10/11/15 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

The drug czar's office failed to release its annual drug control strategy for fiscal year 2015. On this week's Century Of Lies we talk about that, plus the upcoming 2016 election, with Sanho Tree, director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Audio file


OCTOBER 11, 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.

Sanho Tree is a good friend and occasional guest on the show. He's a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC, also he's director of their Drug Policy Project. I caught up with him recently, here's some of that audio:

The federal fiscal year runs October First through September Thirtieth each year. This year, Congress managed recently to pass a continuing resolution mere hours before the fiscal year ended, keeps the government funded through mid-December, I think December Eleventh. We go through this budget circus every year nowadays, but I digress. I was looking over federal law regarding the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Aside from creating a federal drug control budget each year, that office is required to produce an annual national drug control strategy. Their deadline is supposed to be February First, but they've missed that deadline year after year for quite a while. In 2014, the strategy was released in July. The drug czar's office has not yet released its annual strategy document.

There are a few months left in the calendar year, but looking at the fiscal calendar, ONDCP just missed a pretty big window. This is an entire year, basically, where they have not produced an annual drug control strategy -- you know, the thing that they're required to do by law. In the Obama Administration's first real official drug control strategy, that was the one issued in May of 2010, the drug czar's office laid out a set of goals to be accomplished by 2015. Hmm, coincidentally this year. Those include a fifteen percent reduction in drug related deaths, a fifteen percent reduction in chronic drug use, a fifteen percent reduction in past-month drug use by 12 to 17 year olds. Well this is again 2015, they've missed those targets pretty badly. Do you think that could be part of the reason they've missed issuing their annual report?

SANHO TREE: Oh, gee. I'm not a mind reader, but yeah, it certainly does sound like -- it's kind of embarrassing when you set out targets that you're obviously not meeting, and been proven wrong on so many fundamental issues, especially on cannabis prohibition. It's kind of, what can they say? Not that many people have missed the report, it was never really taken that seriously other than it was a figleaf to justify the various budgets for various agencies and that sort of thing, and give a, you know, the appearance of a coherent strategy, but look where it's gotten us thus far.

But, you know, bad news is not something that Washington bureaucracies like to release. And when they do, it's usually, well, we call it "taking out the trash," which is to say, you wait for a Friday afternoon at, you know, 4:59 pm, when you release an embarrassing, you know, press release, and hope that everyone's gone and no one notices. And in fact, ONDCP used to do this with the drug statistics from Colombia, they used to do this every year. And they wouldn't just pick a typical Friday to do this. They waited until Good Friday for several years, when one third of the journalists in DC take the full day off, to release those embarrassing numbers. So there is a long history of sweeping things under the rug, and it wouldn't surprise me if this is more of the same.

DOUG MCVAY: Do you think -- back to their performance targets, which they've been missing. Are we even using the right measurements? How should we be measuring our progress as far as substance abuse policy?

SANHO TREE: That's really important, because historically, you had the various agencies and bureaucracies, and especially law enforcement, wanting to have the metrics of success be metrics that were easy for them, and profitable for them, to meet. That is to say, how many kilos can you interdict, how many people can you arrest, how many people can you prosecute and lock up -- that would show, oh, we're headed toward victory, right? That was about as useful as the body count numbers were during the Vietnam War, right? Or during the Iraq insurgency. That if we're killing off this many -- allegedly killing off this many enemies, then we must be winning, right? No, because it doesn't take into consideration what's motivating the enemy, that they have no place to go, that, you know, the Vietcong, they couldn't go home. They were already home. So, they either had to win or they were going to die. Right? And the US, on the other hand, couldn't maintain a war indefinitely, and we got tired and we went home.

Same in Afghanistan, you know. In the early days of the US occupation, the Afghans and the Taliban would say, you know, you have all the watches but we have all the time. And every insurgent group knows this, right? That sooner or later, that the foreigners will lose their morale, they'll get tired, and they'll go home. And meanwhile, the insurgents have nowhere else to go, so they're going to fight, you know, with absolute determination. So it's that kind of dynamic, that we keep, you know, perhaps it's our hubris that we think our technology and our wealth and whatever can achieve these results, when in fact, you know, we can't repeal the law of gravity anymore than we can repeal the law of supply and demand in terms of the drug war.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, in each federal budget for quite a while now, we have some federal drug policies being set through the use of riders, the budget amendments that are directed to prevent funds from being spent on one thing or another. For instance, the Justice Department in the last couple of budgets has been directed against spending any funds to interfere with state implementation of state medical marijuana laws. That's a good thing. I, personally I believe the language that's been adopted is really weak, but you know, generally, it's a good thing. There are bad things, too, there have been amendments for many years forbidding the use of federal funds to implement or operate syringe exchange programs. What do you think about those sorts of tactics, as far as drug control policy, you know -- well, just in general, but also as they impact drug policy?

