07/26/09 - Paul Armentano

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Paul Armentano of NORML & co-author "Marijuana is Safer, So Whey are We Driving People to Drink" + Eric Sterling, president of Criminal Justice Policy Foundation

Audio file

Cultural Baggage, July 26, 2009

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

It's not only inhumane it is really fundamentally Un-American... "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR" "NO MORE" "DRUG WAR"

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.

Welcome to this first full hour of the Drug Truth Network programming in more than six years. This is the Cultural Baggage show. It’s going to be followed immediately here at the mother ship station by the Century of Lies show with a brand new feature: Face the Inquisition.

Our guest in this half hour and next will be Mr. Paul Armentano, director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. He is co-author of a great new book along with Steve Fox and Mason Devert. The title: Marijuana is Safer So Why are we Driving People to Drink? This book is causing quite a stir, a lot of op-eds and editorials about it across the country.

First off, though, we are going to tune in to our good friend, Mr. Eric Sterling. He is based there in Washington DC. We are going to get his analysis of what’s currently going on and then we’ll be back to talk with Mr. Paul Armentano.

Dean Becker: We are speaking with Mr. Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. I want to alert the listeners out there that many of us drug reformers listen very closely to Mr. Sterling.

He was there working for Congressman Peter Rodino when they crafted these modern mandatory minimum laws and he does indeed have his finger on the pulse of what is going on there in DC. Eric, you have over the years managed to be very accurate in your interpretation of things. Do you think there is an event horizon, something that can help break the back of this policy overall?

Eric Sterling: There are enormous opportunities for change right now. The public knows that our strategies have not succeeded. The public is very concerned about cuts in many services because of the recession. The opportunity to save money by not locking up non-violent drug offenders, the opportunity to stop – to save money by no longer arresting marijuana users – the opportunity to generate government revenue by taxing and regulating marijuana, and perhaps other drugs, may be a very powerful opportunity for change.

The way I have been putting it to people is this: Which do you want? Police officers on the beat or do you still want to lock up adults who use marijuana? Do you want to close down public schools or fire school teachers or do you still want to lock up adults who use marijuana? Do you really think that is more important you’re your public schools? Do you think that is more important than an ambulance service? Do you think that is more important than fixing the potholes?

When you put marijuana laws up against vital programs that are now being cut, the lack of value that marijuana prohibition has is very clear. It’s easy to understand. I think in the case of other drugs, the case is still harder to make.

There needs to be much more work by our movement in building a grass roots that feels comfortable making these arguments to city councils and to state legislatures. It is also clear that there is a very different tone coming out of the US Department of Justice. The attorney general recently gave a speech at the Veer Institute where he stressed the importance of evidence based research for making policy and particularly policy in the justice department.

The justice department has invited for the first time in my memory in over thirty years public interest organizations, judges, well-respected criminologists and other scholars to speak to senior department officials about policy making. There is a major policy making review taking place in the justice department right now.

I stressed, for example, that United States attorneys should not be allowed to argue criminological falsehoods and say that simply locking up more people is what is reducing violent crime. Those kinds of non-causal associations that some prosecutors make is not supported by the scientific research that has been done and federal officials should not be able to make those kinds of claims and the justice department has a duty to educate US attorneys and assistant US attorneys about what works in sentencing so that their representations to the court are not simply prejudiced but represent what the research shows.

This would have an enormous impact in what prosecutors ask for. It would have an enormous effect on what the department of justice would ask for in the revision of sentencing guidelines and potentially could have a big impact on changes in federal sentencing practice.

I have argued that the justice department in the drug area should close down most of the local DEA offices because the federal government should not be doing state and local drug cases. You will often hear US attorneys saying we are good partners with state and local law enforcement because they are part of a task force breaking down the door of the neighborhood crack house and prosecuting the local drug dealer in federal court where there are long mandatory sentences.

I think that the role of the justice department now should be almost exclusively on international drug traffickers as far as drug cases go. The biggest drug dealer in Texas can be properly investigated in Texas and punished in the Texas prisons and you don’t need Uncle Sam to do it. The challenge for federal drug enforcement is to go after the international criminal organizations that do money laundering, that have the power to assassinate and bribe at a historically unprecedented level.

Those are the appropriate targets and every marijuana dispensary in California, every marijuana grower operating in some part of the United States is not a federal level case any longer. There needs to be a very, very important change in how case selection policy is determined by the justice department.

