12/20/15 Doug McVay

This week: President Obama commutes the sentences of 95 people serving time for federal drug offenses, and we speak with drug policy researcher and human rights activist Damon Barrett.

Century of Lies
Sunday, December 20, 2015
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL122015.mp3



DECEMBER 20, 2015


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization. Legalization. The end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello! And welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Well folks, this week we are continuing our coverage of the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference. It was held back in November in Crystal City, Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC. But before we do, we're going to talk for a moment about something that happened this week.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I still want to work with Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, to reform our criminal justice system, and earlier today, I commuted the sentences of 95 men and women who had served their debt to society, another step forward in upholding our fundamental ideals of justice and fairness.

DOUG MCVAY: That was President Barack Obama, speaking at the White House at his last press conference of 2015, announcing the commutation of 95 sentences. That's 95 people who were behind bars, serving time on federal drug charges, whose sentences are being commuted, which means that they will be getting out, they have served their time, and more. Some of them were in life sentences for a first offense, for minor charges. This is a good thing, this is a great thing. At the same time, it really is just a drop in the bucket. There are hundreds of thousands of people behind bars who really should not be. We have the largest prison population on earth, per capita. We're just doing it wrong. But, as President Obama himself pointed out at the news conference, the federal prison system is just one small part of that. In fact, here he is, talking about that.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: I strongly support the Senate legislation that's already been put forward. I'm hopeful that the House can come up with legislation that follows the same principles, which is to make sure that we're doing sentencing reform, but we're also doing a better job in terms of, you know, reducing recidivism and providing support for ex-offenders. And if we can get those two bills together in a conference, then I'm somewhat optimistic that we're going to be able to make a difference. Now keep in mind, April, when you use the term "mass incarceration," statistically, the overwhelming majority of people who are incarcerated are in state prisons, and state facilities, for state crimes. We can only focus on federal law, and federal crimes.

And so there's still going to be a large population of individuals who are incarcerated, even for nonviolent drug crimes, because this is a trend that started in the late 80s and 90s, and accelerated at the state levels. But if we can show, at the federal level, that we can be smart on crime, more cost-effective, more just, more proportionate, then we can set a trend for other states to follow as well. And that's our hope. This is not going to be something that's reversed overnight, so, just to go back to my general principle, April, it took 20 years for us to get to the point we are now. And it will be 20 years probably before we reverse some of these major trends.

DOUG MCVAY: That again was from President Obama's news conference, which was held December 18th, his last news conference of 2015, in which he announced that 95 people serving time in federal prison on drug charges were going to have their sentences commuted. And now, on with the rest of the show.

Damon Barrett is a co-founder and director of the International Center on Human Rights and Drug Policy, based at the Human Rights Center at the University of Essex in England, where he's a visiting fellow. He used to work at the Harm Reduction International, leading the organization's human rights strategy. He's now a PhD researcher at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. He spoke during the conference at a plenary session on drug policy and human rights. I caught up with him on the last day of the conference.

DAMON BARRETT: Prior to getting into drug policy, I worked for Save The Children. And I -- right now I still focus on children's rights and drugs quite a lot for that reason, it's always been the thing that interests me the most, children's rights. And, yeah, my job at Save The Children ran out of funding and I ended up in what was then known as the International Harm Reduction Association. Didn't know what harm reduction was, not really, but then, it's one of the things about drug policy, once you get into it, you see how interesting it is. Even if you're not angry about it, you're interested in it, it's multi-disciplinary, you have to be a little bit human rights advocate, you have to be a little bit public health epidemiologist, you have to be a little bit statistician, a little bit of a politician, and you have to do all of these things. At least be able to read all of those things and not be completely out of your depth, in any particular conversation.

In 2009, because I came from a human rights background and in particular human rights law background, I, as we were doing our work at what became Harm Reduction International now, myself and my friend Rick Lines, we realized that there really wasn't very much out there, decent scholarship, you know, on human rights law applied to drug control. Lots of people talking about human rights, and lots of people who would be social justice activists or even human rights campaigners talking about drug laws, but not, you know, decent scholarship unpacking this from a human rights perspective. So we founded the International Center on Human Rights and Drug Policy, originally in Ireland, and now it's at the University of Essex, at the Human Rights Center there, which I think is the oldest academic human rights institution in the world, and it's very prestigious, and it's a big benefit to us that it's here. It shows that some of the leading human rights scholars in the world believe that this is an important issue.

