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Time to Decriminalize Drugs Conf: Jag Davies of Drug Policy Alliance, Emily Kaltenbach - DPA, Tess Borden - Human Rights Watch and ACLU, Juan Cartagena - LatinoJustice PRLDEF + Pioneering activist John Sajo re Oregon's push to decriminalize all drugs

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TRANSCRIPT

CULTURAL BAGGAGE

JULY 14, 2017

TRANSCRIPT

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, this is Dean Becker. Thank you for being with us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. A bit later on we're going to hear a segment out of Oregon, Mister John Sajo talking about their efforts to decriminalize drugs, but first we're going to hear this report from the Drug Policy Alliance about their efforts to decriminalize drugs.

JAG DAVIES: My name's Jag Davies, I'm the director of communication strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance. I'm honored to be joined today by some really tremendous advocates. As detailed in DPA's new report, there's an emerging public, political, and scientific consensus that otherwise law-abiding people should not be arrested, let alone locked away in jail or prison, simply for using or possessing an illegal drug.

The report lays out a roadmap for how US jurisdictions can move towards decriminalization, and this is really a pivotal moment. We have a retrograde federal administration ramping up the war on drugs right now, even though the vast majority of Americans consider it a failure and would prefer to instead focus our limited resources on health-based approaches to drug addiction and overdose deaths.

Evidence from around the world shows that decriminalization is good for public safety and health, drastically reducing addiction, overdose, and diseases like HIV AIDS and hepatitis C without increasing crime or drug use rates. There's also abundant evidence that drug possession arrests fuel mass incarceration and mass criminalization more broadly. More than a million people are arrested every year in the US for drug possession. More than 130,000 people are behind bars in US jails and prisons for drug possession. Almost half of them are there simply because they're too poor to post bail.

Discriminatory enforcement and prosecution practices have produced profound racial disparities at all levels of the criminal justice system, while fueling mass tensions and mass deportations.

Many countries around the world have successful experience with decriminalization, such as the Czech Republic and most notable Portugal, which decriminalized all drugs in 2001. In Portugal, no one's arrested or incarcerated for drug possession while addiction, HIV AIDS, and overdose have drastically decreased.

Just last month, the United Nations and World Health Organization released a joint statement calling for drug decriminalization. They join a remarkable group of organizations supporting decriminalization that includes the International Red Cross, the Organization of American States, NAACP, the American Public Health Assocation, and many others, such as those represented on this call.

The final thing I really want to emphasize today is that the US is actually closer to decriminalizing drugs than many people might think. Polls conducted by DPA last year of presidential primary voters found at least sixty percent support for decriminalization in Maine, New Hampshire, and even in a red state like South Carolina. In 2016, the first state level decriminalization bill was introduced in Maryland, and a similar version was introduced in 2017. The Hawaii legislature also overwhelmingly approved a bill last year creating a commission to study decriminalization.

And as my colleague Emily Kaltenbach will explore in more detail, many jurisdictions have taken significant steps in the US toward decriminalization by reducing drug possession penalties. A number of states have reduced drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, which the Oregon Legislature just approved last week. Another stepping stone has been the establishment of 911 good samaritan laws, and pre-arrest diversion programs such as LEAD, also known as Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, in dozens of cities and states around the country.

So I'll now hand things over to my colleague Emily Kaltenbach. She's DPA's senior director of national criminal justice reform strategy.

EMILY KALTENBACH: Today we're very excited to release this report, especially as the war on drugs is ramping up. It's important and essential that we focus our limited resources on health-based approaches to problematic drug use.

We don't want this report to just represent a concept or a problem statement. A problem statement must be accompanied by a roadmap, so DPA has over the last year been working on a strategic plan, or roadmap, to lead us to decriminalizing all drug use and possession. A roadmap that we hope will energize the criminal justice reform movement to reach for a day when people aren't criminalized for using or possessing drugs for personal use.

So our strategic plan outlines various interconnected strategies or stepping stones to decriminalization, and they include as Jag just mentioned supporting de-felonization efforts across the country, referring to changing drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors. Thirty two states still consider simple possession of small amounts of drugs like cocaine or heroin a felony, and as Jag mentioned, there are now -- Oregon has a bill on their desk. In 2014, Prop 47 passed in California that did just this, and even in Oklahoma, there was an initiative for de-felonization. So it's really important that we focus and support these efforts.

