03/25/16 Devon Anderson

Cultural Baggage Radio Show

Law enforcement perspectives Q&A with Howard Wooldridge of LEAP, Tex Rep Gen Wu, Harris County/Houston DA Devon Anderson, Gary Hale former DEA agent

Audio file


MARCH 25, 2016


DEAN BECKER: Hello, my friends, thank you for once again joining us here on Cultural Baggage. I am Dean Becker. Today we're going to continue our coverage of a recent panel that was hosted at Rice University by the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, the Drug Policy section. The panel was titled Law Enforcement Perspectives On Drug Prohibition. Today, we're going to hear from all four panelists, with yours truly, Dean Becker, asking the questions. I want to once again thank Katherine A. Neill for allowing me to be the moderator of this great panel. Again, we'll hear from Devon Anderson, district attorney of Harris County; Gary Hale, 30-year DEA agent; Howard Wooldridge, founder of LEAP; and Texas Representative Gene Wu. Let us being.

We're going to start the questions here, going to ask some for single individuals, some I'm going to ask them all to respond. We're going to start with this one, though. In the 1920s and 1930s, the US endured another prohibition, against alcohol, which led to massive violence, overdose deaths, gangs, widespread corruption, and the people of the times saw that this prohibition was not accomplishing any of its stated goals, and brought it to an end. Now with drug prohibition, we are seeing near identical problems of corruption, gang related violence, and overdose deaths. I want to ask what it is about this modern prohibition that allows it to continue. Let's start with our district attorney, Devon Anderson.

DEVON ANDERSON: What allows it to continue?


DEVON ANDERSON: The laws that are in place allow it to continue. That there are, like I -- let me just use state jail as an example. That was created, and Gene can correct me because this, I'm, this is what I remember, when it was created, we didn't have a fourth degree felony, basically, for low-level drug offenders. If you possessed anywhere from 28 grams down, you were looking at 2 to 20 years in prison. So if you had a crack pipe, or you had a little packet of cocaine, you were looking at 2 to 20 years. So the legislature created this class of felonies, state jail, which would be punishable by six months to 2 years in a new facility called a state jail, which was kind of like prison light, and it would have treatment, except the treatment wasn't funded. And so it's been a ridiculous failure.

We, I think we're now, everybody's coming around to treatment. Legalization's a long way off, and Gene's right to point out the political realities here, we might as well not be in the ivory tower tonight, we need to be in the real world. But I think treatment is something that is getting, gaining some momentum. So what I'm -- that's my answer to your question, is the law's in place.

DEAN BECKER: Well, okeh.

DEVON ANDERSON: Presently in place.

DEAN BECKER: I think it's the morality or the just logical question that I was reaching for, but I understand, and you're certainly not to blame. Let's go down the row on this one. Let's go down the row on this one, to Gary Hale. What's your thought, what allows this to continue, sir?

GARY HALE: History. Social stigma, and the anti-establishment. All of that started in the 1960s, where there was a lot of anti-government activism. The war in Vietnam, young folks were asking why, etc. etc. All of that was looked at by the government as pushback. Pushback on a society where we all wore ties, and there was a dress code, and men wore hats, and everything was orderly, and so we had this, this social revolution, if you will, of young, of youngsters that were pushing against the system, and they became known as anti-establishment. That's also, at the same time, where Richard Nixon began the war on drugs, and a lot of these laws came into effect. Also, when DEA was created, 1973. It was combined from the customs drug folks, Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, and an organization called ODALE, Office of Drug and Law Enforcement.

So, those organizations joined to become DEA, and all of those mentalities and thoughts have continued on for decades. It's -- at this point, I believe that the government, the federal government and DEA are just knee-jerk reactions to everything that's gone, that we've always done it that way, we're going to continue to do it this way. We're not going to change. It's bad. Everything's bad, and it's our job to protect society. It's just an overly simplistic approach to drug law enforcement, and I think it really needs a review.