So, part of my work is being co-director of that with my friend Julie Hannah, who's from here in Virginia, in fact, and also I'm now a full-time PhD student, my research is on the protection of children from drugs through international law, which I do at the University of Stockholm.

DOUG MCVAY: Ireland, Stockholm, United Kingdom -- you're rather international.

DAMON BARRETT: Yeah, I lived in London for a very long time. I mean, I left Ireland in 2001, lived in London for 12 years, now Sweden. Where, you know, at the risk of changing subject from me to something that matters, things are getting better. Sweden has this reputation, you see. Actually, this is an important human rights conversation. Sweden has this reputation for being very tough on drugs. When, compared to most other places, it's really just not that. It happens to have, or has had, a very ideological position about a drug free Sweden and a drug free society, and it does have some laws I very much disagree with. But there's two things to say. First of all, unlike here, unlike Russia, unlike Brazil, which I believe now has the fourth highest incarceration rate in the world, Sweden has less people in prison for drug offenses now, it's the lowest rate in 50 years. Intentionally. Because Sweden values not putting people in prison.

Similarly, although Sweden for a long time was against harm reduction, the central government now is not, and they say, I know -- they say, look, we know we had that position in the past, but the evidence says otherwise now. And coverage of substitution therapy now in Sweden is something like 60 percent. And there's problems with the program, you can be kicked off for a failed urine test, for example, that's not okeh. There's nothing in prisons, well, tiny, tiny pilot program. And there's only five needle exchanges in the country. But that's five more -- well, it's three more than there were a few years ago. There's been two in the south of Sweden running for 25 years. And the central government fights with the regional authorities to get more going, because health spending is devolved, so it's not as simple. And here's I think one of the best things: Sweden has been paying for drug user organizing for 15 years, because it values drug users' voices. Pays for the Swedish Drug Users' Union, or Svenska Brukarf├Âreningen in Swedish. A wonderful group of my friends who are invited onto the main public health committees to deal with hepatitis C in the country.

This is the reality of Sweden. Now, the problem is, Sweden goes to the international stage all these years and says we need a restrictive approach, and let's not reform drug laws, and in that way misrepresented itself. It actually has more in common with Switzerland or Portugal than it does with Russia, but it seems to find itself sitting alongside Russia because it doesn't like reform. And I think maybe they started to realize this, because that's an embarrassing and unhelpful diplomatic seat to have. They're -- anyway. So the human rights message of that is two things. One, that Sweden really values civil society voice, and it values these things more broadly. So really, its drug laws can only -- you know, however much I disagree with them, can only do so much damage. It's held back by everything else that Sweden does.

So, the way I put it is, you know, if you want to attempt prohibition of all these drugs, and attempt this idea of a drug free society, then, okeh, let's look at Sweden. You should have everyone paying high taxes and be happy about it. Paying for incredible social services, incredible social safety nets. You should divert almost everybody as possible from prison. You should have low income inequality, low gender inequality, universal access to healthcare, excellent education system, and all of that stuff in place first, and then maybe you can attempt prohibition. And even then, you'll run into trouble. But you take the same policy and you dump it in the United States of America, Russia, Indonesia, Mexico, where there's corruption, poverty, and all of these things, and you're asking for an enormous mess.

The only thing you'll say about Sweden, you're going to get a fair trial. Go to Indonesia, you're probably not. And these things matter. And these things, I think, the things that human rights analyses really unpack and pull out, and I think that's important, because it's just, in the end, and I tried to say this in my speech, it's just, it's not all about drug laws, is it? You know, what we're doing. If this is a social justice movement, then, if we got, if this -- I know people have different visions here, right? But if everybody got exactly what they wanted tomorrow, however they envision it. Someone might want a free market dream, someone might want a state monopoly, but if everybody, just in their heads, got exactly what they wanted tomorrow, would they go away as social justice activists? Would they leave the party and suddenly, those of us who, as Ethan would say, don't give a damn about drugs, would we be left, you know, picking up the pieces of the drug war? Which have to be, which take long term healing, I think.

