10/30/15 John Urquhart

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Sheriff John Urquhart of Seattle, President Obama in Chicago, Bernie Sanders in Denver & medical marijuana in Texas

Audio file


OCTOBER 30, 2015


DEAN BECKER: Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

DR. G. ALAN ROBISON: It is not only inhumane, it is really fundamentally un-American.

CROWD: No more! Drug war! No More! Drug War! No More! Drug War!

DEAN BECKER: My name is Dean Becker. I don't condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison, and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

Thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. Here in just a little bit, we'll hear from John Urquhart, the sheriff of King County, Washington. We'll also hear from Bernie Sanders, President Barack Obama, as well as the thoughts of a family dealing with medical marijuana in the state of Texas.

Just last week, I had the opportunity to speak with one of the two working law enforcement officials here in the United States willing to come on Cultural Baggage, and this week, we're privileged to have the other, the sheriff of King County, Washington, Seattle, Mister John Urquhart. How are you, sir?

SHERIFF JOHN URQUHART: I'm just fine, how are you today?

DEAN BECKER: I'm good, yes, sir. As I say, it's tough trying to get people wearing the badge to even talk about the subject of drug prohibition, and I'm glad that you're one of those who's willing to do so.

JOHN URQUHART: Well, thank you.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. You know, there's so many things happening, you know, Cory Booker's trying to change the focus in the Senate, the House is doing much the same thing, and during this past week, there was a group that met in Chicago, the Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, and you were listed as, if not one of the attendees, certainly one of the supporters of that effort, correct, sir?

JOHN URQUHART: That's correct. I'm on the steering committee. It's 130 police chiefs, sheriffs, attorneys general, and prosecutors from across the country, all 50 states, that have signed up on this committee, and there's some very big names on there: Bill Bratton from New York, the police chief from, Gary, Gary -- I forget his last name -- from Chicago, Washington, DC, and Los Angeles. The police chief here in Seattle, Cathy O'Toole, myself. And we all are concerned about the mass incarceration that has occurred in the United States, and to a large extent because of our drug laws.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. It's been a major contributing factor. I think folks are becoming more aware of that of late, for some reason, I'm not sure why this recognition of the problem's coming to fruition, but I'm glad. Your thoughts, sir.

JOHN URQUHART: Well, one of the reasons is just the cost. You know, we spent $80 billion -- this country spends $80 billion a year on incarceration. We've got five percent of the world's population and twenty five percent of their prisoners, and we need to look at what's going on here and see if we can't reduce incarceration, reduce the number of people in jail, but at the same time not increase the crime rate. And that's going to be a challenge, obviously.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. As I mentioned, last week, I had Chief McClelland from Houston as my guest, and he made quite a, I won't say firestorm, but quite an impact about a year ago, when he stated, the drug war is a miserable failure. The local Fox, NBC, the Chronicle's carried six stories quoting him from that interview. But at this conference, he was quoted as saying, it's a tremendous failure. Now which is it, sir?

JOHN URQUHART: Well, I've said for years that the war on drugs has been an abject failure. So whatever words you want to use. You've got to remember that I spent a good portion of my career as a narcotic investigator here in the greater Seattle area, so I know a little bit about putting people in jail, I know about street drugs, and I know that we haven't reduced demand and we haven't reduced supply, all we've done is locked up people, and we haven't fixed the problem. And now we need to look at a different way of going about the war on drugs, and, because the way we've been doing it hasn't worked.

And, I think there are very few police chiefs or sheriffs that will come out and say that -- two things, number one, that it's been a success, because it hasn't been, but they are reluctant to talk about it, because we've invested so much money, so much materiel, men and materiel, and we've failed. But, you can't put your head in the sand and ignore that. We have to be honest with ourselves.

DEAN BECKER: Yes sir, and I take a more hardline stance on that, I guess. I've used the phrase that, many of these politicians, official people in positions of power, have quote "made their bones" through believing or insisting, demanding this policy, and it's a little hard for some of them to back down now. Your thoughts, sir.

