10/27/13 Paul Armentano

Century of Lies

Drug Policy conference panel, moderated by Amanda Reiman with Paul Armentano, Dr, Laura McTighe, Marsha Rosenbaum and author Jacob Sullum

Audio file


Century of Lies October 27, 2013


DEAN BECKER: Thank you for joining us on this edition of Century of Lies. This is Dean Becker. This week reporting from Denver, Colorado where I’m attending the Drug Policy Alliance Bi-annual Conference with more than 1,000 attendees from around the world. You’ll next hear from Paul Armentano, Deputy Director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Here’s he’s recounting some marijuana news from about 1925.


PAUL ARMENTANO: After the mother and children had eaten the plants they were stricken. Neighbors hearing outbursts of crazed laughter rushed to the house to find the entire family insane. Examinations revealed that the narcotic, marijuana, was growing among the garden vegetables.

You cannot have wide population of a substance and have claims about the substance be that outrageous. It just doesn’t work that way. It only works when we’re talking about a substance that most people have no first-hand or second-hand knowledge of and then those sort of outcries perhaps seem credible..

The other two sort of final rules of prohibition are that the alleged effects of the drug that you wish to prohibit must present greater potential harms than the proclaimed or alleged risks of all the prior drugs that have been prohibited prior to this one and that, finally, the final rule of prohibition is that when the justifications that were initially used leading up to the prohibition of a substance are exposed as being false or inaccurate you must then substitute a whole new set of rationales to justify maintaining the prohibition so that the prohibition can go on indefinitely.

I hope what we can do in this round table is discuss the overriding philosophy and some of the overriding elements of American history and American culture that allow these general rules to promulgate. Why did this strategy work hundreds of years ago? Why does it still work today?

Those of us in this room can sort of laugh at these rules but they are effective. They work for the general population because there is this visceral, irrational, emotional mindset that we seem to have when we talk about drugs, drug users and drug policy and that’s what we are going to explore in this round table.

JACOB SULLUM: I’m Jacob Sullum. I’ve been writing about drugs for 20 something years for Reason and various other outlets. One of the things that has struck me over and over again on this issue is what Paul was talking about. There’s this underlying discomfort with the idea of changing drug policy and repealing drug prohibition that doesn’t just have to do with practical consequences or the data. People have what they characterize as a moral objection to drug use.

While it is certainly possible to argue that prohibition ought to be repealed and still condemn the thing that is prohibited that’s logically consistent I realize over the years that the reasons why people thought drug use was immoral if they were true would make it impossible to accept repealing prohibition.

I wrote a book a few years ago called, “Saying Yes in Defense of Drug Use.” I tried to ask what is the objection that people have to drug use. Is it an objection to drug use in general? What is the principle that we can sort of tease out when people say, “We want a drug free society. Drugs are bad. Drugs are wrong.”

What I pretty quickly found is there aren’t any really good arguments against drug use per se. All the opposition to legalizing the currently banned substances stems from mistaken ideas about the effects of drug use.

In particular this certain...well, alcohol – prototypical drug that we can use moderately and responsibly – can be used in a way that does not threaten others, does not cause damage to user himself but that’s basically impossible for these other substances. That’s the sort of fundamental belief that people have.

I tried to debunk that idea because I think by and large the population accepts the idea that drugs are OK (once they understand what drugs are) in certain context and certain purposes, under certain conditions and it’s important to try to tease out what is it that makes some kinds of drug use acceptable or even positive in people’s lives and other kinds of drugs self-destructive or threatening to other people.

I think it’s really crucial to take a sort of consequentialist approach and talk about the actual results of drug use and debunk this idea that drugs take people over and force them to do bad things - that’s certainly when marijuana was prohibited. People believed that it did that. It made people go crazy and hack their family to death with a hatchet. They really believed that. Now, as Paul said, it’s much harder to sell that idea now that marijuana has become so familiar to so many people.

Was it last year that we had the “Causeway Cannibal”? – the Miami Zombie? So bath salts – not even a completely, you know...it’s a quasi-legal setup drugs that are being banned, some of which have been banned. Because this is not familiar to most people ...readily believe – not just in this country but around the world – they believe this guy used bath salts and ate somebody’s face because that’s what people who take bath salts do. It happens all the time.