DOUG MCVAY: I think you're right, that it was an incredibly important thing. I mean, the -- the fact that Sweden has 5 needle exchanges, there were three, okeh. And it's a governmentally sanctioned -- it's approved, right?

DAMON BARRETT: Paid for by the taxpayer, absolutely. Absolutely. And, this is important, too. Not only does it see the benefit in preventing disease transmission, but they see it as a component of social welfare, social care, in that the Stockholm needle exchange opened, and they were already in contact with loads of people that just, that social welfare and health services hadn't reached before. It was a new service that they could go to, and they found out that almost all of them, above 80 percent, were hepatitis C positive. This is all hugely important stuff. You know, there's -- I should say, there's huge downsides in Sweden, too. The highest per capita overdose death rate in Europe. Fourth highest amphetamine use rate. You know and -- but, on the positive side, they do have very low rates of use among adolescents and school aged youth. They do have that, too, so it's a bit of a paradox.

And you have to take every country as it is. So, yeah. And, you know, my answer to my question, I don't think a lot of these people will go away. I, you know, because a lot of the people here, I think, see drug policy, at least the way I see it, and I know some of my colleagues, do. It happens to be a center of gravity around which a lot of the things we do care about revolve, because of prohibition, because of punitive drug enforcement. And when it goes away, a lot of those things will still be there, and, in fact, you know, I talked a lot in my speech about the threat narrative around drugs. We all know about it, the drug scourge and all of that kind of crap. But, it's very insidious, and what I said was that if you set up a threat and point the finger at who to blame, this is standard stuff, and human rights abuses are coming.

And what I don't get is how people who support prohibition can't see that they're essentially making a rod for their own backs, because it will be another threat tomorrow, something else, and all they've done is set up institutions and a legitimacy for that level of repression in the name of whatever threat they see. It's the war on terror, it's the war on drugs. It's going to be something else, and what's missing is some kind of empathy with the current victims, in order to see that one day that could be you. This is the golden rule, right? This is, every society, every culture, every religion: Don't treat others the way you would not like to be treated. Do unto others. All of this, the different translations of the same thing, and everybody knows it. And, this is very simple, but the problem with drugs is, it's -- this is the real reach of stigma. People can't identify and they can't empathize, either because people are too far away, or in the case of drugs, they just can't see that that's somehow their brothers and sisters.

And similarly with the refugee crisis right now, the way I see it, you know, if that were my children I had to send away running, I would hope someone would look after them, or if it was me, if I didn't have children, if it was just me, I'd hope someone would help me. And that's all -- a lot, you know, we have a lot of jargon, and a lot of, you know, long words to describe very basic concepts. What if it was me? So, we heard from Kemba Smith on day one. I wouldn't want anybody I know getting 27 years, I believe it was, for no more than carrying some money around the place. That's not okeh. And I wouldn't accept it for me, I wouldn't accept a criminal record for my kids because they -- however old they might be -- because they experiment with something. Ruining so much for them. I wouldn't accept it for them. I wouldn't accept a noose around my neck. So I can't accept it for anybody else. That's very simple. And I think one of the problems with the supporters of prohibition is a lack of empathy, a lack of ability to see who's at the receiving end of all of this. If they could, I don't know, maybe they'd see that -- how do they say it in 12 step? -- there but for the grace of god go I. Right? Same thing. The golden rule. Maybe they could see that, but I think that's something that's missing, and it requires a huge amount of demonization and stigma to achieve it on this scale.

DOUG MCVAY: That's from a conversation I had with Damon Barrett, he's a co-founder and director of the International Center on Human Rights and Drug Policy, based at the Human Rights Center at the University of Essex. He's also a PhD researcher at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. You're listening to Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Human rights and international drug policy were a recurring theme at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference. The United Nations General Assembly Special Session on Drugs, of course, comes up in April of 2016. DPA and dozens of other organizations are working to organize around that event. I spoke with Damon about the UNGASS.

