want to read my writing, you can look at Vice, I am in the Crime section, and also in the Health section, which is called Tonic, and you can also check me out on my own website, which is, that is, and you will find more than you possibly want to read.

DEAN BECKER: All right, thank you, Maia.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Thank you very much.

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Permanent damage to the liver, eyes, bone marrow, heart, and blood vessels, convulsions, impaired mental function, neurological damage, kidney damage, irregular heartbeats, unbearable stress, sudden sniffing, death. Time's up! The answer: Lucy. Gasoline. There's a vending machine in your neighborhood.

BRAD BURGE: I'm Brad Burge. I'm the director of strategic communications at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, otherwise known as MAPS. We're a nonprofit research and educational organization that focuses on the beneficial uses and the risks of psychedelics and cannabis.

My role is generally just educating the public.

DEAN BECKER: Well, Brad, thank you for being with us. You know, I'm aware that, you know, politicians and newspaper editors and, you know, many people with stature around the country, heck around the world, are beginning to reexamine and, I don't know, just reformulate their perceptions of these drugs, and how they might work to our benefit. Am I correct?

BRAD BURGE: We're seeing more psychedelic research now than has really ever taken place in history. Even back in the 1950s and 1960s, when the first research started into mescaline and LSD and psilocybin, there were only a few trials, and they were happening at more and more universities, but then they were criminalized, LSD and psilocybin in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and MDMA in the early 1980s, and so now, we're seeing clinical drug development drug trials, that is research that could make these drugs into legally approved medicines for specific conditions, taking place all over the world.

MAPS is going into phase three clinical trials of MDMA, assisted psychotherapy for treating PTSD, this fall. That's the last phase of research required before the FDA decides whether to approve MDMA as a prescription drug.

Psilocybin is also going into phase three trials. In Europe, we're going to be starting phase three trials there with MDMA probably next year. Yeah, there's all sorts of stuff happening now and it's really exciting.

DEAN BECKER: I like to think some of that progress was made possible by new perceptions, if you will, people realizing that marijuana wasn't the devil's drug and that portended horrors did not occur, and that it's actually working out pretty good, maybe we should reconsider our stance insofar as these other drugs. Would you respond to that please?

BRAD BURGE: Yeah, Dean, yeah, I think we are reconsidering our stance to those drugs. Now we're seeing, you know, a few people in Congress, elected representatives and a few appointed officials, you know, still digging in their heels, and saying no, marijuana has no medical benefit, and ignoring the thousands, or tens of thousands of reports [sic: Americans for Safe Access estimates there are more than two million legal medical cannabis patients in the US] we've had of people who've gained benefit from medical marijuana, despite state legislatures all over the country plus national governments all over the world starting to legalize the adult recreational use of cannabis.

And still, we get a few people digging in their heels. But, regardless, we're seeing this sea change, this huge change, towards more acceptance of marijuana, and I think also of, to a lesser degree, psychedelics. But, that's happening in a somewhat distributed sense, so we have medical universities, academic research institutions, state governments, and so on, all -- and also for-profit pharmaceutical companies now, who are doing research with medical marijuana, though all of that research is either limited to isolated cannabinoids, individual parts of the cannabis plant, or to synthetic parts of the plant [sic], so synthesized THC, artificial CBD, and so on, or non-smoking delivery systems.

Or they're doing research that can't be ultimately accepted by the FDA, that the FDA can't then use to approve whole plant marijuana as a prescription drug. So MAPS now is just -- is doing that very first study. It's a study of smoked marijuana in veterans with PTSD, and it's the first study that's ever taken place that could ultimately get federal approval for the marijuana plant, even if we get all fifty states and the District of Columbia saying, you know, we want to allow medical marijuana, we could still get to a point without federal approval where physicians won't be able to prescribe the plant.

DEAN BECKER: I show my age when I say this, but I kind of quit psychedelics, mostly, back about 1979, 1980. I really don't know a heck of a lot about this MDMA stuff. I think maybe it was showing up about the time I quit. What kind of benefit does it provide, sir?

BRAD BURGE: Yeah, I really love that story, Dean, because MDMA is really surging forward in public knowledge, as far as being a psychedelic drug with a medical use, it's kind of leading the way in a sense, and MAPS has been behind a lot of that, or really most of that MDMA research.

And, it's very different from the classical psychedelics, from -- it's very different from LSD, it's very different from psilocybin mushrooms. Of course, psychedelics often have very little in common with each other, and MDMA is no exception to that. Especially, it's just worth noting that MDMA is not a hallucinogen.

So, MDMA came about in sort of the late 1970s and early 1980s, is when it first sort of emerged into popularity, originally as a therapeutic drug and then later as a recreational drug, in a club environment.

These trials are moving, as I mentioned, into phase three this fall, and that's the last phase of research needed before the FDA will determine whether it's going to be a prescription treatment. So MDMA assisted psychotherapy is what we're talking about. It's not just administering MDMA to people and hoping that they feel better. Rather, it's just a few sessions, usually just two or three sessions, using MDMA combined with an eight hour psychotherapy session, where people can go through and relive their trauma from the standpoint of a lot of trust and confidence, which the MDMA brings to the therapy.

