11/03/17 Jeff Higgins

DPA Conf 4: Jeff Higgins former DEA Spec Agent, Suzanne Sharkey UK LEAP, Howard Wooldridge DC activist, Ethan Nadelmann retired head of DPA, Mitchel Gomez of Dance Safe, Holly from San Fran Drug Users Union + Abolitionist Moment

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NOVEMBER 3, 2017


DEAN BECKER: I am Dean Becker, your host. Our goal for this program is to expose the fraud, misdirection, and the liars whose support for drug war empowers our terrorist enemies, enriches barbarous cartels, and gives reason for existence to tens of thousands of violent US gangs who profit by selling contaminated drugs to our children. This is Cultural Baggage.

Thank you so much for being with us on this edition of Cultural Baggage. I am your host, Dean Becker. We still have plenty of good interviews from the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Atlanta, but first up:

You know, it's rare that I get a chance to speak to folks who have worn a federal law enforcement badge, but today we have the privilege of speaking to a gentleman, Mister Jeff Higgins, who was a special agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration, has experience in, I don't know, this drug war, and who has the knowledge to give us perhaps a different perspective on this thing. Jeff, thank you first of all for being our guest.

JEFF HIGGINS: Oh, thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

DEAN BECKER: Jeff, the heck of it is, the perspective, the mindset, about this drug war, is shifting these days, is it not?

JEFF HIGGINS: Yeah, I think it certainly is. There's been a lot of failures in this, you know, so-called war on drugs, and I think more and more states have been moving away from, you know, prohibiting drugs and criminalizing some of the drugs, and I think it's seeped into a lot of our lawmaking around the country over the last few years.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir, and you've had the opportunity, you've been on some of the major networks. It's my understanding you were very much involved in capturing one of the heroin godfathers in Afghanistan. Could you give us a summary of that, please.

JEFF HIGGINS: Sure, yeah, that was, there was an episode on CNN Declassified, I did a few interviews on CNN. It was the case against Haji Baghco. He was the world's most prolific heroin trafficker, somebody most people probably never heard of, but he worked in Afghanistan. He was based in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and he sent heroin to 22 countries at least around the world.

But this one guy, this one organization, was responsible for at least 19.7 percent of the world's heroin, in the year that we had records for, so between like 2006 and 2007.


JEFF HIGGINS: And Afghanistan's sort of the breadbasket of the world for heroin production, and this guy produced over $261 million in a 12 month period, at the low Afghan kilo prices, so, he was really responsible for a significant part of the world's heroin.

DEAN BECKER: And, it's my understanding that, you know, these farmers, they tend these opium plants, they scrape the buds, they collect the opium juice, if you will, and it's my understanding that currently a gram of opium goes for about six cents in Afghanistan. Would you concur with that thought?

JEFF HIGGINS: I have no idea how much a gram of opium goes for. I can tell you, you know, we certainly didn't work at that level. Six cents sounds about right. I can tell you a kilo of heroin in Afghanistan, so it's, the poppies, you're right, the poppies are grown, the opium is taken from the poppies, it's processed and made into heroin and made into -- excuse me, to morphine and refined further into heroin, and a kilo of heroin goes for anywhere between like $2,500 US to $5,000. So that same kilo in the United States is somewhere around $70,000 to $100,000. So, yeah, it would make sense that the opium at the very small user levels would be just cents in Afghanistan.

DEAN BECKER: Yes sir. Now, it's my understanding that, you know, you guys were able to take out this Afghan godfather, if you will, but everybody knows that somebody else stepped up and took his place. Am I right?

JEFF HIGGINS: Yeah, it, of course, you know, the, listen, there's always a demand for drugs, so drugs will always exist, you know, so when you dismantle an organization or you take the leadership out of an organization, you disrupt it for a period of time, and sometimes you actually dismantle it so it's never reconstituted, but then, the competition's picked up by another organization. So, yeah, in this case, there was -- there were other people who tried to step in, but for a period of time, the capabilities of that organization were significantly decreased.

