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"Not One Step Back" Drug Policy Alliance conference in Atlanta with Deborah Small, Police Chief Joe Chevalier, Georgia Senator Harold Jones, Author Susan Burton, Patricia Sully harm reductionist, Jeb Sessions

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TRANSCRIPT

CULTURAL BAGGAGE

APRIL 28, 2017

TRANSCRIPT

DEAN BECKER: Last week, in Atlanta, Georgia, the Drug Policy Alliance held a major conference: Not One Step Back: the drug war, mass incarceration, and public health in the age of Trump. This is Dean Becker, you're listening to Cultural Baggage on Pacifica Radio and the Drug Truth Network. Please put your ears on. We've got some information to share.

We're here in Atlanta, Drug Policy Alliance gathering, one of the speakers, the intro speaker, if I'm correct, for this morning's activities, was Deborah Small. She wowed the crowd, for lack of a better phrase, and she always has a perspective to share with us, and she's with me right now. I'd like to introduce Deborah Small. Hello, Deborah.

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Good afternoon, I'm happy to be here with you, Dean. It's always a pleasure to see you, to spend some time with you, and to talk about issues we both care a lot about.

DEAN BECKER: Deborah, you know, we hear people talk about many angles, many perspectives, many different ways of dealing with the component parts of the drug war, and from my years of experience, and you know I could be absolutely wrong, but I think we need to look more at the whole and talk about the whole, and then perhaps the component part, to influence our politicians even more. Your thought in that regard.

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Well, I don't think it's an either or, because one of the things that -- people come to this movement usually based on their experiences. So if you've had the experience of having a loved one who died from an overdose, then you're going to come to this issue looking at how do we prevent opiate addiction and overdose deaths. If you had someone, either yourself or a family member, who spent a long time in prison on a drug charge, then you're going to be coming to the issue focused on reducing mass incarceration.

If you have someone, yourself or someone you're close to, that's living with HIV or hepatitis C, then you might come to this issue coming from a frame of harm reduction. How do we reduce preventable diseases? So, for me, you know, because drug policy cuts across so many different areas, and affects people in so many different ways, you can't really control the path that brings them into it. What our job is, I see it is that regardless of the path, that the person takes, that brings them to this space, it's our job to give them a holistic education.

So they may come in with a frame that's specifically focused on opiates, or incarceration, or health, or pregnancy, and it's up to us to show them how these things relate to international issues, to the drug war in Colombia and Mexico, to the way in which we do or don't pay for treatment, you know, why it is that, you know, you can't get methadone prescribed by a doctor the way you can any other prescription.

All of those things wrap in, but we -- it's like, to me, that's our job, is to make sure that people who come into the community get a holistic education, so that they can figure out how to be the best advocates.

DEAN BECKER: Opiates. They're creating quite a storm, I've heard mention a couple of times at the conference here that the, once it started impacting the white community it started taking on a different, oh, perspective, if you will, from legislators and others. And, I think there's a lot of legitimacy to that. We tend to, I don't know, forgive celebrities, forgive white folks, and the judicial system a whole lot easier. Some say it's not racist, but, we need to re-examine where we want this drug war to go. What is it -- what is it supposed to bring us, I guess, and why?

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Well, it doesn't bring us anything good, because it's based on a lie. So, I mean, nothing good could ever come out of the drug war because it's based on the assumption that drugs are bad and the people who do them are bad and need to be punished. None of that is true, so there's nothing good that can come from it.

The only thing that can -- that, good that can happen, my point of view, is for us to end the drug war and replace it with drug policies that work, that reduce the death, disease, and harm to people, as opposed to focusing on whether or not people are using drugs, we should focus on whether the drugs are using them.

DEAN BECKER: Well put. You know, I was speaking with the gentleman, he's actually the police chief of Morehouse College here, wearing a Drug Policy Alliance t-shirt, nine millimeter strapped on his side. He's head of a SWAT team here in the city of Atlanta. He's not a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, but I think he represents the beginning, or represents the change, that's taking place within the law enforcement and justice community, at least in certain areas of this country. Your thought in that regard.

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Well, you know, I have to tell you that one of the things that really saddens me about the political moment that we're in is that, I think that over the last three or four years, there was a growing awareness among the population in general, including police chiefs, that there was some serious problems with the way that the police were doing their jobs, and that chiefs who really cared about being effective were looking for ways to improve the relationship between the black community and the police departments.