DEAN BECKER: Indeed. Thank you, Gary, and Howard, you kind of touched on this. Your thoughts.

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Yeah, my thoughts are based on my ten years as a lobbyist advocate inside the beltway in Washington, DC. My experience is that the reason things stay pretty much the same is power, money, and ego. Power in terms of money. My greatest opponents on capitol hill in changing drug laws, of course, my profession. Y'all give us $82 billion a year, that's local, state, federal, to go after green plants and white powders. We love the money. The drug companies certainly do not want to face god's medicine on the marketplace. Already with only 23 states or so, we, the medicine, the green medicine has taken away half of one percent of the market share. Last year you and I bought $400 billion in pills, that's over the counter and prescription. Medical marijuana will take upwards of a percent, at least, of that market. For $4 billion, you bet they'll put a hundred thousand dollars in the freezer of your congressmen and your senators. It's all about money.

I am sorry. Trigger alert. And the other part of this is ego. I talk to these congressmen all the time, and their aides, and look, folks, take any position you've had for the last 30 years, and can you imagine going, you wake up the next day and going, you hear, you listen to a panel, and go, Huh, you mean for 30 years I've been wrong? The ego will not handle being so right for 30 years and suddenly, oops. And politicians, I can tell you with authority, will throw their mother under the bus multiple times before they admit to making a mistake. If a billion didn't solve the problem, the obvious solution is two billion. So power, money, and ego are the coin of the realm in Washington, DC, so at least at that particular level, that sandbox I play in, those are the reasons things are changing at a glacial pace.

DEAN BECKER: Before we go to you, Gene, I kind of want to just jump to another question, hinges sort of on that first one. Fifteen months ago, Houston Police Chief Charles A. McClelland Jr came on my radio show, stated that the drug war is a miserable failure. NBC, Fox, carried the audio, and built segments, agreeing with the chief. The Houston Chronicle has used quotes from that interview at least six times. The chief doesn't write the laws, DA Anderson does not write the laws, so I ask you, sir, why are legislators, and you touched on it, but let's delve a little deeper. Why do our legislators not listen to those calling? And you talked about it, it's the primary fiasco, I guess, but, there's got to be an answer, sir.

GENE WU: For -- wait, wait, wait, before I do that, for the record, I have one dollar in my wallet. So, I guess these, the question, and granted, I view a lot of things through a political lens, because guess what, that's what I do, and I have to view the world through those lenses. But, let me give you this, just a little snippet first. Every session, every two years, the Texas legislature meets for 140 days. Every session, we file about, somewhere around 6,000 pieces of legislation. About 1,200-ish passes, and become signed into law. Out of that 1,200-ish, there are about 35, no about 30 brand new criminal penalties. Like, penalties that did not exist before. Okeh? This is like, and so, you're trying to think of what could that be like, it's really like, you know, stealing is illegal. Right? And then, the next session, they would make, well, stealing oysters is illegal. And then the next session after that they'd go, well, stealing oysters from a, you know, state park is now illegal. And then they would say, the session after that, well, stealing oysters from a state park between the hours of -- you get where I'm going with this.

And the reason for this is, and I actually just experienced it myself during my primary, is people go up to you and say, there's a lot of crime in our neighborhood. What have you personally done to make us safer? And I'm like, I'm the state rep, I make state law. I don't go and patrol your neighborhood. Right? I can't control who lives here and who doesn't, and, you know, but I can't give that answer. My answer has to be, well, let me tell you about the bills that I've passed, and the committees I've been on, and the stuff that I've done to make this state a better place. Did that, did my stuff actually make your neighborhood, your particular street or home, exactly safer? Probably not, maybe a little bit. So, every session, you have members who want to get re-elected, and they want to go home and tell their people I've done something to stop crime. And so how did the drug war start? Well, because, you know, because the societal perception of who is a drug user, that they're minorities, that they're hippies, that -- whatever it is, back in like the 50s and 60s. You know? It's easy to go and pound legislation against people that don't look like people in your community. Right? And it's easy to defeat legislation when it only affects people who don't look like people in your community.

