07/07/13 Asa Hutchinson

Century of Lies

Ethan Nadelmann of Drug Policy Alliance debate with former drug czar Asa Hutchinson at Aspen Freedom Festival

Audio file


Century of Lies / July 7, 2013


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: Hello, my friends, welcome to this edition of Century of Lies. This week we feature a debate from Aspen, Colorado – the Aspen Institute, the Aspen Ideas Festival. The topic – should pot be legal. It features Ethan Nadelmann, the Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, as well as Asa Hutchinson, the former U.S. Drug Czar.


SPEAKER: Leading us in this discussion is James Bennet. James is Editor in Chief of the Atlantic Monthly becoming the magazine’s 14 th Editor in Chief in 2006. Please join me in welcoming our moderator, James Bennet.

JAMES BENNET: We have Asa Hutchinson, former congressman and former official conducting the drug war in the U.S. Ethan has been fighting the fight in favor of drug legalization for…how many years have you been in this?


JAMES BENNET: These two men have faced off on this subject before. We’re very happy to have both of them with us today.

The first marijuana law was passed by the Virginia assembly in the very first year of its founding in 1619. It actually compelled every farmer to grow marijuana because hemp was seen as strategically important. It was used to make sails, rigging and caulking for wooden boats.

Although a number of the founding fathers, including George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, would grow marijuana cultivating 100 plants or more carries a mandatory minimum sentence of 5 years.

Now a word on public opinion which has actually moved up and down over time. According to Pew Research Center, in 69 only 12% of Americans favored legalization. Over the course of the 70s that approval grew then it dipped in the 1980s before beginning to rise again and then rise rapidly over the course of the last 10 years.

Just 3 years ago only 41% favored legalization and today 52% did.

Alright, let’s plunge in. Asa, I would like to start with you.

So, you can’t smoke a cigar but in Colorado (at least the voters have approved the idea) of being able to smoke marijuana. What are the health effects here? Are cigars, in fact, more dangerous?

ASA HUTCHINSON: Well, both smoking cigars, smoking cigarettes and smoking marijuana gives you carcinogens and that’s the reason we have education campaigns against smoking so that we don’t have the adverse health consequences.

Sure, it is clearly an adverse health consequence of smoking marijuana. Everybody’s body and the amount – all of those things make a difference in terms of the consequences but you have cognitive issues, you have productivity issues at work, you have restrictions on driving while under the influence so clearly (and that’s not to say it’s 100 times worse than alcohol or some other drug) but it does have adverse health consequences and that’s been acknowledged by the medical community.

You also know that from personal experience. I approach this as a law enforcement person. I was a federal prosecutor. I was head of the DEA. I was in congress that had oversight responsibilities and I’ve traveled to Colombia. I’ve seen all aspects of our fight against illegal drugs.

Most importantly I’ve seen it as a parent – as a parent who has raised three sons and a daughter you worry about these things and every parent does. I think parents know that there is adverse health consequences as well.

JAMES BENNET: Ethan, and I’m giving your former title earlier – you’re the founder and Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance which is the leading organization in the U.S. seeking alternatives to the War on Drugs. How do you respond?

ETHAN NADELMANN: I should start by clarifying that even though Colorado voted to legalize marijuana you’re still not going to be able to walk down the streets smoking a joint. It is not going to be legal to smoke it in public. It will still be more restrictive, in fact, to smoke it in public than smoking a cigar or cigarette. You’ll be able to smoke a cigar out a park or something but not a joint although maybe local authorities will shift on that. So we should be clear about what’s happened here.

Where I agree with Asa on this is on the following. I, too, am a parent. Most of us here are parents. We’re all concerned about young people using these drugs. We are concerned about them getting involved with alcohol in a problematic way or other drugs or the pharmaceuticals that may be in the bathroom closet and we’re concerned about marijuana.

I think we’re also more and more realistic. If we were to have a show of hands and ask how many of you have smoked marijuana probably half or more would raise their hands.

James, do you want to ask that question right now? I think even with the former head of the DEA sitting here…

[audience laughs]

The fact of the matter is there is a lot more pragmatism in our parental generation. We focus on the real harm. We are concerned about safety. If our teenagers go into a party or they’re off to college we want to know they are going to get home safely at the end of the night, right?!

We’re worried about booze. We’re worried about young men getting reckless and violent. We’re worried about them getting high on the roads on marijuana or alcohol. We’re worried about young people “wakin and bakin’” You know, waking up every morning and smoking before you go to school. That’s a problem. We see that.