But now, we have an administration who feels that the problem is not racial bias in policing, and police brutality, it's people complaining about it, that, that's what we need to stop. And unfortunately, not only -- and, you know, even over the objection of a lot of police chiefs, I actually went online right after Trump signed his executive orders on policing, to see what police were saying about it, and it was really interesting because there's a split within law enforcement.

Some people are happy to get the extra money and the extra power, and have the feds off their backs, others are not so happy because they actually see that the federal oversight has improved their department. It helped them to get rid of bad cops and rogue cops. It helped them to improve the standards by which they operated in the community, so that they could have more trust and less death. And so to have the administration sort of move them away from that, many police don't think that's a good thing.

And for me, I feel like the tool that the federal government has is money. The way that we got policing in the drug war in the first place was through money. Police didn't start out wanting to focus on drug crimes. They had a focus on what they considered more serious crimes, and so what the government did to get them to prioritize drugs was to give them money, in the forms of grants, special programs, civil asset forfeiture. It's like, look at all the goodies you can get, if you do this.

And so that's how police ended up focusing on that, and unfortunately, the Trump administration under Sessions will do that even more. So even for law enforcement that's reluctant, I think ultimately they're going to get on board because the financial inducements will be there for them to do so.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, get yourself a big old former Iraqi tank, for your city streets, to keep them safe, right? I mean, it's --

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Well, but, that whole issue, I mean, the militarization of the police is a problem, the fact that they use SWAT teams to serve warrants on people is also crazy. But I'm more concerned about the everyday police activities. The part -- to me, one of the reasons why you've seen so many cases of people being shot and killed in what were -- should have been regular police encounters, that turned deadly, is because a lot of what modern policing in America has become is a form of legal looting, where the police go out into the community looking for people who've committed infractions, you know, like a bad taillight or whatever, so that they can get fines and fees.

And that literally is a form of looting, and most people don't take well to being looted. And so, it's almost a guarantee that if, instead of the police answering a public request and calls for assistance, they're actually proactively going out looking for people to ticket and arrest, that a lot of those -- some of those encounters at least are going to go south.

DEAN BECKER: And then we have certain, usually small, locales in the south that bring in all their municipal needs by stopping people on the inter -- on the interstate, and taking their cash, maybe their car, in exchange for their freedom to go on down the road.

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Looting.

DEAN BECKER: Another, indeed, form of looting. You know, Deborah, we've been at this a while, and it is gratifying to see the new blood, if you will, coming in, the folks with a new, you know, batch of enthusiasm, and perspective. It gives you hope, doesn't it?

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Yes, it does. And the truth is, you and I both know that the way things are going, this war is not going to end in our lifetime. So it's important for us to help mentor the next generation and pass the baton off to them.

DEAN BECKER: I told my district attorney in one of our most recent interviews that one of my goals is to be able to freely smoke a joint out in front of city hall. She kind of laughed. I don't think she would mind.

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: She probably wouldn't. I mean, on, again, you know, so, one of the things that I think is starting to shift in the country is a conversation about what real crime is. Okeh? And at a time when people are experiencing toxic water, fracking that causes earthquakes all over the place, high levels of emphysema and respiratory ailments in poor kids because of the environment that they're in, and yet we're not spending any money on that. When we have an an administration that wants to privatize our schools, when we're facing all kinds of economic problems, most people don't think policing marijuana should be a priority. Even police.

DEAN BECKER: Exactly. Well, I'll tell you what, we're going to have to shut it down here in a minute, but I just want to say, in my job, I've interviewed well over a thousand individuals, and there's a select few whose thoughts and, I don't know, perspectives, linger, and yours is certainly at the top of that little list, and I think at the top of many people's lists who've listened to you, and watched you, and seen what you have done over the years. I'll close with that little compliment, and leave any closing thoughts, websites, to you.

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Well, I'll tell you the thing that is pressing on my mind right now, and anyone who's listening, I want them to think about this. As bad as the drug war is in the US, it doesn't compare to the way it's being conducted in Brazil, in Colombia, and now in the Philippines, and if there's anything that pains me more than -- right now, it's the fact that our current president is about to go to the Philippines to visit a man and commend a man who is actively killing his own people, based on their quote unquote "drug use."

DEAN BECKER: Suspicion thereof.

