12/04/15 Eric Sterling

2015 DPA Conf with Eric Sterling of Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Phil Smith of Alternet, Matt Simon of MPP, Eapen Thampy of Americans for Forfeiture Reform, Richard Van Wickler Supt of Cheshire Co Dept of Correction & Tony Newman of DPA

Program: 
Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Date: 
Friday, December 4, 2015
Guest: 
Eric Sterling
Organization: 
Criminal Justice Policy Foundation
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CULTURAL BAGGAGE

DECEMBER 4, 2015

TRANSCRIPT

DEAN BECKER: Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

DR. G. ALAN ROBISON: It is not only inhumane, it is really fundamentally un-American.

CROWD: No more! Drug war! No More! Drug War! No More! Drug War!

DEAN BECKER: My name is Dean Becker. I don't condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison, and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

Thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. It seems I've got probably more than a month of additional programs from the recent Drug Policy Alliance conference there in Washington, DC. Let's just get started.

Okeh, I'm here at the Drug Policy Alliance conference and I'm just thrilled to run into one of my oldest acquaintances and educators in the drug policy arena, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, Mister Eric Sterling. How are you, sir?

ERIC STERLING: Dean, it's great to be here with you at this conference after so many of these conferences we've been to together over the years.

DEAN BECKER: This one seems -- they're always positive, but this one seems like there's some fire underneath us these days, doesn't it?

ERIC STERLING: Well, there's so much progress that's being made. When you hear the official statements coming from the White House drug czar's office, it sounds as though they're drug policy reformers. When you see what's happening in the states around the United States, you see the real progress that's being made. When you think that in a few months, the United Nations is going to be debating challenges to the existing drug prohibition paradigm.

This conference, you know, has students who are engaged in a model United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, the students are right now, as you're conducting this interview, debating resolutions of reform the way we expect will be debated in committees in the United Nations April 19 through 21. You know, we heard a young man speak yesterday morning, Jason Hernandez from Texas, who had just gotten out of prison on the commutation of sentence from President Obama, making, you know, an eloquent appeal to the president to let more people out.

So whether it's a matter of executive authority, whether it's developments in the legislature, I mean, you know, it's important to remember that right now, the current federal law bans DEA from interfering in state-legal medical marijuana programs. Today, delegates from this conference delivered a hundred thousand signatures to the DEA headquarters just down the street, demanding the resignation of the acting administrator of DEA, Chuck Rosenberg, when he called medical cannabis a "joke." I mean, that could have been something that would have been said, you know, in 1996, you know, when the first California initiative passes, you know, when the drug czar under Bill Clinton, you know, called medical cannabis "Cheech and Chong medicine." But in 2015, that is completely unacceptable language from the head of the DEA.

So, you know, the kinds of political energy that we see taking place, the, both here at the conference and the background taking place around the world, has got everybody here very excited.

DEAN BECKER: From my perspective, what I see is just a recognition of what was already writ large on the wall. People just putting on their glasses or bringing focus to bear on what has just been known for way too long.

ERIC STERLING: Well, you have to sort of recognize that the idea that things called drugs, this narrow category ranging from cannabis to heroin, cocaine and so forth, are inherently dangerous, has been around for a century. Our grandparents and our great grandparents were taught that drugs are dangerous and bad and should be controlled. And it is very hard to break down deeply entrenched cultural paradigms that have persisted, you know, in officialdom, that are taught in the schools, that are taught in the churches, that are taught to physicians, that are repeated, you know, as the received wisdom.

And so, our challenge is to break that down, and even to say it may be obvious that drug prohibition doesn't work, it's a different step to get people to sort of say it doesn't work and it's making these products more dangerous that we think are bad. It is -- it may be obvious to us, but for those people who see people who are hurt by their addictions, who are aware of overdose, who see people seeming to fritter their lives away in intoxication. They think that these things are bad, and it is often very hard for them to draw distinctions between alcohol, which is deeply embedded in the culture as something that gets used and yes has the problems of alcoholism, and drugs, which are not historically embedded in western culture, or American culture, with the same degree.