But, quite frankly, the simple consumption of the occasional joint on a weekend or whatever – I don’t think we’re all going to get worked up about that.

I agree with Asa, too, that there is evidence that smoking marijuana can be harmful but that mostly applies to heavy use of marijuana. There is very little evidence showing that the occasional use of marijuana is problematic.

Part of the problem we had throughout the whole War on Drugs, war on marijuana was to inflate it. Talking about the harms of marijuana while focusing on the small minority of consumers who are “wakin’ and bakin’”, smoking all the time, being stupid about it and ignoring the fact that most people that use marijuana don’t have a problem with it, aren’t hurting anybody else, are going on to lead perfectly fine and otherwise law abiding lives.

In fact we look at three people who use marijuana when they were younger and they’re now in the Whitehouse. If we want to talk about marijuana being a gateway maybe it’s the gateway to the Whitehouse.

JAMES BENNET: Asa, would you expect marijuana usage patterns to change if, in fact, it were legalized across the country?

ASA HUTCHINSON: They would increase and you know that from logic but also from history. In the 1970s Alaska decriminalized marijuana and it increased in usage. Parents got concerned about it and then in the 1990s they recriminalized it. They went back in the other direction because of an increase in use.

You see that also in …well, look at alcohol. The comparison is always made about prohibition. When prohibition was lifted did alcohol consumption increase? Absolutely, without any question and the same thing would be true with marijuana use.

Now, I think you have to be more concerned about what it would do with teenage consumption. If you look at the experiment with the Netherlands the indications are that the consumption of illegal drugs marijuana went up with the decriminalization. They had tightened it up by closing some of their cannabis coffee houses. California, even with their medical use of it, it’s dramatically increased among all groups.

I think it would.


DEAN BECKER: We’ll get Ethan Nadelmann’s response here in just a moment. I wanted to remind you, once again, you are listening to Century of Lies on the Drug Truth Network. We are tuned in to a debate at the Aspen Institute featuring former Drug Czar, Asa Hutchinson, as well as the Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann.


ETHAN NADELMANN: Back in the 70s 11 states decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana which means they turned it into a civil fine as opposed to something you get arrested for. What you saw was marijuana use went up in those states in the 70s but it also went up in the states that did not decriminalize.

In the 1980s it went down in all those states so the best research on all of this was an article in the Referee Journal that showed that decriminalization did not have any impact on marijuana use.

Similarly in the Netherlands which sort of legalized the retail sale of marijuana in the late 70s, early 80s – they’ve had this coffee shop system for nearly 30 years, not just in Amsterdam but almost every city of any city of any size and marijuana use has gone up and down. Sometimes there were too many coffee shops and the government closed down some. It’s more or less a stable system for 30 years.

Rates of marijuana use among young and older people are much lower than they are in the U.S. with our much more repressive policies. They are roughly at the average as far as the Europeans go and a lot of the European countries have much more repressive policies.

This notion that liberalization will lead to huge increases is not borne out by the evidence.

That said, the fact that we’re now moving from decriminalization to actually legalizing it and selling it and allowing it to be sold in licensed outlets which is what Colorado and Washington will do in the next few months if Washington, D.C. doesn’t say now I think there is, as Asa says, a risk that marijuana use will go up.

It will be less expensive. It will be easier to get but I don’t think the real risk is among young people. Why? Because there are now 3 national surveys in which young people say it is easier to buy marijuana today than it is to buy alcohol.

Every high school in America marijuana is a bit more omnipresent. Surveys for the last 30 years say 80% of young people say it is easier to get marijuana. I don’t think that’s the group where it is going to go up. If anything you’re going to take away that “forbidden fruit” attraction to marijuana.

Where marijuana use is going to go up is going to be people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. It’s going to be older people going, ”Damn it – help through that arthritis and it helps me sleep at night or I actually prefer it to having a drink at the end of the night or I prefer it to the pharmaceuticals my doctor is giving me for my mood or anxiety or whatever.”

I think that’s where we’re going to see the increase. It’s going to be older people – most of whom are not going to prone to being addictive or using it problematically – that’s where we’ll see the likely increase.

JAMES BENNET: Would you buy that, Asa?

ASA HUTCHINSON: The attitude of leaders make a difference on teen attitudes. Right now part of the reason there’s an increase, an uptick in teen use is because our leaders and in states like Colorado and Washington State say it’s OK and there’s talk about medicinal use so you see anything identified with medicine whether it’s prescription drugs in the medicine cabinet or whether it’s marijuana then somebody says, “Well, I heard that was good for you.”