SANHO TREE: You know, most of these things have been attempts at grandstanding by individual members of Congress, trying to make a name for themselves as being tough on drugs or this is going to be their signature issue that will help them in their district. But the, you know, typically the place to form policies is in the subcommittee and then eventually in the committees before it goes to the full body for votes. And that's regular order, you go through a process, and you go to the hearings, and you listen to the witnesses, and that's where you're supposed to, you know, shape these things. But you have these opportunists, drug war opportunists, who come in at the last minute and put these riders on, and try to, you know, put their thumb on the scale, so to speak.

They've done that, for instance, in Washington, DC, where the voters legalized marijuana. And by a margin of 70 percent, and here comes this Tea Party representative whose district is in the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where Annapolis and the beaches and all that stuff is. And, he doesn't live in DC, no one in DC voted for him, and yet he was able to put a rider forbidding the DC government from implementing any kind of regulation with regard to cannabis. So now we have legal cannabis, and no regulation, basically, so we're free to grow and to gift, but we can't sell or regulate, or tax. Which is really stupid, when you think about it. This is a prohibitionist member of Congress who basically gave us a libertarian wet dream: legalization without regulation, because of their stupid, inept politics.

DOUG MCVAY: Ah, well, that's a perfect segue. Now how, I'm wondering, how is legalization, the limited legalization you've got there in DC rolling out? Here in Oregon, of course, we passed the initiative back in 2014, the same time that DC passed its. Ours eventually sets up a regulation and licensing system for the commercial retail sales. We had, you know, limited possession and cultivation here went into effect on July First, and as of October First, dispensaries have been able to sell limited amounts of product to anyone over the age of 21, so dispensaries can get a taste of what that commerce is going to look like, probably to try and convince them to ditch medical and just go for straight-up retail, but, let's stick with DC. Yeah, how have, how has the legalization that you've got there been going so far, how's it rolled out?

SANHO TREE: Well, it's still a bit early, but those who planted their seeds in the spring are now harvesting right now. So this is, you know, the time of year when the crop's coming in. I suspect by the holidays, there will be a lot of -- I think marijuana in DC will be the new fruitcake, it will be, a lot of mediocre quality cannabis that people will be regifting to each other, over and over again. There'll be a bit of a glut in the short run. I think people are still learning the intricacies and complexities of growing indoors. It's not allowed to grow outdoors in DC. So indoor growing is tricky. People are starting to learn that it's not just as easy as growing a weed. It takes a bit more investment and care to get a decent crop out. But it's really stimulated the home gardening industry in DC. You see a lot of apartments with purple LED growlights, you know, that kind of purplish glow coming out of their windows, that sort of thing.

And we also had our state fair just recently in DC, where there was a cannabis contest, a cannabis cup, here. They didn't involved smoking, but people presented their samples of their best buds and that sort of thing. So that was kind of novel, for DC. And in the medical scene in DC, well, we've had medical marijuana for a while, but it was so restrictive, there were only four conditions you could qualify for, and only certain doctors and that sort of thing. And we've since liberalized that, so that is also going much better now. Although the economies of scale are not great, in a place like DC, but now the legalization part I think, you know, we're going to see if we can finally get the city council to adopt some sort of regulation.

Congress, it's not a real winning issue for them as a whole. There may be individual members of Congress who live in very reactionary districts where that might, you know, help them in their careers and that sort of thing, but for the GOP as a whole, it's not a really good issue. It's, they're on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of demographics. That popular opinion is turning and turning quickly, and the people who generally support prohibition are aging, and aging quickly and dying off. You know, and so it's not a really winning issue for them. And yet, that's just one more fissure in the GOP civil war going on.

Very interesting year, politically, I mean just -- I don't think anyone could have predicted this. I've never seen anything quite this wild in my entire life, of following politics. But you've got a GOP civil war raging on, along several axes now, which I never would have predicted. I knew that there was going to be a problem with the libertarian wing versus the social conservative wing, and wedge issues like marijuana, would be, you know, front and center for them, but with the Trump phenomenon, he's also opened up another axis for the GOP civil war. So he started a fight between the GOP's donor class, the Roger Aisles-Fox News, the establishment wing of the GOP party, and the racist Tea Party base, that Trump has really mobilized, and actually done some things that are, you know, quite populist, that are anathema to Republican ideology.