DEAN BECKER: Well, you know, Jeff, it's been, oh gosh, ten years ago, I had a debate with a DEA agent at a local college, and he kind of said that it's kind of like mowing the lawn, or taking out the garbage, that it's just maintenance, that the job will never be finished. Would you agree with that thought?

JEFF HIGGINS: Yeah, I don't -- yes. It's maintenance in the fact that all law enforcement is maintenance. Right? You can have homicide police, but murder's never going to go away, but you have to be able to, you know, deal with the crimes that are coming up, and you know, obviously crimes against persons versus, you know, other crimes, like, you know, gambling or prostitution or drugs, which are, you know, that are more in the victimless category are different, but the point is, when you're -- when people commit violations of law, and that's never going to go away no matter how much enforcement you have, you can lower levels of certain crimes, but of course, the crimes will always exist there.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. Yeah. Well, once again we're speaking with Mister Jeffrey Higgins, a former special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Now, Jeff, I want to ask you, you know, I use the phrase, you know, that we empower our terrorist enemies that are brave enough to grow the flowers we forbid. Your thought in that regard, sir.

JEFF HIGGINS: I don't think we're empowering them. I think by prohibiting certain drugs, the profit margins go way up on those drugs, you know, if there was a -- for instance, if there was a legalization of heroin, I think you would see, depending on the regulations, governments, you know, put in place, there would be -- the profit margins wouldn't be the same as they are right now.

Whenever something is prohibited, it becomes harder for people to get, and, you know, as you know, scarcity creates higher prices in markets, so, just the fact that certain drugs are prohibited make them more expensive, and also, they give an outlet for criminal organizations to come in. It's like, we were talking about the -- Haji Baghco in Afghanistan. It, you know, it's, the world -- the majority of the world's heroin, somewhere around 85 percent right now, comes out of this area in like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and it's also where the highest concentration of terrorist groups are in the world.

And when drugs are illegal as they are in Afghanistan, you know, they -- businesses don't have the protection of governments, as a matter of fact they're hiding from government when these drug trafficking groups are there, so it's a natural alliance with terrorist groups. So, you know, you talk about us, you know, giving the opportunity for terrorist groups to make money on this? I mean, I think there's some truth in that, in that the prices are higher, but just the fact that they become illegal means that criminal groups are going to be involved, because they have to be involved.

If you have a business, you have to be able to protect it, and if you can't use the courts and, you know, the full judicial system, you can't call the police when someone steals from you, you have to be able to use violence yourself, and that's why you see these violent groups and terrorist groups that get involved in it.

DEAN BECKER: Well, and yes, and we certainly have violent groups south of our border, Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, barbarous actors killing thousands upon thousands of people each year to ensure their drugs make it to the US, and, which brings to mind, Trump is trying to promote his wall, that that wall will stop the drugs from making it to America. Your response to that, sir.

JEFF HIGGINS: Well, I mean, border security certainly has an effect on the amount of drugs and how they're able to come in, you know, but drug traffickers will always find ways around whatever the security is. The lower the security, the easier it is, the higher the security the harder it is. You know, so, a wall is not going to stop drugs from coming into the country, but it might put additional -- an additional burden on the drug trafficking groups.

DEAN BECKER: Right. I've seen pictures of the catapults they've used to throw the drugs over the walls already in place. Yes sir. Through this prohibition, we give power to these criminal gangs to extort and corrupt wide swaths of every nation. Your thought there, sir.

JEFF HIGGINS: And I think that's correct. I mean, I don't think that they would -- they would be without power if drugs were legalized, you know, I think the groups -- like the groups, for instance, that I targeted, and DEA targets, like, the highest level of drug trafficking and transnational criminal groups, the groups that I've targeted throughout my career, and I spent the majority of my career targeting narcoterrorism, you know, so groups that were working hand in glove with the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, and some of these other really just savage organizations.

If drugs were legal, you know, those same groups would have a very limited involvement in the drug trade, so in that respect, by making it illegal you're giving them this revenue outlet. But, if drugs were legal, they would find something else, they would find other, you know, they wouldn't stop doing the bad things that they're doing, and I think the same is true for, like, criminal gangs you see in the United States. You know, if, because drugs are illegal, you see this involvement of gangs, MS-13, and, you know, these various gangs around the country. And if drugs were legal and you could go to CVS and buy drugs as opposed to getting them from an MS-13 gang member on the street, you'd probably go to CVS.

