07/19/15 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

This week Doug McVay talks with Seattle attorney and NORML board member Jeff Steinborn about Washington's marijuana laws, plus President Obama speaks about sentencing reform at El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma.

Audio file


JULY 19, 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. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network and is supported through the generosity of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and of listeners like you. Now, on with the show.

On Tuesday, President Obama spoke to the annual conference of the NAACP, and he talked about the need for sentencing reform and criminal justice reform. A couple of days later, the President went to Oklahoma. He was there to announce a new initiative to provide free or low-cost high-speed internet access in public housing and reservation land. He also visited the El Reno Federal Correctional Institution, becoming the first US president to make a site visit to a federal prison. He made a brief statement, so ladies and gentlemen, the president of the United States:

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This is part of our effort to highlight both the challenges and opportunities that we face with respect to the criminal justice system. Many of you heard me speak on Tuesday in Philadelphia about the fact that the United States accounts for five percent of the world's population, we account for 25 percent of the world's inmates. And, that represents a huge surge since 1980.

A primary driver of this mass incarceration phenomenon is our drug laws, our mandatory minimum sentencing around drug laws, and we have to consider whether this is the smartest way for us to both control crime and rehabilitate individuals. This is costing taxpayers across America 80 billion dollars a year, and as I said on Tuesday, there are people who need to be in prison, and I don't have tolerance for violent criminals, many of them may have made mistakes but we need to keep our communities safe. On the other hand, when we're looking at nonviolent offenders, most of them growing up in environments in which drug traffic is common, where many of their family members may have been involved in the drug trade, we have to reconsider whether 20 year, 30 year, life sentences for nonviolent crimes is the best way for us to solve these problems.

Here at El Reno, there's some excellent work that's being done inside this facility to provide job training, college degrees, drug counseling. The question is not only how do we make sure that we sustain those programs here in the prison, but how do we make sure that those same kind of institutional supports are there for kids and teenagers before they get into the criminal justice system, and are there ways for us to divert young people who make mistakes early on in life so that they don't get into the system in the first place.

The good news is, is that we've got Democrats and Republicans who I think are starting to work together in Congress, and we're starting to see bipartisan efforts in state legislatures as well to start to re-examine some of these sentencing laws, to look at what kinds of work we can do in the community to keep kids out of the criminal justice system in the first place, how we can build on the successes for rehabilitation while individuals are incarcerated, and then what we will do to improve re-entry, brought forward.

I just had the chance to meet with six inmates, all of them in for drug offenses, many of them here for very long sentences, and every single one of them emphasized the fact that they understood they had done something wrong, they are prepared to take responsibility for it, but they also urged us to think about how could society have reached them earlier on in life, to keep them out of trouble. They expressed huge appreciation for the educational opportunities and drug counseling they get here in prison, and they expressed some fear and concern about how difficult the transition was going to be.

So, we've got an opportunity to make a difference at a time when overall violent crime rates have been dropping, at the same time as incarcerations last year dropped for the first time in 40 years. My hope is that, if we can keep on looking at the evidence, keep on looking at the facts, figure out what works, that we can start making a change that will save taxpayers money, keep our streets safe, and perhaps most importantly, keep families intact and break this cycle in which young people, particularly young people of color, are so prone to end up in a criminal justice system that makes it harder for them to ever get a job and ever be effective, full citizens of this country.

So I want to express appreciation to everybody who helped make this happen. I want to give a special shout-out to our prison guards. They’ve got a really tough job, and most of them are doing it in exemplary fashion. One of the things that we talked about is how we can continue to improve conditions in prisons. This is an outstanding institution within the system, and yet, they’ve got enormous overcrowding issues. I just took a look in a cell where, because of overcrowding, typically we might have three people housed in a cell that looks to be, what, 15 by --




THE PRESIDENT: Nine by ten -- three, whole-grown men in a 9-by-10 cell. There’s been some improvement -- now we have two. But overcrowding like that is something that has to be addressed. As I said the other day, gang activity, sexual assault inside of these prisons -- those are all things that have to be addressed. And so we’re also going to be consulting with prison guards, wardens and others to see how we can make some critical reforms.

A lot of this, though, is going to have to happen at the state level, so my goal is that we start seeing some improvements at the federal level, and that we’re then able to see states across the country pick up the baton. And there are already some states that are leading the way on both sentencing reform as well as prison reform. We want to make sure that we’re seeing what works and build off that.

All right? Thanks, everybody.

REPORTER: Mr. President, what struck you most about seeing the prison here today?


REPORTER: What struck you most about seeing this prison here today?

PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know, visiting with these six individuals. And I’ve said this before -- that when they describe their youth and their childhood, these are young people who made mistakes that aren’t that different than the mistakes I made and the mistakes that a lot of you guys made. The difference is they did not have the kinds of support structures, the second chances, the resources that would allow them to survive those mistakes.

And, you know, I think we have a tendency sometimes to almost take for granted or think it’s normal that so many young people end up in our criminal justice system. It’s not normal. It’s not what happens in other countries.

What is normal is teenagers doing stupid things. What is normal is young people making mistakes. And we’ve got to be able to distinguish between dangerous individuals who need to be incapacitated and incarcerated versus young people who are in an environment in which they are adapting but if given different opportunities, a different vision of life, could be thriving the way we are.

That’s what strikes me -- there but for the grace of God. And that I think is something that we all have to think about. All right? Thanks.

DOUG MCVAY: That again was President Obama, speaking at the El Reno federal prison in Oklahoma. That audio comes to us again courtesy of the White House press office. You know, we still have a very long way to go, but it does feel good to know that someone in power seems to actually be paying attention.

Indeed, the US House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held two days of hearings this week on the need for criminal justice reform. We won't have enough time today to hear any of that, but the hearing videos are available through the committee website, and maybe we'll have some time next week.

Meanwhile, in other news: Marijuana legalization in one form or another is being discussed around the nation. Four states and the District of Columbia have passed laws through the initiative process to allow limited legal possession of marijuana, and all but one of those states allows limited legal cultivation by adults in private.

The prohibitionists failed to stop these measures from passing, but they have not given up. A group out of Washington State has filed lawsuits against legal marijuana businesses in the state of Colorado under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, otherwise known as RICO. The suits actually name not only marijuana businesses, they're also going after other businesses, such as banks and bonding companies, that work with these marijuana businesses.

The organization that's filed these suits is called the Safe Streets Alliance. That's a deceptive name, they're not concerned with safe streets, or violent crime, crime of any kind really, they're simply an anti-marijuana group, but I digress. These RICO suits have not yet gone to trial, but one of the marijuana businesses they targeted has already shut down because they could no longer do business.

That's really the point of these suits, they're not about the individual businesses, they're not really interested in getting a judgment for money, they're an attempt to shut down the industry. I'm not an attorney, but I can see how the strategy could work: Force businesses which are already cash-strapped to spend money on attorneys and court fees, pressure other people and companies to stop providing services to those businesses, and then try to force the industry to fold. It's an insidious plan.

Recently I spoke with a friend of mine, attorney Jeff Steinborn from Seattle, Washington. I wanted to find out what's going on with the marijuana laws up there in Washington state. The legislature in Washington passed a law that was signed by the governor which more or less cripples that state's medical marijuana program by shutting down medical dispensaries in the state. The adult use law, established when voters approved I-502 back in 2012, remains in place, and the concern is that patients are being forced out of medical and into the adult use program which is much more costly. As Jeff's an attorney, I also asked him to take a look at these RICO suits and tell me what he thought. Here's that conversation:

I'm speaking now with Jeffrey Steinborn, he's a criminal defense attorney in the state of Washington. I have known Jeff for a very long time, he's one of the best in the business. Jeff, I want to find out from you what's happening up in Washington state. I'd also like to know if you've seen this RICO suit that a group up there in Washington -- well, I say a group, a nonprofit that's run by James Wooten, an old Republican Justice Department guy -- called the Safe Streets Alliance. They've filed two RICO suits against businesses in the state of Colorado. Basically they're looking to shut down, they're looking to shut down legal pot in Colorado. What do you think, have you taken a look at the suit? What do you think about it?

JEFF STEINBORN: I haven't read the complaint yet but I took a quick look at it and, you know, while I don't admire their motives so much, their ingenuity is pretty sharp and they're, this legal theory may have some legs. Now, it's not for me to say, but I, there's a possibility that it's a real cause of action, and they might succeed in bringing these businesses into court and possibly shutting them down.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, and whether they, whether it's a legitimate thing or not, if they can get it heard in court, it's going to cost people money and it's going to scare a lot of the businesses who were doing business with those folks in the industry. So --

JEFF STEINBORN: Sure. Yeah, that's right, you've got to hire a lawyer, and you're probably not going to get attorney's fees, even if you prevail, so you're, figure it's another expense in an industry in Washington that's already burdened with a lot of expenses, making it hard to participate.

DOUG MCVAY: And if they did win, it's triple damages, do I remember that right, with a civil RICO suit?

JEFF STEINBORN: That might be right, you know I didn't look at it carefully but there is a civil RICO where you get the triple damages, yeah, although what are your damages in that situation? How do you quantify? You know, they might get a dollar in damages as a judgment or something. I don't know what their damages would be, how they would treat them.