It goes up and it changes teen attitudes. Now as to whether parents can clamp down, law enforcement can clamp down to make sure there is not diversion of marijuana to teenagers that remains a law enforcement question which goes back to a question, “Well, we don’t want law enforcement focusing on marijuana.”

They will be focusing on marijuana because there is going to be increase access and you don’t want it in the hands of teens. It’s an unknown but clearly in every other age group use would go up because it’s a legal substance.

ETHAN NADELMANN: None of us want teens using marijuana but the fact of the matter is it is widely available today. If you ask who has the best access to marijuana today – it’s young people. Who has the best access 10 years ago? Young people. 20, 30, 40 years ago – young people. You know what 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now whether we continue towards national legalization or not it’s still going to be young people whether we like it or not.

There needs to be less obsessing about…we can’t build a moat between marijuana and teens. We can’t do that. The focus needs to be on keeping young people safe and coming up with smart, sensible regulatory policies.

I think honest drug education, too….i don’t think all of this demonization and all these myths that the government has been putting out on marijuana for decades – I don’t think that helps.

I think it was a mistake when the government was saying that marijuana is so bad that young who tried marijuana didn’t believe them on that and they didn’t believe what the government was saying about heroin and cocaine. I don’t think that makes sense.

I think honest drug education is probably going to be our best bet.

JAMES BENNET: You both have mentioned leadership and I kind of wonder if this is going to be a point of agreement. I wonder if either of you is satisfied right now with the leadership from the Whitehouse on this question and how do you reconcile the federal law right now with state law in Colorado and Washington?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Those are two very big issues. I would say that when it comes to political leadership generally it’s weak on this issue.

If you look at the Gallup Poll on legalizing marijuana and you look at the Gallup Polls over the last 10 years on legalizing gay marriage they line up almost exactly from roughly 1/ 3 of the country about 10 years ago to slightly more than half in favor right now on both issues.

Then you look on gay marriage and you see that you now have a Whitehouse, Senators, Governors in favor, significant members of congress in favor whereas on the issue of marijuana legalization not one member of the U.S. Senate, maybe 2 dozen members of the U.S. congress (and that’s a huge jump from only 2 guys a few years ago – Ron Paul and Barney Frank) in the state legislature it’s beginning to change so what you see is still a lot of trepidation and fear.

This is very much an issue which is being led (no pun intended) from the grassroots up. With Obama…I feel for the guy in a way…these controversial, hot button issues are not typically ones where the Whitehouse leads, right? The fact of the matter is even with Colorado and Washington the President does not have the power to order federal prosecutors not to enforce federal law. He can’t say to the U.S. Attorney in Colorado, “Do not enforce federal law.”

What he can do is provide leadership in terms of saying, “Here’s what we regard as our priorities.” What he can do is to say the people in these two states have spoken and they didn’t speak by a sweep, right? In Colorado and Washington it was 55% of the electorate voting to legalize marijuana. In Colorado the vote to legalize marijuana got more votes than Barack Obama did. In Washington State it got almost as many votes as he did and more than the Democrats who won the race for Governor and Attorney General.

I think what he can do is to say the people have spoken and we want to find a way to allow these two states to work this out in a responsible way. That’s what I hope he will say and the Attorney General will say and I think they can’t quite figure it out which is why it’s taken so long for them to say anything.

JAMES BENNET: What do you think about the Whitehouse’s leadership?

ASA HUTCHINSON: To a total extent it is silent in reference to Colorado and Washington State in what the federal policy on enforcement is going to be. There’s some easy solutions that I think they could address. Overall President Obama is very clear in the international leadership.

He does not want…he’s thinking very carefully does he want to leave as his legacy legalizing marijuana not just in the United States but leading the international community down that path.

President Obama whenever he went to the Summit of Americas last year in Colombia he said that it is OK for us to debate the pros and cons of the War on Drugs but I personally and my administration’s position is that legalization is not the answer.

This is what the President has said to the international community. Why is he saying that? Because he does not want the United States to go contravene every treaty that we entered into and led the international community to.

Now, let’s come back to Colorado. If the administration has been silent on the Colorado and Washington State initiative as what the federal government is going to do…this is the first time in history that we’ve had a state setting up a regulatory regime that totally contradicts federal law.

You are going to have the state of Colorado engaged in basically a criminal enterprise in a systematic way to assist in the distribution of marijuana and the justice department has been silent on that issue. If they remain silent legalization will be the law of the land in the majority of the states within 5 years.

