10/04/15 Mark Galeotti

Century of Lies

This week: we hear from Mark Galeotti about drug use and drug policies in Russia, and we talk with Michael Mullins from Stoney Girl Gardens on the first day of legal retail marijuana sales in Oregon.

Audio file


OCTOBER 4, 2015


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for decriminalization. Legalization. The end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello! And welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network.

And now, on with the show.

In April 2016, the United Nations holds a special session of the general assembly focused on drug issues. Many nations as well as civil society are working hard in preparation for this event. It's the first real opportunity for the world's leaders to discuss new developments in drug control policies, and possibly to begin the process of reworking or renegotiating the international drug control treaties.

As part of that process, the UN is holding several meetings and informational sessions on various aspects of drug control policies. The UN University held an event in mid-September called Identifying Common Ground for UNGASS 2016: Considering Comparative Perspectives on Drug Policy. Experts from around the world were invited to present their opinions and to review data.

This week, we're once again going to hear some of that discussion. Last week, we heard from Mark Kleiman about events in the United States, particularly legalization in Colorado and Washington, and from John Walsh, who was speaking about marijuana legalization in Uruguay, and the reaction of many of the neighboring states as well as other nation-states, and also a bit of the discussion about how the drug control treaties work with those sorts of moves. Now we're going to talk about something a little bit different: Russia. Mark Galeotti is a Clinical Full Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University.

MARK GALEOTTI: Russia offers an interesting alternative perspective to many of these. This summer, I was actually in Moscow and speaking to a police officer I'd known for a long time, and I asked him about the role of the UN, and he immediately started talking about the UN Office on Drugs and Crime in Vienna and so forth. When I then said well okeh, what about forthcoming UNGASS and so forth? And he's a police officer who's involved in strategic issues, so he was aware of it. He just looked blankly for a moment and said, well it would be nice if you left us alone. And I can't help feel but in many ways that is precisely likely to be the Russian position for a number of reasons. It's certainly not that there isn't an issue.

There was a massive increase in drug problem in the 1990s, which was an altogether miserable decade for most Russians. Since then, quite a significant degree of stabilization with some sort of more recent problems, but still, I mean we have to realize this is a period in which, in the first 18 years of an independent Russia, drug addiction went up more than nine-fold. Now according to the Russians' own figures, about 6 percent of the total population are either drug addicts or regular users. And although there is the inevitable variety of different drugs being taken, cannabis, methadone, and even some cocaine and -- not methadone -- methamphetamine, sorry, and even some cocaine and suchlike.

Particularly striking is actually the spread of heroin. Russia is after all now the country with the largest per capita use of heroin, which clearly has a sort of a serious impact. And, in many ways, reflects precisely the role of Afghanistan -- not just as a source for Russians to take heroin, but also particularly because of the northern route that accounts for, depending on how you count it, 25 to 30 percent of Afghan opiates, now pass through Russia and the former Soviet states, mainly on the way to Europe, small amount heading toward China. One of the interesting stories is precisely why not more, considering China is a potential market, but I think it means that there is a potential for further expansion there.

And even, actually, if one goes to the words of Victor Ivanov, who is the head of the Federal Counter-Narcotics Service in Russia, who said that Afghan drug traffic is like a tsunami constantly breaking over Russia, we are sinking in it. In part, that's inevitable rhetoric. This is the head of a bureaucratic institution wanting to argue why his bureaucratic institution needs more resources, but it's actually also true. This is a very serious problem, and is leading to a variety of equally serious harms. Drug-related deaths, in 2013, there was a really quite substantial spike, and went up from usually around 30 to 40,000 drug related deaths each year to 100,000. Now that's not, in my opinion, because 2013 suddenly a lot of people started dying. I think it's more a decision to basically bring the official figures closer in line with the realities as their research was bringing it out.

There's a serious pressure on the health system, that is already experiencing its own challenges, not least this year with the sort of wider economic dislocations in Russia. Particular problem, 1.3 million HIV-positive, and the second particular problem is within the prison population, not just are there a lot of prisoners, though it has to be said that the Russian government has been making some quite successful and serious efforts to reduce the prison population, but particularly the prevalence of drug-resistant tuberculosis within the prison system. And therefore, the problem that happens when people cycle through the system and then come out into the rest of the country, and bring that infection with them.

We're also talking about clearly a very serious underground economy. The heroin business in Russia is estimated at around 6 billion dollars annually. That might well be an understatement, quite a substantial understatement actually. That clearly facilitates and encourages corruption, it contributes to the porosity of Russia's borders, again to cite Victor Ivanov, Russia has a state border mechanism, he said in 2013, but its efficiency in stopping drugs from flowing into the country is extremely low.

