02/12/20 Sanho Tree

This week on Century of Lies we're joined by Sanho Tree, Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and Director of the IPS Drug Policy Project.

Century of Lies
Tuesday, February 11, 2020
Sanho Tree
Download: Audio icon COL021220.mp3




FEBRUARY 12, 2020

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

DOUG MCVAY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I am your host, Doug McVay, Editor of www.drugwarfacts.org.

Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and he has been the Director of the IPS Drug Policy Project since 1998. A former military and diplomatic historian, his current work encompasses the reform of both international and domestic drug policies by promoting alternatives to the failed prohibitionist model.

In recent years the project has focused on ending the damage caused by the drug wars in Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Afghanistan, and the Philippines establishing humane and sustainable alternatives to the drug war. It fits in to the IPS Mandate as one of the major contemporary social justice issues at home and abroad. It is such a pleasure to have a friend of mine and the program, Sanho Tree on the line. Sanho, how the heck are you doing?

SANHO TREE: Doing great, Doug. It is great to be with you.

DOUG MCVAY: You were in the UK at Windsor Castle not long ago and I am trying hard not to be jealous to collaborate with our good friends at Transform Drug Policy on a report that has just been issued entitled, ‘Challenges For A World Where Drugs are Legally Regulated’. What is this report about?

SANHO TREE: We gathered and retreated to Windsor Castle as one does. It was actually hosted by St. George’s House, which is a think tank based at Windsor Castle and it was founded by the Duke of Edenborough, Prince Phillip, back in the 60s. They convene big international gatherings on complex issues to spur interdisciplinary discussions. It was an absolutely fascinating meeting. We had people from all different aspects of drug policies representing users, farmers, people who are studying the synthetic markets, cannabis experts, treatment, harm reduction – and all its various dimensions. We were able to get together and talk about the future. We are so busy putting out fires of today that we don’t really give thought to what comes next. I think that was one of the shortcomings of cannabis legalization, for instance. The corporate capture kind of took many of us by surprise. Not that it happened, but the pace of it all and that was a big issue that came up in these discussions. More importantly though I think it got us to an understanding from all of these different perspectives that drug policy isn’t really about the drugs themselves; it is about everything that feeds in to the drug policy. It is about poverty, despair, alienation, public health, corporate capture and all of these things and it was nice to have that space to talk across disciplines and give each other heads up about what is approaching on our fronts as well as things we have to deal with urgently and where we need more coordination. I think it was a great interdisciplinary discussion and it was particularly important because drug policy reform is the most interdisciplinary issue I have ever worked on. Keep in mind that I used to be a World War II historian back in the 90s. Fighting a global world war is a pretty complicated interdisciplinary because there are so many things to balance; but drug policy is even more complicated in my opinion because unlike World War II, it’s less black and white, with a lot of different variables involved and we don’t give enough time to really think about these questions.

DOUG MCVAY: That is fascinating. I was speaking to a sociology professor named Kerwin Kaye recently who authored a book on drug courts entitled, Enforcing Freedom Drug Courts, Therapeutic Communities, and the Intimacies of the State. One of the points that he makes is that in some of these drug courts it is not so much about the drugs that they are taking, in fact whether they are using the drugs problematically or not is beside the point. For a lot of these it is about the drug culture and getting the person to stop whatever it is that they associate with drug culture lifestyle.

SANHO TREE: Yeah. Compliance – you will comply.

DOUG MCVAY: Yes. So that is standard as far as drug policy is concerned.

SANHO TREE: Yes. In fact, one of my favorite partner organization in the Philippine’s called NoBox Transitions and they do harm reduction. NoBox sounds like no box, or thinking outside of the box. If you look at the drug war and how so much of this works bureaucratically and it’s about lots of individuals who get paid to not understand the nature of the problem and to tick off the right boxes. How many people go through this treatment protocol or do Zumba exercises passes for a lot treatment in the Philippines. It is also about meeting quotas and hitting numbers so you can get paid and get more appropriations the next cycle. It really has nothing to do with the individuals or building a health society. It is the banality of evil in many ways.

DOUG MCVAY: I wanted to ask you more about Windsor and I especially wanted to track down this rumor that you helped convince a certain Ginger to drop everything and bring his new wife to North America, but we don’t have time to go in to that. Let’s instead transition to something you just mentioned and that is the Philippines. They are still a dictatorship and Duterte is still in power. It is a litany of horror. What is happening over there, can you give us an update?

SANHO TREE: I was just there in October on a speaking tour in Manila and some of the outlining islands.

DOUG MCVAY: They let you in to the country?