And it's easy to use legislation like that, say I defeated so and so bill, that would have, you know, given power to the drug users and drug cartels. It's politics. It's easy politics.

DEAN BECKER: Thank you, Gene. Old hippies. I'm an old hippie, if you can't tell. 1968, I got busted for 0.023 grams of marijuana. That's the first of the 13 times. I'm lucky I was white, I was lucky I had a little money. Never had more than I could, you know, consume, but I was -- the truth is, I was drunk every time. They never busted me for drunkenness. But anyway, let's get to the questions. There's a Texas law from 2007, it was called House Bill 2391. It allows for a ticket instead of an arrest for less than four full ounces of marijuana. The law does not prohibit issuing a citation, no matter the number of times the person was previously arrested. The current policy you have implemented here, Devon, is, allows for first time marijuana offenders to avoid arrest. I want to ask why you've chosen to limit it to those first timers?

DEVON ANDERSON: Because, to show success. To work with people, one, who needed a first chance to avoid a conviction, but also, people who I knew would be self-correcting and would be successful. Because this is a selling job, make no mistake about it.

DEAN BECKER: I hear you.

DEVON ANDERSON: And I mean, I've got to get buy-in from the whole community, and from law enforcement, so to start with this, to show this, I, we are talking about expanding it to more than just that population. We're just trying to create a successful record at the beginning.

DEAN BECKER: Building a staircase, right? Gene, go ahead.

GENE WU: And Devon's thinking, and she won't say this, but she's taking a huge political risk doing this. And this is, I mean, it's still Harris County, it's still a real conservative town, and so, you know, and that's why, every time I see her I always have to thank her for doing it, because I know she's taking a risk politically when she does this. And part of it is, you have to basically show in a smaller program why you're doing this before you go out there and say well, let's expand to other things.

DEVON ANDERSON: Well, I think I've shown many times recently that I kind of suck as a politician, so, you know, I'm not really good at that. But I'm getting, following the law and trying to do the right thing.

DEAN BECKER: Thank you both. And I want to say, since I quit drinking, I haven't been arrested. Okeh? Let's see. Municipalities around the US are changing their drug laws, their focus, to decriminalize drugs, mostly marijuana. Cities include Seattle, Ithaca, and New York City, Tampa, Florida, and others. And I want to ask, coming back to you, Devon, is it possible.

DEVON ANDERSON: Say my name, Devon. It's Devon.

DEAN BECKER: I'm so sorry. Thank you.

DEVON ANDERSON: That's all right. You keep picking on me as the first, I'm going to ask you to say my name right.

DEAN BECKER: Devon. I'll get it right. Is it possible for the Houston city council or the county commissioners to reinterpret or otherwise redirect law enforcement to diminish or reform our drug laws separate from the legislature?

DEVON ANDERSON: I don't think so. Not that I'm aware of. I should say to -- look, somebody wants to disagree with me, though.

GENE WU: Yeah. I mean, I may not disagree, but I mean, I know that other police departments, even across the country, have made it their lowest priority.

DEVON ANDERSON: Oh, they can do that, certainly.

DEAN BECKER: They could make it lowest.

DEVON ANDERSON: Policy-wise, yes, policy-wise.

GENE WU: They can't re-interpret the law.

DEAN BECKER: They're going to get a lot of --

DEVON ANDERSON: And we're piloting, in HPD's defense, we're piloting with them a cite and release right now for marijuana, where they have mobile AFIS and they can run you right at the scene, to confirm that you're a first offender and you don't have any warrants for capital murder or something, and then they're offering the program right there. So we are piloting a cite and release, and we're looking at other ways to do that as well.

