12/11/11 John Walters

Century of Lies

John Walters, former drug czar at debate at Brown Univ

Audio file


Century of Lies / December 11, 2011


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.


DEAN BECKER: Hi. This is Dean Becker and you’re listening to Century of Lies. Last week we had Glenn Greenwald speaking at Brown University in favor of ending the War on Drugs. I promised you that you would hear from the former Drug Czar, John Walters and here he is. Long-winded son-of-a-snitch. We might get it all in.


JOHN WALTERS: I do believe that we ought to begin with some empirical data. I do think that’s important. And I think the arguments about the consequences and the history and what’s doable and what things cost us are important in making policy.

Let me start with Portugal. There are a number of statements being made now about Portugal as a model and what’s happened in Portugal. Let me quote David Rains from the BBC report where Mr. Rains is the UK National Prevention Alliance Executive Councilor.

Some of this data is hard to collect on things. We have some problems on checking on rates of change. We are looking at, in some cases, rates of change in social phenomenon that are difficult to get current, real-time data.

The data that he reports on Portugal is slightly different than what you just heard. The number of new cases of HIV and Hepatitis C in Portugal is 8 times the average in other EU countries now. Portugal has the most cases of injectable-related AIDS with 85 new cases per million citizens. Other EU countries average 5 per million.

Since decriminalization drug-related homicides have increased 40%. Drug overdoses have increased substantially by over 30% in 2005. There has been an increase of 45% postmortem testing positive for illegal drugs. Amphetamine, cocaine consumption has doubled in Portugal as have cocaine seizures which have increased 7-fold between 2001 and 2006.

I don’t want to leave that a “he said – she said” report or data because I think that’s unnecessarily confusing. One of the burdens that I think is important to those who want to legalize is to think about and argue about is what’s happened in other places because now Portugal is being given as an example but some of you are old enough in this audience that if we were talking about this 5-10 years ago it would have been the Netherlands. It would have been Amsterdam.

Why aren’t we talking about Amsterdam? Because Amsterdam has recriminalized it. Now 71% of their municipalities then when I was in office are now trying to shut down those famous coffee shops. I worked extensively with both the Health and the Justice Minister because the problem of addiction and the collateral problems in society were growing.

In fact what we now know is something we didn’t know when I was your age and that is that substance abuse is a disease. We now have, as you probably have seen, various health classes as you grew up the capacity to image the brain and we can show you the difference in the parts of the brain that are actually affected by substance abuse which also include alcohol as well as what we usually refer to as illegal drugs.

We can see the movement from a use where euphoria is the principle affect. There isn’t the kind of craving. There isn’t the kind of impairment of judgment. There isn’t the kind of changes that result in dependency. Then, as use goes on, these affects, which vary from person to person - We now know that some of these factors are probably inherited. We now know that factors may have to do with combinations of circumstances and biochemical measures – people become dependent.

The first speaker mentioned that many of you have experience with drugs. Most people, and I agree with him, have had experiences in their families with alcoholism and substance abuse. They know people whose lives changed – who became different. Who are different, in some cases, today. Although, of course, millions of Americans who are in recovery.

We can treat this disease. It’s still in the realm of, “Well this is really a moral failing.” or “This is something we should be ashamed of.” or “This is something we can’t face directly.”

But people get clean and sober because people help them confront this disease. Because we know and you know, if you have experience with this, that one of maybe the most pernicious parts of this disease is denial.

So you are going to go home for Thanksgiving and you’re going to have dinner and you are going to have a family member there who is not in recovery and needs to be. If you tell them -and even use some of their behavior to indicate that maybe they’re drinking too much or maybe they’re lives are out of control because of substance abuse – this is not the kind of disease where they’re going to say thank you.

“Gee, I didn’t realize I had a rash” or “I had high blood pressure.” or “I had diabetes.” They are not going to go willingly and seek treatment. They are going to get angry. They are going to push you away. You have to do it anyway because everybody that I’ve met that’s been successfully in recovery got there partly with a push on their back from somebody in the family, somebody in the community, sometimes even law enforcement (I’ll get to that).