And so it's got them all wrapped up in these knots, they don't know which way to turn nowadays. So I think it's a fascinating time to be alive and to be watching politics. Because what was so predictable and reliable as political wedge issues historically are these old culture war issues, right, whether it was gay marriage or abortion or the war on drugs, or sex, or whatever, used to be very reliable wedge issue for Republicans. But now demographically, things are changing and the millennials and younger generations don't give a toss about any of this stuff. Right? And so they're stuck with all these wedge issues that no longer work for them. But, like a zombie, they still keep, a lot of them keep repeating this stuff, and what used to be a reliable bludgeon to go after liberals and Democrats with has now turned into a boomerang and it's coming right back at the GOP and splitting the party right down the middle. So that's the interesting thing to watch.

DOUG MCVAY: 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. We're listening to a conversation I had with my good friend Sanho Tree, he's a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies and director of their Drug Policy Project. Let's get back to that.

How do you see some of these issues playing out as we roll into the next election, the general election of course, it's the presidential circus as well as the Congress. Do you think this is enough to knock out some of the Republicans on the Congressional side, or do you see more polarization?

SANHO TREE: I think it depends on the states, right? Individual states, because it's so different, whether you're talking about purple states or red states or blue states. And so, but I think that the libertarian wing of the party is expressing itself much more now, although I think Rand Paul's candidacy has just completely imploded, and he was a, you know, kind of a what we call a LINO, Libertarian In Name Only. And he failed to win over the old Ron Paul wing of the party, because he's made common cause with a lot of social conservatives, and he's anti-abortion, pro-religion, and stuff like that. And so that's alienated a lot of traditional libertarians. But, and all these new factions that are coming out of the party now.

The Trump phenomenon, as disastrous and horrifying and hilarious as it is to watch, has opened up interesting new schisms in the party. Especially with, when he talks about things like single payer healthcare, essentially what he's describing. Things that are, you know, borrowing from a populist agenda, though I don't think Trump himself is a populist by any means. He's just making stuff up as he goes along, including a lot of really, you know, nasty racist stuff as well, but it's really mixing up the politics in a really interesting way. There's the old Chinese curse, right? May you live in interesting times. And this is a very interesting time.

DOUG MCVAY: I -- I don't know what it says about me, but I truly believe that the Trump phenomenon is best explained by our national obsession with reality shows. He's just a big reality show, and so he's getting good ratings. Does that translate into presidential power, though? Hmm.

SANHO TREE: I don't think it's sustainable. There's no there there, and when you push him on details, it's, "I'm going to be tremendous at this, oh I'm going to grow the economy so much it'll make your head spin," well, how Donald? He's got no answers, no skills, and no clear ideas, so it's shallow reality TV, but I don't think he can milk this for another year, so we're really quite early into this process. So I think he will decline. But I think, you know, he's got maybe a 20 to 25 percent base of support within the GOP, but his -- and that's his ceiling, but it's also his floor. Which is quite interesting. He'll always get that, you know, he's been able to lock onto about 20 percent very consistently, which puts him in the lead, but he's got incredibly high negatives as well, within the GOP and certainly within the population at large, so he'll never, I don't think, you know, win outright.

But if he stays in, he could really destroy the GOP. The Republican party doesn't know what to do with him, and again, all these factions are breaking out and they can't control his message. So, it's a fascinating time to be alive and watching this stuff. Of course it's all fun and games until someone gets elected, right?

DOUG MCVAY: Well, let's go to the, let's look at the Democrats for a moment, as difficult as that can be sometimes. The, Bernie Sanders has said some good things. Hillary Clinton -- eh -- Bernie Sanders has said some good things. What do you think we're looking at on that side? Do you, I mean, they're supposed to be the party of social justice, drug policy reforms are social justice issues, you and I at least know that. Do you think the mainstream Dems have figured that out yet?

SANHO TREE: I think they're really, you know, I think the mainstream Dems are kind of at a loss. They bet, you know, they bet a lot of Hillary, and they're surprised by the outpouring of passion, really passionate support for Bernie among the base, and so you -- Bernie has broken the one million individual donors mark faster than Obama ever did. It's really quite a phenomenon, and he's really catching fire. That really says something, when a socialist is beating, you know, Hillary Clinton in the primary states now. And I think, you know, it's a good antidote to so many years of rightwing drift. I think the country's ready for that. And Hillary is not, she's not gaining ground, I figured a long time ago the email thing would bring her down -- not because there's any smoking gun there, because you can't disprove a positive, and the Republicans will milk it forever and attribute all kinds of conspiracies and just say, well she deleted them so we can't prove it now. But it's something that you can milk forever.

And I think that the whole -- her disingenuous, her lawyerly-ness. She can't say anything without five qualifiers in the sentence, so you can't pin her down on anything. I think people are -- it's really wearing on people, that they want a bit of honesty and just come out and say it. You know? The joke in this town is, like, knock knock. Who's there? Hillary. Hillary who? Well, who do you want me to be? You know, whatever the polls say. And that lack of authenticity, you know, is really, really really hurting her. It's not that I think she's that inauthentic, it's just that she's a lawyer, and she's trained to use all these weasel words and to qualify everything she says, and that's what really undermines her messaging, in my opinion.