DOUG MCVAY: So now, what is happening up there in Washington? I know that there's a, they've changed the law entirely, and there is an effort I know to try and resist some of those changes. But, for the -- I'm next door in Oregon and I'm having trouble keeping track.

JEFF STEINBORN: Well, I wish I were able to keep track of all the complex changes that have taken place in Washington law, it changes every day, and also includes legislation involving native Americans growing marijuana. But currently what's happened is, as we predicted a couple of years ago, when we, some of us became unpopular by opposing I-502, as we predicted, it's not working very well, even the most successful business people are having trouble making money. And it's producing pot that's very expensive, and that's out of reach of patients.

And the other thing we predicted was that in order to make 502 work, they'd have to shut down the dispensaries that have proliferated in Washington. You know, we have hundreds of dispensaries, most of them illegal, and most of them fairly good at self-regulation, and we've had real good access to cannabis for several years now at great prices, you know, prices that reflect how easy it is to grow.

And, they're all going to be shut down, according to the state, because they are, the 502 licensed stores can't compete with them. So they just, the letters just went out a few days ago, they're starting, they've given letters to a number of dispensaries in King County, telling them they've got to shut down, and we don't know what's going to happen. We really don't know. This law, the new law takes effect over the course of a year or so, and it's got a registry, it's got very, very little push for patients, it's got very, very limited quantities a patient can possess or grow, and we think essentially what's happened is that the patients have been cut out of the transaction because the state needs the revenue, and the only way they can get the revenue is if retail stores are selling all the pot.

So, we're kind of in turmoil here. A number of people have talked about bringing it down, I among them. I really -- you know, the only good part about this law in Washington is that they've stopped arresting people. They've gone from 7,000 arrests a year to a couple hundred, and that's fantastic. There's also, in Washington, it was inevitable, the state was tired of arresting pot smokers. The rest of that law just doesn't work very well at all, so some of us are discussing a lawsuit that might bring down the entire structure of I-502, and the only thing that wouldn't come down would be the criminal penalties have been removed, and they won't be replaced if we successfully defeat I-502.

And of course, the state -- this is the way liquor was legalized in Washington, a one-paragraph initiative, it just said no more criminal penalties, and then the government was given the task of figuring out regulations, which they did. And I think this law's bad enough that it should be maybe torn down, and leaving in place only the freedom from arrest, and force the state to start again and give us a better law. And you know, this RICO lawsuit might be the way to go, I haven't studied it carefully, but it might be the way to go.

DOUG MCVAY: Wow. Now, so, Washington, DC, on the other side of the country, passed its law. They were prevented from creating a regulatory system, instead they have, they've simply legalized personal possession and cultivation. Do you think that's ultimately a better model?

JEFF STEINBORN: Well, you know, I don't know the details of the Washington, DC, but yeah. You know, if you have a decent marijuana law that just allows people to use it and grow it, you don't need to make an exception for medical. And you know, people will say, well, jeez, it's the wild wild west out there in Washington, but guess what? You know, we've had probably a decade of these essentially unsupervised dispensaries, and the world hasn't stopped spinning. You know? Traffic accidents have gone down, drug, you know, opiate deaths have gone down, the rate of use among students hasn't gone up. People seem to think this stuff has to be regulated like plutonium, well, we've got about a ten-year record here that shows that it doesn't.

And so, yeah, you know, it might be a good idea, tear it down and start over. And don't be surprised if you hear something like that coming out of the state of Washington real soon.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, it's an interesting -- I'm looking, I'll keep track, I'll keep watch, I mean, Oregon's law, of course, is only just getting started. We've got personal use and cultivation now that's become legal as of July First, on October First, the dispensaries around the state will be able to sell to anyone over the age of 21. And, now, I don't know if you caught any of the testimony when they were discussing these bills, but, one of the recurring themes from that was that very -- according to the industry folks down here, very few of the dispensaries here in Oregon are making any money. A lot of them are struggling to try and get by. How anybody -- I used to wonder how anybody could go broke selling weed, but my gosh.

JEFF STEINBORN: Well, I'm hearing that up here, too. I mean, it depends on who you ask, but, there's a lot of competition. A whole lot of competition, so the prices had to go down, you know. Good old capitalism, free enterprise, so where supply meets demand, that's where the price is, unless you get a monopoly. And, there's a lot of competition, but I have heard, and I don't know if it's true, that even some of the more successful I-502 licensed stores were having trouble making ends meet.