I can tell you that these ideas are being thought about in a way that never was the case before and this is still a long way from the kind of fundamental reform that many critics of our drug policy know is necessary but these would be very important steps in a more progressive direction.

Dean Becker: OK. Once again, we are speaking with Mr. Eric Sterling, president of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Their website: cjpf.org.

Alright, hope you will excuse the cough there, but once again his website: cjpf.org. Criminal Justice Policy Foundation. Wise words from Mr. Eric Sterling.

Alright now, the drug war has gone about as far as it can go. I think it is winding down. It is waiting on you to throw some dirt on it, but let’s go ahead and bring in our guest. Mr. Paul Armentano. Are you with us, sir?

Paul Armentano: Yes, I am here, Dean.

Dean Becker: Paul, thank you so much for being part of this first one hour edition for the Drug Truth Network. We thank you so much. I just finished your book today and I want to tell you something. I want to pat you on the back and Steve and Mason. You guys have put forward a very informative, very useful tool. You slap this thing around pretty good and I want to thank you, sir. You have done a great job.

Paul Armentano: Thank you, Dean. You know the book is actually officially has its release date some time next week and I believe it’s going to start shipping from Amazon and online distributors like that by about the middle of August and it should be in most major bookstores by the middle to the end of August. I certainly encourage people who have an interest in this issue to pick this up.

We like to say that, you know, if you are someone who currently does not believe that marijuana is in fact safer than alcohol, then this book is going to change the way you think about marijuana but if you already are someone who actually is a proponent of marijuana law reform, and actually does think, in fact that marijuana is safer than alcohol, then you should also read this book because it’s going to change the way you talk about marijuana.

Dean Becker: Exactly, I mean, there are is so – there’s just such a host of statistics and information and phraseology, in fact - some ways to present thoughts, ways to deal with your family, your neighbors, your politicians. It helps in each of those regards, right?

Paul Armentano: Sure, sure. We wrote this book both to inform and educate but also we wanted this book to be a tool. We wanted to give people the information, also the confidence, to be able to take what they have learned and spread this message – to begin the discussion with their friends and families and neighbors and talk to their local council people, talk to their local politicians, talk to individuals in their neighborhood and begin this discussion.

We understand that not everyone you talk to is going to be persuaded right away but we need to begin this dialogue because once people begin talking about alcohol and the ramifications of alcohol, not just on the user, but on society as a whole and then they begin to contrast those ramifications with the effects of marijuana, it just becomes a natural conclusion that people with recognize that our current policy doesn’t make any sense. Why are we criminally punishing and stigmatizing individuals who make the rational choice to use the intoxicant that is safer for them and society as a whole than alcohol?

Dean Becker: This is just so obvious, I think, to most folks. I mean, it’s becoming more glaringly obvious to, I would think, the majority of Americans are beginning to realize that we don’t have to believe what we have always believed if the evidence tells us otherwise, right?

Paul Armentano: Well, the irony is for so long, I believe one of the things that have held marijuana law reform back is the fact that most Americans have first hand or second hand experience with the negative ramifications of alcohol. We are aware of all the damage that alcohol poses to the user and poses to society so they inadvertently think, well, why would I want to change the marijuana laws? Why would I want to potentially give people another vice – give people exposure to another intoxicant when we know alcohol already creates all of these problems?

But, the thing is, they are looking at the issue the wrong way. They are assuming, falsely, as we point out in our book, that marijuana carries the same dangers or more dangers than alcohol when the reality is if we were to change our laws and change our policies and people had the legal option to choose marijuana over alcohol, those that would be choosing marijuana would actually be choosing a much safer substance than alcohol. We believe the long term cost benefits of the user and to society as whole would be quite impactful if people had that legal alternative.

Dean Becker: Now, once again, we are speaking with Mr. Paul Armentano, the national Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Paul, the major media has become aware of this book and it’s starting to get some coverage in the print media, certainly, right?

Paul Armentano: Yeah, we are pleased that actually this past week on Thursday, Reuters, which is, people know, an international news wire – one of their prominent columnists penned a column called by Driven to Drink by Marijuana Laws where he very prominently talks about our book. He was inspired to write the column by the message of our book and he really hits upon, you know, one of the core points that we make in this book.

It’s not only that by any objective standards marijuana is safer to the user than the consumption of alcohol, but he also hits a very important secondary point where he asks, are we bringing more negative results on our society, are we encouraging more violence, for instance, in our society by steering and coercing individuals toward alcohol and away from marijuana? Which is a very valid question to ask and it’s a dialogue we should have in this country.