You know, so that would limit the revenue these gangs are getting, but these gangs then wouldn't just go open up bed and breakfasts, you know, these gangs are also, they believe in the use of force against other people, you know, they're immoral organizations by nature, and because they're violent, and they would just go find other illicit or licit activities to engage in to generate revenue.

DEAN BECKER: No, absolutely right, I agree with you sir, but it would take a lot of money out of their pockets, that they -- as I understand it, right now, roughly 50 percent of the money made through drug sales is used to corrupt officials on one side of the border or another. I know that's a huge approximation, but it has a huge impact, nonetheless, does it not?

JEFF HIGGINS: It definitely has an impact, I don't know about that number of fifty percent, but I can tell you that organized crime is like, like in Europe, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime does a yearly drug report, and they estimated that in Europe, organized crime lose, 35 to 50 percent of the organized criminal groups that were there were engaged in drug trafficking, and a significant amount of their drug proceeds, I want to say a quarter to fifty percent, came from drug trafficking.

So, you know, when you have groups like this, that are illegal groups and they have the kind of money that we're talking about, I mean, I mentioned the $261 million in one year that Haji Baghco's group made, that was worth billions of dollars by the time it got, at the wholesale level, by the time it was distributed to other countries, you know, billions.

And it went -- and you can multiply that by like a factor of ten, when it got down to the user level. But when you're talking about this kind of money and these kind of criminal groups, there's a huge corrupting influence, you know, the black markets emerge, which are, you know, sometimes in the short term they give a little bump to economies, but in the long term they're devastating for economies.

And then, and the corrupting influence, and we're talking judges, police politicians, you know, the people who are supposed to be there to enforce the rule of law, do get corrupted, and it's, maybe it's not most police or most, but, there's enough of them where it starts to have a deleterious effect on the society.

DEAN BECKER: Yes, sir. Okeh, friends, once again we've been speaking with Mister Jeffrey Higgins, a now-retired special agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration. Jeff, one more question, and this one, well it's a bit cumbersome to ask, but I hope you understand. I realize that at the federal level, there is not an obvious correlation between race and arrests, but we are beginning to see at the state and local level proof that there has been an inordinate amount of attention paid to the black and Hispanic communities, that they are arrested at rates several times that of their white counterparts. Your response to that please, sir.

JEFF HIGGINS: Well, I think you have to be careful when you look at those statistics. I mean, clearly if there's even the suggestion of racism, it's something that needs to be looked into, I mean, it's behavior we can't allow. We certainly can't allow it in a country of laws, you know, there has to be equal and fair treatment under the law for anybody, regardless of their race or social position, or religion. But, I think it's -- you have to be careful when you talk about, like, disproportionate outcomes, you know, like, I did an article recently for Law Enforcement Today where I talked about the myth of racist police officers going around the country murdering unarmed black men, and really dug into the statistics.

My master's was in criminal justice and in research. Some of the confounding variables you have to look up -- look at is, like, various populations' involvement in certain crimes, you have to look at culture, you have to look at economics, you know, I mean, poverty for example, poverty and crime are heavily correlated, and if poverty within the black population, I think it was close to double nationwide of what it was in the white population, that's going to have an effect on how many people are arrested, just because they're correlated for other reasons.

So I think, and there's dozens of these factors, so I think it's -- the initial -- all of our initial thing, when you hear something like, wow, they, you know, like, blacks for example, or whatever the race is, is getting arrested at a higher level, we all kind of cringe and we should because, if racism is the reason, we need to stop it and try to point to some of the causes, and if at the end, there is like systemic racism involved, then we need to fix it.

DEAN BECKER: Very good. Well, Jeff, the tie-in to that is, in the last, I don't know, six months, or a couple of years, there's been a new focus, if you will, on white folks using opioids, and it's bringing about a kinder, gentler understanding and approach, I think. Your thought in that regard, please.