SANHO TREE: Yes. You know 100 million people live in the Philippines and for most of them life goes on day to day even though by many estimates they have killed 20,000 – 30,000 people in this drug war. If you are middle class or above you can live around it. It is like explaining Jim Crowe and lynchings in the United States in the 50s and 60s. It happened a lot but lots of white people lived oblivious lives. This is kind of what is happening in the Philippines because they are killing primarily the poorest of the poor. If you don’t go to those neighborhoods it is easy to look the other way. Nonetheless, there were lots of people who had enough of this killing and they’ve mobilized so there was good response this time. I think it has built in the past three years, but Duterte still remains very popular in the Philippines. He is the kind of autocrat dictator that has very populist policies because he talks about violence, brutality, and toughness in a very Trumpian way and it is easy for his followers to relate to – if you don’t like someone then beat them up and get tough with them – it has nothing to do with solving problems. That has been the key to Duterte’s success, or as I like to say, my opponent says there are no easy answers and I say he is not looking hard enough. That is the secret of Duterte, and that is why Trump is popular because these demigods’ present very simple and very simplistic solutions to very complex problems that just are not sustainable.

DOUG MCVAY: People love action movies and tough guys and it doesn’t matter if he is the good guy or the bad guy. It scares me to think that it does feel like what we are doing in this.

SANHO TREE: Manny Pacaio the famous boxer is a Philippine and right wing senator who supports these tough policies as well so it is a very primal, fascistic urge that when you have enough social problems and you can scapegoat all of them successfully on to the desired demographics it is a potent tool. This is one of the reasons I focus on the Philippines and increasingly Brazil where you have another right wing authoritarian president who has talked admiringly of the Philippine drug control model, i.e., death squads, and he boasts that he is going to kill even more people than President Duterte. It is a very dangerous tool to allow these right wing populists to have because drugs are an easy thing to scapegoat.

DOUG MCVAY: Speaking of right wing populists and out of control regimes, let’s go to Columbia for a moment. How has the peace process been going? Not well as I understand.

SANHO TREE: It is very disturbing and something that we have been warning about for years leading up to the peace process. The state has to be ready and willing to fill the vacuum once the FARC guerillas, who have been fighting the state for 50 years now – lay down their weapons, because they were going to leave a terrible vacuum in much of the countryside. If the state didn’t move in with good governance, investment, and development other forces would fill that vacuum be it land barons, cattle barons, or people wanting African Palm plantations, or coca, etc. People have taken over these spaces that have been vacated by the guerrillas and many of them are criminal groups. The death rate for community leaders and social justice activists who are working for human rights to defend indigenous rights and peasant farmers is at a rate that I have not seen since the height of the war.

Peace is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially when they didn’t prepare sufficiently for that peace. A lot of criminal groups are building that vacuum and nature abhors a vacuum.

DOUG MCVAY: It seems to be a constant problem in that we don’t want to look at what happens next.

DOUG MCVAY: Let’s get this done. Yes, but what happens next? Don’t worry about that. Let’s just get this done. Let’s legalize weed, don’t worry about the rest of it. We will sort out the details later. Let’s just stop this conflict. Let’s not worry about what happens later.

SANHO TREE: It is all short-term thinking and they want rapid results because they want to run for elections and they want to say that they got this done, and they got peace deals signed. If they didn’t invest the peace afterwards you are going to lose this so-called peace and end up with problems that are just as bad. One of the things that has happened is that coca cultivation has increased sharply back to the 2001 levels when we first began this planned Colombia disaster. It shows that more than a dozen years of intense spraying with powerful broad spectrum herbicides doesn’t work. The moment you let up people resume what they were doing because you haven’t dealt with the reasons they were doing it to begin with, which has everything to do with abandonment by the state and their lack of investment, economic alternatives, and infrastructure and they thought they could repress this problem away without investing in the people behind it. We have now come full circle. I first got involved in Colombia in January 2001, just before the first U.S. funded planned Colombia assistance started hitting the ground there. They sprayed millions of acres of the second-most biodiverse county in the world from 2001 until 2015 using crop dusters trying to eradicate the coca crop and it didn’t work; the most they ever got were temporary reductions. By 2015, the World Health Organization linked the main chemical they were using which is Glyphosate (brand name is Round Up from Monsanto) to cancer so the Colombian government stopped the aerial fumigation campaign in 2015 because it was untested and dangerous to spray this stuff on people. Due to the failed peace deal and the resumption of coca cultivation, the numbers are rising again quite sharply. The Trump Administration and the right wing Colombian government are both talking about resuming aerial fumigation and the Trump Administration doesn’t care and doesn’t have the attention span to deal with any of this stuff. They just want it to be the hardest, toughest, most vicious way and that is what they are doing.