In fact, the substance abuse problem now we understand much more in health terms and what was described earlier is a cartoon of what might have been possibly, if you squinted your eyes, true a while back, in some regards. But it is not true today.

Today there’s been a revolution and your generation will make that revolution complete, I believe. In fact, the substance abuse problem – I brought a couple of things to “not say data” but to show you trends – has been the most pliable in terms of social problems in regards to efforts to change the direction of it in various ways.

If you compare it to things like out-of-wedlock births or compare it to childhood poverty or you compare it areas of crime – substance abuse has gone up and down quite dramatically by societal influences both those in the criminal justice system but those in education and those in health care.

These three slides - originally this data was prepared by the Robert Wood Johnson foundation – show per capita consumption of cigarettes, drugs (cocaine and marijuana) and per capita consumption of alcohol. It shows you also something about this phenomenon.

The consumption and the base of consumption is rooted, begins with people who are not dependent. But the volume that’s consumed ends up being weighted toward those who are heavily addicted or dependent.

If you want a simple way of thinking about it – think about alcoholism. An alcoholic will consume in a week what a non-alcoholic who drinks would consume in maybe a month or two months. So the volume, and the amount consumed and the availability of that to be used by new initiates becomes more present as it grows.

That’s why initially when you see things like legalization not only in the Netherlands but decriminalization or control of heroin that was done in the U.K. De-scheduling or down-scheduling of marijuana in the U.K. ( all of which have been reversed) but over certain periods of time it didn’t seem to have that much of an effect. It took time for this disease to spread and to manifest itself in its full danger and in almost every one of these countries, Portugal now remains an [inaudible], but we’ll see whether 5 years or 10 years from now as a place that’s legalized drugs.

The burden on legalizers is look at places that have legalized – they’ve all turned the other way. There isn’t one example of a sustained effort to legalize these substances because of their health effect – we now understand.

In the old days when people thought it was a character failing – the argument was, “Well, actually I can control myself. I have the character to use these at will and control my behavior.”

We now know that that’s a fool’s argument. We can any of use alcohol or drug dependent. It’s a biochemical fact. Your brain, if you take enough of these, frequently enough, over a period of time, you can become dependent. We can do for rats and moneys and mice because they also have the same biochemical make up.

So we have a problem with something that people can use and begin to use for purposes of pleasure that becomes self-destructive.


DEAN BECKER: Doing his half of the debate at Brown University in response to Glenn Greenwald who wants to legalize drugs, that is John Walters, the former Drug Czar - the man who ran from me and my microphone here in Houston like a frightened little pussy cat.


JOHN WALTERS: That’s why you see, for example in the case of alcohol consumption, that …alcohol consumption in the United States did not return to the pre-prohibition levels until almost 1970. That it takes a while for these things to manifest themselves in the same fashion. And it does take time for them to be squeezed out of society even with the best of policies. But they do change.

This is a summary of 8t h, 10t h and 12t h-graders just in the period from 2001 to 2007. Some remarkable things happened here. Ecstasy became a much bigger problem although it wasn’t a high percentage but you had, some of you may remember, you had a concern about parties and deaths of young teenagers. It became something that people began to talk about and report on and it changed some of that behavior.

But you also see that, for example, steroids became a bigger problem that professional sports was giving to young people. And you had more and more, especially high school aged, young people using steroids. It became a topic. Professional sports confronted it - whether it like it or not – and you saw changes.

You also saw changes in alcohol. It’s not true that when one of these substances goes up or down the other one goes the other way- there’s a built-in amount of abuse.

Amphetamines, some of you will remember when you were younger, was a huge and exploding problem because the making of methamphetamine became possible by individuals in small, toxic labs giving it for free to themselves and their friends. We ended up, in this case, using a policy that went after the precursor chemical that was in cold and allergy medicine – now it’s behind the counter and better controlled – it doesn’t go to zero but it has serious effects on the problem.

But one of the great changes has been in cocaine – cocaine availability, cocaine use, cocaine consequences, cocaine seizures – as a result of efforts to control it in Colombia. The Obama administration’s statement of what’s happened to the cocaine threat, “A remarkable and historic change.”

