by Dean Becker
by Philip Guffy
Ethan Nadelmann, from the Drug Policy Alliance
Bruce Mirken, from the Marijuana
Matt Elrod, British
Scarlett Swerdlow, from Students
for Sensible Drug Policy
(Audio Track) Intro – My name is Dean Becker; Philip Guffy is tonight’s engineer. Please join us as we examine the unvarnished truth about the drug war.
Dean: First up, I want to say I’m not calling for anything except the end to the arrest of people for carrying around little baggies of plant extracts; and secondarily, I don’t like hookahs. Hell, I don’t even like bongs. Welcome to this special edition of Cultural Baggage. Tonight our guests will include Ethan Nadelmann, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. We’ll hear from Bruce Mirken, the Communications Director for the Marijuana Policy Project. We’ll hear from Matt Elrod out of British Columbia regarding the introduction and likely rejection of a new Canadian marijuana law. And we’ll hear from Scarlett Swerdlow, the Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. First up, Poppygate.
Poppygate, bizarre news about the U.S. policy on controlling heroin, featuring Glenn Greenway.
Greenway: “Afghanistan is now supplying 86% of the world’s heroin, according to National Public Radio. During newly-elected Afghan president Hamid Karzi’s inauguration speech, he said, ‘There will definitely, definitely not be any drug thing in Afghanistan.’ The British newspaper The Independent is reporting the decision was made in Washington last spring to take a more aggressive role in combating Afghanistan’s opium production. The new campaign is expected to begin within weeks and may result in Afghan drug barons standing trial in American courts before the end of next year. In a recent speech, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said that improved drugs and increased availability of imported crops in Afghanistan had made poppy farming more attractive. He explained that the reasons for the devastating flood of Afghan heroin were for reasons that should be ‘applauded.’ This is Glenn Greenway reporting for the Drug Truth Network.”
Dean: Following on the heels of the November 2 election, I turn to the man who heads the world’s largest drug reform organization to get his opinion on what the voters have decided.
Nadelmann: Hi, Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is the country’s leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs.
Dean: Ethan, I’m looking at your website, drugpolicy.org, and one of the headlines here is “Bush Wins.” What does that mean for drug policy?
Nadelmann: Well, at the national level it’s probably dreadful. I mean, at the national level it means that the policies that he has pursued for the 4 years are more likely than not to persist. I mean this is an administration that declared marijuana the most dangerous drug in America, and that regards drug testing of all school kids and ultimately all citizens as the silver bullet of the drug war. So you have people in power like John Ashcroft and John Walters who have about as totalitarian and repressive a perspective on the drug issue as one could possibly imagine in the country. In that respect, it’s all bad. I mean, if Ashcroft happens to resign shortly and if, God forbid, Rudy Giuliani takes his place, it could well be that Giuliani is even worse than Ashcroft – not because he’s more of an ideologue, but because he’s smarter and because he’s meaner and because he’s got national political aspirations and because this guy doesn’t know when to stop pushing and pushing and pushing no matter how many constitutional safeguards he wants to trample over.
Dean: Wasn’t it Giuliani whose policy in New York led to about a 100-fold increase in the number of marijuana arrests?
Nadelmann: Well, no, Giuliani goes way back. If you keep in mind that Giuliani, even before he became the U.S. attorney, the Chief Federal Prosecutor in New York in the mid-80s – in the early 1980s he was the No. 3 guy in the Reagan Justice Department. He was the Associate Attorney General, and my understanding is that he was the principle author of the initial Reagan drug war strategy. So he’s been focused on this for a long time. When he came in as mayor, he increased it to between 60,000 and 70,000 marijuana arrests. He increased it to the point – overwhelmingly for possession, by the way – and New York City has about 2-1/2% of the country’s population. We had 7% of the country’s marijuana arrests in his last year of office. So he has been a nightmare when it comes to the drug issue. I sometimes think Rudy Giuliani – and the same thing was probably true with former governor of New Jersey, Christie Whitman – that these are people who are regarded as liberal Republicans in that they are fairly liberal on abortion rights and on gay rights and some other issues, and it’s almost as if they prove their “bona fieds” to the right wing of the party by being tougher than anybody when it comes to drugs. There are some people who ask was it possible that Giuliani’s crackdown on marijuana contributed to the increasing public security and safety situation in New York, and so far as we can tell, it had little and probably nothing to do with it. The innovative policing strategies that Giuliani put in his first year which were useful in terms of reducing street disorder – that the crackdown on marijuana and the persecution of people simply for smoking a joint the way someone would smoke a cig on the street, contributed absolutely nothing to public order in the streets of New York.