Certainly, you could say that drugs are becoming embedded, you know, since the 1960s the use of marijuana and other drugs in entertainment, in music, in, you know, among students, you know, among elite students, their role -- you know, the role of different kinds of drugs in athletics, for pain relief, for performance enhancement. I mean, it is very clear that there are specialized areas where drugs are quite accepted. And so, the rest of the culture's beginning to catch up. I mean, you still have half of the American population that does not have a college education. So, those of us who say, oh well, every -- those of us who went to college, that is to say -- oh well, everybody's tried it or everbody's been exposed to it. You in fact have, you know, many millions of people who've never been exposed to drug users to their knowledge. They've never been offered a joint, they've never used any of these kinds of drugs. And so, the received wisdom remains wisdom for them.

DEAN BECKER: All right, folks, there you have it. My good friend, ally, and, I don't know, just a good guy to learn from, Mr. Eric Sterling. Please visit the website, it's Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, that's on the web at CJPF.org.

All right, I'm here with Mister Phil Smith of Stop The Drug War and Alternet, and he's just attended a delivery, if you will, of a petition to our nation's director of the DEA.

PHIL SMITH: Well, that's right, Dean. Led by Tom Angell of Marijuana Majority, a couple of dozen patients and supporters walked from the conference hotel today over to the DEA about a half mile, and delivered petitions with one hundred thousand signatures from people demanding the resignation or firing of Chuck Rosenberg, the DEA administrator, for his extremely stupid and offensive remarks claiming that medical marijuana is a joke.

DEAN BECKER: And, what was, was there any response, any actual taking of that delivery?

PHIL SMITH: Yes there was. There was a DEA public information officer who was present, very politely accepted the petitions. He took some from a Navy veteran with PTSD, he took more from a DC woman whose son was the first medical marijuana patient in the District, both of whom spoke at a little press event right before the handing over of the petitions. Very powerful stuff. You can read about it in the Drug War Chronicle, and on Alternet.

MATT SIMON: Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project.

DEAN BECKER: You know, Matt, it's booming. Information is just growing up like weed, is it not?

MATT SIMON: Absolutely. Dean, I'm moving to Vermont January First, and in Vermont, they've been having a robust statewide discussion about marijuana. How do we do this the Vermont way? It's been all year, and I think that's a really exciting as we head into next year. I'm very interested in whether or not we can get Vermont the first state legislature to actually legalize and regulate marijuana rather than having to go through the ballot process.

DEAN BECKER: You know, it's kind of like, well if they can do it, we can do it. In Texas, I hear from state and local politicians, well, even if we could do it, it's still against the federal law and they're just unwilling to take that step, but a lot of state politicians are doing it anyway.

MATT SIMON: Yes, they are. And here we are in the District of Columbia, where it's legal to possess marijuana, legal to grow and share marijuana for adults, and if Congress hasn't stopped that from happening, they're certainly not going to stop a state like Vermont or any other state from doing it, as long as they do it in a reasonable fashion.

DEAN BECKER: Well, I know the Marijuana Policy Project is very much involved in helping and, I don't know, designing these changes, because of your experience and your awareness of what's worked and what hasn't worked in the past. That's helped the progress to move forward, hasn't it?

MATT SIMON: Yeah, I think so. It's no longer a theoretical question, you know, should marijuana be legal. We have two states, three states really, that are now allowing legal sales to adults, we can see what's working, what could be improved on from those, and that's what the conversation's been like in Vermont and other states where policymakers are really taking this on.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, and, you know, it's gotten easier for people to speak of what they've known for years. It's, you know, again, if they can do it, we can do it, and it's losing its stigma all over the place.

MATT SIMON: Absolutely. That's what we've seen. It's become so much easier to have this conversation, and that is what gives me great hope for the future.

DEAN BECKER: Right. There's all kinds of tipping points, but we seem to be approaching many of them, aren't we?

MATT SIMON: Indeed.

DEAN BECKER: All right. Well, Matt Simon -- folks, I'd urge you to visit the website of the Marijuana Policy Project, that's out there at MPP.org.

EAPEN THAMPY: My name's Eapen Thampy, I'm the founder of Americans for Forfeiture Reform and Show-Me Cannabis. Now I'm a registered lobbyist as well in the state of Missouri. So, I focus primarily on these issues of criminal justice reform and marijuana legalization.

DEAN BECKER: We're here at this Drug Policy Alliance conference in DC. I find it to be invigorating, a real shot in the arm. What's your take so far?