GENE WU: Yeah. Not to take away, I mean, Devon is amazing.

DEVON ANDERSON: But no, you're right. Policy wise, they could. Yeah, absolutely

DEAN BECKER: They could. Okeh, okeh. They're going to get a lot of visits from me.

DEVON ANDERSON: They could just decide not to -- let me, can I say real quick, so we're clear on how charges are filed in Harris County? Police officers do not file charges here. The district attorney's office does, so if I'm an officer with somebody in possession of two joints, I have to call the district attorney's office and explain what happened, and a lawyer answers the phone 24 hours a day, every day of the year, and determines whether there's probable cause for the arrest, and if there is not, then they're told to release the person. If there is, then the prosecutor decides what charge to take, and that's why we are, if they don't call us, we don't know. So like Chuck McClelland, Chief McClelland, HPD, decided on a certain amount of, I can't remember what the milligrams was, of cocaine, he told his guys, don't even call the DA's office.


DEVON ANDERSON: So, they can do that.

DEAN BECKER: That's common sense.

DEVON ANDERSON: Law enforcement can do that. All right. If we don't know about it, we don't know about it. That's all I'm saying.

DEAN BECKER: Okeh. Gene, go ahead.

GENE WU: And, I understand what, the pathway you're trying to go with at city council and stuff. But, even with localized -- and this is the problem that I wanted to talk about the last -- in another panel, is, with localized differences in enforcement, and, you know, Devon is the DA for Harris County, her concern is Harris County. I'm a state rep with a district in Houston, but my concern is the entire state. And I have to, when we go, we have to think about the entire state. So one of my big concerns, in a criminal justice perspective, is, now that we have these pockets where people will be treated differently, now we have unequal justice throughout the state, that you have a little county who just says we're going to throw the book at everyone. That's not fair. And then you have places where you have a fair and just system. You know, you can't, you -- it's an unsustainable system, in the long run.

That -- I think this is a good, I mean, unfortunately, you know, Devon's had to do this because, you know, it's no longer a working system, but in the long run, we're going to have to change the law and I'm really trying to get people out there to help push that point, is that you cannot have this system where you just let the DAs manage their stuff, because you could have very disparate treatment of people throughout the state.

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: But those are the baby steps that start the process --

GENE WU: Right. No, and --

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: and inform those that y'all are trying to demonize. I mean, you know, I mean, I'm not -- the people -- we don't -- to answer your question, we don't get there until we educate the people about the drug laws, the war on drugs. And I, it's got to be, you know, a manner in which somebody's willing to pick up the book, or the program, and read it and understand, and that understanding starts with baby steps, which is the district attorney here is doing, and Gene, I just disagree with you. I think you have -- it's okeh, to --

GENE WU: No, I don't, I'm not saying -- I'm saying what Devon's doing is absolutely necessary. But the thing is, in the long run, the end goal has to be a change in state law, it cannot just be, let's just get all our DAs to modify their policies.

GARY HALE: That incongruity also exists between the federal and the state level. As we talked about earlier, we've got several states that have passed various laws, liberalizing marijuana possession or medical marijuana. At the same time, you've got the federal government continuing to enforce marijuana laws and other drug laws. The attorney general really hasn't done anything or said anything either way. But, it appears that US Attorneys offices have just backed off, while they let the experiment, you know, continue. I mean, at the states.

DEAN BECKER: I think some -- most of them have backed off. There's still a few renegades out there, busting heads everywhere. This question is coming to you, Gary. In 1995, former CIA director William Colby stated, quote: The Latin American drug cartels have stretched their tentacles much deeper into our lives than most people believe it's possible. They are calling the shots at all levels of government. End quote. He was found dead a few weeks later, of a canoeing accident. Now, given the acknowledged corruption of US border guards, customs officers, policemen, including narcotics officers, prosecutors, judges, and others, and the fact that we never intercept more than 10 to 15 percent of the drugs being smuggled, how much corruption is tolerable in the drug war? Your thoughts, sir.