JOHN URQUHART: Oh, I agree with you one hundred percent, I mean, just because you're a police chief or sheriff or an elected - otherwise elected, you're still human, and nobody likes to admit that they were wrong. No one likes to admit that they're, the policy that they may have promoted, in some cases their entire career, has not worked. That's a tough, a tough sell sometimes. I don't happen to think that way, and apparently the chief in Houston doesn't either, but, you know, it's just the way it is, and I think we need to be honest with ourselves and especially we need to be honest with the public.

DEAN BECKER: All right, folks, once again we're speaking with Sheriff John Urquhart of King County, Washington, Seattle. John, I looked at our transcript from last year, and, you know, you were talking about your dabbling in helping make change in Oregon, and how the police officers down -- the police chiefs down there didn't much appreciate it. Now you have another neighbor, now, Canada, they're, just elected this Justin Trudeau, who has vowed to legalize marijuana, and what you're advice for them, for Premier Trudeau?

JOHN URQUHART: Well, my advice is, listen to what the public wants. Clearly in the -- at least in the state of Washington, the state of Colorado, they wanted legalized marijuana. That was in, that initiative was on the ballot in 2012 in our state, it passed state-wide at 55 percent in my county, in Seattle it passed with 63 percent, so clearly that's what people want. You know, too often, I find police officers, police departments, police chiefs, that have the attitude that, we're the cops and you're not, don't tell us how to do our job. And that is a terrible, terrible, terrible mindset. We have to listen to the public. My advice to the next Prime Minister of Canada is, just listen to what the Canadians want, and that's the best thing you can do.

DEAN BECKER: Okeh. Now, sheriff, you know, I was mentioning, there's been so much happened this past week, I'm just going to list a couple of them here. There's been a federal ruling now that protects medical marijuana dispensaries in the states where it's a legal endeavor. I think that's a great thing. And Obama has announced that he's doing a criminal justice reform tour, he's talking at the prisons, he's talking about this need that these same 130 law enforcement officials put forward, it's time to re-examine and redirect our efforts. Your thoughts on the, just the general push towards recognizing this problem.

JOHN URQUHART: Well, I think, obviously I think that it's tremendous, you know, the president was on the HBO series Vice, and it's the first time that a sitting president has ever gone to a federal prison to listen to what the prisoners have to say. I think that's really very, very cool. Also, what I appreciated is the camera crew left that prison, where they interviewed Obama, and flew to Seattle and interviewed me. And we rode around, and I gave them a tour of Seattle and I kind of riffed about the failure of the war on drugs. So, I thought I was in pretty good company, at least on that show.

And certainly, HBO's Vice has got a tremendous reputation, so you look at the fact that the president is now involved, deeply involved, and that a show like HBO, or a network like HBO can be talking about this, it's really -- we're definitely headed in the right direction. At least finely we're having that discussion. And regardless how it turns out in the long run, we're talking about it now, and there is some changes being made, and some acknowledgement that we, it cannot be business as usual. We have to look at different, different things that's going to correct this huge problem. I mean, drugs are a very, very significant problem in this country. How we fight that is really what the, fight that scourge, is what we need to be talking about.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. Which brings to mind, I hear from many directions the call to end the war on drugs, without actually talking about, at the heart of that is the need to end at least the scheme of prohibition that's now in place. Your thoughts, sir.

JOHN URQUHART: Well, that's one solution, and I'm certainly not one to sit here, as a police officer or as a citizen and say that we should immediately legalize all drugs. I don't think we're ready, I don't think we're there yet, in this country we don't have a plan for that. It may end up that that's what we do, by the same token it may end up that we recriminalize marijuana. We just don't know yet.