But then there are particular other knock-on impacts from this high level of sort of potential profit to be made from the drug industry, in particular the heroin industry. For a long time, we have seen what could be described as a balance of terror within the Russian underworld. That plus more effective and more sustained policing helped explain why, since the 1990s, there's been quite a substantial reduction in organized crime related killings. However, as more and more money is available to those gangs which are able to tax or engage themselves in the flow of drugs into, above all into Europe, we're actually seeing it distort the existing balance within the underworld. Some gangs which were powerful are now beginning to be eclipsed. Some gangs which were secondary provincial ones, suddenly now have a lot more money, and money buys you political power, it buys you men on the streets, whatever else. And we're beginning to see the signs of some degree of more open competition for control or at least the ability to benefit from the drug trafficking routes.

And so, one of the concerns inevitably is this also could lead to a destabilization of the national underworld, with all the miseries and violence that that involves. So, this is a serious issue for Russia. Policy making has in my opinion though been quite heavily politicized. In part, because narcotics has become a thoroughly nationalist issue. It's not just rhetoric, I think it's a genuine belief that they, Russia, is paying the price for policy failures, which took place in Afghanistan and which were not ultimately Russian policy decisions. It's a western problem, a western mess-up, which Russia is now paying the price for. And even there are some suspicions from the more extreme nationalist wing this might even have been a deliberate thought.

I wouldn't want to push that too much, I think this is more in the kind of frothy rhetoric at the extremes of the political system, but nonetheless one does encounter it. Narcotics are very much seen as a security issue, I mean they were formally made a national security issue in 2002, as many countries do, as the United States describes it as a national security issue. However, I think that means a lot more in Moscow. It means in a way that decision-making very devolves to security apparatuses, rather than ministries of health and suchlike. Narcotics is very much seen as a moral issue, and again we have seen a much more moral dimension coming into Russian policy in recent years, expanded role for the Russian Orthodox Church and so forth, and this is visible for example in the rollback of reforms. In 2004, a certain number of lower-level drug offenses were decriminalized. That actually was reversed in 2006. Again, bucking the trend that we have seen in the west.

And narcotics, also inevitably a bureaucratic political issue. Now I realize it never happens in any other countries, that agencies seek to use serious crises for political and above all budgetary purposes. But there has been a particularly evident struggle over control of narcotics policy between the federal security service, interior ministry which handles regular policing, and the federal counter-narcotics service, which definitely sometimes has got in the way, and has helped create almost a bidding war, as everyone wants to be that bit more tough than their rivals. Sorry, I just flipped over two.

So, very much you have a pressure, and sort of to keep policy focusing on interdiction and enforcement. There has been a step back from eradication as a focus in recent years, which is encouraging, but still very much it's a sense that this is something that should be addressed from a supply rather than a demand side. You attack the global narcotics hubs rather than thinking about the need. There's been a distinct lack of resources for treatment, and a degree in which the Ministry of Health, NGOs and so forth, have very definitely been sidelined from the debate.

So, again, however pretentious it is for an outsider to be sort of making recommendations, nonetheless I'm an academic and therefore expected to be pretentious. I mean, it is clear that, I mean, there is a need for whole of government responses, at the moment it's very much been driven by a small fraction within the government apparatus. More importantly, whole of society responses and global responses. The irony is that actually a lot of this is present. The 2010 state anti-narcotics strategy was actually, in my opinion, a very very good document. The issue is not with the paper, the issue is actually with the resources. This is still very much an aspirational document.

National rehabilitation's a program that was, you know, meant to be -- well, it was established in 2012, it was meant to get $5.4 billion, only a very very small fraction of that has actually been dispersed, and now that we're seeing more economic pressures on government, it's actually only getting harder. A Russian practitioner I spoke to last year said that the Kremlin's default position is to ban and burn. He was not a fan, as you might gather. But if the global consensus is to adopt a more nuanced policy, then it might prefer not to open up yet another divide between Russia and the world. Well, quite possibly in the current circumstances, that will be even more the case.

So let me just conclude by what I think is likely to come from UNGASS. I think Russia, because it does genuinely regard this as a moral issue will continue to hold the line against any kind of consensus towards a relaxation of existing policy. Because it is also often quite suspicious of multinational initiatives, regarding them as primarily driven by the west, United States, and the sort of, the values that it may espouse, particularly within the so-called near abroad of Central Asia. I think they will be quite resistant to seeing any sort of serious pressure. And in an ironic way, that might prove to be a good thing. There should always be hope at the bottom of Pandora's Box.