This is what happened in Colombia when that change happened. Huge violence prior and destruction of institutions, no government presence in big parts of the country, but a dramatic change in massacres, homicides. Some of the dangers that you see happening now in Mexico but when there began to be control.

Now are all these dangers a result of drugs? That’s the argument that you just heard repeated again about prohibition. Well, prohibition created organized crime and when you eliminate prohibition you’ll eliminate all these criminals.

I’m actually old enough to remember that Bobby Kennedy was running organized strike forces against organized crime well after prohibition ended. Yes criminals make money on smuggling – on smuggling drugs, on smuggling guns, on money laundering, on protection rackets, on a variety of crimes and destruction and drugs is one – but they don’t exist because of drug trafficking and they will continue to exist well after drug trafficking.

This shows you the aggregate numbers. How many people use – again these are self-reported surveys, there are limits to this data but I can assure you that the limits are more extreme in Europe and other countries than they are in the United States – it shows the rate of use and the rate of dependency.
Roughly you have about one-third of the overall users – and again, it’s not a census, there are probably more users than are caught in this – who are dependent. And you see that it varies somewhat by drug but it’s more-or-less in the same ballpark. Some drugs are more dangerous in terms of the movement from use to dependency. But, roughly one-third of those who are using are already dependent. There are already 20 million users of all illegal drugs in this survey.

This same survey would show you that for cigarettes, a legal drug, there are 60 million users. For alcohol, a legal drug, there are about 130 million users – that is people who use these substances once a month or more frequently in the aggregate.

In this case, when I hear the argument that prohibition really doesn’t work, well, in what sense do you mean it? If you mean could there be a lot more Americans using these substances if they weren’t under the current structure – yes. Because we can see that with alcohol and with cigarettes.

This shows you admissions to treatment by drug. You see the relative percentages and you also see that the admission rates for teenagers have changed and are not the same as those for adults. Part of the reason for that is the wider use of marijuana and the younger age of initiation and, of course, marijuana is one of the drugs that our society is more permissive about that’s still illegal. So it’s not a coincidence that…but you will also note the amount of treatment for that compared to alcohol which is more available to them is considerably greater.

The amount of movement, especially when you’re young….now we know understand the changes that go on in the brain from use to dependency are changes that are much more rapid and much more pervasive before the age of 20. The human brains continue to mature up through age 20 in variant and significant ways that these substances are an affront to those brains before they reach full maturity.

It’s easier to change the wiring in your brain if you’re under age 20 than it is to do that for people who are older. However, that change has lasting effects. My generation, because I’m a baby boomer, had the largest cohort involvement in substance abuse of any cohort we measured in the United States.

We didn’t just have more problems as young people or in our 20s or in our 30s, we now in our 50s or 60s have the highest rates of substance abuse of any generation ever seen before. These changes that go on in the brain – even when you stop using – create risk factors that continue.

Some of you will have had experience with this with cigarettes. If you’ve been a cigarette smoker and you quit, if you start smoking again you do not go back to being a naïve cigarette smoker. You go back and quickly get to the rate of use you were using at the beginning. Your brain remembers those rates, those imprints that occur when you use and abuse these substances.

This is what we’re doing today. We’re building screening for this disease as we have with hypertension, as we have with obesity, as we have with smoking into the health care system. We have codes approved for reimbursement to people who ask - simple protocols about patterns of use and abuse.

Why is this important? It’s important because, as I said, denial is not only an important part of this disease it’s a pervasive part of this disease.

You see when people are screened show that those who are identified as needing treatment how many of them felt they needed treatment – 4.5%. How many of them did anything about it? 1.5%. The typical response is when you know if you’ve been around people who abuse. “I don’t have a problem. I can handle it. Get out of my life. Leave me alone. Stop infringing on my freedom.”

They don’t see it changes the way in which they perceive their own situation and that’s why they can become so self-destructive.

What we’ve done is try to have screening at every point in the health care system – whether it’s basic care or acute care – and allow a referral to appropriate levels of care. Your generation has a chance of making that pervasive in the system. If you are not going to your health center on campus and when you get care you are not asked if you use alcohol or drugs – you are not getting state of the art care. It’s that simple because we’ve not only built it into hospital and trauma centers but into college and university health centers.