JEFF HIGGINS: Well, I know, I've seen that the rates of, like, opioid abuse, like, you know, abusing prescription drugs and overall rates for some reason have gone up much higher in the white community, when you break down, like the addictions by race, so, I think that would explain some of the focus on why that has happened. The white population is certainly the largest population within the country, so, when numbers are higher in one, it means that overall the problem is going to be much larger as well, you know, I don't know about a kinder gentler approach to opioids.

You know, my experience was in federal law enforcement, and the federal laws are always pretty tough, and the focus within law enforcement was always law enforcement, you know, and I personally, I mean I think education and I think treating a lot of the drug problem as a health emergency, I think that's a better approach in a lot of ways. But I don't know that I would agree, at least federally, that there was a softening of the approach.

DEAN BECKER: No, I agree with you sir, which brings me to my final question, and that is, members of the ONDCP and the DEA, they cling to these, and I'm going to call them, you know, primitive screeds, basically, laws that were put forward by, brought forward by folks like Harry J. Anslinger, who was an obvious racist, and I guess what I'm leading to here, sir, is that at the state and local level, people are backing down. My city of Houston just stopped arresting people for under four ounces of cannabis, and I guess the point is, when or will the DEA and ONDCP ever take a new look, take a new perspective, at this eternal war on drugs?

JEFF HIGGINS: You know, I think it's a conversation that they need to have. I'm surprised you're not getting more involvement with people like at DEA. I mean, there's a lot of public money that goes into these anti-drug efforts, you know, and it's a big issue that effects economics, and social issues, I mean, it's an important thing, and so, you know, DEA and, you know, ONDCP, these people, people, legislators, they should be talking about this, and I don't know that you're ever going to see a radical shift in what's being done, I mean, I think you might see some incrementalism, because the vast majority of people don't think drugs should be legal. The vast majority of people think that there's a problem with drugs.

Whether that's right or wrong, and, listen, I'm a small government guy, so, you know, I'm not a fan of paternalistic laws, but I think, when you're talking about legislation changing and policy changing, I mean, DEA is enforcing federal laws. Right? So you would have to look at changing the laws, and for a politician to look at decriminalization or legalization, you know, I think that they're going to look at the political effects of that. And so I, I mean, I think that that's a problem in some ways, in other ways, if they're trying to represent the will of their people, it's okeh, but, you know, it's also, we're a republic not a democracy, so you'd like to see, you know, laws that, certain laws that do infringe on individual's rights, regardless of how many people think it's a good idea, probably are not good laws.

So I talked around your question quite a bit there. I hope they have that conversation, I think there's been a lot of unintended negative outcomes from the way that we've approached the drug issues, and I think it definitely needs a fresh look.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, we've been speaking with Mister Jeffrey Higgins, a former DEA special agent. Jeff, I understand you've got a book in the works, any closing thoughts, maybe a website you'd want to share?

JEFF HIGGINS: Sure. My website is JeffreyJamesHiggins.com, and I'm just finishing up a book about narcoterrorism and DEA's entry into the global war on terror, but really, really talking about the connection between -- with a specific case, Khan Mohammed case, the first person convicted of narcoterrorism, talking about the linkages between the illicit drug trade and terrorism worldwide. I think there's some very strong arguments for legalization in some areas, if not all.

DEAN BECKER: The following was recorded at the Drug Policy Alliance conference.

SUZANNE SHARKEY: Okeh, my name's Suzanne Sharkey, I'm from the north of England, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. My work at the moment involves, I've got two strands, I have an organization called Recovering Justice, and I'm also vice chair of LEAP UK, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, as it is at the moment.

DEAN BECKER: You know, we're here at the Drug Policy Alliance conference, they say fifteen hundred people, I don't know the tally yet, but a lot of folks are gathered here in support of change, in support of recognition of the futility of this drug war. Am I right?

SUZANNE SHARKEY: Yeah, absolutely. Personally, from my own background, I was a police officer in the northeast of England, and looking back on that, just the whole futility of drug law enforcement and the negative consequences far, far outweigh any positives, if there is -- is there any positives? I don't think so.