Let me go back to Harold's earlier point, about the need for space. In some ways precisely because I don't get the sense that Moscow takes UNGASS especially seriously, I certainly don't get the sense that Moscow is looking for some new grand global document on how to address drugs coming from next year. That might well mean that therefore Moscow holds the line against such harmonizing processes, which could mean that precisely you have the scope for individual countries and individual regions to develop their own potential answers as laboratories, if nothing else.

In this respect, it is an ironic ode to dysfunctionality on some levels, but nonetheless, precisely because at the moment Russia does not believe that the case has been made for any kind of a wider liberalization of policy. But at the same time, Russia is not I suspect willing to put major political resources into holding the line absolutely. I think instead, because anyway it doesn't want to be seen like a bad citizen, at the moment it's very much clearly looking to actually expand its profile within the UN, instead I think it will just want to see the UN allow things to happen, which means that Russia can continue to do the policies that Russia wants to adopt, and it will mean that other countries -- Colombia, wherever -- can likewise take the same advantage themselves.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Mark Galeotti, Clinical Full Professor of Global Affairs at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. He's an expert on transnational crime and Russian security affairs, and he spoke at a UN University forum on Identifying Common Ground for UNGASS 2016: Considering Comparative Perspectives on Drug Policy.

You're listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Loyal listeners will recall that I live in Oregon. We approved a ballot measure in the 2014 general election that partially legalizes private possession and cultivation of marijuana by adults, and that set up a system of legal regulation of the retail marijuana market.

The law started going into effect on July First, when the possession and cultivation of limited amounts by people over 21 in private became legal. The next phase of the new law went into effect on October First, when registered and licensed medical dispensaries were given the option of selling to the retail market. Dispensaries were not required to opt in, though many of them did. A handful of communities in the state – ten counties and two cities – passed ordinances that banned an opt-in. Still, most people in the state suddenly had relatively easy access to legal marijuana.

Well, I rode my bicycle to a dispensary in Clackamas County that's owned by my friend Michael Mullins. Mike and his wife Jennifer Valley operate a company called Stoney Girl Gardens. I interviewed Mike about that first day of legal sales, here's that audio:

Did you think you were going to see this day come this soon?

MICHAEL MULLINS: In reality, I never thought I'd see this day come this quickly, and we really have to honor all of those before us who made this happen, I really want to thank all of those pioneers out there who have put their lives on the line to be able to make this day happen.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, the -- tell me about Stoney Girl Gardens, first of all.

MICHAEL MULLINS: Well, Stoney Girl Gardens was a group of patients that work together. We started very early on in 1998 in providing access to patients and providing training and knowledge. We did that because we had to help ourselves, we'll never forget the day that we were given our Oregon medical card and kicked to the curb and said, Good luck, sucker. And, then, at that time, there was very little resources available, so we're -- we just strive to create those resources and help patients, enable patients for themselves. We've certainly watched the industry do a lot of growing. We started out as a seed company, quickly went to a, just, a company that was -- where we did a lot of training, opened up our Portlandsterdam University, because we felt that just supplying people seeds wasn't enough. They needed to know how to grow them and be successful. We believe in being transparent, we love our patients, they're our first base of operation and will always be our focus.

Of course, we have recreation today, which we had to acknowledge, the additional sales, and, but still want to make sure that we focus on patients. And that is one of our concerns as we go forward. I think one of the things that we need to look at as we face the new recreational avenue is, number one, we have a new-found freedom but we should always make sure that we maintain the responsibility of having that freedom and working with marijuana, keeping it away from children of course. But as far as the medical marijuana patient goes, they're quickly losing ground to being able to have good quality access to products that they need, that are different from the recreational crowd. We have two separate counters here for a particular reason. Number one, the recreational sales are limited, but number two, the recreational as we go forward will be a different product altogether than what the consumer for the medical marijuana market needs.

In the medical marijuana side, we will have things such as suppositories and pills and enema kits and all kinds of different things like that, that actually will have medical application. One of the biggest concerns that I have with recreational is that we lose all of the supposed medical values, because they're not FDA approved, they will not be allowed to be put on the package for the recreational side. Nor does the recreational consumer necessarily care about those types of effects, they're more into the flavor and the need experience. But here we are, today, I'm so excited, we're really making history, we're the third state in the nation, and it's very exciting to be a participant in that.

DOUG MCVAY: So far you've had a steady flow of people coming in, you have a handful of folks over here at the patient side, slightly more over here on the retail side, taking advantage of the first day of sales. Any thoughts for the listeners, and tell us again where you're at, and you have a website too, so people can find out more about the work that you're doing.