GARY HALE: No corruption is tolerable, period. But it happens, whether we like it or not. So, there's two different things there. I'm not sure if you're asking me whether these, this situation causes the man's death. I'm not sure if you're asking me that or not. I don't find that to be --

DEAN BECKER: I don't know, I don't know

GARY HALE: I find that to be a bit of a stretch.


GARY HALE: Colby, being the, he was both the director of CIA and the director of central intelligence, he wore two hats at the time. Obviously, one of the things that the DCI does every year is identify threats to national security. So, whenever you have a country outside the United States that is destabilized or becoming a failed state, and if we have a relationship with that country, whatever that country may be, then we have to pay attention to that. So that's why we're so concerned, especially about Mexico. Mexico is not a failed state, but it does have a lot of corruption, and that corruption is eating away at the ability of municipal, state, and federal government to conduct governance. If it can't govern, if it can't enact laws and enforce laws as a government, then it becomes chaos, worse than what it is now, and it does impact on the United States. So from that perspective, from that optic, from a director of central intelligence to the United States, worrying about the corruption occurring in another country, that's why.

DEAN BECKER: Okeh. Howard, did you want to step in there?

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Yes. Just jump in a little bit. We're obviously focusing on Texas, the United States, but especially here, living on the border, we know roughly that in the past 10 years, the Mexicans have suffered some hundred thousand KIA, killed in action, because of prohibition in the United States. And a lot of these are young adults, teenagers, etc., and as we see, last year, last couple of years, a hundred thousand plus kids roll up on our border asking for asylum, everybody's going, well how did this happen? Well, of course, the gangs in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, have taken over, and cause such a reign of terror that parents are sending their kids in this dangerous thousand mile journey because if they stay, they're going to be hurt, raped, or killed. The American prohibition's tentacles, if you will, stretches all over the world. The latest reports I get in DC, ISIS folks are now, have taken over the cocaine trade going into Europe, so when they blow apart Paris or whatever's next, they are funded into the billions of dollars by the cocaine trade they've taken over.

DEAN BECKER: Thank you, Howard. Yeah.

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: No cheerful news here, sorry. Trigger alert.

DEAN BECKER: I'm going to come back to you, Gary. From time to time we hear law enforcement agents saying, when referring to drug cartels, that they want to cut the head off of the snake, right? El Chapo Guzman, head of the largest snake, is back in prison for the third time. Now, Ismael El Mayo Zambada Garcia has once again risen to the top, to become the top dog in the Sinaloa Cartel. He views himself as a replaceable element in a vast machine. Here, I'm going to quote Zambada, quote, "The problem of drug trafficking involves millions of people. How do you control that? As for the drug lords, whether they're locked up, killed, or extradited, their replacements are already there, lurking." Can our current drug laws ever stop this?

GARY HALE: Stop? No. I was working in Boston for one of my tours of duty, and I was, we caught a ship full of marijuana going to Canada, and so I was working with the Coast Guard folks, and my Coast Guard colleague said to me, you know, and it was just back in the late 70s, early 80s, this was marijuana, after marijuana. I was stationed in New Orleans, and the average load was 40 tons of marijuana that we caught, and we caught at least more than one a week. Fishing boats, trawlers, coastal freighters. It was endless, marijuana coming through. So, the Coast Guard colleague of mine said, you know, what are we doing? Are we having any effect, does it mean anything? And the only answer I could give him was, we're the finger in the dike, at that point, you know. We're just, if you take the finger out, the dam busts, and all hell breaks loose.