What I object to, and what I objected to with the, my brethren in Oregon, when they criticized me, and other police leaders, is, they criticized the stance I may take, they criticize legalized marijuana, but they, none of them, ever offer another solution. They don't have any ideas, other than continuing the war on drugs, which in their heart of hearts, they know hasn't worked. I get very upset with people that continue to criticize, continue business as usual, and offer no other solutions. And I'm not saying my solution, especially when it comes to marijuana, is the correct answer. It's certainly what the citizens want, so we need to listen to them, and we need to give it a try, because it just might work, you never know.

DEAN BECKER: Well, yes sir, and as I understand it, your state is raising millions of dollars through the sales of regulated and controlled marijuana, and I don't think anybody's objecting to that, but I wonder, do you get objections still from other, from elected representatives, or even from your patrolmen's union, people that --

JOHN URQUHART: You know, I have no problem with my rank and file, I'm sure not everybody agrees with me. If you understand Washington, Washington state really is a red state and a blue state, if you will. The western side of the Cascade Mountains, where Seattle and Tacoma and Everett are, it's really pretty liberal. And it's, that's just the way it is, that's where most of the population is. You go east of the mountains, where it's much more rural, you have smaller towns, like Spokane and Walla-Walla, and Tri-Cities, and towns like that, and it's much more conservative.

There's 39 sheriffs in the state of Washington, and I think probably the majority of them do not approve of legalization of marijuana, or any other drug for that matter. They're certainly not on the same page as I am, and that's their right. It's a very conservative area. And so there is, there is, and I get some criticism from them occasionally. Most of them have started talking to me again, when we have our meetings, but it's just the difference in the demographics, I guess, of both sides of Washington. Despite the fact that it passed at 55 percent.

DEAN BECKER: Again, we're speaking with Sheriff John Urquhart of King County, Washington. Following up on that, I mean, what is the response now from the citizenry of, I don't know, a year plus of legalized marijuana. Is the turmoil dying down?

JOHN URQUHART: I think the, I don't think there ever was much turmoil. I think it's pretty much ho-hum, for the most part. The problem that we had after the legalization of marijuana and the opening of retail marijuana stores is, we still had to deal with medical marijuana, and medical marijuana was not affected by the legalization of marijuana, and it was the wild wild west. Now the legislature in this last session, the Washington state legislature, changed the law on marijuana and essentially they're putting the, we're, we are, including myself, are in the process of putting medical marijuana stores out of business because they have to be rolled over and licensed as recreational marijuana stores.

And that's creating, certainly among those stores, some pushback, but that needed to be done. The, we can't have two systems, one that's legal, one that's illegal, one that collects, has taxes collected on the sales, one that doesn't. So we're in the process of doing that right now. But as far as the citizens, at least in King County, it's a ho-hum. There's been really no adverse effects that I've seen whatsoever, and certainly not a whole lot of controversy.

DEAN BECKER: All right. Well, sheriff, one other good news that came forward this past week. There was a memo from the United Nations that was leaked, called for decriminalizing drug use and possession, but that, it was immediately rescinded, and, you know, quashed. But it, that's just another sign that at nearly every level of government and oversight, people are taking another look at this prohibition. Are they not?

JOHN URQUHART: Oh, I think there's no question about that, Dean. I think people are, around the world, not just here. I mean, I've had, based on my outspokenness I've had meetings with police officers and public health people from France, from Canada, from Germany, it's really quite amazing to me about the people that have come to my door to want to talk about it, and look at what's going on here. This is a trend, at least a discussion. If not a trend, it's a discussion, all around the world. What are we going to do? Because everybody faces the same problem to one extent or another that we do. What do we do about this scourge of drugs, how do we handle the problem that we have with drugs? And clearly incarceration hasn't worked, and we need to look at something else, and we need to treat drugs for what they really are, which is a public health problem.

DEAN BECKER: Well, sheriff, I, you know, I know your time is limited. I want to perhaps just get an observation. We hear politicians, Republican and Democrat, running for president, dabbling, touching upon the subject of drug war. Touching upon marijuana. But just in the last couple of days, Bernie Sanders has stepped up and says he'll legalize it if, help legalize it if he's president. I'm not calling for you to pick a side there, but just your thought, that it's reaching that level, finely, at this point.