But, I want to stress that de-felonization can't be an end in themselves, but serve as a crucial milestone towards drug decriminalization. The other stepping stone is really going local, by first proposing and passing and implementing successful drug reform at a local level, including de facto decriminalization. Also, Jag mentioned the LEAD model, that's a good example of working at a local level, opening spaces for coordinated creative problem solving at a local level really can change the federal and state drug war policies.

We also must, and this is critical, reduce the role of law enforcement when it comes to problematic drug use, while increasing their accountability. So this strategy highlights the need for reform on the front end of the criminal justice system, since police and prosecutors are most responsible for sucking drug involved people into the system in the first place.

And while we're doing this, we have to ask the question, and tackle the question, if not criminalization, then what? So, having the discussion to develop and implement models for safe and effective legal access to drugs.

And finally, decriminalization policies generally function far more effectively when accompanied by robust and diverse harm reduction and treatment on demand programs. But in order to really truly recognize -- to realize drug decriminalization, we have to address two issues that speak to the need for a deeper and profound shift in public perception, and that is ending mass criminalization and reducing stigma.

While there's a growing recognition that US drug policies have led to mass incarceration, we want to shift the wider movement, framed to ending mass criminalization, in order to better reflect the way that the drug war has extended into the reach of the criminal justice system and disrupted so many aspects of people's daily lives, especially people of color.

And it's frequently the criminalization of drugs that's the hook whereby individuals are first sucked into the criminal justice system. We also must work hard to reduce stigma, the stigmatization of drug involved people, especially those who are poor, and are racialized, is what drug criminalization is built upon. So addressing stigma also opens a space for conversations about health based and harm reduction oriented approaches to drugs.

So in closing, criminal justice reform has been a critical component of Drug Policy Alliance's work, drug laws and drug enforcement policies impact virtually every aspect of the criminal justice system. Criminal justice reform that does not embrace drug decriminalization is like racial integration that overlooks restrictive covenants or gerrymandering or poll taxes, it's destined to fail, so, so just finally, meaningful lasting and equitable criminal justice reform is inseparable from seeking and achieving drug decriminalization.

JAG DAVIES: Next speaker will be Tess Borden. She's the Aryeh Neier Fellow at Human Rights Watch and the ACLU.

TESS BORDEN: I just want to note that as my title suggests I speak to you all today on behalf of both organizations. The ACLU and Human Rights Watch welcome this new report by the Drug Policy Alliance as a critical contribution to the growing consensus that criminalizing personal drug use and possession is misguided and extremely harmful.

Both organizations take a position in favor of decriminalizing personal drug use and possession, and we outlined that position last year in a report that summarizes over 200 interviews I did with people prosecuted for their personal drug use. What I think this new report does, among so many other things, is really as Emily said outline a roadmap for how, we're closer than we think, and how we can really achieve full decriminalization, and both organizations believe that human rights, civil rights, and smart policies really demand that we do decriminalize.

So I want to highlight just four of the findings that both organizations made in their joint report last year, many of which Jag touched on and Emily touched on in turn, in their opening remarks. The first is that the magnitude of criminalization is absolutely staggering. Close to one and a half million people are arrested each year simply for possessing drugs for their own use, and as Jag said, that's almost a 130,000 people behind bars at any time for simple drug possession, and literally tens of thousands more cycling through jails and prisons each year.

The second point I want to highlight is that racial disparities in drug possession enforcement are absolutely inexcusable. Although white and black people use drugs at approximately the same rates across their lifetimes, black people are two and a half times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than white people are, and here in Manhattan from where I'm speaking to you all, a black person is 11 times more likely to be arrested for drug possession than a white person. Again, this is, I want to emphasize despite equivalent rates in drug use, we don't have data on Latinos because the FBI doesn't keep that data, but I think what we can tell from these numbers is that enforcement has racial disparities and even racial discrimination.

The third point is that the knock-on effect of a criminal arrest, as we all know, can be lifelong and absolutely debilitating, not only for individuals but also the families. Certainly an arrest and conviction mean that people and their children can be kept out of housing, can be kept out of employment opportunities, kept from foodstamps, and so much more.