So, that's the best I could do insofar as are we making a difference. There has to be some control. There has to be. Because it's not all about marijuana. There's heroin, which is deadly. Methamphetamine, which is deadly. LSD, which is deadly. Et cetera. There are many other drugs that really need to be controlled. We can't just blanket say, let's legalize all drugs. Some folks favor that position, that opinion, that's fine, we can argue about that. But, there has to be some control, and will it ever be resolved? I don't think so. This is why the federal drug strategy is not to win the drug war. It's to disrupt and dismantle drug trafficking or transnational criminal organizations. Disrupt and dismantle, make it difficult for them, to reduce the amount of drugs that are being either manufactured or sent into the United States. Part of that strategy is called the kingpin strategy, you're talking about Chapo Guzman, to get rid of the leadership of these drug organizations. That has had limited effect, I've written some papers about that, because it works in the United States, because in the United States we have task forces, you have federal, state, county, and city law enforcement agencies working together, and so everybody attacks their element of the drug trafficking organization, from the street all the way up to the top.

If, when you apply that in Mexico or any other country outside the United States, it doesn't work as well because the different levels of government don't cooperate with each other, for various reasons, including corruption.

DEAN BECKER: We've had several questions from audience members, I did not know their names, but at this point, Jerry Epstein, the president of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, spoke up.

JERRY EPSTEIN: Can I ask a follow up, Dean.

DEAN BECKER: Jerry, go ahead.

JERRY EPSTEIN: Gary, you were mentioning tonnage and marijuana, and so forth. Now as I understand it, annual tonnage for heroin is 10 tons. Might be 20, we don't know. Okeh, but our estimates right in there. That is two hundred pounds a day. Now explain to me, with millions of containers, cars, people --

GARY HALE: How're you going to find it?

JERRY EPSTEIN: -- crossing the borders, how do you find -- it's not a needle in the haystack, it's trying to poke a thread through it.

GARY HALE: Heroin comes from southeast Asia, comes from southwest Asia, which is now Afghanistan, Turkey, and Pakistan. Southeast Asia, Burma, Laos, and Thailand. From, now it comes from Colombia, and it comes from Mexico, so you have four different areas of the world where opium is cultivated and converted to heroin. So it's not just, you know, watching the containers that are coming into the United States, which is by the millions because of the success of NAFTA, but now you have to worry about the rest of the world, and all of the business that is being conducted with those countries. How do you stop it? It's nearly impossible. You have to --

JERRY EPSTEIN: If it's impossible, then what's the point of haggling here? I'm serious. I am deadly serious.

GARY HALE: Well, that's where you get into the supply side demand side equation.

JERRY EPSTEIN: Yes, your side is zero.

GARY HALE: What's that?


JERRY EPSTEIN: Your side is zero. I mean --

DEAN BECKER: Let's let Howard jump in here. Jerry, let's let Howard jump in. Go ahead.

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Yeah, when I first got to Washington, in 2005, the GAO, the General Accounting Office, did an audit of the DEA, with all due respect, and turns out they're -- how successful were they in their mission, and they get about two and a half, three billion dollars a year. They gave them a D minus, and I think that was a charity grade inflation. Folks, understand it this way, I'm a cocaine dealer in Houston, I need a thousand kilos a week to supply the customers in Houston, but I know that between the fields in Colombia and Peru, and the streets of Houston, I'm going to lose about, let's say, be generous, 20 percent of everything.

But I'm not stupid, I run a billion dollar business. How many kilos do I start out with in Colombia? One thousand two hundred. So when the Coast Guard gets a little bit, Customs gets a little bit, local narcotics units get a little bit, some street cops get lucky. Week in and week out, a thousand kilos arrive at the warehouse I use to distribute. And that is why we are a mosquito on the butt of an elephant. We do not make any difference whatsoever, and the DEA's own numbers point it out. Drugs are cheaper, they're stronger, and readily available to our children. In my world, we could stop, we could save three billion dollars, the DEA would not be there, and you would not notice any difference in the streets of America.

DEAN BECKER: This is Dean Becker, I want to thank you for joining us on this edition of Cultural Baggage, and always remember, because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag, please be careful.