DEAN BECKER: No, I start off, anybody asking about my stance in regard, prohibition is evil. Let's start right there. But, you know, that's the whole point. You know, I've recognized that in my city of Houston, where I have the most focus, I think, that as a new batch of police chiefs or sheriffs or district attorneys come in, they are able to move toward sanity in regards to drug policy, a little more each time, because they, and I like to use this phrase, they didn't make their bones through this policy, they're able to speak with a fresh perspective. And I think that's happening worldwide. Your thought there, please.

SUZANNE SHARKEY: Yeah, I mean, sure, so, the work we do back in a place Durham, there's an amazing chief constable who's in charge of the whole area, and he's implemented a new diversion scheme in the local area, looking at problematic substance use, those that are involved in drugs, and actually what's called by de facto, so what he's saying to his police officers on the street, you know, do not arrest people and prosecute people for personal use and possession of drugs. And that's amazing, that he's come out as a public figure, somebody that's actually in service, to say that as well, and sort of backing, you know, there is no point in enforcing this law, and trying to do the best to serve his community.

You know, it's a poor community with social deprivation, high unemployment, and, you know, looking at the social implications of those that use drugs, that actually enforcing the law and criminalizing these people does nothing.

DEAN BECKER: People are beginning to recognize that it affects not only that individual, but their family, their job, their ability to pay rent, and to just proceed successfully. It's -- it undermines so many things.

SUZANNE SHARKEY: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. You know, I always go back to, we have to remember that 90 percent of people that use drugs in the UK do so without causing any problems whatsoever. It's their personal choice, it's what they do, they prefer to do that than maybe go out and drink a load of alcohol at the weekend. The ten percent, which is the people that have problematic substance use, you know, where, you know, and their mental health's really poor, and they're self medicating with illegal drugs, you know, they, yes, okeh, they can cause some crime to get the money to pay for the drugs, but what they need is, they need treatment and help. They don't need to be criminalized. You know, it just makes matters so much worse.

And then the roll-up, the knock on effect of the families, their communities, and that society, you know, so we have to start grassroots at that, and we have to look at society, look at the community, and what we need to do is we need to reconnect. We need to empathize and support those people that need the most help, and not just leave them.

DEAN BECKER: Very profound words. I thank you so much, Suzanne. Is there a website, some closing thoughts you might want to share?

SUZANNE SHARKEY: So, Recovering Justice is, I'm particularly interested because I'm in long term recovery from problematic substance use, and where we -- what we look at there is, we look at taking problematic substance use, and drug use, you know, for those that use drugs without causing problems, taking them totally out of the criminal justice system, and putting it into a health system where it should be.

We have a website, that's www.RecoveringJustice.org.uk, and then also obviously we've got LEAP UK, so if you google UK LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, that's got a massive wealth of information about the UK, and we've got some great podcasts with really influential people in the UK about let's change -- let's get, as you said, let's be grown up about this. Let's look at it as in, we've spent fifty years doing it this way. Hey, let's try something different.

DEAN BECKER: I'm here at the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Atlanta, and I'm speaking with a civilian who showed up. His name happens to be Ethan Nadelmann. I'd like to ask him what he thinks of this conference.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, Dean, I have to tell you, it's great to see you, and it's great to be at my first DPA biennial where I'm not in charge. And, I can just sit back and float, and appreciate everything. I actually went to a session, a breakout session earlier today, and I sat through the entire thing, which I don't think I've done that in 15 years. You know? So not to be in charge, and to feel good about my successor, Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno, feeling good about her being hired and stepping up there, feeling good about the energy, feeling good about DPA, you know, about the energy of this movement. So, this is a very sweet time for me.

DEAN BECKER: And, you know, I hear some folks thinking that Sessions and Trump are going to backslide us and take us back to 1952, but I don't see that on the horizon. I think drug policy has so much traction, so much recognition, and it's just not going to fall back.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I mean, Dean, look, the fact is this. Fortunately we -- in this case, we are a federal system. Most of drug policy is done by the states and localities, not by the federal government, so there's only so much they can do on that front. Secondly, and we have a lot of momentum in a growing number of states, increasingly bipartisan momentum, on issues from cannabis reform to sentencing reform to harm reduction, et cetera.