So in our phase two trials, which we completed last year, we had 107 participants overall, and we saw that after just two or three sessions, 56 percent no longer qualified for PTSD. So they didn't have PTSD anymore, after just two to three sessions.

And then twelve months later, that number actually went up, so people kind of kept getting better over that time, to the point where 68 percent, a year following just a few treatments, they didn't have PTSD anymore.

So, all of these people had chronic and treatment resistant PTSD, that means they'd had other treatments and they hadn't worked for them, and they'd had PTSD for an average of about 18 years. So these are some of the toughest cases of PTSD and after just two or three sessions, using MDMA to assist psychotherapy, 68 percent no longer had PTSD.

Those are just super impressive results, and if we can replicate those, or come anywhere close to those, really, in the phase three trials, the FDA should approve it, we're hoping by the year 2021. So just a few years from now.

DEAN BECKER: Well, Brad, that's wonderful news, and, you know, there are lots of military, former military, who have PTSD, first responders, and many others, whose lives have been handicapped. Well Brad, I promise I'm going to keep up with you guys more often, certainly. I do appreciate this information. I hope it's -- raises the curiosity of some of the listeners to the potential for maybe themselves or members of their family. You can learn more about the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies on their website, it's real easy,

Brad, I want to thank you, sir, and let's do this again soon.

BRAD BURGE: Dean, I look forward to it. It's great catching up, as always. Thanks so much.

DEAN BECKER: What will it take to motivate? Please visit

Things out on the west coast got a little weird from my perspective here in Texas. They apparently destroyed a couple hundred thousand pounds of marijuana and extracts and so forth. And, I don't quite understand why that happened, or the need for it to happen, and I'm hoping that the deputy director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws can help us understand what happened there and maybe how it's going to go forward. Mister Paul Armentano, are you there sir?

PAUL ARMENTANO: I am. Good to speak with you, Dean.

DEAN BECKER: Paul, it is kind of puzzling, here in Texas, what just went on. Describe to me the situation, what happened.

PAUL ARMENTANO: Sure. California's medical market is in a state of transition. It is transitioning from an unregulated quasi-gray market to an above ground regulated legal market. And as part of that transition, there was a period of time where there was a grace period and dispensaries after January First were allowed to sell products to consumers that had not necessarily gone through state licensed testing.

But that grace period ended on July First. So after the first of July, any state registered dispensary that's selling cannabis based products to consumers must be selling regulated products that have been subjected to state licensed testing. Products that had not been subjected to testing could not be sold to consumers after the first, and that's why those products were destroyed, and not available to consumers.

DEAN BECKER: Okeh, and, was I right in the number, a couple of hundred thousand pounds?

PAUL ARMENTANO: I have no idea what the total number was, but certainly in the weeks leading up to July First, dispensaries significantly marked down such products and I don't think it is believable to think they were able to sell all of their inventory, so at the end of the day, yes indeed, some inventory that could not be sold after July First most likely was destroyed.

DEAN BECKER: Now, I hear reports out of Oregon and maybe Colorado as well, but, that the price is falling, that growers have over produced, that there's an abundance, if you will, if not a surplus on the market. Is that true?

PAUL ARMENTANO: Well, I don't live in either one of those states, but certainly I have heard those same reports. Certainly this is an economic market, and there are laws of supply and demand, just like there are in any other market, and when demand outstrips supply, prices go up, but when supply outstrips demand, prices go down. And we are going to see that level of market volatility and price fluctuation in the marijuana market, just like we see it in other markets, whether we're talking about gasoline, whether we're talking about iPhones, or whether we're talking about marijuana.

DEAN BECKER: Okeh. Now, it's been six, well, going on seven months that it's been legal in California. How is it working out? Is there, the black market still interfering greatly, or what's going on out there?

PAUL ARMENTANO: Well, let's be clear. The adult use and possession and personal cultivation of marijuana has been legal since midnight on election day 2016. The change that took place on January First of this year was that the above ground adult use retail market of marijuana became licensed and regulated.

And again, like with any roll out, with any new transition, it's had its bumps along the road. When, in January, there were very few licensed retailers that were available to sell marijuana to adults. In the past few months, that total number of retailers along with the total number of state licensed labs and manufacturers is growing to slowly meet market demands.

And I have confidence within the next six months to a year we will see a robust legal market in California. But it's going to take some time. California is a massive state that has a massive public demand for marijuana, and it is going to take time for the legal market to be robust enough to adequately meet that demand.

DEAN BECKER: All right. Yeah, and as I understand it, California recently became, is it the fifth largest economy on planet earth?

PAUL ARMENTANO: It is, it is the fifth largest economy in the world. Obviously marijuana and the marijuana industry is a small part of that economic engine, but it is certainly a notable part of that engine. And it is certainly critical to establish an entire bureaucratic and regulatory system overnight to meet the demands of that market.

DEAN BECKER: All right, friends, once again we've been speaking with Mister Paul Armentano. He's the deputy director for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Of course, they're out there on the web at Thank you, Paul.

PAUL ARMENTANO: Thank you, Dean. Pleasure speaking with you.

DEAN BECKER: And so quickly we are done. Once again I remind you, because of prohibition, you don't know what's in that bag. Please, be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. Cultural Baggage is a production of the Pacifica Radio Network. Archives are permanently stored at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. And we are all still tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.