Dean: As dismal as the future may look on the Federal level, were there not some positive initiatives that came forth in the state and local elections?
Nadelmann: Oh, Dean, there were some wonderful developments for drug policy reform. To start off with the two that we were most directly involved, the first was an election in Albany County, New York, where the state’s capitol is. As you may know, the Rockefeller Drug Laws are some of the most draconian drug laws in the country. There is huge public opposition to them in New York, but there has been resistance to change primarily from the District Attorneys. And one of the most belligerent of the defenders of the drug war was a District Attorney in New York named Paul Clyne, who came from a very powerful Democratic political family. We had somebody, a young prosecutor, who came to us and some of our allies and said that he wanted to run against his boss and he wanted to make the Rockefeller Drug Laws the number one issue in the primary battle back in September. Well, we got behind this guy working with the Working Family Party and some other local political parties in New York, and probably in one of the biggest political upsets in the last 10 or 20 years in New York and even in some respects, nationally, this young fellow, David Soares beat his prosecutor – beat the Chief Prosecutor by almost a 2-to-1 margin in the primary, and then he survived a few days ago and won the general election as well. So, this is probably the first time, with the possible exception of Mendocino County where it is very marijuana-friendly – the first time in America where a drug issue has been the number one issue in the campaign and where the proponent of reform beat the proponent of the drug war. So we see this as having a huge impact in New York. We already see it opening up a lot more flexibility among our opponents on Rockefeller Drug Law reform. We see it as pushing the DAs back around the state, and also sending a message all around the country that not only is drug policy reform – advocacy of drug policy reform – just no longer the third rail of American politics, but that one can actually run and win on a drug policy reform position. So we are extremely enthusiastic about that. My policy director, Michael Blain, was up at the victory in Albany on Tuesday; and while most people were depressed about the overall election result, there was an extraordinary energy and sense of possibility in the room that night. The second thing I want to mention is the Oakland Z, Oakland Measure Z, initiative. That was an initiative which was modeled, in part, after the Seattle ballot initiative. It was one which directed local police to make marijuana enforcement their lowest enforcement priority. But what made Measure Z especially important was that it also put the city of Oakland on record as supporting the full legalization of marijuana. That measure won overwhelmingly on election day. It represents, I think, the first time that a significant political entity in the United States has backed the full legalization of marijuana. I don’t think there is any other case, with perhaps the exception of a few small localities here and there, which have actually gone on record – hundreds of thousands of people on record as supporting the full legalization of marijuana. So that I think is very, very significant for the state of California and for the future. Now in addition to that, there were three other medical marijuana initiatives on the ballot. The most encouraging one was Montana, which became, I think, the 7th or 8th state to pass a ballot initiative legalizing medical marijuana. Unfortunately in Alaska, people were optimistic that Alaska – which had rejected marijuana legalization by about a 60-to-40 margin 4 years ago – that maybe this time with a more tightly drafted initiative, that they could finally win. Unfortunately, that initiative only got a couple of more percent than the one 4 years ago and was defeated by a margin of roughly 57 to 43. Similarly, in Oregon local activists put a sort of “stage two” medical marijuana initiative that would have expanded access and protections for medical marijuana patients and providers. That one was also defeated by a very significant margin. And I also was extremely disappointed to see the “Three Strikes” reform initiative in California defeated. That one was running 2-to-1 in favor in the polls, in favor of reform, to make the third strike need to be a violent offense, not just some petty drug offense or stealing a pizza. But unfortunately, the governor and the prison guard union came up with something like $4 or $5 million in the final week and a half. They flooded the state with Willie Horton commercials designed to scare ordinary Californians with a bunch of lies about releasing rapists and murderers; and it was defeated by a margin of roughly, I think, of 53 to 47. So that was a real major disappointing setback. In addition, there were a lot of local initiatives. In Columbia, Missouri, two local initiatives passed – one to decriminalize marijuana, one to advance medical marijuana. There were a whole host of local initiatives in Massachusetts. I believe there was also one in Ann Arbor, and I think there was one in Berkley, California, which is yet to be decided. It was a very close finish.