I think secondly there's no longer a bipartisan consensus for the drug war in Washington, DC. It's not just that the Democrats are increasingly engaged with us, but that a growing number of Republicans are dissenting from all different aspects of the drug war. So whatever Trump and Sessions, and especially Sessions, wants to do, they don't have that strong support on Capitol Hill anymore. Right?

The third thing about all this is that we have a movement that's a lot stronger than it was in the past. And we are able to block things, we're able to keep pushing forward. So yes, it is true that there are things that Jeff Sessions as Attorney General is doing, and is going to do, that's going to make life more risky in the emerging cannabis world, that is going to hurt a lot of people who are getting their sentences relengthened, and losing opportunities to get out. It's going to get in the way of some of the harm reduction, more cutting edge harm reduction.

So there are things that Sessions and his ilk can do, and will do, and are doing, but in the broad scope of things, I think our momentum is stronger than what they can do to push us back.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, it's not exactly the dying volley of a battle, but, perhaps minor in comparison to the progress that's being made. Good samaritan laws, and needle exchange, and other things that are being contemplated very seriously around this country.

ETHAN NADELMANN: And cutting edge stuff. I think we're going to see safe injection facilities opening up in different parts of the United States over the next 12 months, and we'll have to see how Sessions responds to that. I think that this LEAD program, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which is basically the closest thing to a Portugal model you have in the US, in terms of the police diverting people without arresting them, I think that's got growing momentum.

I think the number of police chiefs and DAs, I mean, they're still a venal player in the drug war, but the number who are sort of leaning our way is growing all the time as well. And the cannabis reform, it's not as if you can just stop that. I mean, there are some things that Sessions can do to try to trip it up, and make people fearful, but we have such strong public opinion on our side.

On the international front, a little more worried because that really is in the hands of the administration, and we do see things rolling a bit backward in other parts of the world. So I -- internationally, I almost feel a little more pessimistic than I do in the US. You look at Duterte in the Philippines, you look what's going on in, you know, in Russia, you look in parts of South America where some of the momentum for reform has diminished of late. So, I am a bit concerned about that.

But, I think within the US, we're going strong. And Canada, thank god for Canada going strong.

DEAN BECKER: Right. I still am a little curious why they're going to need more money for law enforcement once it's legal, but, okeh, let's see where it goes.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, we shall see.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. As a civilian, you don't have really any commitments to speak of. Are you on a panel even this go?

ETHAN NADELMANN: Well, I'll tell you, yeah, I mean, I'm delighted that DPA is going to honor me tomorrow night, and I'll get the Richard Dennis, you know, the big award tomorrow night, which I'm very happy about, and I'll say some words there. Otherwise I have not had a speaking part at the conference. I'm very satisfied and happy with that. And you know, the fact of the matter is, I'm stepping down, I stepped down from running DPA, but I am not stepping down from drug policy reform. I mean, this is --

DEAN BECKER: Never doubted it.

ETHAN NADELMANN: -- this has been my life, this has been my passion, I'm spending more time now really accepting invitations to travel internationally. And so just since I stepped down, I've been in Poland, I've been in Switzerland, I've been in Canada, I've been in South Africa, I'm going to Japan and to Macau in the next month. Just to keep stirring stuff up, keep helping local activists.

DEAN BECKER: Thank god.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Yeah, and so I'm still going to -- I'm still out there, and in the US, you know, I'll still be available to people. I'm not going to join any boards, but I will serve on advisory committees, or advise other EDs, happy to do that. And I will say, one issue that I find myself increasingly intrigued by, I've dabbled in it for the last 15 years, as head of DPA, it's the issue of harm reduction regarding cigarettes, and e-cigarettes, and nicotine. Because the more you look at the evidence, the more you realize that if you could snap your fingers and tomorrow everybody in the world smoking cigarettes would switch to e-cigs or other nicotine replacement devices, that would be the greatest advance in global public health maybe in history.

And so, that issue doesn't have the same issues around mass incarceration and policing and arrest, but it does have issues around public health, fascinating politics, it does have some issues involving class and race and prejudice in that regard. So I find myself drawn to that issue, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do with it.