There is a lot at stake in what the position of the administration will be. Certainly if you think that is the right way to approach then President Obama will do that. You’ve also, though, got the issue that he’s been sworn to uphold the Constitution and federal law and it’s hard for me as a former justice department official to understand silence that we’re not going to enforce federal law and it’s not a heavy handed issue.

The federal government does not need to come in and start arresting Colorado citizens – that’s not the issue just like they didn’t in Arizona. The federal government can file suit to have a declaratory judgment that the state law and regime for marijuana distribution violates federal law and ask for an injunction. No one’s arrested. No one gets excited. It’s just a declaration of what federal law is and that what Colorado is doing through their state regime is in violation of federal law.

A lot rides on it and so far he is silent.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, let me just correct. It’s not actually the first time…this is not the first time that a state has set up something in contravention of federal law. The first time was medical marijuana in the last few years and there is now 18 states that have legalized medical marijuana where you can get medical marijuana. It’s not a crime if you have a doctor’s recommendation and there’s a good chance that Illinois and New Hampshire will become the 19t h and 20t h in the next few weeks or months if the governors sign those bills on their desks.

There is one million and one-half to two million people now with a legal medical marijuana recommendation. If you look around the states what you see is you have states like Montana or California where the state failed to set up a regulatory regime and that’s where you see the federal prosecutors being fairly aggressive but then you look here in Colorado where the state set up a very responsible regulatory system for medical marijuana a few years ago, they have a Colorado State medical marijuana enforcement division, they’ve hired former law enforcement to regulate it. You look in New Mexico, you look in some of the New England states – they have tight regulatory systems.

It’s not like you see in the newspapers with Los Angeles where people can get marijuana with any type of hang nail or whatever it might be. What you see is that in those states the federal prosecutors are not doing anything. The DEA is hanging back. The Whitehouse is saying, “Look, if this is being effectively regulated we don’t need to go after it.”

So what Colorado did with medical marijuana a few years ago by legally regulating it the way it has and what New Mexico and other states have done that does provide a model for what Colorado and Washington are trying to do.

The other point I want to make here is we are focusing on the health consequences of marijuana and about what legalization might look like but the reason why I’m in this is not because I’m a pro-marijuana person and it’s not because I think legalizing marijuana is a wonderful great thing - there are risks associated with it as I and Asa would agree.

I’m in this because I think that arresting 750,000 people a year for marijuana possession is a terrible thing to do. I think that giving millions of Americans a criminal record for simply having a joint is a ridiculous thing to do. I think that having this business in the hands of organized criminals in Mexico and other countries makes no sense. I think that foregoing the tax revenue while putting it in the hands of criminals makes no sense. I think that having people growing it illegally in national forests makes no sense. I think that having people be disqualified from access to student scholarships and public housing and other assistance because they once had a marijuana conviction makes no sense. I think that people that have been legal immigrants in this country for 20 years getting kicked out because they get popped twice for possessing a joint is inhumane and cruel.

So the reason I’m doing this is not because I think that legalizing marijuana is such a great thing it’s because keeping it illegal is an atrocious thing and whatever risks there are to making marijuana legal are less than the risks and the harms of continuing with the failed prohibition policy.


DEAN BECKER: We just heard from Ethan Nadelmann, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He is debating Asa Hutchinson, the former congressman and U.S. Drug Czar at the Aspen Freedom Festival.


ASA HUTCHINSON: It is the legalizers who have pushed the medical marijuana not for compassionate care but for ultimately getting to marijuana being legal across our country.

Whenever the regime in California or other places …anytime you have a medical something like a backache which is subjective and you can have marijuana for that you are going to have extraordinary abuses in it and so you are not having any kind of good regulatory scheme or enforcement scheme on it.

The fact is that in the Bush administration there was a declaratory judgment type action that federal law does supersede state law when it comes to the distribution of marijuana or the regulation of medical marijuana even.

I think it’s been poor that’s why California has really tried to tighten it up. Some of the communities see the abuses and they are either outlawing it or trying to provide restrictions for it.

The debate today is not about medical marijuana. I would be the first one to say that if there is a patient that has a need and the community says this is a good solution for it then they ought to be provided for it – absolutely if that is the case but the medical community has not said it to date.

Now, so I don’t think how we’ve handled medical marijuana is a lesson as to what happens whenever you go into full legalization of marijuana.

JAMES BENNET: Has the War on Drugs, particularly with reference to marijuana, just been a costly mistake?

ASA HUTCHINSON: Our democracy is not going to fall if you legalize marijuana. But I think you have to ask yourself what is the best thing for our country. You can say, “Well, there’s been some mistakes in past policy on marijuana enforcement so we ought to adjust those policies.”