Dean Becker: Well, Paul, it is so often true that, you know, somebody gets arrested for a minor amount of marijuana, they might lose their driving privileges, their federal college aid would be yanked out from under them, their – they can even have their personal property taken, revocation of any professional licenses and welfare benefits – the ramifications just go on down the line – how it can impact their life, actually, right?

Paul Armentano: Oh, most certainly. You know, every state puts a different twist on this but, for instance, you know, in the state of Massachusetts, an individual loses the ability to adopt a child if they have a simple marijuana possession arrest on their record. You know, under federal law, an individual can lose their student aid for a marijuana conviction. They can be evicted from section 8 housing for a marijuana conviction. They can lose their food stamp benefits for a marijuana conviction.

These are penalties, we like to say this over and over again, that don’t apply to other crimes. You could be convicted of a violent crime, of a felony, and you are not going to find the same sort of ramifications that you find in this society for simply being convicted of simple marijuana possession.

You know you could commit armed robbery and not lose your federal student aid, but god forbid that a person convicted of a marijuana possession offense – they could potentially lose their student aid for life. It just doesn’t make any sense.

Dean Becker: Alright, folks, once again, we are speaking with Mr.Paul Armentano of NORML. Paul, not next month, but in late September, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws is going to hold their conference. Can you give us kind of an outline of what to expect there?

Paul Armentano: Sure, we are holding our 38th annual conference at the Grand Hyatt Hotel, downtown San Francisco. The dates of the conference are September 24th to the 26th. That is a Thursday, Friday and Saturday. We would encourage anyone who has interest in this issue, or even the broader drug law reform issue, to attend this year’s conference.

As Eric Sterling, your previous guest mentioned, we have really reached a tipping point, not with just public support for changing these laws, but one of the things I really have been noticing over the last few months is that we have even seen, you know, commercial businesses like Apple, and like others - Subway, for instance, also sort of joining forces with this sort of marijuana culture. There is now this merging with cannabis and commerce that in my mind really mainstreams this issue. That is one of the topics that we are going to be discussing at our conference.

We have got a great list of speakers. Rick Spees, the PBS travel host and noted author is going to be speaking. Norm Stamper from LEAP, who I know you are very familiar with, Dean. He wrote the forward to our book. He is going to speaking. Ethan Nadelmann from the Drug Policy Alliance is going to be there.

We have got a number of noted athletes talking about the notion of cannabis and athleticism. Two time Super Bowl champion Mark Stepnoski is expected to be there. Rob Van Damme is expected to be there. You know, we really have a terrific line up and a line up that I think represents the maturity of this issue and how main stream this issue has really become.

Assemblyman Tom Amiano from California, the sponsor of assembly bill 390 which seeks to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol is going to be on hand. City councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan who was behind the recent Oakland initiative to tax the sale of medical marijuana is going to be speaking. It’s really going to be a terrific event.

Dean Becker: Well, I want to jump on that thought there – the new bill in Oakland to tax. I actually had an interview with Richard Lee, the founder of Oaksfordam University, the owner of the Blue Sky Coffee Shop out there. He will be featured on tomorrow’s 420 report, as well, talking about the progress out there in California.

Paul, I want to kind of stop and just analyze this, if you will, this one thought with me. We are at that turning point that you speak of. Whether reformers are brand new, just learning or if they are old and jaded and almost gone, it’s time to step up and do your part. You have a large portion of your book which talks about the efforts, the things that people can do to edge this thing forward, right?

Paul Armentano: Yes, we do. In fact, the final third of book, we give people the tools that they need to go forward and spread this message effectively.

Dean Becker: OK. Paul, let’s see. I want to alert the listeners out there I hope the buffer is working on the server and people are able to hear us around the country. At the bottom of the hour, we are going to take your calls – please don’t call now – but, our number, toll free, is 1 877 9 420 420. Locally you can call us – 713 526 5738, but again, don’t call now. At the bottom of the hour we will be taking your calls.

Once again, we are speaking with Mr. Paul Armentano, co-author of Marijuana is Safer, So Why Are We Driving People to Drink. I want to throw my two cents into this, Paul. Twenty four years and a few months ago, I quit drinking. Prior to that time, I was in car wrecks, I was in fights, I was an abuser – I was just not a good person, I will be honest with you. But, since that point in time, I occasionally smoke a little bit of cannabis, I’ll admit it, once again on the airwaves and since that point in time, I have not had one accident, one fight, not any problems, but the government would prefer that I do alcohol. It’s kind of a misguided thought on their part, isn’t it?

