At the recent Drug Policy Alliance Reform Conference, I had the pleasure of chatting with long-time drug policy expert Sanho Tree. He was interviewed in February 2014 by Alternative Radio while he was visiting Colorado shortly after the first retail stores opened. I’d like to share a couple of insightful excerpts from the 2-part series that came from that interview. I hope you’ll click over to read the entire series.
Sanho Tree is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and director of its Drug Policy Project, which works to end the domestic and international “War on Drugs” and replace it with policies that promote public health and safety. The project focuses on both the dysfunction of domestic politics and the collateral damage caused by the U.S. exporting its failed drug war to Colombia, Bolivia, Mexico, Afghanistan and other countries. The project develops new mechanisms to establish humane and sustainable alternatives to the drug war, such as tax and regulate models of cannabis control. Sanho has been featured in over a dozen documentary films and has appeared in hundreds of print and broadcast interviews. This two-part series is an edited version of a talk Tree gave which was recorded by Alternative Radio in Colorado.
Historically and still roughly through today, about two-thirds of the drug war budget goes to supply side – military, law enforcement, prisons, prosecutor – and less than a third goes to treatment and prevention and demand reduction. I think that should be, at minimum, flipped. Study after study shows that dollar for dollar it is far more effective to fund prevention and treatment than it is to go through law enforcement or interdiction or supply eradication, as we’ve done in Colombia. These are the most counterproductive ways of spending money.
But this is Washington we’re talking about. If you want to look tough, if you want to kick ass, you want to lock people up, show how tough you are, whether it’s wars or the war on drugs or whatever, there’s a blank check for you. If you want to talk about treatment and prevention, that’s health and human services, that’s soft stuff, that’s social spending. You’re a tax-and-spend liberal. That’s the first thing they jettison. And we do this time and again to social programs. Then these same fiscal conservatives turn around and say, “Aha. You see, it doesn’t work. You can’t throw money at the problem. These policies can’t succeed.” Unless, of course, it’s Star Wars or something like that. Then they continue to throw money at it and it will never work. So it’s the Washington mentality.
That’s true of so many social issues, whether it’s mental health care or the homeless or whatever. God, it would be so much better if we funded them. And it would help with drug abuse and addiction as well. Because ultimately there is no substitute for building a healthy society, and that’s what we fail to do. Instead of building a social safety net, we have spent the past 30 years dismantling ours, such as it was.
When I was born, Lyndon Johnson began his War on Poverty, the Great Society programs. Because we were a wealthy country, we could tackle some of these issues – it was high time that we did that. It was a guns-or-butter issue back then. War on Poverty or war in Vietnam? War in Vietnam wins, sucks up all the money. The War on Poverty never really gets off the starting block. That’s the last time we really took a serious whack at these social issues.
We have generations born into conditions of poverty, despair, alienation. There are so many communities I’ve been in where people don’t believe that tomorrow is going to be a better day. Go to inner-city Baltimore, many Rust Belt cities, go to Detroit, go to lots of different places, and you will see lots of people who think that their best days are behind them. And it’s true for a lot of them. It’s hard to argue otherwise, given the objective reality they’re living in. But our response to them as a society has been to say, “No, you need to be sober and have no job and no hope and no future and no opportunity.” That is not going to work.
We’re at that crossroads again. Guns or butter? Are we going to hire more police and prosecutors and build more prisons to deal with drug abuse and addiction? Which is about as effective as digging more graves to solve the international AIDS crisis. It really solves nothing. Or are we finally going to start investing in our domestic economy and social programs and give people a reason to look forward to tomorrow? Ultimately, not to sound cheesy, I think that’s the best prevention strategy—to give people a reason to look forward to tomorrow. That could be as easy as a job for a lot of people.
If you go to the Netherlands, historically they have had fairly liberal drug laws. The coffee shops are famous. But if you take a drug policy tour, they will show you the education system, public housing, the health care system – all these things that it takes to build a healthy individual. Then they will show you the coffee shops and the drug-control system.
That’s the right order. Sequencing is everything, prioritization is everything.
What you have done here in Colorado and in Washington state with marijuana legalization, I don’t know if you appreciate the international ramifications of this, but they’re huge. When the voters came out so strongly in these two states, it really sent a signal across the world that the citizens of the U.S. – forget the politicians, who are always worried about reelection – have had enough of the war on drugs, particularly the war on cannabis, and they’re willing to experiment and talk about regulation.
This has sent a shock wave around the world. Things that have been building up to a tipping point for many years now: the drug war in Mexico, Colombia and Afghanistan, our domestic war on drugs. There are many countries that have wanted to talk about alternative models, different ways of approaching the drug problem, and have been held back, especially by the U.S. The U.S. has been historically the biggest drug warrior nation. We fund the drug war in many countries in Latin America and around the world. It’s been a monolithic model.
Voters have shown that as a society we’re ready to move beyond cannabis prohibition. We’re not talking about cocaine and heroin and other harder drugs yet. The new Gallup poll just came out. Fifty-eight percent nationwide now believe in regulating cannabis. That is staggering. It was 51% a couple of months ago, so it’s jumping up and up – it’s a real tipping point. We knew this was coming; we just didn’t know when it was coming. I’ve been working on this issue for 15 years, and I’ve seen more change in this past year than in the previous 14. So you’re living in a remarkable time, and the voters of Colorado have done a tremendous deed for the rest of the world.
Let’s start at the top of the hemisphere – Canada. There’s change in the wind there, although the Harper government, a very conservative government, wants to sound tough on drugs. They want mandatory minimums. They want to copy the American model. Some people call them “Bush Lite.” But the public in Canada as a whole is moving in a different direction. More and more provinces are trying to liberalize their laws. Vancouver, in British Columbia, is doing tremendous stuff. They’ve had this safe-injection site called InSite that’s been operating for over a decade now, and it’s remarkable. They have a high population of heroin addicts, and they deal with it in a very different way from, say, Baltimore or other places in the U.S.
They implemented harm-reduction policies. They actually set up a supervised injection site, where addicts could bring heroin that they purchased on the street into a safe place. There will be a doctor, a nurse on duty. It’s a clean environment. You no longer have needles lining the alleys. The overdose deaths have dropped to zero – from about 17 a year. It’s remarkable. The spread of HIV has been diminished considerably. And because it’s a harm-reduction facility, there are also people there who are experts in treatment. So when people are ready to give up, they’re there. And they, of course, have national health care, so it’s paid for. Canada has been leading for a long time. The Harper government is a little bump in the road. Nonetheless, the culture is moving and evolving.
In Latin America [progress] has been going on for a number of years now. A few years ago the global commission on drugs was formed. It was initially led by the former presidents of Mexico, Brazil, and Colombia. You had Ernesto Zedillo from Mexico, César Gaviria from Colombia, and Enrique Cardozo from Brazil. These three now former heads of state have since come out against the war on drugs. A lot more people have joined them – from Jimmy Carter to Kofi Annan, and Richard Branson.
Now you also have current heads of state coming out against the war on drugs. This was unthinkable just a few years ago because of the reprisals the U.S. State Department would inflict upon them and also because of the international opprobrium, the U.N. conventions that govern the international war on drugs. A lot more political space has opened up – and thanks to Colorado and Washington states, it’s opened up [even] a lot more.
— Rx MaryJane (Teri Robnett)
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