And it’s not the guy who was the former Drug Czar saying that – it’s the medical bodies that are credentialed and licensed and certified the health facilities around the country and around the world that are going to change this.

This shows you why people got into treatment today and why the criminal justice system is not about locking people up, in fact, it’s about taking people who are not a danger to themselves and to others and trying to get them into treatment but using the fact that they are in the criminal justice system as a way to helping them stick with that treatment and getting clean and sober.

You see the relative contribution to treatment entry from various categories – individuals, criminal justice system, from health care providers, from others. It’s predominant. Today the criminal justice system is the single biggest reason that people seek treatment in the United States for substance abuse.


DEAN BECKER: You know I got to say something here. That’s John Walters speaking at Brown University. His opening round in a debate presenting his truths about drugs. Exponding on the need to confess your sins when you’re being pillaried by your community.

A quick recap here.

JOHN WALTERS: The criminal justice system is not about locking people up, in fact, it’s about taking people who are not a danger to themselves and to others and trying to get them into treatment.”

DEAN BECKER: Enough said, we continue.


JOHN WALTERS: This is the growth of drug courts. Some of you work in community health and work in community and family law – you’ll see that even in family courts and child custody cases and to some cases 80% of child abuse and endangerment cases have been involved with a parent whose a substance abuse that today getting and staying with treatment, staying clean and sober, getting your life back in order is a precondition of returning parental rights.

It’s been a huge contributor and benefit. And you see the relative contribution that those going to drug courts can make. Now, again, they don’t take everybody. People who are not a criminal or type of behavior or danger to others in an acute way.

This touches on a comment you heard earlier about everybody’s in jail because of drugs. Not exactly. This is state prison inmates because you heard earlier was federal government and the federal government doesn’t police most crimes.

Yes there’s about 50-some percent some effect percentage that has been going down in federal prisons because of drug offenses but those are generally trafficking and the fact that some are charged with possession is because they actually were trafficking and the offense was knocked down in order to either expedite the case or to adjust the sentence in a way that prosecutors deemed to be beneficial to the people of the United States.

But, in fact, the largest group of inmates are in state prisons. And, in fact, the largest group of inmates are not drug offenders that are in state prisons. And those that are there for possession, and especially marijuana possession which is frequently brought up in these debates, is extremely small.

No prosecutor, no police chief, no judge wants to send people who don’t deserve to be in prison to prison. We do have too many people in prison but we have too many people who are harming others.

And remember when you hear the argument that, “Well, we’ll let more people out of prison.” For those who are violent or repeat offenders, the people who they harm look a lot like them if you read victimization surveys.

If you want to help people in neighborhoods who don’t have services and education and security – you’re not helping them by not taking the people who are victimizing them off the streets. I’ve been in those neighborhoods for years and the most common thing you hear from people who live there is, “Why don’t you help get these people away from my children? Why don’t you give us the police protection that you have in other places in town?! Why isn’t our street as safe as the streets where the “better off” people live?”

And there’s the relative distribution for arrests – the argument frequently offered as well as it cost so much because you are using all this money to arrest people for drug offences. There are a small minority of all arrests.

In fact we have too many people in prison but we have many people who are there not entirely because they traffick in drugs, although there is a contribution that drugs make, it’s because their lives are out of control because of the effect drugs have on the judgment, on the ability to control impulses, on the effects it has on the peer group it puts them in and the behavior that we now know is generated within peer groups that can be self-destructive…

So what we now understand is that we need to move forward of these things. We need to start things earlier. We need to use to more of the combination of health care and some compulsion in getting people to treatment. Whether that’s drug court because their life is so out of control that they came into the criminal justice system in the first place…again the criminal justice system does not go around trolling for individuals.

And on the issue of crack/powder distinctions – I agree entirely. This is a problem that we should fix. In fact I, for President Bush, went to the Hill and talked to some of the people who were the original sponsors of this. It’s just not true that it was originally designed to be something targeted on African-Americans.