Dean: Ethan, stepping outside the U.S. for a minute, there is talk that Karsi’s now going to thwart the growth of the opium poppies. There is no chance that we’ll ever end the flow coming into this country, even if we shut it down in Afghanistan, is there?
Nadelmann: Well, keep in mind that almost none of the opium being produced in Afghanistan winds up in the United States. Overwhelmingly, the heroin that is consumed in the United States comes from Columbia and Mexico and, to a smaller extent, from Southeast Asia. Most of the opium being grown in Afghanistan is used to supply drug addicts in the Eurasian region. Keep in mind that Pakistan and Iran probably have as many heroin addicts in each of their countries as does the United States. They have a much higher per capita addition rate than do we. So the Afghani heroin, a lot of it is consumed right in the Central Asian region. Some of it is moving to western Europe and to Russia, but there is no way that that is going to have any major impact on the American problem. Keep in mind, also, that just a few years ago, Burma was a major producer. Now most of the producers around the world are being undercut by the fact that Afghanistan is such a low-cost and high-volume producer. So if, in fact, Afghani production were to drop dramatically in the way it did in the last year of the Taliban rule, that would have some impact, I think, on domestic drug problems in the Eurasian region, but would almost certainly have none in the United States.
Dean: Ethan, any closing thought you would like to relay? Where are we headed? What do we need to do next?
Nadelmann: Well, I think there are a few things. Most of the war needs to continue to be for drug policy reform at the state and local level. You know, for Drug Policy Alliance, that’s been our focus. We have offices in New York and California, New Mexico, New Jersey. We’re working with local activists and lobbyists in about a half a dozen other states. We’re going to be pursuing the whole issue of marijuana reform in Alabama. We’re going to be working on drug treatment instead of incarceration, and possibly medical marijuana as well, in Wisconsin. We’re working in Connecticut. We’re working in Maryland. We’re assisting other allied groups in other states all around the country. The name of the game is going to be continuing at the state and local level. Keeping in mind that drug policy reform is distinct from any other issue on the social justice movement in really, I think, three ways. The first one is that we are building coalitions. We are building coalitions across different types of issues. We have new sets of allies that are interracial, that are also inter-political. You know, all around the country if you look at what has happened in California around Prop 36 or Three Strikes reform or medical marijuana, really powerful coalitions are emerging in southern California, northern California, what have you. If you look in New York at what has happened on the Rockefeller reform, if you look at what has happened in New Jersey around the whole issue of clean needles, remarkable coalitions are coming together. If you look in Washington state at what followed up from the King County Bar Association, all the groups coming together there. You know, there is something powerful that’s not just episodic. We are seeing the development of increasingly sophisticated political movement. Secondly, this is an issue which is not just locked on the progressive end of the spectrum. Although most of the juice and the energy is coming from people on the liberal, left, Democratic end of the spectrum, it has almost always involved building bipartisan alliances with people in the Republican Party. In Connecticut where the key legislation is going to be on medical marijuana, it will be a Republication legislature. In Maryland where a Republican governor led the way; in Wisconsin and Alabama where Republicans are going to play pivotal roles in drug policy reform; in New York even where the Republicans have been a problem, but where we think they are going to be pivotal. So we are increasingly building bipartisan coalitions to advance sensible drug policy. And lastly, understanding that now that Bush and the Republicans have taken all this power in Washington, that this is also the time where we are going to see growing cleavages, growing divisions, within the Republican party. It’s important to remember that when it comes to the drug issue, first of all there are a lot of Republicans who feel powerfully about the Libertarian principles, who talk about freedom and liberty in ways in which even many liberal Democrats are afraid to do so. We saw it with Gary Johnson in New Mexico, and we have seen it with others, as well. And secondly, some Republicans, especially at the state level, are remarkably committed to fiscal sensibility, fiscal conservatism. The war on drugs is a huge and wasteful drain on resources, and we’re finding more and more alliances with fiscally conservative Republicans who say we need to think more critically about how we spend our money in this area. And finally, you have a growing number of Republican legislators who have a personal experience with serious drug addiction in the family, a personal experience with a loved one who has used marijuana for medical purposes, a personal experience with somebody who has been incarcerated on a drug war violation. And they increasingly get it as well. So we have an issue which is mobilizing for people who care about social justice and racial justice, but we also have an issue which is effective for building bipartisan coalitions. That’s where the energy, that’s where the juice is going to have to be in the next 4 years – because things are not going to change in Congress, they are not going to change in Washington, until things first change at the ground level in the states and the communities.