But I also think it's important that we move beyond Clintons and Bushes, and especially that generation, it's the baby boomer generation that has dominated US politics for so long, it's always been about them, and their culture war wedge issues that came out of the 60s essentially, and have served them well for four decades in terms of how they want to, you know, fling mud at each other in politics and that sort of thing. Those issues are wearing out, and they should wear out. We should be done with this stuff about, you know, gay rights, and marijuana and these other wedge issues. But as long as we have that generation still in power, still fighting for political control, we'll be saddled with their wedge issues for yet another election cycle, another administration. And I don't think we can afford that.

We need to move beyond these old food fights, that are so synonymous with the Clinton name, actually. And I think if we don't move beyond that to the next generation, then even though Bernie Sanders is older, he represents issues that resonate with a new generation, and has moved, I mean, he was never part of that old culture war gang. So for that reason I think it's important to move beyond that. We've got to get, we're done with the drug war, we're done with these social divisions over race and all this other stuff. It's not to say that political, you know, hacks won't find new wedge issues to divide people and to unite them, but it will be a different set of wedge issues. Maybe clash of civilizations, maybe Second Amendment, maybe, you know, something along those lines. But marijuana, gay rights, all that stuff, we're done with that.

DOUG MCVAY: Interesting. You, okeh, you mentioned a moment ago the, Sanders having ignited the passion of the progressives, and some time ago, Hillary Clinton was talking about how to make lasting change, she said that she believed you had to -- that you could change people's minds about issues, you know, gay rights and the rest, gay marriage, but changing people's hearts, well, now that's just not going to happen. I think that's, that that speaks to, well, exactly what you were saying, the lawyer training, the weasel words, and a real just lack of understanding. How do we ignite the passion in people to make some of these progressive changes in drug policies?

SANHO TREE: I think there are a lot of people who are progressive in their outlook, and are natural allies on many of these issues. Perhaps they don't realize it yet, because a lot of the solutions to the problems we look at are counter-intuitive, they're difficult -- slightly more difficult to message than the instant kneejerk reactionary message, which is what the drug war has been all about, historically. But it's counter-intuitive to think well, maybe by not escalating prohibition we make the drugs less valuable, that we can, you know, create less of an incentive, we'd stop amplifying the motivational feedback loop of the very people we're trying to stop. You know? Because prohibition only makes drugs more valuable, and of course it's going to draw more people into it.

And so, with the drug war and many other controversial issues, I think that the data and the studies and the facts have been on our side for many, many years. It's just that we lack sufficient, I guess, talent or skills to message this stuff to a wider audience. Liberals very often are taught to, you know, respect, you know, knowledge and academia, and, well, you listen to academics, what do they say? Well, they use a lot of jargon, they use things to impress themselves, they like complexities. And these are all things that don't really help when you're talking about political messaging to a wider audience. Right? You have to learn how to communicate in the vernacular, in language that people can understand, and so the reward mechanisms in academia and in these elite policy circles, etc., place a value on, you know, complexity, Germanic sentence structure, passive voice, jargon -- these are all deadly when you want to communicate politically.

So I think we need to focus more on messaging and training people how to talk to people who don't already agree with you. Right? And I think that's a problem with the left in general, that we're very good at preaching to the choir, we're not so good preaching to the unconverted. And me personally, if I had a choice between talking to a group of progressives or talking to a group of rightwing Republicans, I'll take the Republicans any day of the week -- not because I enjoy it more, well I do actually enjoy it, it keeps me on my toes and sharp, but those are the people we need to win over. Right? Those are the people, if you ever want to make any progress you have to win over people who don't already agree with you. The people who are already on your side, yeah, you can, you know, let them know about urgent action alerts and when to take action and stuff, but they're basically with you on these issues. So why do we keep spending our resources on that?

You know, it's kind of like, well, a little bit like the Black Lives Matter movement targeting Bernie originally. You know? It was not the most brilliant strategic move in my opinion. It's like the old chant, you know, What do we want? We want change! When do we want it? Right now! Well, who are we going to change? Well, we're going to change people who basically agree with us 99 percent of all the issues but we're going to crucify them for that one percent we disagree with. Meanwhile, you've got all these other candidates who aren't even close, right? That's who you should be focusing on.

DOUG MCVAY: That was from a conversation I had recently with my good friend Sanho Tree, he's a fellow with the Institute for Policy Studies and director of their Drug Policy Project.

And 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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For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.