Charlie Rangle was a co-sponsor of the crack mandatory-minimum. Pat Leahy was a sponsor and individuals who have undoubtedly know suspicion that they are somehow racist and trying to lock up African-Americans were co-sponsors, why? Because crack was being introduced by drug cartels as the cheap version of cocaine into our poorest neighborhoods and particulairly neighborhoods in our inner-cities that were populated by African-Americans and it was considered an outrage.

The original phrase of “War on Drugs” was not to go after our citizens. It was done through the Nixon administration who said we ought to pay as much attention to drugs and what they are doing to our society as we do on a foreign enemy attacks.

And what we have done is we’ve learned how to do this and we’ve done it more effectively. That’s why the number of arrests related to drugs are going down. That’s why…and the connection between lower crime rates and less drug use is powerful. And that’s something that even parts of Europe have learned the hard way by loosening these first and finding more problems.

And for other countries they have much less money to spend on treatment. One of the great problems now that Mexico and some Latin American countries face as they face some of these problems is these drugs are, of course, being sold to their people and they don’t have the resources for treatment.

And it’s not true…it’s just not true that the Mexican cartels are there because of drugs. They have been there for a long time. They do protection, they do car theft, they do bank robbery, they do extortion and murder and they will do this even if you legalize drugs and use the drug profits as their own profits as they can control border areas.

They are a threat to the rule of law and democracy and we need to help the Mexican government get control of that threat. But the Mexican government needs to take the lead as it has.

I have sat with President Calderon whose a very brave man whose trying to deal with this. But is I also sat with President Uribe in Colombia when I represented the United States at his inauguration in the summer of 2002 where the violence from both left and right had gotten so bad that where we were in the congressional hall was mortared by the FARC at the beginning of the inauguration- killed 20 some people with a series of mortar rounds that hit on the perimeter. There were more but the array that they had set up shorted out.

President Uribe went from a time when violence and terror threatened to take his country over to a time when his country became the fasted growing, one of the most popular…they changed the constitution to allow him to be elected for a second term and today Colombia continues to be a strong and powerful ally and a representative of what you can do to turn this around.

I think Mexico can do the same thing. Some of our own communities have faced some of this violence and done the same thing.

But it’s not going to help to have more drugs, more violence, more pathology and I know none of us wants to see people’s choices and their lives infringed. But this is a particularly difficult problem because it’s something that people choose initially but it’s a slow poison. But it’s not unlike what we’ve seen with cigarettes and with alcohol and how do we try to control those? We’ve increasingly criminalized them,

If I lit up a cigarette in here – it’s against the law. If I sell it to a minor – it’s against the law. We’ve done a lot of work on educating young people about the dangers of smoking but multiple studies have shown the single most biggest factor in reducing smoking in young people is increasing the price. It’s a supply/control effort. Every time you raise the price, 10% use goes down 7%.

Drugs are more costly because they are 100% taxed. And drugs are less used because we tell people the truth and I think the truth is they are dangerous for you and your generation gets a chance to help people understand that. We want people to make the right choices but when they make the wrong choices on something that’s consequential enough to destroy their lives, their family and their community then society has an obligation to step in. That’s what I come back with and end with.

You have a chance. You have the right and you have the obligation for those in your life and your family that you come in contact with or your roommate who are out of control – you’ve got to help them see because the substance blinds them.

But I’ve met more people who have graduated from drug court treatment who have said that the day I was arrested was the most lucky day of my life – it saved my life from destruction. I got treatment. I got sober and I got my life back and I got my family back.

That’s what institutions do but you have to properly understand them. Thank You.

None of us want to see people’s choices in their lives infringed.

[audience applause]


DEAN BECKER: Question for all herpetologists out there – is there some sort of color changing viper on this planet?

Anyway that was John Walters the former Drug Czar doing his opening of a debate at Brown University. His opponent, Glenn Greenwald who you heard on last week’s show. Next week we’re going to carve out a couple bits of Q and A from this but I promise we’ll have a live guest as well.

Here to close us out is the 7t h grade orchestra from Dorey Junior High… Prohibido istac evilesco!


For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker asking you to examine our policy of Drug Prohibition.

The Century of Lies.

This show produced at Pacifica Studios at KPFT, Houston.

Transcript provided by: Jo-D Harrison of www.DrugSense.org