One thing we have learned about the spraying program is that unless you deal with the basic problems at hand for these pheasant farmers who are most deeply affected you destroy their livelihoods. Aerial spraying destroys their food security because they don’t know how they are going to feed their family in the coming days and months. They live in remote areas where coca was the only thing that allowed them to survive and that is the one crop they know how to grow. They have ready and willing buyers and it is easy to transport as it doesn’t require lots of roads and infrastructure like fruits and vegetables would. So this almost guarantees that they are going to replant and grow more coca because they are forced with food insecurity and it is the only thing they can do. Lather, rinse, repeat.

DOUG MCVAY: Again folks we are speaking with Sanho Tree who is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and Director of its IPS Drug Policy Project. You are listening to Century of Lies. I am your host, Doug McVay.

Just a couple of lefty liberals whining about things like underlying causes or the consequences of our inactions and the unintended results. Action movie style, just go in and break stuff. This is obviously what works; that is how we got our President.

We figured out in this country that Glyphosate is scary and people are talking about Round Up in fearful tones. People would go nuts if they thought that we were going to do aerial spraying of Round Up on crops some place in the Midwest. Farmers would be up in arms! It would be horrible.

SANHO TREE: Yes, and the version we’re spraying down in Colombia is a super concentrated version of Round Up that you can’t get commercially in the United States. Monsanto even has its own warning labels that say do not expose to the eyes as it can cause permanent eye damage and yet we are spraying this stuff without warning creating gas clouds over farmers, children, and the environment and lots of people are ending up sick as a result of this. It is a completely unsustainable way to control drugs.

We won’t face the reality of this in the United States and we think it is somehow their problem when in fact the policy of prohibition is what is making all of this possible. Without prohibition these farmers are growing minimally processed agricultural and (UNINTELLIGIBLE) commodities that cost pennies per dose to manufacture. There should not be huge profits involved in this economy at all. This is a policy decision and from that stems all of this violence, destruction, displacement, and calamity because we create value where there shouldn’t be much at all.

DOUG MCVAY: Let’s get back to that report that you were involved in at www.transformdrugs.org. What was that title again?

SANHO TREE: It is called “Challenges For A World Where Drugs Are Legally Regulated”.

DOUG MCVAY: What kind of positives can we pull from this and are there some solutions? Can you throw us a ray of hope?

SANHO TREE: We actually thought through a lot of this in terms of what are some guide posts and general principles we should adhere to as well as some caveats. It was rare to get in a space to talk about as Obama said, the fierce things of now and the problems we face now. We were able to look a decade or two in to the future. It is about understanding that drugs aren’t just about drugs. It is connected to some of the other economic and cultural issues that we face. We had to balance that with individual liberty so we had people from the Adam Smith Institute there as well as Lefty’s so it was a good cross cutting discussion. We spent a lot of time talking about corporate capture and learning the lessons from marijuana legalization in the United States. We had some very good people who are involved in regulatory stuff such as Shaleen Title, for instance. We also looked at farmers and were these votes come from and how do we talk about that in a more encompassing way so we had Kathryn Ledebur who is the Director of the Andean Information Network in Bolivia present as well. There were people there doing harm reduction services and direct services. It is very rare to get all of those different factors in the same room to talk and focus on common issues.

DOUG MCVAY: Again folks, we are speaking with Sanho Tree from the Institute for Policy Studies. The drug czar released the National Drug Control Strategy they didn’t use the words ‘harm reduction’, but they actually mentioned syringe service programs three different times in the whole policy, which was mostly in respect to intervention and referral to treatment. I wasn’t going to ask you about that – I am just mentioning it as a side thing so that listeners can know that there was a National Drug Control Policy issued in February and we will be talking about that in a later show. They still have a drug czar! Until they released this policy I wasn’t sure if James Carroll and the ONDCP were still around. You are in D.C., what is up with ONDCP?

SANHO TREE: That is a good question. It is absolutely shocking, right? I didn’t read this year’s report but I read last year’s report. This year has been tied up in the middle of impeachment. Last year’s report came out two years late and was 20 pages long I believe, whereas in the past it was 100 – 120 pages. Here they were trying to justify this enormous budget two years late, which is one of the things that they are required to do by law, and they couldn’t get it done on time. I don’t know how many pages this year’s report was but it seems like there is nobody home, let alone a drug czar. It is a weird situation in Washington where everyone is ‘Acting’.