The fundamental contradiction there is that the reason this story got so much attention it’s the only time in history that it’s ever happened. It was described as a typical effect of this set of drugs and familiarity has a lot to do with it.

So you really do, when you talk about the morality of drug use, have to talk about consequences and what drug use is OK or not OK.

FEMALE: Hello everybody. We have an exciting task ahead of us today to really be thinking about all the biases that we bring to our work around drug policy reform and together be making those explicit. I would also say that is true for us as panelist, the audience and for critiques more broadly that we want to make up the society that we live in.

I want to begin with an observation. I think that we Americans are particularly zealous about 2 things. One is worshipping our gods and two is punishing our criminals. These things are not unrelated. I think importantly for our work at this conference they are not unrelated to drug policy.

Without the common sense religious assumptions between the relationship between crime and moral failure, between suffering and redemption, drug criminalization or mass incarceration as we know it today would be unthinkable and impractical.

To get a handle on the religious underpinnings of our collective obsession with punishment I’ve been working with formally incarcerated elders across the United States over the last fifteen years- first as a grassroots activist and now as an academic.

Part of what I’ve been trying to understand is how for many formally incarcerated activists across the country how their ideas about religious practices and ideals can offer them such tremendous possibilities for imagining more just ways of doing justice.

I think that the question of how do we think about morality, how do we think about religion and how do we think about the science – these are absolutely critical for what we are going to be doing in this session today.

I want to put out there that we need to be very careful about not misunderstanding the science vs. religion debate. Science and scientific method and ideas around objectivism has been instruments through which the very same people who were criminalized through drug policies have been categorized, tested on, experimented on so science is not an easy and value-neutral category.

I want to also say that even though we live in a so-called secular society we have tons of deeply religious ways about the ways in which we do things. That’s something that we have to have a way of speaking about. If we juxtapose religion vs. science we can’t get at these hidden religious ways that we punish and so much of American society is founded on.

The last that I want to say is that by separating religion and science as two poles we completely miss this really deep call that we heard in this morning’s plenary for freedom and for justice.

What I’d like to offer as a modest proposal today – growing out of my own work – is that to end the War on Drugs we need to reclaim a moral space in drug policy reform.

I want to be very clear about what I mean by that. To give you a couple examples about the people that I’ve worked with across the country...in Philadelphia I’ve worked with the community of Muslim Elders who hear the profoundly and stubbornly ethical voice in the Koran. I understand that has made a responsibility to God for them to do is to be realizing the reconstruction that never happened after the abolition of slavery.

I work with a community of Pena costal Elders in Chicago who believe that being saved, sanctified, and baptized in the Holy Spirit gives their faith legs and those legs take them across prison walls to try to repair the severed threats of their community.

In New Orleans with my deep, deep family we work out of a space of honoring the elders and ancestors that have come before us and knowing that for the women that we live and work alongside in street-based economies to stand on their own power, in standing in the power and legacy of those who have come before them.

This is a really different way of thinking about religion than we’re used to. We’re not talking about religion as a thing or an institution or a set of creed or beliefs we’re talking about religion as living, embodied practice.

I think it enables us when we think about the type of really incredible visionary work that is happening across this country it gives us a couple of things to be clued into. Yes, people are working to end policies around drug criminalization. Yes, people are working to end prisons but that’s not the be all and end all of what’s most important.

What folks are doing is actively reassembling the social. That’s what living religion means for many of the people who are at the frontlines of trying to challenge and end the War on Drugs.

Their claims are very simple. We want to instill love for our people. We want our people to be alive and we want our communities to be whole.

Thank you.


FEMALE: I’m going to get personal. I took Amanda’s title kind of literally and I thought about first my friend and colleague, Troy Duster, who was supposed to be on this panel if he were here but he’s somewhere else. He said to me a long time ago, “Scratch a theory or a philosophy or an ideology and you come up with somebody’s biography.”

I want to talk for a minute about how theories about drugs and drug addiction and drug users has impacted me and my work over the last 35 years – first as a researcher for the federal government for NIDA and later as a drug policy reformer.