MICHAEL MULLINS: We do. We have a website, Gro4Me.com, that's Gro4Me without the 'w'. We also have StoneyOnly.com, which is related to directly the dispensary here, and you can go on and get information about what we're doing here at the dispensary. We look forward to everyone coming in. We're located on 10287 SE Highway 212 in Clackamas, Oregon, and we will be open til 9pm tonight.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, actually curious, you decided not to do midnight opening that a handful of the other dispensaries in town did. Why is that?

MICHAEL MULLINS: There are two reasons. Number one, we don't want to be open for the after-bar crowds etc., that's not the people that we actually serve. The average patient, or the average individual that has come in here today is 57 years old and so they're usually not out and about at 3 o'clock in the morning. The other side of that is that Clackamas County has an ordinance that only allows us to run from 10am to 9pm at night, so as we go forward, there are a number of ordinances being made by counties and cities that will create time, place, and manner, if they even allow it.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. So getting ahead of the curve, or at least staying within. I noticed some of the ones in Portland, Portland City Council just passed a law too, no sales after, you know, until -- basically within that kind of time frame, and yet, we had a handful of people standing around outside to celebrate the thing.

MICHAEL MULLINS: We certainly have an abundance of people coming in the door this morning. We opened at 10am. We did not have people standing around the block or camping overnight, like you would for the new celphone, which was probably expected by many of the dispensaries in Portland. We are famous here in Oregon for having access to some of the best products in the world, so the consumer here is not as caught up with having to get to the store as quickly. And as I say, our average consumer is 57 years old, they're working people who are taking advantage of their new-found freedom, and more so than the glitz of a new celphone.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. Well, I know that you've got a lot of work to do, you've got people on both sides who are trying to get your attention and you've got a line of people not quite out the door. Mike Mullins, Stoney Girl Gardens, thank you so much.

MICHAEL MULLINS: Thank you very much for coming by.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Mike Mullins from Stoney Girl Gardens, a marijuana business and dispensary in Oregon. The first day of legal retail marijuana sales in Oregon was October First.

The ballot measure that established legal marijuana, Measure 91, originally imposed excise taxes on marijuana, based on weight, which were to be paid at the production level. That was the only tax in Measure 91. The legislature amended the law this spring and removed that excise tax, replacing it instead with a sales tax to be imposed on the consumer end. There are licensing fees, very low fees, for producers and processors and retailers, but the only tax on the weed would be a sales tax imposed on the end user, a simple percentage of the total sale. The sales tax begins to get collected on January Fourth, when a 25 percent sales tax will be imposed. That's temporary. The state then, once legal licensed retail stores are up and operating, will have a 17 percent sales tax, and counties or cities will be allowed to impose an additional three percent if they choose to.

Why that's amazing is that Oregon has never had a sales tax. The state's voters have strongly rejected every ballot measure that's tried to establish a sales tax, the state legislature hasn't been foolish enough to approve one. That's why the state's move is so significant. Some are still concerned that this is just the thin edge of the wedge, and now the state may try to impose sales taxes on other items, say for instance tobacco or alcohol – you know, other social use drugs.

The cost to the state from tobacco and alcohol use far outstrips the revenue that it gets. The CDC estimated that excessive alcohol use costs the state of Oregon more than two billion dollars a year, and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission reports that Oregon gets a little over two hundred million dollars a year in revenue from alcohol. Sure, that's just the state's revenue, businesses make money from selling booze and people make a living serving it.

Then again, according to the Tax Foundation, the excise tax rate on beer in the state of Oregon is only eight cents per gallon. You know, even if that figure doubles at every step, from brewery to wholesaler to distributor to retailer, that would only mean an extra dollar and twenty eight cents a gallon. There are one hundred twenty eight ounces in a gallon, which is 10 twelve ounce bottles or cans. Now that might make people think twice about having that fourth beer, but it's not going to put bars and restaurants out of business.

Legalizing marijuana is not just about making a few extra dollars. The safer argument, which is the idea that marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol and that people are likely to substitute legal marijuana for alcohol, relies on people actually cutting back on alcohol consumption. Now is the perfect time to start pushing for small increases in the tax rates on alcoholic beverages. If we're concerned at all about the message that we're sending when we legalize marijuana, we need to keep that safer argument right up front and do what we can to help prove it.

Well for now, that's all the time we have. Thank you for listening. This is Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. We come to you each week with thirty minutes of news and information about the drug war and the drug policy reform movement.

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