DEBORAH PETERSON SMALL: Yeah. Nine thousand dead, by paramilitary and police. You know, authorized by the president, who's proud of what he's doing. And the idea that our president is affirming that is telling him that, yeah, you're a good guy, you're a good president, you're effective, when he's engaged in what I consider a gross human rights violation by murdering people, because they're suspected to be drug users, is outrageous, and so for people who really care about human rights, and who care about our position in the world, they should really condemn Trump for supporting Duterte.

GA STATE SENATOR HAROLD JONES: State Senator Harold Jones out of Augusta, Georgia. Used to be a prosecutor out of Augusta, I was the Solicitor General for Augusta, Georgia, I did that for 12 years, and then I got elected to the state senate and what brings me here of course is basically trying to reduce the harm of our drug laws.

One of the things I did last year was present a bill to at least up the amount that constitutes a felony, as far as marijuana was concerned. The year before that, I actually presented a bill to make all possession charges for marijuana just a misdemeanor only. So that one there, it had a couple of bumps in the road, but the one to increase the amount for felonies, we actually got that through the Judiciary Committee on this year, so we'll start back next year, basically out of the Judiciary Committee, and keep going forward from there.

DEAN BECKER: Well, Senator, you know, I come from Texas, and we're, we have our every two years legislative hearings going on and all that, and this was kind of a bounty crop, if you will, I think twenty plus drug related bills, mostly dealing with marijuana were brought forward. There's some slow progress, a little bit of potential for a couple of them, but I guess what I'm saying sir, it represents a new attitude, a new perspective, awakening, if you will, of politicians. Your thought in that regard.

SEN. HAROLD JONES: I think that's correct. I mean, Texas, as far a felony is concerned, is actually higher than Georgia's, so they're doing well there, and I believe that your House was actually looking at trying to do some form of decriminalization or -- some type of decriminalization, so it's coming along there.

One of the aspects of my bill was also to do that, up to a half ounce would be a fine only, no probation, no jail time. But I think if you look around the country, you're starting to see that momentum coming, as far as this issue is concerned, and so we just have to keep acting on it, and keep being progressive and keep moving forward.

DEAN BECKER: The new Trump administration, Jeff Sessions, have indicated perhaps a stronger attitude towards the drug war, towards marijuana again, and yet I hear governors of certain states and legislative bodies are trying to recraft their laws so it would be less likely to reap that government interference. It's getting entrenched in the mindset, that there are better ways than what we've done in the past, right?

SEN. HAROLD JONES: Right, without a doubt. So we've seen some of that regression on the national level, but you're not seeing that on the state level. I haven't seen any states really embrace what Secretary Sessions -- Attorney General Sessions is saying, so I think that that's not going to go far very far. So if you look at the state response, Republican states even Democratic states, persons don't really want to go through this drug war again. We've been through it, now we have to basically pick up after ourselves to some extent, but certainly persons aren't looking forward to starting all that process over again.

DEAN BECKER: We're speaking with Georgia Senator Harold V. Jones II, he's out of District 22. You're here at this conference, and I know you haven't been able to attend the full event, but what's your take away, from this group?

SEN. HAROLD JONES: A very good conference, I mean, you have a lot of different panels talking about different issues, but the main thing is, that it's well attended, but the other thing is, that you actually have people on the same page trying to either reduce the harm, maybe even legalize in some circumstances, but the bottom line is everyone's pretty much on the same page, that we need to continue to move forward and not go backwards.

DEAN BECKER: US Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III.

US ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFFERSON BEAUREGARD SESSIONS III: This drug is dangerous. You cannot play with it, it's not funny, it's not something to laugh about, and trying to send that message with clarity, that good people don't smoke marijuana.

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Rash, hives, difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, yellow eyes, swelling of the tongue, hoarseness, dark urine, fainting, fever, irregular heartbeat, mental or mood changes, seizure, and death. Time's up! The answer, from the UCB Group: Xyzal, for asthma.

Each of the participants in this conference was given a copy of a brand new book, Becoming Ms. Burton: From Prison To Recovery To Leading The Fight For Incarcerated Women. It's written by our next guest.

SUSAN BURTON: My name is Susan Burton, I'm the executive director of the New Way Of Life Re-Entry Project, a co-founder of All Of Us Or None, and I'm here at the Drug Policy Alliance Partners Gathering at Morehouse in Atlanta, Georgia.

DEAN BECKER: Now, this morning's presentations have been knocking them out of the park, and your perspective was involved as well, and give us your summation of, maybe the diversity of what was brought forward today.