And so an arrest is not just what the person experiences that day, but also what they and the family may feel literally for years to come.

And finally I just want to highlight what others have said already, that this is a real public health crisis. The criminalization is a public health crisis, that we are not helping people who really may want and need treatment. We are locking people up and pretending that we can arrest our way out of the problem, and more than forty years after the war on drugs was declared, I don't think any of us can pretend that it's working.

So what I want to, in summary, say is that ACLU and Human Rights Watch applaud Drug Policy Alliance and its call for decriminalization. We join that call, and we commend this comprehensive roadmap that the report puts forward. The report makes clear not only why decriminalization is necessary, but also why it's possible, and also why we're closer than we may think.

JAG DAVIES: Our next speaker is Juan Cartagena, the President and General Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF.

JUAN CARTAGENA: There is no question in our minds that drug policy and the decriminalization effort that's being led by this particular report, are civil rights issues. They have everything to do with how the government has sanctioned selective enforcement, everything to do with how the government sanctions mass incarceration that is racialized, and everything to do with kind of like eroding the confidence that all of our communities, especially communities of color, need to have in our law enforcement, our corrections, and our court systems, in order to actually have faith that government also represents our interests and also responds to our needs.

To that extent, the racial disparities that have been highlighted so far by previous speakers are critical issues from the perspective of LatinoJustice progress. We also clearly know, in the place where actually at right now, New York City, we just heard how the rate of arrests is 11 times higher, it's about 4 to 5 higher -- eleven times higher for African Americans, it's 4 to 5 times higher for Latinos in the city of New York alone, and that's just for marijuana possession.

We also know that marijuana possession and drug possession in general can be top five reasons for deportations. Number four, as recently as data that I saw about three years ago, and as a result these issues are critically important.

Lastly, the entire drug war and its colossal failure should also be viewed and discussed from a hemispheric point of view. The toll, the horrific toll, of what the drug war has meant for countries at the border, for Central American countries, for Mexico in particular, but all the way down in South America also have to be considered. Those voices too have been clamoring for change. And I'll end with that point.

This particular report on decriminalization, we support it fully, we also support its roadmap for recommendations, and we do so because it actually heralds a change in practice and in policy, and lord knows we need a change for how we deal with drug use and drug possession in the United States. Consistently looking at a prohibitionists paradigm is what got us into this mess. It's what got us into being the world's largest jailer, and having the largest jail population, prison population anywhere in the world, and completely failed to address the health conditions of our people in the country.

Change is what we need. Decriminalization is the first major step to get to that change, and that's why LatinoJustice supports this report. Thank you very much.

DEAN BECKER: All right, now that was just about the first fifteen minutes or so of that conference. You can hear more of it by tuning into the latest Century Of Lies program, produced by Mister Doug McVay up there in Oregon.

It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Shortened attention span, hyperactivity, obesity, diabetes, diagnostic diseases, kidney failure, heart disease, hypoglycemia, tooth decay, and death. Time's up! For the answer, look in every bag of Halloween candy, and in damn near every product we buy. Yep, it's sugar.

As I indicated earlier, we're going to go to a segment with John Sajo, the pioneering drug reform advocate up there in Oregon, but first I want to share something with you from the Washington Post. There's a headline here: Oregon bill decriminalizes possession of heroin, cocaine, and other drugs. First time offenders caught with small amounts of heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine, and other illegal drugs, will face less jail time and smaller fines under a new bill approved by the Oregon Legislature that aims to curb mass incarceration.

They passed the bill last week, it reclassifies possession of several drugs from a felony to a misdemeanor, reducing punishments, expanding access to drug treatment, for people without prior felonies or convictions for drug possession. The bill also attempts to reduce racial profiling via data collection and analysis to help police departments understand when their policies or procedures result in disparities. This move by the Oregon legislature follows quickly on the heels of a similar effort put forward by the United Nations and the World Health Organization.

About two months ago I was reporting from Berkeley, California, where I attended the Patients Out of Time conference and while there I got a chance to meet up with an old friend, a pioneer if you will in drug reform, Mister John Sajo. How are you doing, sir?

JOHN SAJO: Doing well, how are you?