JOHN URQUHART: Well, I think that's certainly a good sign. You've got a very viable candidate, I'm not sure he's going to get the Democratic nomination, but he certainly is a viable candidate, and he wants to, I think, if not legalize it, certainly at the federal level, it should not be a Schedule One narcotic. There's no question about that, and the federal government needs to get on board with that aspect, at the very least. And he is willing to do that, he's talking about it, and that's, really we've, what's happened I think is we've mainstreamed the discussion on drugs, and that is, away from incarceration and the police aspect of the and that's a good thing, I'm very encouraged by that.

DEAN BECKER: All right, sir, and, you know, I'll just inform you, I've been chasing our drug czar, Michael Botticelli, for the last year, and they just tap-dance around it, they will not come on this show. Here's hoping that someday they'll do just that. Any closing thoughts, Sheriff Urquhart?

JOHN URQUHART: If you can't get the current drug czar, get ahold of Gil Kerlikowske, the former drug czar. Tell him that John Urquhart says he should be on your show. He and I are friends.

DEAN BECKER: All right, sir, I'll do just that. If I had the number, I'll be glad to do it. Again, folks, we were speaking with Mister John Urquhart, the sheriff of King County, Washington, the city of Seattle. Thank you, sheriff.

JOHN URQUHART: Thank you very much, Dean.

DEAN BECKER: Speaking earlier this week in Denver, Colorado [sic: the National Student Town Hall was actually physically held at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia], this is US presidential candidate, US Senator Bernie Sanders.

BERNIE SANDERS: Right now, marijuana is listed by the federal government as a Schedule One drug, meaning that it is considered to be as dangerous as heroin. That is absurd. In my view, the time is long overdue for us to remove the federal prohibition on marijuana. In my view, states should have the right to regulate marijuana the same way that state and local laws now govern the sale of alcohol and tobacco. And among other things, that means that recognized businesses in states that have legalized marijuana should be fully able to use the banking system without fear of federal prosecution.

In addition, in those states that decide to go for it, and I'm not here advocating that states do it, that is the decision of the individual states within our federal system. But those states that choose to go forward, can then tax alcohol like they tax -- can tax marijuana like they tax alcohol and cigarettes and in fact earn a substantial amount of money. Colorado is making right now about fifty million dollars a year through the taxation of marijuana. And in Colorado, and I believe other states, some of that revenue is being used to fight the effects of substance abuse, of hard drugs like opiates that are harming so many communities.

In the year 2015, it is time for the federal government to allow states to go forward as they best choose. It is time to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol, it is time to end the arrests of so many people and the destruction of so many lives for possessing marijuana.

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects!

ANNOUNCER: Does your idea of a fun night consist of playing German board games and going to bed at 10? Do you avoid looking at the news because you know it will make you sad? Do you get angry just knowing that there are teenagers on ine who have made more money in the past two years than you will in your entire life? Do you enjoy drinking a beer right after getting home from work just a little too much? If you answered yes to even one of those questions, chances are you might have adulthood. A serious condition that effects seven billion people 18 and older worldwide. And there's no cure!

DEAN BECKER: Speaking earlier this week in Chicago to the 130 members of Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, this is President of the United States Barack Obama:

BARACK OBAMA: For those who do break the law, we do have to take a hard look at whether in all circumstances the punishment fits the crime. I want to be clear about this. Right now, America is home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but about 25 percent of its prisoners.

Now, plenty of them belong there. I don’t have sympathy for dangerous, violent offenders. I don’t have sympathy for folks who are preying on children. I’ve got two daughters — I care about making sure these streets are safe. So this is not some bleeding-heart attitude here. Violence is real in this city and around the country. And I’ve seen firsthand the devastation the drug trade has wrought on individual lives and entire communities, and I believe that those who peddle drugs need to be punished. I don’t think decriminalization is some panacea.