Will you be able to make it back to the US for April 2016?

DAMON BARRETT: I -- yeah, I mean, it's the first time it's happened in 20 years. Last time it happened I think I was 21, so I think I've got to go to this one. It was -- yeah. It would be one of those parties that you don't want to miss. You know? A very very boring party that you don't want to miss. I have -- no I think I'd really like to go. It depends on funding and so on, but, my university's been very generous about funding my ability to come to conferences like this, to help with my work and so on. I think I'd really like to go. I'll tell you why. The theme of the whole thing is a better tomorrow for the world's youth, and -- yesterday in fact was Universal Children's Day. November 20th. Also Bobby Kennedy's birthday. And World Toilet Day, too. Oh no, that's the 19th. I think today is World TV Day. There's a day for everything.

No, it's -- what I've been asking for a long time is that governments stop saying, as if it shuts, as if it doesn't require testing, that our current drug laws and policies protect kids. I think it's cheap, I think it does them an injustice, when it's so obvious that so many kids have been harmed. So whenever, you know -- we need to protect kids from using drugs, obviously, obviously, it's so self-evident that prevention matters if it's done well. I prefer a harm reduction focus to prevention efforts. I don't think prevention is the right word anyway, I think protection is a far better word. It's far more encompassing, to then -- reducing risk and harm to the sum of that one behavior, but -- it's not just about that, is it? You know, which kids are we protecting, is it, are we going to protect the kids who have lost a parent to violence, lost a parent to incarceration, do we protect the kids whose parent has been executed? The kids who were involved in rural production, and see their families crops destroyed? The kids who've been displaced? Whose kids are we protecting?

And I think they all deserve equal protection, and that doesn't at all -- at all -- as a parent, saying this, take away from the fact that we would, we have to keep trying to protect kids from drugs. And, you know, in prevention, you've got two things you can, that are just as important: stopping kids using drugs, or delaying initiation. If you're going to start, longer is better. The same with alcohol, if you're going to start, delay it as long as you can. Sex is the exact same thing. And delay it as long as you can. And nobody -- there isn't anybody out there who disagrees with that. And the problem is, it's a point of consensus, we protect kids from using drugs, of course. And everything ends there. Everything ends there. And, if you say I'd like to talk about something else, it's almost as if you're disagreeing with that, and saying, no, we've agreed it, can we move on? We'll take it as given that that's what we're going to do. Now, let's ask, do our current policies and laws and interventions do that, and also, do they make things better or worse for the other kids that are part of this whole picture as well.

And, you know, and so what we suggested, in a briefing we have here that I wrote for the Open Society Foundation is like, okeh, instead of this April thing answering questions again with the same boring consensus language that doesn't mean anything. What if they ask questions instead? So, we said, what if they launch a global study on the impact of drug policies on children and young people? And report back in 2019, which is the next major high-level event. I don't think they'll take us up on it, because A, it's expensive, but B, I don't think they want the answer. And if they, you know -- but there is some precedent for it. There was an UNGASS, which is what this April thing is, a UN General Assembly Special Session. There was a very important UNGASS on children in 2002, and they launched what was called the Global Violence Study. I think it was a four-year study on violence against children. Very influential study. And we said, well, do that again. Do something like that again, commit to asking the right questions.

DOUG MCVAY: I was talking to Anne-Marie Cockburn earlier, and she articulated something that I have been thinking and that I just didn't know how to say, and she got it so right. I started doing drug policy work way back in the 80s, and Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No." And she pointed out that you really need to have, parents need to have the courage to have the tough conversation. I mean, the way I put is that Just Say No is a cop-out. It's taking the easy way of avoiding the discussion, of avoiding the issue entirely. And so, you really have to have the courage to have the tough conversation. How do we get the international community, and how do we get these governments to have the courage to ask the tough questions? Like you were saying, what is the real impact of these things?