That’s actually what’s happening all across the country. You can adjust current policy. We’ve done it with drug treatment courts so that we’re putting more money on the treatment side and alternatives to incarceration for those who have an addiction problem.

The other path is let’s legalize. Let’s think about what happens if you legalize marijuana all across this country. One, I think it would generate tax revenues. I’m on the conservative side and there is a lot of Libertarians who don’t believe in strong government but support marijuana legalization. It’s ironic to me that if you legalize marijuana what are you going to create? A huge government bureaucracy. That’s what’s happening in Colorado.

You’ve got to have licensing authority. You’ve got to have tax collection authority. You’ve got to have enforcement authority so you are going to create a huge regulatory body in every state and the federal government if you legalize it across the board to collect the taxes and to make sure the enforcement is there.

Arkansas has the Arkansas Lottery Scholarships- lottery money coming in which funds our scholarships. Well, we’re going to be having pot scholarships because you’re going to be having revenue coming in that’s going generate it and the public is going to sell it because you’re going to be able to send your kids with scholarships based upon a marijuana tax revenue.

You’re going to have retail shops, distribution, you’re going to have cultivation all highly regulated. That’s the path we’ve got to go I believe with increased harm.

So two paths you can take and I think the best one is to keep it criminalized, keep it illegal conduct but let’s make the adjustments from lessons that we’ve learned over the last 2 decades.

ETHAN NADELMANN: I gotta say…you talk about expensive bureaucracy…the most expensive bureaucracy we’ve got is the prison industrial system…

ASA HUTCHINSON: it will not change if you legalize marijuana because you still got enforcement on heroin, methamphetamine and a whole host of other things which will not be solved unless you legalize everything and that’s a bad idea.

ETHAN NADELMANN: The fact of the matter is roughly half of Americans between the age of 17 and 65 have tried marijuana now. Not that many Americans have tried heroin or cocaine or methamphetamine.

What you see in the public …we’ve done the polling and the research on this…what you see is a lot of people who are on the fence on this stuff and are worried about their kids and maybe they used marijuana when they were younger and maybe they didn’t. They’re basically saying, “We want the cops focusing on real crime. Quite frankly having some bureaucracy to regulate this in a responsible way is well worth it. If we can bring in billions of dollars in revenue and that revenue will, in fact, go to pay for school construction and other services that’s a trade-off that we want. We don’t want criminals getting that sort of stuff.”

So I think this notion about, “Oh my God we got another bureaucracy.” Better to have a marijuana legal regulatory system which in Colorado is going to be in the Department of Revenue, in Washington it’s in the Alcohol Bureau – that’s the way to really deal with this stuff.

Meanwhile spending what we’re doing now – 10 billion, 15 billion dollars a year enforcing these marijuana laws – 3/ 4 of a million marijuana arrests…

I used to wonder whether just decriminalization would be enough…

JAMES BENNET: The European approach is what you are describing…

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah, exactly but you look at what happened. In the 1970s you had 11 states decriminalize the possession of marijuana and initially the marijuana arrests dropped. But you know what happened?! By 4 years ago in California and New York (both of which had decriminalized the possession of marijuana back in the 70s) you had more arrests than you had back in the 70s because even though marijuana had been decriminalized police found new ways to arrest and who are they mostly arresting? Overwhelmingly it was young men of color.

Every city and county around the country when you survey white kids, black kids, brown kids and say who has more marijuana by in large the same percentage had marijuana in their pocket but all around the country it’s black kids and to some extent brown kids who are getting arrested at 3, 4, 7 and 10 times the rate.

The problem with decriminalization was police still found ways to keep arresting people. They kept doing it and decriminalization still keeps it in the hands of the criminals – the black market so that’s why I’m saying let’s make this legal. Let’s regulate it and, by the way, now in Europe you have in Denmark, Switzerland and Spain and the Netherlands they’re all now looking at the U.S. and saying, “Whoa, the U.S. is now leapfrogging us and when it comes to a pragmatic cannabis control policy.” so there are beginning that debate right now.

ASA HUTCHINSON: The United States’ leadership does make a difference.



DEAN BECKER: Alright, you’ve been listening to the Century of Lies program on the Drug Truth Network and Pacifica Radio. We were tuning in to a recent debate between Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, and Asa Hutchinson, the former U.S. Drug Czar.

Prohibido istac evilesco!


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The Century of Lies.

This show produced at the Pacifica Studios of KPFT, Houston.

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