EAPEN THAMPY: You know, this is a great conference. Ethan Nadelmann and the staff at DPA have, you know, an enormous network and just being able to bring people together from, you know, everywhere from Costa Rica to the United States to, you know, some of the -- I think that there's even folks here from Asia.

DEAN BECKER: No, I think Ethan said 71 countries being represented. You know, but Eapen, the hell of it is that, you know, you and I have been at this a while. We were beating our heads against the wall for some time, but there's progress being made now.

EAPEN THAMPY: Oh, absolutely. You know, Colorado in 2012 was just a huge step forward, and especially with marijuana reform leading the way in so many ways, you know, there's just so much energy to look at the criminal justice system, look at drug prohibition and I think America, the world is tired of failed policies.

DEAN BECKER: Right.

EAPEN THAMPY: And, we have to, and there's energy to move beyond them.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. It's gaining traction everywhere. Tell us about the new work you're going to be doing in Missouri.

EAPEN THAMPY: Well, I'm a lobbyist, so I'm looking for clients in the legal marijuana space, or who want to enter the legal marijuana space, and who are ready to have communication with the decisionmakers and lawmakers about sensible regulation and what it takes to get going in that space. That's an exciting new aspect of the work is, you know, for so long we've been activists, but now there's an industry and, to support that, I think is a meaningful thing because it's an industry that's founded in the values of drug policy reform, that DPA and other organizations have really created.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. Even in my state of Texas, there's rumblings and, I don't know, just posturing about potential medical cannabis, at the least. And that's, that was unheard of a couple of years ago. I think the actions, the thought being brought forward by good folks like you and others here at this DPA conference has, not swayed the opinion, but played upon the conscience of some of these politicians. Your response.

EAPEN THAMPY: The conscience, yeah, and really it's all about just finding that connection, because everyone has an issue or a place where you can really reach them, and it's just finding the right message, and importantly the right messenger, and just being able to have that conversation initially, even if they're not receptive, and understanding their perspective so that you can come back and be more effective, I think, is what it takes. You know, so many of these politicians have been opponents and then they've -- someone in their family or someone that they respect has come to them and said, this is my issue, and the law doesn't work for me.

DEAN BECKER: Well, you know, I'm not going to say who, but a local media organization in Houston had contacted me, trying to find a few, I guess, if you will, illegal medical marijuana patients, you know, that might, that they could speak with. And I told them of a couple who were willing to go public, and I told them that I was. I'm an alcoholic who's now benefited for thirty years from the use of medical cannabis, but that didn't enter their, it didn't qualify for what they were looking for, even though I consider myself a very legitimate medical marijuana patient. Your thought there, sir.

EAPEN THAMPY: Well, it's just, you know, medical marijuana is a substance that has such great utility in addressing the ills and disorders and conditions of human beings, and it's not just alcohol, moderating your alcohol intake or recovering from alcoholism, but, you know, that's such a wide variety of human needs that's addressed by this, and again, it's just about finding those specific human needs that individuals, that you're trying to reach, have, and turning your message into the language that they understand.

DEAN BECKER: Right. All right, once again we've been speaking with Mr. Eapen Thampy. Your website, sir.

EAPEN THAMPY: Well, you can go see, check out our work at Americans for Forfeiture Reform at ForfeitureReform.com. You can follow the movement to legalize marijuana in Missouri by going to ShowMeCannabis.com

DEAN BECKER: 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.

RICHARD VAN WICKLER: My name is Richard Van Wickler, and I'm the superintendent of the Cheshire County Department of Corrections, which is in Keane, New Hampshire.

DEAN BECKER: Now, Richard, you're also a long-term speaker for a group called Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, correct?

RICHARD VAN WICKLER: I am. I joined Law Enforcement Against Prohibition back in 2007. I first learned of LEAP through a legislator. Now keep in mind that a legislator is one of the people who approves my budget, and also one of the people who makes laws in the state of New Hampshire. This person came by way of a DVD, and asked if I'd ever heard of this group, and I told him I'd not. And he said, well if you have a chance, could you look at this and let me know what you think. Well, you know, most people, when you get something like this, you go home, you put it on the refrigerator and you see it about six weeks later, and that's exactly what I did. Finally picked it up, looked at it, and I was so intrigued by this 12-minute CD, featuring Norm Stamper, Jack Cole, and a few other wonderful law enforcement professionals who had long careers, that I couldn't resist but call and ask for a speaker to come and speak to my criminal justice class, because I also teach at Keane State College.