Dean: Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, I thank you for joining us.
Nadelmann: Dean, thank you very much.
Dean: Okay, we’ll be back with our other guests in just a moment. But first we’re going to take a little break.
It’s time to play “Name That Drug By Its Side Effects”: Sleepiness, memory impairment, impaired speech, abnormal coordination, reduced sexual drive, emotional and/or physical dependence, seizures, nausea, vomiting, tachycardia, heart palpitations. Time’s up. The answer: Xanax, another FDA-approved product.
Okay, you are listening to Cultural Baggage, the unvarnished truth about the drug war on the Drug Truth Network and Pacifica Radio. Earlier we heard from Ethan Nadelmann, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, and in just a moment we will bring you our additional guest Bruce Mirken of the Marijuana Policy Project, Scarlett Swerdlow of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and Matt Elrod from mapinc.org. First up, Bruce Mirken. Bruce, tell us what these recent elections mean to the Marijuana Policy Project.
Mirken: Well, altogether the November election was a pretty good day for marijuana policy reform. We didn’t win everything, but we had a number of really significant historical milestones. In Montana the medical marijuana initiative was passed overwhelmingly with 62% of the vote. Just to put that in perspective, medical marijuana out-polled George W. Bush in Montana by 3 points. In fact, except for the second vote on Nevada’s medical marijuana initiative, that’s an all-time record for the best percentage that a statewide medical marijuana initiative has gotten. So that was a big and important victory, and even where we didn’t always win, there were some important milestones. For example, in Alaska the voters didn’t approve Measure 2 which would have completely ended marijuana prohibition in Alaska, but nevertheless it got an all-time record vote percentage for a measure to completely abolish prohibition – 43%. And what is interesting is that happened despite a week of just horrible news in Alaska around a story in which a teenaged boy killed his stepmother as a result of a fight they had over his marijuana use. And yet despite that, we had a record-setting vote to end marijuana prohibition. There was a whole lot of shenanigans by government officials in Alaska who were completely hostile to an attempt to end prohibition. And then it turned out that the Lieutenant Governor’s office had actually ghost-written the anti-Measure 2 ballot argument. They are supposed to be neutral, theoretically, but they certainly weren’t in this case. But some of the stuff is trench warfare, and we have to accept that it is one step at a time.
Dean: What’s it going to take to expose the fraud of these that perpetuate this war?
Mirken: It’s a continuing problem, and you know the Constitution gives people a lot of leeway to express their opinions, even when it involves lying. Unfortunately at this point, various authorities, including the congressional GAO, have claimed that Federal officials essentially have a right to lie as long as it is fulfilling their statutory duty to oppose “drug legalization.”
Dean: Next up out of British Columbia, Canada, let’s hear from Matt Elrod of mapinc.org.
Elrod: We run a news clipping archive that is quite popular in the drug policy reform community and among journalists and so forth. But in addition to that, we provide technical services, website hosting, server management and such, database management, to a number of organizations in the drug policy reform community. Most recently, we began hosting DanceSafe, the group that goes about doing harm reduction at raves and dances and hands out harm-reduction literature, etc.
Dean: Well, that’s not to mention your great service to the Drug Truth Network.
Elrod: Well that, too. We do host the Drug Truth Network and Cultural Baggage, and I’m proud to say we do.
Dean: Now, Matt, I hear rumors of another law, or maybe the same law, trying to be passed up there in Canada in regards to marijuana. What’s going on?