SUSAN BURTON: Yes, there was a diverse panel of about eight of us, with different perspectives on the war on drugs. My perspective, I brought the perspective of women, women who are incarcerated, the effect of the drug war on women, and what I know is that with the rhetoric coming out of the White House, some decades back, women -- it became very legitimate to begin to hunt women in communities based on the drug war, and incarcerate them in astronomical numbers, especially black women.

There's one in a 119 white women incarcerated for drugs, and one in 18 black women incarcerated for drugs. So the rhetoric that came out of the White House was the welfare queen that used the welfare money for drugs, and also the crack mom, that pretty much legitimized the mass incarceration of women, so it became very acceptable to incarcerate women for crimes, and especially black women.

DEAN BECKER: Seems there were private prisons to build, there was a whole lot of ancillary services that demanded it, somehow.

SUSAN BURTON: You know, it legitimized incarceration of women, and also there got to be a craving for punishment of women, that America, you know, really wanted women taken out and taken under for these crimes that were actually, should have been looked at as a public health crisis, instead of a criminal approach to a social problem, a health problem, and now we have so many women that are banned from welfare, banned from housing, banned from jobs, banned from social services, because of a criminal conviction for drug use.

And I must say, if we'd have taken a different approach, and instead of building prisons, built housing, I doubt that we would have the crisis of homelessness that we're experiencing in America today. We're at this place now where we're looking differently at drug addiction, and I think that that's primarily because more white people are now addicted to opiates, and so, there's a demand for a different approach to how we look at addiction.

DEAN BECKER: Is there a website, closing thoughts?

SUSAN BURTON: Yeah. A New Of Life, our website is ANewWayOfLife.org, and also, I've just published a book called Becoming Miss Burton that actually illustrates and captures much of what we've just talked about in this interview, so May Eighth is the release date for the book, and, you know, I hope that it will further educate those that read it, about it this cruel drug war.

PATRICIA SULLY: I'm Patricia Sully, I'm a staff attorney with the Public Defender Association, and I coordinate VOCAL-Washington, which is a grassroots organizing effort. We organize folks who are low and no-income, and directly affected by the war on drugs, mass incarceration, homelessness, and the HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C epidemics.

DEAN BECKER: I hear harm reduction in much of what you're saying there, it gives an indication of the work you do. Break it down a little bit for us. What are you currently focused on, what's been in the news lately?

PATRICIA SULLY: We're currently focused on the campaign for supervised consumption spaces, which are spaces where people who use drugs, whether that's injection or inhalation, can come inside and use those drugs under medical supervision without fear of arrest, and where's there's connection to other services.

DEAN BECKER: This is, perhaps, thoughts foreign to many people. Break it down further.

PATRICIA SULLY: Sure. So, right now, out on the street, there are many people who use drugs, and we see a lot of overdose and a lot of public health harm that comes with that outdoor drug use, whether those are abscesses and infections, or endocarditis, other public health issues that develop, and that's all preventable, or much of that is preventable, and right now, people really have no place to go, and particularly folks who are unhoused.

Many of the people we work with do not have housing, and so if those are people who are living with substance use disorder, their drug use by necessity happens outside. And in Seattle, we have a really innovative program called LEAD, which is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, and LEAD is a harm reduction based program. So LEAD works with people who use drugs outside, and when an officer, a police officer, encounters someone outside using drugs, that officer can instead of arresting and booking that person in jail -- to jail, immediately divert them to wraparound case management services.

And this program has worked really well, we've had it studied and evaluated, and it's produced really good outcomes, but even with LEAD, when an officer encounters someone who is outside using drugs, they can call that person's case manager, but there's really no place to tell that person to go, right? The best answer anybody has is, go to a different alley. Go use your drugs somewhere else, and we all know that that's not a satisfactory answer, it's not satisfactory for the person who's using drugs, because that person is still at risk of overdose, and at risk of these public health harms, and it's not a satisfactory answer for the community, who's really struggling with outdoor drug use and drug use happening in, you know, bathrooms of the library or their businesses, or in front of the streets.

So, supervised consumption spaces really arose in part as an answer to that question: what do we tell people, where should people go? And we didn't make this up. It's something that already exists around the world. Many other countries have these kind of spaces, and in fact, Vancouver, Canada, in British Columbia, has the only space in North America that's currently sanctioned, called Insite, and they've been operating for more than a decade, and in Europe, many countries have them, they exist in Australia, so there's a tremendous amount of research, over 40 peer-reviewed articles that have looked at these kind of spaces to evaluate.

