11/23/14 Ethan Nadelmann

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Ethan Nadelmann Dir of Drug Policy Alliance: "What has the war on drugs done to the world?" + Rand Paul call for end to drug war, Jill Harris of DPA re coerced treatment + Invitation to 12/14 nationwide rally "100 Years is Enough!" + song: "Eternal War" by Adult Users

Audio file



NOVEMBER 23, 2014

DEAN BECKER: Hello my friends, this is Dean Becker, welcome to this week's edition of Cultural Baggage.

ETHAN NADELMANN: What has the War on Drugs done to the world? Look at the murder and mayhem in Mexico, Central America, so many other parts of the planet, the global black market estimated at 300 billion dollars a year, prisons packed in the United States and elsewhere, police and military drawn into an unwinnable war that violates basic rights, and ordinary citizens just hope they don't get caught in the crossfire, and meanwhile, more people using more drugs than ever. It's my country's history with alcohol prohibition and Al Capone, times 50.

Which is why it's particularly galling to me as an American that we've been the driving force behind this global drug war. Ask why so many countries criminalize drugs they'd never heard of, why the U.N. drug treaties emphasize criminalization over health, even why most of the money worldwide for dealing with drug abuse goes not to helping agencies but those that punish, and you'll find the good old U.S. of A.

Why did we do this? Some people, especially in Latin America, think it's not really about drugs. It's just a subterfuge for advancing the realpolitik interests of the U.S. But by and large, that's not it. We don't want gangsters and guerrillas funded with illegal drug money terrorizing and taking over other nations. No, the fact is, America really is crazy when it comes to drugs. I mean, don't forget, we're the ones who thought that we could prohibit alcohol. So think about our global drug war not as any sort of rational policy, but as the international projection of a domestic psychosis.

But here's the good news. Now it's the Russians leading the Drug War and not us. Most politicians in my country want to roll back the Drug War now, put fewer people behind bars, not more, and I'm proud to say as an American that we now lead the world in reforming marijuana policies. It's now legal for medical purposes in almost half our 50 states, millions of people can purchase their marijuana, their medicine, in government- licensed dispensaries, and over half my fellow citizens now say it's time to legally regulate and tax marijuana more or less like alcohol. That's what Colorado and Washington are doing, and Uruguay, and others are sure to follow.

So that's what I do: work to end the Drug War. I think it all started growing up in a fairly religious, moral family, eldest son of a rabbi, going off to university where I smoked some marijuana and I liked it. And I liked drinking too, but it was obvious that alcohol was really the more dangerous of the two, but my friends and I could get busted for smoking a joint.

Now, that hypocrisy kept bugging me, so I wrote my Ph.D dissertation on international drug control. I talked my way into the State Department. I got a security clearance. I interviewed hundreds of DEA and other law enforcement agents all around Europe and the Americas, and I'd ask them, "What do you think the answer is?" Well, in Latin America, they'd say to me, "You can't really cut off the supply. The answer lies back in the U.S., in cutting off the demand." So then I go back home and I talk to people involved in anti-drug efforts there, and they'd say, "You know, Ethan, you can't really cut off the demand. The answer lies over there. You've got to cut off the supply." Then I'd go and talk to the guys in customs trying to stop drugs at the borders, and they'd say, "You're not going to stop it here. The answer lies over there, in cutting off supply and demand." And it hit me: Everybody involved in this thought the answer lay in that area about which they knew the least.

So that's when I started reading everything I could about psychoactive drugs: the history, the science, the politics, all of it, and the more one read, the more it hit you how a thoughtful, enlightened, intelligent approach took you over here, whereas the politics and laws of my country were taking you over here. And that disparity struck me as this incredible intellectual and moral puzzle.

There's probably never been a drug-free society. Virtually every society has ingested psychoactive substances to deal with pain, increase our energy, socialize, even commune with God. Our desire to alter our consciousness may be as fundamental as our desires for food, companionship and sex. So our true challenge is to learn how to live with drugs so they cause the least possible harm and in some cases the greatest possible benefit.

I'll tell you something else I learned, that the reason some drugs are legal and others not has almost nothing to do with science or health or the relative risk of drugs, and almost everything to do with who uses and who is perceived to use particular drugs. In the late 19th century, when most of the drugs that are now illegal were legal, the principal consumers of opiates in my country and others were middle-aged white women, using them to alleviate aches and pains when few other analgesics were available. And nobody thought about criminalizing it back then because nobody wanted to put Grandma behind bars.