SANHO TREE: Acting Defense Secretary, Acting Chief of Staff, Acting this and that because no one can get confirmed and Trump doesn’t care, as he likes to keep weak institutions so he can exercise power himself and often very corruptly. When you don’t empower these bureaucrats there is no coordination going on. No one wants to stick their neck out and say anything for fear that they might get the President’s attention and he will Tweet something completely contradicting them or setting them off in a new direction. It doesn’t really serve their interest to raise their heads which allows for some interesting things. Sometimes you get individual bureaucrats who are trying to do the right thing and it gets them some space and quiet time to try to advance some things but there is also a lot of crazy stuff going on. A lot of it is there to please their dear leader North Carolinian style. They make it gratuitously sadistic to please Trump and this is no way to formulate policy. We used to have long, protracted periods of interagency consultations to coordinate things because a lot of these issues are very cross cutting and you would get different agencies to sign off on things because someone might raise a red flag here or there in order to coordinate some of these things but that is not happening these days it seems. People are just hunkered down and we are governing by tweet and tantrum more than data, hearings, logic or any kind of recent process. This can’t sustain itself very long.

DOUG MCVAY: We can but hope. Now we are getting close to the end of the show so I do want to ask about one other thing that is coming up real soon. February 17, 2020 is the 1st Intercessional Meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Their 63rd Session actually starts March 2nd through the 6th in Vienna, Austria.

I loved when I was travelling around doing these things but I was getting a carbon footprint like a charcoal Sasquatch, and that’s not good. I am kind of glad that I can just watch the webcast, on the other hand, so little actually happens. How useful are these things?

SANHO TREE: (LAUGHTER) I haven’t been in a few years. This is important stuff and it’s very deep in the weeds with a lot of it best done by lawyers haggling over commas and minute wording changes, but those wording changes can have big impacts down the line. It is about as fascinating as watching paint dry or chewing concrete for breakfast. Thank God you are monitoring this stuff remotely and others are actually going there but it is a tough slog. However, it is important for people to realize small wording changes are how big changes happen and it can take years to roll down the line. As an example, you see little changes in a Secretary General’s speech, for instance when they start using terms like ‘harm reduction’, or they hint at regulation or decriminalization and the next thing you know it shows up in some consensus draft of some agency of the U.N., then several agencies of the U.N. start to sign off on that language. It could be a couple of years down the line but that becomes the conventional wisdom in U.N. documents. Eventually world leaders’ start reading these documents and it becomes kind of a global conventional wisdom. At this point, all 32 agencies and programs of the United Nations last year came out in support of decriminalization of simple drug possession, which is radical. It was a general consensus by all of the U.N. agencies and programs and the U.N. represents Member States which includes governments around the world. Maybe a lot of these governments don’t recognize this is what has happened but it has happened and eventually these things do become part of the common discourse and that is how change happens. I am glad that you and others monitor what is happening at the CND, but it can take years for the language to percolate in to meaningful change but this is how it starts and it is very important so I don’t want to diminish the valuable work and investment people make in this field. It is just not something that I want to spend my time doing. I will give you a stark example, when I first started in drug policy in 1998, it was the U.N.s UNGASS global meeting and one of the slogan’s they used was ‘A drug-free world, we can do it’. So they are aiming for a drug-free world and that language was so ridiculous and got so much pushback that within a decade it became anathema to even hint that you would support such a crazy objective. When the next drug czar, Dr. Costa was in office, an Irish journalist confronted him about the use of the term ‘drug-free world’. Dr. Costa said that nowhere in any document will you ever find us using that phrase and that it was a ridiculous statement. When the journalist showed him the actual publication coming from the drug czar’s office where they did use that phrase he was appalled. The fact that it became a toxic phrase within ten years that even the drug czar would not be caught dead using it tells you something pretty powerful. This was conventional wisdom 20 years ago and now it is viewed as laughable. These changes do happen.

Again folks, you are listening to Century of Lies, I am your host, Doug McVay. We have been in conversation with my good friend Sanho Tree who is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is also the Director of its IPS Drug Policy Project. Sanho, thank you so much for all of your time my friend. It was good talking with you.

SANHO TREE: My pleasure, Doug.

DOUG MCVAY: And that is it for this week. I want to thank you for joining us.

You have been listening to Century of Lies we are a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. You can find us on the web at: www.drugtruth.net. I have been your host, Doug McVay, Editor of www.drugwarfacts.org.

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You can follow me on Twitter: @DougMcVay, and @drugpolicyfacts. We will be back in a week with 30 more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. This is Doug McVay saying so long!

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 are archived at the James A. Baker, III Institute for Public Policy.