I want to start by talking a minute about my late husband who was a sociologist, a criminologist and an ex-convict who couldn’t stand the words “formally incarcerated.” He was “old school.”

He did not go to prison for 5 years on a drug charge. He actually went to prison for armed robbery which, of course, you can imagine my parents hearing this one. They were hoping it was marijuana but no.

His first book was called “The Felon.” It was a typology of felons. It was qualitative sociology. Reading that book and that theory of criminals (basically was what it was) transformed my thinking - my thinking as white, upper-middle class girl from the suburbs of San Francisco.

Now I began to understand the humanity of convicts as he called them. That was my first journey into looking at “those people.” Next I had the good fortune of getting a grant from the federal government to study women heroin addicts so I tried to read everything I could back in the late 70s about heroin addiction. What were the theories that were dominating the field?

One of the first books I read has a great title everything about theories of heroin addiction. It was a book by George Gay and David Smith and it was called “It’s So Good Don’t Even Try It Once.”

It was about the inevitability about addiction which was, in the future, debunked not only by my own research but more recently by Carl Hart in his new book, “High Price.”

There was that and then there was another book, a real book about heroin addicts and it was by Preble and Casey and it was called, “Taking Care of Business: Heroin users life on the streets.”

This transformed my thinking even more. He portrayed heroin addicts not as sitting around on the nod but as having a life which was active and was like work. It was taking care of business.

Finally, the mother of all theories regarding women heroin addicts which is that they lose not only their basic and fundamental humanity but in that their ability to take care of their children and be good mothers.

Then I spent two years interviewing women heroin addicts and guess what?! Not true. So another theory debunked but you have to start digging deeper to see this.

And then I also want to mention a book which was ahead of its time but I think is the backdrop of so much of our thinking and our research, actually came out in 1971. It’s Norman Zimberg’s “Drug, Set and Setting.”

If you’re interested in this field you gotta read that book because his theory is you can’t look at drug users in a vacuum. It’s about three basic components. It’s about the drug itself, the substance. It’s about the set which is the headspace of the user whoever that person is and then the setting – where they are, who they are, where they live.

That enables you to really get a full understanding of any drug and any drug use. I wanted to point to this research. It may be old but I see it as somewhat fundamental and how those theories end up being debunked and shaping thinking and hopefully will help us to guide our discussion about how theories impact policy.


FEMALE: Is Troy Duster’s book a legislation of morality is actually what set me on this whole path of study and job and everything. That book changed my life. If you have an opportunity to read it I highly recommend it.

Going back to that philosophy there’s a biography so I want to mention Harry Anslinger because Harry Anslinger was a prohibitionist. Prohibition isn’t just a policy. It’s not just “Let’s make things prohibited. You can’t use them.”

Prohibition is also actually a philosophy. The philosophy behind prohibitionist is that if you punish someone harshly enough for a behavior they’ll stop doing it. That is the basis of prohibitionism. That was the belief of Harry Anslinger – that if we just throw enough people who use drugs in jail people will just stop using drugs.

Unfortunately that philosophy has plagued us now for about 75 years. So my first question to the group is what role do you think this philosophical view of punishment that comes from prohibitionism has played in the development of our drug laws over time? How do you see that playing out – specific examples or just general examples?

Does anyone want to start?

JACOB SULLUM: I was actually really excited about answering this question because it allowed me to articulate on something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time.

I don’t think you can get away from having this discussion without talking about this Judeo-Christian foundation of this nation. As you said, Americans love to worship their gods and they love to punish.

If we go back to the parable of Adam and Eve we see one of the first examples of prohibition and we see the lessons we can learn from them. So whether anyone in this room believes the story of Adam and Eve literally or you believe it simply as a parable we can learn from it because what does this story tell us? What is the lesson of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden?

Well, we know that they are in a paradise but there is one, single prohibited substance – the apple. They are to stay away from consuming this one prohibited substance. Then you have a snake that comes along, a tempter, a drug dealer for lack of a better word – the world’s first drug dealer – who tempts Adam and Even to consume the world’s first prohibited substance – the apple.

That tempter embodies all that is evil in the world – that drug dealer. Then when Adam and Eve give into temptation and consume the prohibited substance what happens? They end paradise on earth. There is no more paradise on earth.