Now, the growers are doing okeh, I understand, but the stores are really having a hard time, right? I don't have any hard data on that, but I've heard it, you know I heard that the number two guy in the state wasn't making it and wanted to unload his business, someone told me the other day. There's money to be made, but, you know, if you let the rich people monopolize it, then they're, they're going to raise the price so high that the old black market will come back.

I mean, there are literally hundreds and hundreds of people, maybe thousands, in the state of Washington who are growing pot and giving it, selling it to dispensaries. And when they close, when the dispensaries close down, those growers, they're not going to stop. They're having too much fun and they're making money, it's a living. So, you know, does law enforcement have the heart to start going from door to door, kicking down doors for marijuana grows? I'm not sure they do. So, the original question was, what's happening in Washington? Man, the guy who can figure that out and explain it should get some kind of award. It's a very, very confusing situation here in Washington.

DOUG MCVAY: Where do you think we're going to end up in another few years? I mean, I don't even want to speculate about who will be the president at that point, and what kind of Justice Department we're going to have.

JEFF STEINBORN: Well, you know, where I'd like to be and where I think we'll be are two different things. Personally, I don't see any reason why cannabis needs to be regulated any more strictly than vegetables. Certainly not more strictly than alcohol or tobacco. And if you just have an open market for it, you know, supply and demand, the competition, you'll -- I believe in capitalism, if it's regulated, you'll get, the consumers will demand what they want and producers will have to give it to them and the price will become reasonable.

You'll have to meet the medical need as well. I think that's the simplest way, and of course the bottom line of that is, people have got to be able to grow their own pot. Now that people have learned how easy it is, you know, people need to grow their own pot. That's what breaks the back of the monopoly, if nothing else. And then, as we start, if we do tear it down and we start over with some new regs, we've got to look at regs that don't favor the wealthy. I mean, you look at what it takes to get started up in the pot business in Washington legally, you've got to have a lot of dough, and what the experience has been is that not only do you have to have a lot of dough, but you've got to be able to go for quite a while with that money invested before any money comes back at you.

And so, you know, the underfunded and the not so wealthy are falling by the wayside, and the highrollers are taking over the business. That's monopoly, and that's when prices go up. So, that's what I think's going to happen, is that monopoly's going to take over. What I hope is going to happen is that the people are going to able to keep control of this industry, and it's going to keep from, it's going to stay a cottage industry, stay in a, you know, form where people can afford it and get access. Hopefully. I'm dreaming, I know.

DOUG MCVAY: Ah, they may say you're a dreamer, but you're not the only one. I'm not going to go on with that or else I'll start singing, and then I'll probably owe somebody money and that would just be bad.

JEFF STEINBORN: Ah, we didn't publish it.

DOUG MCVAY: All right. Hey, Jeff, any last thoughts for the listeners?

JEFF STEINBORN: Ah, I've got millions. No, I've said enough. I think I've made my position clear. I guess it's this: liberty's always unfinished business, and so it is with marijuana. Just because legalization seems to be inevitable and is sweeping across the country doesn't mean that the work is done. We want to make sure that legalization gets done right, like you said, would be my final thoughts.

DOUG MCVAY: Liberty is always unfinished business. I mentioned before that you are brilliant, that just says it all.

JEFF STEINBORN: Oh, that's not my quote, that's not my quote, Doug.

DOUG MCVAY: Ah, well, then you've got a good memory, I haven't heard it before. I'll give you credit for it.

JEFF STEINBORN: You know, liberty, eternal vigilance is the price of liberty?

DOUG MCVAY: Oh yes, I remember him.

JEFF STEINBORN: That's the original, and then I think the ACLU said it next, liberty's always unfinished business. That's so true, because, you know, there's always somebody out there wants to take away your freedom, for your own good.

DOUG MCVAY: I've been speaking with Jeff Steinborn, a criminal defense attorney up in Seattle, Washington. Jeff, thank you so very much.

JEFF STEINBORN: The pleasure is mine. Thank you, bye bye.

DOUG MCVAY: That was an interview I had with Jeffrey Steinborn, an attorney in Seattle, Washington. Jeff also currently serves on the board of directors of national NORML.

I hope to see Jeff next month at Seattle Hempfest, along with thousands of other folks. Hempfest is scheduled for August 14th, 15th, and 16th this year. It's the world's largest marijuana legalization and drug policy reform protestival. Once again this year the event will be held along Seattle's waterfront and spans three parks: Centennial Park, which is the North Entrance, Myrtle Edwards Park, which is the Central Entrance, and Olympic Sculpture Park, which is the South Entrance. Information about the festival is available at their website, HempFest.org. I hope to see you there.

And that's all the time we really have today. Thank you for listening. This is Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

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We'll be back next week with more news and commentary on the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

DEAN BECKER: For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker, 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.