DAMON BARRETT: Prevention, for all of its importance and all of its consensus, is one of those areas that no one really can nail down what good prevention looks like. But there's a lot of good work going on. I heard, there was a great session here. Unfortunately, I can't remember -- Chuck Ries, is that his name? [Yes.] He was talking about a wonderful program he had in a school, exactly what I would like for any high school my kids end up going to. But -- so, governments would all say they want to do it. I think there's a few questions that need to be asked, which is, what can be reasonably expected of the government to do? What can be reasonably expected of schools? What can be reasonably expected of kids themselves? And to find in each of those things the right way to approach.

Like for example, Just Say No expected, and was based on an assumption, it seems to me, that young people, adolescents, make rational cost-benefit analysis decisions about these things, and they just don't. I'm not saying they're irrational, all humans are irrational. We know this from behavioral economics. But, they do things in context. There's no shady drug dealer in the corner of the school. Your first access is most likely a friend or a sibling. No sweaty, long black coat drug dealer in the schoolyard, it's a myth. And, so what can be reasonably expected of the young people to do? I think they can be reasonably expected to try and keep themselves safe. Parents can be reasonably expected to a certain amount as well. This is what you were getting at, with the courage to have the conversation. I don't know how to advise them to do that. My kids are way too young, I've never had to go through it.

And, similarly, schools, what can be -- we talk a lot about drugs education. What can be expected of the school? And the thing is, schools do lots of different things, they don't just teach a curriculum. They keep kids off the streets for a long time during the day when the kids are working, they keep kids safe, and, you know, there is evidence about trust in schools between faculty and students, and how protective that can be, alongside just keeping kids in school, with regard to drugs, alcohol, sex, early pregnancies, and so on. It's protective for all of those things, just the very nature of having a trusting relationship, and being in school.

And then in terms of what can be reasonably expected of the government, funding decent programs in schools would be a good thing. Not throwing money away at billboards that we know achieve nothing. Nothing. And usually they're designed badly and all of that, but honestly, I think even the best thought that goes into it, you might reach a lot of people but you're not going to have any impact with it. So it looks like you're doing something but you're not doing anything, whereas the money, it's a very expensive thing to do, that kind of mass media stuff, and it can be better invested. So I don't know, it seems like to me that there's different competences, different responsibilities, and there's a combination of all these things to be focused upon, but Just Say No took it all away and planted it. That kind of thinking takes it away, and claims that if we can have a campaign, an appeal to children's, I don't know, rational decision-making faculties, that somehow that will work. It doesn't, obviously, we now know.

And, yeah, but the weird thing about it is, given all we know now, given that all these things get tried, it just keeps getting done. The same message, the same ideas.

DOUG MCVAY: This place is starting to crowd up, there's going to be a closing plenary in just a very few minutes, so, I know that I've got to close this, but any final thoughts, and where can people find out about the work that you're doing, and please, what is your twitter handle as well?

DAMON BARRETT: Yeah, my twitter handle is misleading, it's @DrugLawPhD, but I don't have that yet. I put it up there to suggest I was researching one, but it makes look a little bit like I might already have a doctorate, and I don't. I wish I did. Yeah, they can go to that twitter handle, @DrugLawPhD, or the website, better is the website of the Center on Human Rights and Drug Policy, which is either google that, or it's HR-DP.org.

But I do have a final comment, and I think it's important. We've got this really adversarial media culture that doesn't allow leaders to say "I don't know." And it seems to me that it would be so refreshing if, faced with the complexity of the drug war and how damaging it's been and how complex everything is, if one politician would say, "I don't know. I don't know what to do." But I'll tell you what, that's doubt, and that's the engine of investigation, right? That's how you say, I don't know, but let's talk about it, and let's talk to them over there as well, and them over there. Because otherwise, it's just going to be the same old certainty that leads us down the same blind alleys.

DOUG MCVAY: Damon Barrett, thank you so very much.

DAMON BARRETT: All right, you're very welcome.

DOUG MCVAY: That again was a conversation I had with Damon Barrett, he's a co-founder and director of the International Center on Human Rights and Drug Policy. He's also a PhD researcher at the University of Stockholm. We spoke at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference, which was held in November, just outside of Washington, DC.

And well, that's it for this week. Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please be sure to give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, please give it a like and share it with friends. You can follow me on twitter, I'm @DrugPolicyFacts and of course also @DougMcVay. This is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.