Having had the speaker come to us, I realized that this guy was an active duty, part-time, New Hampshire police officer and a full-time professor of economics at Brandeis University. It was amazing to me, and he came, and spoke, and the whole time that he was talking about the atrocities of the drug war, the lost lives to the drug war, the failed policies of the drug war, the economics of the drug war, and I'm thinking, who better would know about economics than this guy? Who better would know about the drug war than this guy? And he belongs to this organization that believes that drugs should be legalized. I couldn't help but dig deeper.

And the thing that lined up for me, Dean, was that when I went to school and I opened the text book that these kids are spending $120 to learn from, everything in here is saying the, you know, the drug war's a failure, that the policies of the American government, nationally and globally on this issue, are a failure, and when kids want more information about, well, how is it a failure? And we're pretending like we don't really understand how we got here, it really causes you to do a lot of soul searching and some additional reading, and that's how I ended up with LEAP. LEAP offered me a scholarship to go to the Drug Policy Alliance conference in New Orleans back in 2007. I met a lot of interesting people there, people like you, Dean, who served honorably in the military and shared this view with a lot of other people, and I knew I was in the right company.

And so, without that being too long of an answer of how I got involved with LEAP, I then went home, and I said, well I've got to tell my superiors about this. I can't, I don't want my superiors to get backdoored. Now, my superiors are three elected officials, they're county commissioners that are elected by their constituents. And it was important that they hear that -- from me, that I'm going to belong to this organization and be speaking for this organization, and when I told them the news, I was surprised that they were actually very supportive, and quite delighted that I would have the guts to do something like this, and they said, Superintendent Van Wickler, you're First Amendment is your First Amendment right, and as long as you don't portray that this is the view of the Board of Commissioners or the County of Cheshire, New Hampshire, then you can say or do or go anywhere you want. And we admire you for that conviction. And so, I've been doing it ever since.

DEAN BECKER: Well, Richard, a few weeks back, I made a misstatement, I said there was only two people in the criminal justice field who were willing to come on my show and talk about this need to change our drug laws, but, again, I'm wrong, and there have been others over the years, LEAP speakers who, I guess on their way out were willing to come on, classic example is our executive director, Mister Neill Franklin, who very boldly spoke of that need for change several months before he left his position with the Maryland Highway Patrol, I believe it was. Richard, look. We have examined this issue, we, as you said, you delved into it before you made your decision. And the evidence is overwhelming, if anybody's just willing to take a look, is it not?

RICHARD VAN WICKLER: Not only is it overwhelming, but you could do research on this, whether it's the internet, whether it's buying books, whether it's studying public policy. You can come up with an untold number of reasons why this policy needs to end, right now. You can't come up with any factual reasons why it ought to continue. You can review propaganda, you'll see propaganda, you'll see things that are misstated, you'll see statistics that are inaccurate, but you won't find any facts. Researching drug policy is not really that difficult, but what it takes is it takes an open mind, a little bit of time, some common sense, and reading, and researching, and it doesn't cost any money to do this.

Now, people say, well, you know, I don't use drugs, why do I even care? And I propose that every single person in the United States has a dog in this fight. They are a stakeholder in this drug war. We're spending a lot of money to keep people incarcerated. The United States has over-incarcerated its people more than any other country on earth, ever. Ever. Even the bad countries. We're worse than them, by many times over. And we incarcerate people at an average of, you know, thirty-six, forty thousand dollars a year, depending on your jurisdiction. Dean, we can send people to college for less money than we can, not only put them in jail, but we destroy any opportunity that they might have. We destroy income as a tax provider. When that person is robbed of a career, we rob ourselves of somebody contributing to taxes. When we put that person in prison, we rob ourselves of somebody who could fix cars, who could educate people, who could invent things, perhaps become president of the United States. Who knows?

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. There's the rub, isn't it? Our president admitted to his youthful indiscretions before he got elected.

RICHARD VAN WICKLER: Indeed.