You know, down in West Virginia, you’d hear stories of families where — these are good folks whose children were getting caught up in drugs, and young people suddenly overdosing three, four times, getting caught up in the criminal justice themselves because they were hooked.

But it’s also important for us to acknowledge that our prisons are crowded with not only hardcore violent offenders, but also some non-violent offenders serving very long sentences for drug crimes at taxpayer expense. And it’s important to acknowledge that having millions of black and Latino men in the criminal justice system, without any ability for most of them to find a job after release — and most of them will eventually be released -– that’s not a sustainable situation.

It is possible for us to come up with strategies that effectively reduce the damage of the drug trade without relying solely on incarceration. And the reason I say that is because we’ve seen states and local police departments and law enforcement do it. States from Texas, to South Carolina, to California and Connecticut have already reduced their prison populations over the last five years and seen their crime rates fall.

So let’s take some of the $80 billion we spend each year to keep people locked up — not all of it, because like I said, some of those folks, you want behind bars — but let’s look at the system and see where are areas where we can use some of that money to help law enforcement go after drug kingpins, and violent gangs and terrorists. And if we can get some with a drug addiction or mental health issue into treatment, that may save us some money that allows us to put a murderer in that jail cell instead.

When we do that, we’re not just making it more likely that a nonviolent offender can be reintegrated into society, we’re making the entire community safer. If rehabilitation programs help a prisoner become a skilled worker instead of a hardened criminal, you are less likely to have to arrest that person again and again and again and again. And, you know, I can’t thank the chiefs enough here because a lot of you are out front on this issue, and you’ve talked about it. I know because I’ve met with you on it.

Now, in a hopeful sign, good people in both political parties are actually ready to do something about this. Just last week, the Senate — which basically gets very little done, as you may have noticed — the Senate voted to move forward on a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill. And that bill would cut back on mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders. It would give prisoners time off their sentences if they complete programs that make them less likely to commit a repeat offense. It would invest some of those savings in law enforcement so you’ve got more resources that you need.

And there’s a similar bill in the House of Representatives. So this is not something I get to say very often: I am encouraged by what Congress is doing. I hope they get a bill to my desk so that I can sign it, and together we can work to keep reducing America’s crime rate and its incarceration rate at the same time.

DEAN BECKER: Even in the state of Texas, we have people who need medical cannabis, and recently I got a chance to speak with a family whose eldest member came down with a malady that required the use of cannabis to help prevent pain. Here to talk about it is his sister.

He was diagnosed late in his disease with stage four bone cancer. And his physician suggested medicinal cannabis, but said that she -- that could not be repeated as coming from her. But suggested that the family try to get that help for him. We did, I did quite a bit of research, and finally was able to get it for him. His pain level was constantly between 8 and 10, and it truly helped his pain. He had never used cannabis before, but it really helped, and I'm all for it for people in pain, I don't understand why, you know, that doctors can't recommend it or prescribe it, and I'm all for passing whatever it takes to get that done.

I was able to get my hands on some cookies that had been baked with butter that was made from the cannabis, and that worked really well for him, because he was never a smoker, and so that was kind of a revelation for him, and we started off with a very small amount of the cookie. And then, as his pain increased, we increased that. And that really seemed to help him a lot.

He was taking morphine, and that did not seem to -- there was too much breakthrough for him. With the cookie, you could just see his facial features relax and the pain decrease. And we used it right up until the very end. Medical personnel were aware of that. And, we got their blessing, although they couldn't be involved in it, they knew it was taking place.

I would like to see more people, earlier in their disease, be able to get this kind of help. And it really helped him, and there's more people out there that need help. So I'd just like to see the legislature take a look at it and do something to help these people.

DEAN BECKER: That's it, out of time, got to get a longer show. As always, I remind you, because of prohibition, you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. Cultural Baggage is a production of the Pacifica Radio Network. Archives are permanently stored at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. And we are all still tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.