But when hundreds of thousands of Chinese started showing up in my country, working hard on the railroads and the mines and then kicking back in the evening just like they had in the old country with a few puffs on that opium pipe, that's when you saw the first drug prohibition laws in California and Nevada, driven by racist fears of Chinese transforming white women into opium-addicted sex slaves. The first cocaine prohibition laws, similarly prompted by racist fears of black men sniffing that white powder and forgetting their proper place in Southern society. And the first marijuana prohibition laws, all about fears of Mexican migrants in the West and the Southwest.

And what was true in my country, is true in so many others as well, with both the origins of these laws and their implementation. Put it this way, and I exaggerate only slightly: If the principal smokers of cocaine were affluent older white men and the principal consumers of Viagra were poor young black men, then smokable cocaine would be easy to get with a prescription from your doctor and selling Viagra would get you five to 10 years behind bars.

I used to be a professor teaching about this. Now I'm an activist, a human rights activist, and what drives me is my shame at living in an otherwise great nation that has less than five percent of the world's population but almost 25 percent of the world's incarcerated population. It's the people I meet who have lost someone they love to drug-related violence or prison or overdose or AIDS because our drug policies emphasize criminalization over health. It's good people who have lost their jobs, their homes, their freedom, even their children to the state, not because they hurt anyone but solely because they chose to use one drug instead of another.

So is legalization the answer? On that, I'm torn: three days a week I think yes, three days a week I think no, and on Sundays I'm agnostic. But since today is Tuesday, let me just say that legally regulating and taxing most of the drugs that are now criminalized would radically reduce the crime, violence, corruption and black markets, and the problems of adulterated and unregulated drugs, and improve public safety, and allow taxpayer resources to be developed to more useful purposes. I mean, look, the markets in marijuana, cocaine, heroin and methamphetamine are global commodities markets just like the global markets in alcohol, tobacco, coffee, sugar, and so many other things.

Where there is a demand, there will be a supply. Knock out one source and another inevitably emerges. People tend to think of prohibition as the ultimate form of regulation when in fact it represents the abdication of regulation with criminals filling the void. Which is why putting criminal laws and police front and center in trying to control a dynamic global commodities market is a recipe for disaster. And what we really need to do is to bring the underground drug markets as much as possible aboveground and regulate them as intelligently as we can to minimize both the harms of drugs and the harms of prohibitionist policies.

Now, with marijuana, that obviously means legally regulating and taxing it like alcohol. The benefits of doing so are enormous, the risks minimal. Will more people use marijuana? Maybe, but it's not going to be young people, because it's not going to be legalized for them, and quite frankly, they already have the best access to marijuana. I think it's going to be older people. It's going to be people in their 40s and 60s and 80s who find they prefer a little marijuana to that drink in the evening or the sleeping pill or that it helps with their arthritis or diabetes or maybe helps spice up a long-term marriage. (Laughter) And that just might be a net public health benefit.

As for the other drugs, look at Portugal, where nobody goes to jail for possessing drugs, and the government's made a serious commitment to treating addiction as a health issue. Look at Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, England, where people who have been addicted to heroin for many years and repeatedly tried to quit and failed can get pharmaceutical heroin and helping services in medical clinics, and the results are in: Illegal drug abuse and disease and overdoses and crime and arrests all go down, health and well-being improve, taxpayers benefit, and many drug users even put their addictions behind them.

Look at New Zealand, which recently enacted a law allowing certain recreational drugs to be sold legally provided their safety had been established. Look here in Brazil, and some other countries, where a remarkable psychoactive substance, ayahuasca, can be legally bought and consumed provided it's done so within a religious context. Look in Bolivia and Peru, where all sorts of products made from the coca leaf, the source of cocaine, are sold legally over the counter with no apparent harm to people's public health. I mean, don't forget, Coca-Cola had cocaine in it until 1900, and so far as we know was no more addictive than Coca-Cola is today.

Conversely, think about cigarettes: Nothing can both hook you and kill you like cigarettes. When researchers ask heroin addicts what's the toughest drug to quit, most say cigarettes. Yet in my country and many others, half of all the people who were ever addicted to cigarettes have quit without anyone being arrested or put in jail or sent to a "treatment program" by a prosecutor or a judge. What did it were higher taxes and time and place restrictions on sale and use and effective anti-smoking campaigns. Now, could we reduce smoking even more by making it totally illegal? Probably. But just imagine the drug war nightmare that would result.