Paul Armentano: You know it most certainly is. One thing I want to stress, and we talk about this in the book, you know, I am sure there will be some people listening and if they are not really familiar with this issue, you know, they will be incredulous, they’ll be suspicious of this concept, they’ll say, how can marijuana be safer than alcohol, after all, marijuana is illegal.

You know, one point I want to stress is that a number of federal and independent scientific bodies have actually assessed this issue, just like we did and they tried to quantify the adverse impact to society as a whole that alcohol poses and they tried to compare that impact with the impact of marijuana use on a society.

Whether it’s the World Health Organization, whether it’s the Canadian Special Clinic Committee, whether it’s the Beckley Foundation in the UK, whether it’s the prestigious medical journal, the Lancet – these all draw the same conclusions that we did – that, in fact, the use of marijuana by adults is far safer to the user and to society as a whole than alcohol. So, we are actually not saying anything that health experts haven’t been saying for decades. I just believe that we are saying it in a way that a much larger audience is going to hear than this message has been spread in the past.

Dean Becker: I want to inquire upon to you to elaborate a point you touched on there. It’s kind of the reverse of what I am fixing to say here. Just this week, the drug czar was saying, marijuana has no medical value. They are never going to legalize it. But the truth be told, there are, you would know, Paul, how many professional medical organizations have come out in favor of medical marijuana?

Paul Armentano: You know there’s dozens. Just to name a few: you know, the American Nurses Association, several years ago passed a resolution saying they supported a patient’s right to have therapeutic access to medical cannabis. The American Public Health Association, going back more than a decade now, has been in favor of the medical use of marijuana. The New England Journal of Medicine opined in the early 1990s for congress to move expeditiously to pass legislation to allow physicians to prescribe marijuana in a manner no differently than they currently prescribe literally thousands of opiate based and narcotic based drugs.

So, you know, I was one of many individuals that were terribly disappointed and frustrated when the drug czar – speaking in California, a state that it is estimated that has about 300 patients using marijuana under their doctor’s supervision, right now. He actually was speaking in California when he made this statement.

I understand that the drug czar may not be up to date on all of the current science. But, you know, at this point, to make a statement like that, he is simply denying reality. There are 13 states currently that allow for the physician supervised use of medical marijuana and a paper just came out in a scientific journal this past weekend that estimates that there are presently approximately 7,200 physicians in this country that are currently recommending the use of medical marijuana to about 400,000 patients. So, for the drug czar to claim at this time that marijuana has no medical value – that is like declaring that the earth is flat.

Dean Becker: Alright. Yeah, it is, Paul. I don’t have the chart or whatever you call it with me here, but I did read up the other day and the drug czar is actually paid and required by his contract to lie – to deny and repulse any talk of legalization or changing these laws. It’s preposterous.

Paul Armentano: Yes, that’s true and, you know, I am pleased that people, the general public at large is becoming more and more aware of that. You know, in some respects, he has no choice.

He is almost forced by law to make these sort of asinine statements, but yet, the reality is there a prohibition in the federal law that says that anyone occupying that position of drug czar, as director of the office of national drug control policy, they must at no point make statements that could encourage any sort of research on medical marijuana, any sort of assessment on the drug war itself. They cannot be critical of our current polcies. So, they literally have to deny the reality in front of them that hold position.

Dean Becker: Whew, boy yeah. It’s just something. It really is. Folks, we are speaking with Mr. Paul Aremntano. Paul, we have got about thirty seconds here before we are going to take our break and when we do you go get you a cup of coffee or something.

We are going to come back in just a few minutes and take calls for Mr. Paul Armentano, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. Paul, and when we do, well, here. I want to get your quick thought. There is a patent that has been put forward or approved for, is it Health and Human Services, for the use of marijuana for medical purposes?

Paul Armentano: Actually, it’s more significant than that. Yes, you are correct that HHS, US Department of Health and Human Services has a patent on the natural occurring compound in marijuana that. There are plenty of individuals, plenty of private entities have patents on synthetic forms the compounds in marijuana. The US government actually hold the patent on the naturally occurring cannabinoids in marijuana.

Now, compare that to the same government says that as defined by federal law, marijuana has no medical efficacy whatsoever. At the same time that same government poses an intellectual patent on the medical use of marijuana. Once again hypocrisy is abounding.

Dean Becker: It is indeed. Paul, we’ll be back with you here in just a couple of minutes. We are going to take our break. It’s time to Name That Drug!

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