There is human suffering that didn’t exist prior to them doing so. They are ostracized. They are banished from the Garden of Eden. Ultimately they and all of the rest of humanity will suffer for mortality.

By consuming the prohibited substance they experience suffering, ostrization, and eventually punishment through death. Thousands of years later have we improved very much in the way society treats those who consume prohibited substances? We still ostracize them. We, as a society, tend to revel in their suffering. This sort of idea, “It serves them right. We told you not to do that.”

In some cases, in some nations – even in this nation – their actions may be punishable by death. This narrative that we can take away from the story of Adam and Eve still really permeates the way we talk as a society and the way we tend to think as a society about drugs.

We still (not “we”) but some in our society still talk about the possibility of paradise on earth if we can just achieve a drug-free society.

We still talk about the idea that the body is a temple and the body is not to be defiled by putting mind-altering substances into our body because our body is meant to be a vessel so we can communicate between us and the creator and putting in these intoxicants interferes with that communication, that connection between the mortal and the creator.

Conversely sobriety brings us closer to the creator. There’s this notion like back in Adam and Eve’s time that paradise should have been enough. Why did they have to go there and eat that apple? They had paradise on earth.

We hear this from prohibitionist all the time. “Why to do you feel the need to alternate your mindset? Why can’t you just be high on life? Isn’t that good enough? Why do you need these drugs anyway? Don’t you have enough paradise right here?”

There’s this notion that certain illicit drugs take away man’s free will. They become enslaved by the drug. We know, again, if we go back to biblical teachings that the creator gave man free will – that’s what separates us from the beasts – yet by using these intoxicating substances we’re taking away our free will.

So, therefor, you going to have to be punished. How dare we be so arrogant? There’s two other lessons we can sort of take away from this parable. One is this notion that drug use is a defiance of authority. Adam and Eve defied God and as a result they and all humanity suffers the consequences. We’re all punished.

Even today drug us is seen as an anti-authoritarian act. We are defying not necessarily the creator but we are defying the law, defying politicians, defying law enforcement. What do we do as an American society when people defy? We punish those that defy.

The ultimate lesson that we can learn from the parable of Adam and Eve is that prohibition ultimately doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in this society today. It didn’t work when there were only two living beings on planet earth.

Yet despite this recognition that you can’t prohibit things people ultimately will want even when we’re talking about two people living in paradise – we still, as a society, seem to think that we can still, somehow successfully engage in the prohibition of these substances. It didn’t work then but we still haven’t learned that lesson today.

MALE: I’d like to talk about sort of a different current in biblical traditions and our Judeo-Christian heritage that has a positive use in the drug policy debate which has to do with alcohol. The debate over alcohol in America is very instructive with people trying to figure out how to get rid of the current prohibitions but there is an argument because it is quite clear if you look at the Old Testament that God likes booze.

It’s somewhat more ambiguous in the New Testament but Old Testament very clear – God wants you to drink and celebrate. He tells you to do that. In Judaism you have a special blessing for wine – getting intoxicated is part of religious celebrations.

Now there was a split among different denominations of Christianity over Catholics – if you like them, their booze is OK with them. Methodists, Southern Baptist – not so much.

There was a serious disagreement over does God think it’s OK to drink or not. A lot of it revolved around interpretations of what does wine mean. When it says Jesus turned water into wine then wine must be OK. There were actually people making the argument that, “No, it wasn’t wine. It was grape juice.”

This is a serious thing. Scholars publish books making this argument because they really needed to believe that God condemned drinking - that drinking was wrong. If you look at how the Temperance movement – which was a temperance movement about moderation. It was about looking at the consequences of alcohol and we don’t like that how can we remedy that. It was based on exhortation and persuasion and the belief that people through training and oral instruction could moderate their behavior and become less troublesome to their neighbors and their families.

At some point that believe through persuasion became a belief in abstinence through force.


DEAN BECKER: Thank you for joining us on this edition of Century of Lies. It’s harvest time here in Denver not just for all the marijuana but for information which I’m trying to reap downstairs. Until next time this is Dean Becker reminding you Prohibido istac evilesco!


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