DEAN BECKER: And, you know, the stigma, the paranoia, the delusion, is just losing its substance. It's dissolving before our eyes. It's been my privilege over the years to interview well over one hundred LEAP speakers, and the good thing is, we're gaining recognition. They're seeking our opinions now. We, the members, the speakers, or Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, are being called upon by more and more decisionmakers, to help them better understand where we need to go.

RICHARD VAN WICKLER: Here's what I think is fascinating, Dean. You know, back in 2007, when I first joined LEAP, and I was learning from people like you and others like you in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, there were a lot of phrases that we used a lot back then, that I then brought home and used in my community, phrases like this: we can't arrest our way out of this. Remember those phrases? We can't arrest our way. Remember we said that this, that the use, that drug addiction is a health problem, it's not a crime problem. That we should approach this with a healthcare based perspective, and not a criminal justice based perspective. You remember these things? Of course you do, because we still talk about it. But what was interesting, Dean, is when I went home in 2007, and I gave interviews with the radio, the newspaper, and the television, and I used these phrases, people looked at me like I was crazy.

Now this is to your point, about how we're evolving, and becoming depended upon, you now hear people in Washington, DC, the drug czar himself, today, say we can't arrest our way out of this. That it's a health problem and not a crime problem, that it should be treated with health care based issues and not crime based issues, and you have all of these new initiatives to try and get these people out of jail. You know what? We have made a difference. And they're not looking at us like we're crazy anymore.

But, I do have to tell you that it's distressing to me when I see a young chief of police, who's hard charging, hardcore, and he uses the phrase "can't arrest your way out of this" like he's the first person that's ever said it, and everybody thinks he's brilliant for coming up with it. But, it is proof positive that we've made significant gains.

DEAN BECKER: All right. There you have it, Mr. Richard Van Wickler, a long-term speaker for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, please check out the website, LEAP.cc.

I'm here with the Director of Media Relations of the Drug Policy Alliance, Mister Tony Newman. Tony, what's on your mind?

TONY NEWMAN: Well, Dean, it's an amazing conference. It's hard to describe, I'm surrounded with fifteen hundred brothers and sisters from 71 countries around the world. We've been here, the energy's incredible. You know, a lot of people, it's a nice combination. Some people have been coming to these conferences for 20 years, and some people it's their first time, and it's, you know, you bring together all this energy, and it feels like, you know, we're on -- we're making a new future. You know, it's like, it's also an interesting thing, you know, on some ways it feels like there's hope in the air, we can kind of see marijuana legalization, we see people starting to talk about the need for harm reduction including, you know, some of our elected leaders, and things like that.

So there's all this hope, and then there's also still a lot of heaviness that happens when you're here. You know, our conference kicked off, we had Kemba Smith, who was granted clemency after many, many -- too many years, from, President Clinton gave her clemency. And then we had Jason Hernandez, who just got out two months ago, was given clemency by President Obama. And they started off the conference, and shared their stories. And it was powerful, you know, you get these people who are literally just home for the first time, and they reminded us, that they're thankful for being home, but that there's tens and thousands and hundreds of thousands of people who are still left behind.

So, it's, you know, both those things coexist, the kind of optimism and hopefulness, and seeing friends, and strategizing and learning, and then also kind of feeling levels of sadness, you know, there's a lot of pain that people carry when they're hear. You know, just coming home, I just -- I just met Jeff, from Missouri, who just got out a couple months ago. He said September First he got out. I can't believe his story, he ended up spending 22 years behind bars for three grams of marijuana. He had two other marijuana offenses, he got busted with three grams, because he wouldn't snitch, because he wouldn't cooperate, the government, they gave him 25 years to life without parole. He recently got out after 22 years. His son, Chris, who's here, organized and mobilized and brought him home.

But here I am talking to Jeff, next to Art Way, who runs the Drug Policy Alliance Colorado office. Art helped make marijuana legal in Colorado, and we're standing next to this guy who spent 22 years of his life behind bars for three grams of marijuana. So it's something that's moving, and beautiful, and sad, and it's all together under one roof.

DEAN BECKER: We could use your help. You can learn how to help at the Drug Policy Alliance, DrugPolicy.org.

Well, that's about it, I hope you enjoyed this edition of Cultural Baggage. We'll have much more from the DPA conference in Washington, DC, in the coming weeks and as always I remind you, because of prohibition, you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.