Elrod: That’s right. Well right on the U.S. election day – I guess trying to avoid the attention of the Americans – our Justice Minister, latest Justice Minister, reintroduced the decriminalization bill that is pretty much the same thing that died on the table last year when parliament was dissolved. It is the result of basically a committee that looked very quickly at cannabis laws and tried to come up with a law that would offend no one. In fact, there is an excellent program on pottv.net, a compilation of news coverage in and around the bill over the last couple of years, which kind of explains its history. But the weird thing about that bill is that even before it was introduced to parliament the first time, then-Justice Minister Martin Cauchon visited American officials and got their opinions of the bill, and what he ended up tabling about 2 weeks late was much harsher than what he originally had in mind, or we were told to expect. They went from 30 down to 15 grams as the threshold from which a criminal offense would turn into a civil offense by way of ticket or fine. On the up side, our left-wing party, the NDP, managed to get a change to it whereby you are only fined if you cultivate 3 plants or less, and I think their intent there was to encourage self sufficiency in kind of a backhanded way. But at the same time, and I think as a consequence of consultation with the Americans, they doubled penalties for larger cultivation, larger grows, up to like 14 years – on a par with manslaughter and murder – for having a really large grow-op. The critics – the Conservative critics – say, “Well, that doesn’t make any difference. It’s mandatory minimums that we really need, and the judges aren’t imposing maximums anyway. So it doesn’t make any difference if you raise them.” But the message parliament is trying to send to the judiciary is that they want to see tougher penalties, and they want to see a real all-out war on the grow-ops and organized crime, hand in hand with decriminalization.
Dean: To get a feel for how young people feel about the recent elections and the war on drugs, I turn to Scarlett Swerdlow. She’s the director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.
Swerdlow: We’re a national organization with over 100 chapters across the country with students working to reform our country’s drug laws and policies.
Dean: We’ve had a rather serious setback, some would say, to our drug reform movement with the reelection of the Bush crew. What does SSDP see? What do you glean from what just happened?
Swerdlow: Well I think that, you know, on the one hand it is true that George W. Bush and his administration have a record of escalating the war on drugs and, particularly, of escalating it to target youth. So in that sense, it is a setback to continue to have him in office. Just as an example, it was between 2000 and 2004 that President Bush introduced a proposal to fund drug testing programs in pubic school; and there is going to be a certain amount of money allocated to drug testing in schools. So he does have a record of escalating the drug war. On the other hand though, it is clear that a growing number of our country’s citizens do not think that the drug war is a good idea and think that reforms need to be made. They need to be made on the local level if they aren’t happening on a national level. As an example, in Columbia, Missouri, of all places, two reform initiatives passed. One, Proposition 2, made minor marijuana possession the lowest priority of the local police force. And it also changed the offense so that it was no longer a state offense or a Federal offense, but a municipal one. The effect of this initiative is to take minor marijuana possession and make it a misdemeanor, and it’s a municipal misdemeanor. So what that means is if a student is filling out their FAFSA and they come to the question that asks them, “Have you ever been convicted? Do you have a state or Federal conviction regarding selling or possessing illegal drugs?” They can truthfully answer, “No, I don’t.”
Dean: What have I left out? What should we be learning from students for Sensible Drug Policy?
Swerdlow: In our quest to make our drug policies more compassionate and more sensible, I think the real strength of students and the real strength of SSDP is that we provide a grassroots network for that effort. That we have, you know, over 100 chapters across the country; thousands of students who are taking their time, their energy, their resources to try to end the drug war. And I think the real strength of the student movement to end the drug war is that we have this grassroots network. And so even if on a national level, you know, on the Hill, we might think things look bleak, there are students all over the country like the young people who were involved in Columbia, Missouri, who are working to make their local and state drug policies more sensible and more compassionate.
Dean: In closing, I want to make note of the fact that it was Barbara Robertson of Willis, Texas, who won a copy of Paul Krassner’s new book Magic Mushrooms and Other Highs. Well, I hope that you have enjoyed today’s Cultural Baggage and that you will continue to do your part to end this madness. And as always, because of drug prohibition, I remind you, you don’t know what is in that bag. Please, be careful.
For the Drug Truth Network and on behalf of my technical producer Steve Nolin, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage, the unvarnished truth. This show is produced at Pacifica Studios of KPFT, Houston; tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.