So the challenges we face today are twofold. The first is the policy challenge of designing and implementing alternatives to ineffective prohibitionist policies, even as we need to get better at regulating and living with the drugs that are now legal. But the second challenge is tougher, because it's about us. The obstacles to reform lie not just out there in the power of the prison industrial complex or other vested interests that want to keep things the way they are, but within each and every one of us. It's our fears and our lack of knowledge and imagination that stands in the way of real reform. And ultimately, I think that boils down to the kids, and to every parent's desire to put our baby in a bubble, and the fear that somehow drugs will pierce that bubble and put our young ones at risk. In fact, sometimes it seems like the entire War on Drugs gets justified as one great big child protection act, which any young person can tell you it's not.

So here's what I say to teenagers. First, don't do drugs. Second, don't do drugs. Third, if you do do drugs, there's some things I want you to know, because my bottom line as your parent is, come home safely at the end of the night and grow up and lead a healthy and good adulthood. That's my drug education mantra: Safety first.

So this is what I've dedicated my life to, to building an organization and a movement of people who believe we need to turn our backs on the failed prohibitions of the past and embrace new drug policies grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, where people who come from across the political spectrum and every other spectrum as well, where people who love our drugs, people who hate drugs, and people who don't give a damn about drugs, but every one of us believes that this War on Drugs, this backward, heartless, disastrous War on Drugs, has got to end. Thank you.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Ethan, congrats — quite the reaction. That was a powerful talk. Not quite a complete standing O, though, and I'm guessing that some people here and maybe a few watching online, maybe someone knows a teenager or a friend or whatever who got sick, maybe died from some drug overdose. I'm sure you've had these people approach you before. What do you say to them?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Chris, the most amazing thing that's happened of late is that I've met a growing number of people who have actually lost a sibling or a child to a drug overdose, and 10 years ago, those people just wanted to say, let's line up all the drug dealers and shoot them and that will solve it. And what they've come to understand is that the Drug War did nothing to protect their kids. If anything, it made it more likely that those kids were put at risk. And so they're now becoming part of this drug policy reform movement. There's other people who have kids, one's addicted to alcohol, the other one's addicted to cocaine or heroin, and they ask themselves the question: Why does this kid get to take one step at a time and try to get better and that one's got to deal with jail and police and criminals all the time? So everybody's understanding, the Drug War's not protecting anybody.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Certainly in the U.S., you've got political gridlock on most issues. Is there any realistic chance of anything actually shifting on this issue in the next five years?

ETHAN NADELMANN: I'd say it's quite remarkable. I'm getting all these calls from journalists now who are saying to me, "Ethan, it seems like the only two issues advancing politically in America right now are marijuana law reform and gay marriage. What are you doing right?" And then you're looking at bipartisanship breaking out with, actually, Republicans in the Congress and state legislatures allowing bills to be enacted with majority Democratic support, so we've gone from being sort of the third rail, the most fearful issue of American politics, to becoming one of the most successful.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Ethan, thank you so much for coming to TEDGlobal.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Chris, thanks so much.



DEAN BECKER: I, too, want to thank Ethan Nadelmann for that great speech. He said very articulately what needs to be said.

CHEECH MARIN: This is America. You get to criticize the government in this country. You get to say I think these guys are ridiculous. It's guaranteed in the very first amendment to the constitution. It's what this country was founded on. You get to do that by being an American.

HOMER SIMPSON: I had a bad experience with drugs. It was that golden weekend between summer school and regular school.

UNKNOWN CARTOON VOICE: Hey Homer, want to smoke some marijuana?

HOMER SIMPSON: They say it's a gateway drug.

CARTOON COP: Well, well, if it isn't the Doobie Brothers.

UNKNOWN CARTOON VOICE: Uh oh, crotch the weed, man.

CARTOON COP: Smell any drugs, Sergeant Scraps?

HOMER SIMPSON: For me, the 60s ended that day in 1978.

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects. Yellow eyes, vomiting, black tarry stools, cloudy urine, fever with chills, sores, ulcers or white spots on lips and mouth, unusual bleeding. Time's up! The answer: another FDA-approved product, Acetaminophen.

DEAN BECKER: Last week, the Drug Policy Alliance held a teleconference with many of their partners and a question arose in regards to those kids who are suffering with addictive problems and sometimes suicidal hurt themselves, and why is not the Drug Policy Alliance more involved in seeking treatment. Here to speak about is Drug Policy Alliance's Jill Harris.