DEAN BECKER: I'm good, John, I, your list of accomplishments is well beyond my capacity. Tell us a little bit about the work you have done, and you're currently doing.

JOHN SAJO: Well, I started work on my first marijuana initiative in 1982, and we didn't get on the ballot that year, but we tried again in 1984, and got on the ballot in 1986 in Oregon for the first time for legalization. We lost with 26 percent of the vote. We knew it was going to be a long battle, but along the way I met up with Jack Herer and Dennis Peron, and Doug McVay, and, you know, back then in the early '80s, there were so few activists for drug reform that we all knew each other.

But, I went on from that, and worked on I believe five or six different marijuana initiatives, including Prop 215 in California, and I worked on multiple medical marijuana initiatives here in Oregon, and legalization, and since we passed legalization a few years ago, I've been working on implementation, and that's a whole new ballgame.

DEAN BECKER: I'm sure it is, John, and, you know, it's slow, incremental progress, but we are making progress, and there's something I want to talk about now, recently, the United Nations and the World Health Organization called for decrim, maybe even legalization of drugs. Yesterday the Drug Policy Alliance had a conference talking about decrim, and your state of Oregon, the legislature has actually passed a bill to decriminalize basically all drugs. Is that a fair assumption?

JOHN SAJO: Yeah, although I think people are overstating it a little bit. My understanding is that it de-felonizes all drugs, but, I believe there are still misdemeanor penalties, so it's not really full decrim, but it's absolutely the right way to go, and I'm glad Oregon is taking the lead on this.

DEAN BECKER: Right, it's my understanding it's kind of a two-fold thing that for basically first time offenders, they'll be given a chance, they'll be charged with that misdemeanor as you say, but then they'll be given a chance to go to treatment rather than jail. It's a punishment, I guess, but certainly not the way it has been in the past, right?

JOHN SAJO: Absolutely, and it's a recognition that punishment and drug war is not the way to deal with this long term social issue of people and substances.

DEAN BECKER: John, as you're aware, I've worked with Law Enforcement Action Partnership, they're now called, for well over ten years, and LEAP and the LEAD organizations, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, ideas are gaining traction around the country, and as I understand it, there in Oregon, even the head of the Oregon Association of Police Chiefs was standing in support of this. It's good to have law enforcement on our side for a change, isn't it?

JOHN SAJO: Oh, absolutely, and I remember when I first started in drug reform, it really wasn't that way at all. I, you know, there was virtually no one from law enforcement arguing against the drug war, and now there are many voices, and voices from law enforcement who really are in a position to know that it's a failed policy to, you know, treat drug abuse as a crime instead of a health issue.

DEAN BECKER: Right. Yeah, I understand there are those nay-sayers, your state rep Andy Olson, he's quoted as saying "I fully support the collection of data to monitor racial profiling, but I am opposed to reducing drug classifications."

JOHN SAJO: Say, you know, as far as Andy Olson, he's been evolving on a lot of these issues, and in fact he was one of the people that helped sponsor, you know, some of the good marijuana bills this session, so, let's hope that he can continue to look at the issue and, I think the evidence is pretty clear that decriminalization is kind of better than locking everybody up.

DEAN BECKER: Right. Again, folks, we're speaking with Mister John Sajo, he's a pioneer, a marijuana and drug reform activist for, well, decades at this point. John, I want to ask you, what's it like in Oregon? Nevada just legalized marijuana, but how does it work out? What's the process there in Oregon?

JOHN SAJO: Well, it's been, you know, quite a revolution, really. You know, you said earlier, there's decades of incremental change, but when we legalized marijuana here, that was more than an increment. That was, you know, a quantum leap into a different world.

DEAN BECKER: Yes sir.

JOHN SAJO: And, it's been fabulous, really, I mean, you know, people are no longer arrested for marijuana, and people have to live in fear less, and medical marijuana is more available to those people that can afford it, but at the same time, it's opened up a whole new world, because what it's done is, it's taken marijuana out of the world of drug reform and put it into the world of capitalism, and, you know, now we're suffering from tremendous over-regulation because the, you know, the leaders of the state of Oregon are basically afraid of what the Trump administration might do, and so they're, you know, regulating marijuana like it's plutonium, which is upping price, driving out the little guy, and giving the advantage to big money.