Do they work? Do they save lives? Do they save money? Do they produce better outcomes for both communities and for individuals using drugs? And the answer to all of those questions is yes. Yes, they do.

It's much cheaper to prevent illness than it is to treat it, so if we can prevent people from contracting HIV or hepatitis C, those individuals are going to have better health outcomes, and it's going to be less expensive on our public health systems, and we have found that in places where there are supervised consumption spaces, outdoor drug use decreases. People would rather use inside in a safe place, than outside in an alley, where they're scared, where they may rush their injection or their shot, and risk harming themselves, and where they're going to risk arrest.

We also know arrest is an incredibly expensive and ineffective way to deal with drug use. So if we can divert people out of the criminal justice system and into public health service programs, we're going to save a lot of money, as well as save a lot of lives.

DEAN BECKER: Thank you, Patricia, I was going to ask you how I might influence my local politicians, or politicians anywhere, I think all I've got to do is just share your words. I thank you so very much. Is there a website or a closing thought you might want to relay?

PATRICIA SULLY: Yes. So, people can find more information at VOCAL-WA.org, or Defender.org.

DEAN BECKER: I started the following interview and the wind kicked up, but this is so good, I have to share it anyway.

POLICE CHIEF JOSEPH CHEVALIER: My name is Joe Chevalier, I'm the chief of police for Morehouse School of Medicine. I'm also a deputy sheriff, a sergeant with the Fulton County Sheriff's Office.

DEAN BECKER: Sir, I'm here at Morehouse School of Medicine, DPA's having a major conference, and I see you wearing the No More Drug War shirt, and having that pistol strapped to your side, it -- in years past, that would have been odd combination, but what compelled you to combine the two, sir?

JOSEPH CHEVALIER: So, working at the Fulton County Jail as a reserve sheriff's deputy, I've seen a lot of people in jail, and we have to talk to them, and try to make sure they're not doing the things they're not supposed to do in jail, but you find out why they're there, and you find out why people are in jail for very small offenses, while we know that people that are -- have much worse crimes, getting out of going to jail. So it just kind of seems disproportionate, and when I came here, and I know what this conference is about, what this meeting is about, what the people are doing here, it all started to bring back memories of, oh, all of these other things that I've seen and felt over the years, and it seemed like the natural t thing to do to support the cause.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir, I -- this perception of yours, has it developed over a number of years? What about your fellow officers? Is the truth of this drug war being more recognized within the departments you are part of?

JOSEPH CHEVALIER: Well, let me say it to you like this: On the street, we have to do a certain job, and we have to follow the laws that we have in place, so we go about doing that job as fairly as we can humanly do it, but when we have to arrest someone we have to arrest someone. That doesn't stop police officers like myself from sitting back, or knowing someone, I personally have a friend of mine who's serving 15 years in Angola for selling drugs. Now, he's on drugs, he's selling drugs because he has a habit. He needs help. So maybe we give him some help, and help him to get off of drugs, and then maybe we can put him back into society. I guaran -- I know him. I know if he didn't have to do that to get the drugs, he wouldn't do it.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah.

JOSEPH CHEVALIER: So, to me, that's, like, unfair. But there are other police officers, we all have friends, we're not this separated from humanity group of people. We still have families, we still have friends, we still want equality. We want to treat people right. We don't want to treat people the wrong way. And we don't want to unnecessarily put somebody in jail when they really need some help.

DEAN BECKER: Fifteen years in Angola, how many hundred thousand dollars did that cost.

JOSEPH CHEVALIER: I have no idea, but guess what, the taxpayers of Louisiana are going to be paying for him for a long time. And that's if he survives. Because what happens in prison does not prepare you to be successful in life when you come out, unfortunately, that's just the truth.

DEAN BECKER: Prison is, as you indicated, it's not conducive to progress or positive thinking, it's, it's designed to create just the opposite in most cases.

JOSEPH CHEVALIER: We clearly have to have an evolution. Every industry goes through an evolution, law enforcement right now is going through an evolution. Why can't the prison system go through an evolution? Why can't this whole approach on dealing with drugs in America have an evolution? Everything else does.

DEAN BECKER: Chief Chevalier gave me a patch and made me an honorary member of his SWAT team. In closing, I remind you once again that because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag, please be careful.

Dean Becker Wants YOU to Call the Drug Czar