JILL HARRIS: I just want to respond to Susan's question about the role of DPA in kind of trying to get more resources for treatment. You know, when we do, we try to shift resources, when we're talking to stakeholders on the local level, on the state level, about reallocation of resources from prison, from criminal justice responses to a more health-based approach, treatment is always an important piece of that. And it's hard for us to, to be a huge part of our advocacy in some places because our calls for treatment a lot of times get turned into drug courts, or some other kind of system of coerced treatment, so we have to be really careful when we talk about treatment because sometimes it's, you know, as you know, it's not good, it's not helpful, it doesn't put anybody in a better position than they were before they went into it.

So it's something that we think about a lot. Our messaging has shifted because of that, from treatment instead of incarceration to removing drug policy from the criminal justice system. We used to say treatment instead of incarceration, treatment instead of incarceration, and when we did that, you know, unless we were like right on top of things, that treatment turned into treatment given through the criminal justice system as opposed to treatment that's in the community. It was coercive, it was tied to people giving up their civil rights in the context of a criminal case, and it just can be really problematic. So you know, it's complicated. We definitely support increased access to treatment that is non-coercive, and that is not based in the criminal justice system and that is part of our advocacy, for sure.

DEAN BECKER: Last week, Senator Rand Paul was a guest on Bill Maher's Real Time Program. Here's a little extract.

BILL MAHER: You said in 2000 the war on drugs is an abysmal failure, and a waste of money. You still on that page?

RAND PAUL: I'm absolutely there and I'll do everything to end the war on drugs. The war on drugs, the war on drugs has become the most racially disparate outcome that you have in the entire country. Our prisons are full of black and brown kids, three fourths of the people in prison are black or brown, and white kids are using drugs, Bill, as you know, are using drugs, are using drugs at the same rate as these other kids, but kids who have less means, less money, kids who are in areas where the police are patrolling, police are given monetary incentives to make arrests, monetary incentives for their own department. So I want to end the war on drugs because it's wrong for everybody, but particularly because poor people are caught up in this and their lives are ruined by it.

BILL MAHER: Music to my ears. Thank you Senator Paul, I think it's only a good thing for America.

DEAN BECKER: Some more big news is that Houston's police chief Charles McClelland will be joining us here on the Cultural Baggage show in another week. Here's what he had to say last time he was on air with us.

CHARLES MCLELLAND: If you're standing on the street corner smoking marijuana, or if you're riding down the street and marijuana smoke is billowing out of the windows of your car and you get stopped for a traffic violation and an officer smells marijuana odor, more than likely then you will be arrested. But if you're smoking marijuana in your bedroom and we have no knowledge of that, and no one is complaining about that, more than likely you're not going to be engaged by the police.

DEAN BECKER: What you have done here, sir, I commend you for, because I think it more important to speak to our national officials about the need to reexamine our drug war policies. Your response, chief.

CHARLES MCLELLAND: Well, I totally agree with you and you're exactly right. Although I am a police chief and a law enforcement officer, I also understand the dynamics. If you have a 20-year old African-American male, a minority male, and get arrested with a piece of crack cocaine, that is a felony. That person will go to Texas State Penitentiary for a number of years. Not long, but maybe two or three. But, that person is going to get out, and now you have a 23, 24 year old that is a convicted felon, that gets out that had probably dropped out of high school before he or she was arrested, and they're unemployable. They have no job skills, they're convicted felons, and they still have a substance abuse problem. They were not put through any type of rehabilitation. So what are we to do as a society with someone that's in their early 20s, with no job skills, that now has the title of convicted felon on their resume that still has a substance abuse problem?

DEAN BECKER: As you can hear, Chief McLelland understands much of the harms of this drug war, I can't wait for our next interview. I reached out to my brothers and sisters in Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the Drug Policy Forum of Texas and other organizations for questions. I've got about eight pages I've got to whittle down before the interview. It should be quite a discussion.

More big news: December 17th, 2014 will mark 100 years since the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Act. We're going to have rallies at court houses around this nation on that day at noon, going to invite attorneys and activists and citizens to join. We have several organizations standing in support of this effort, including Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Republicans Against Marijuana Prohibition, and others. So far we've got Oakland, Houston, Portland, Stillwater OK, Washington DC, San Antonio, and Austin on board. We're hoping you will join with us in this effort. Please visit EndProhibition.org or on facebook 100 Years Is Enough.

And as always, I remind you, because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful. For the Drug Truth Network this is Dean Becker, asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: The century of lies. The show produced at the Pacifica studios of KPFT Houston.