And it's really been a lesson in capitalism, and seeing how, you know, every regulation ever written benefits the rich over the poor, and marijuana legalization is no exception to that. And so we're seeing just a frenzy of rule-making, I mean, our original initiative legalizing marijuana three years ago was about 30 pages, and since that time, the legislature has enacted hundreds and hundreds of pages of new laws, and dozens of different agencies have enacted thousands of pages of rules, local governments are now doing the same thing. The rules are changing constantly. No one knows what's going on, and all that favors rich people who just hire lawyers to deal with it all and, you know, the mom and pops are being driven out, but we're resisting that, but it's a real eye-opening experience.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and I've always figured that by keeping, you know, the taxes high, the regulations so various, that it opens the door for the black market to continue their part in this situation. Your thought, there, sir.

JOHN SAJO: Well, I would say that, you know, Oregon's legal marijuana industry sold I believe $100 million worth of marijuana in 2016, and is on course to do much more than that, increasing every year. At the same time, I'd say the black market here in Oregon is bigger than ever, because lots of people just, you know, simply cannot or don't want to comply with all the rules they've been asked to deal with to be in a legitimate industry, so, both the black market and the legitimate industry are booming, and the more they keep these rules so complicated that nobody can understand them, the more the black market is going to remain.

And of course the big factor for Oregon is that we are one of the bigger marijuana producers in the country, and there's still, you know, 46 states that prohibit marijuana, and, you know, that opens the door for people producing marijuana here and shipping it out of state, and that's not going to go away until it's legalized nationwide.

DEAN BECKER: No, a strong point made there, John, I agree with you, sir. I'm aware of and I've seen pictures of your legal plants, and I'm also aware that you've given away probably a million dollars worth of it to medical marijuana patients. Tell us how that feels.

JOHN SAJO: Well, it feels good to have helped out so many people over the years, you know, I probably hit a million dollars quite a few years ago, actually. But it's also been frustrating. Frustrating, because even though, you know, we're completely clear on the fact that marijuana is medicine, and we know more and more about how to use it, but if you're a low income person in the state of Oregon, particularly if you're very, very sick, you're going to have a real hard time accessing it, because it's not free, and it's not covered by the Oregon Health Plan, it's not covered by Obamacare, and the medical establishment is still reluctant to even deal with it.

And, you know, I had a friend in the hospital last year undergoing cancer chemotherapy, and under the advice of his doctor, who had qualified him for medical marijuana, he was using cannabis oil as an adjunct to that therapy, and while he slept one night, the hospital stole his marijuana. You know, came into his room and took it, stole his personal medicine.

So, so there's still a lot of issues with medical marijuana, you know. Even though it's legal, it's still misunderstood by the powers that be in the medical establishment, and a frustrating road for patients. So I'm continuing to advocate for all sorts of, you know, rules and structures to how this goes forward, where we can put some money into scientific research and also figure out a way to get the medicine to the poorest, sickest people, because most of them just can't afford to go to the store and buy it.

DEAN BECKER: All right, John. One last question for you, sir. It's my understanding that this new situation is going to complicate things for medical marijuana patients even further?

JOHN SAJO: Well, I'd say the fact that everything is changing so rapidly here, and the, you know, there are so many new rules that are being put on medical marijuana basically because of fear of the Trump administration cracking down, that life has gotten harder for the people that produce marijuana for patients and the patients themselves. But, you know, I'm mostly speaking about the low income patients. If you're a patient with money you can just go to the store now and buy, you know, quality controlled tested products, and life is pretty good. But the truth is, most patients are poor, and so we still have a lot of work to do.

DEAN BECKER: Well, good. All right, well, we've been speaking with Mister John Sajo. John, do you have a website, some closing thoughts you'd want to share?

JOHN SAJO: Well, you can find us at the Umpqua Cannabis Association on Facebook.

DEAN BECKER: Spell that for us.

JOHN SAJO: Yeah. Umpqua, that's UMPQUA, Cannabis Association.

DEAN BECKER: Well, that's about all we can crowd in for this week. I've got to ask you to please stand up, speak up, do your part to end the madness of drug war, and again I remind you, because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.

Dean Becker Wants YOU to Call the Drug Czar