DEAN BECKER: My 32 plus years now without drinking alcohol, and that, to me, the enticement they put in these ads these days, mountain whiskey, people drinking whiskey at an elevation of nine thousand feet on the edge of a cliff, as if that's how you should live life. That irritates the ** out of me too, Ethan.

ETHAN NADELMANN: Ah, that's right, I mean, you know, one of the -- part of what we have not uprooted in this country and most others is this basic notion that there's something immoral about taking drugs in order to alter your consciousness in an enjoyable way.

You know, we sort of accept it with alcohol, sort of, up to a point, but we don't, and we're beginning to accept it with marijuana, and you know, it's not just medical, so it's something else, but the inability to accept that people might put a substance in their body for the sake of having an enjoyable experience, and that the role of government should be not to punish people or despise people for that, that the role of government should be to ensure they stay safe, if that's what they want to do, and that if they stumble, they get a little help, and that they only get punished if they're hurting other people. That basic notion, we still have a ways to go to get the majority of Americans to embrace.

DEAN BECKER: But we're getting there.

ETHAN NADELMANN: We're getting there.

DEAN BECKER: Thank you, Ethan.


DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Upset stomach, nausea, vomiting, heartburn, headache, diarrhea, constipation, drowsiness, dizziness, stomach pain, swelling of the hands or feet, unexplained weight gain, tinnitus, liver disease, and death. Time's up! This medicine, supplied by dozens of pharmaceutical houses, is named ibuprofen.

We're here at the Drug Policy Alliance conference in Atlanta. I'm surrounded by people with motivation, I'm surrounded by people with an attitude and a perspective and a demand for change. And one such man has been relentless in his pursuit of justice in these here United States. He tours the halls of the United States Congress, nearly every day of the week, every day he can -- he's making some, he's blazing some trails, and he's one of the founders of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, now Law Enforcement Action Partnership. My friend, Mister Howard Wooldridge. Hey Howard, how are you doing?

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Dean, good to be here with you. All well, all good.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, now, you folks may not know, Howard was, he's famous, got a book out about it, he rode his horse Misty across America twice. He's like the 21st century Lewis without Clark, or something, but, Paul Revere is right, but, he rode his bike across America. I mean, it's a man trying to get the attention of the media, to change the perspective of the media, to let them speak the full truth to the media. He's right now wearing a shirt that says "Cops Say Legalize Drugs. Ask My Why."

Now, Howard, that brings up a point. Back when those shirts were first issued, you could create a storm walking through the mall, couldn't you? It's changed a lot since then.

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Absolutely, Dean. I started out in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1997, wearing this shirt, and I can tell you that there was a lot of anger, lot of hate coming back on me from just regular folks, and especially -- and police officers even worse. And, the amazing -- so I changed it from drugs to pot. Then I got a better reception, saying that cops should be chasing, you know, pedophiles, not Willie Nelson. That sold a lot better, just, everybody loves Willie, and leave him alone, and pedophiles are a problem.

And, but the cool thing is that, over the years, I've noticed a change. So a couple of years ago I switched from the pot shirt back to drugs, and now the resistance to the message, I can walk down now any mall in Atlanta, here, or back in Fort Worth, I've done it, and I get nothing but, wow, thank you, and yeah, I agree, all drugs. We ought to get rid of those drug dealers and other things.

So the resistance to the LEAP message has come down dramatically in these last 19 years, and it's continuing that trend. It's all cheerful news in terms of the progress you and I and thousands of others have made.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, it's -- it feels good. It really does. And, I honestly believe, I was talking to someone this morning about the fact that right now in America there's about a hundred die-hard, stalwart, drug warriors that are running this, just a few in each state perhaps, a few in the -- that run the Senate and the House. And I always use the term, they made their bones through this policy, and cannot now back down. Your thought there, please, Howard.

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Well, and let's look at the cheerful news, a couple, two years ago at a hearing in Indianapolis, the head of the Indiana State Police said we should legalize and regulate marijuana. Now, that's Mike Pence's state, Mike Pence is a true drug warrior, but that's just indicative of what we're hearing more and more across the country, more solid police voices, guys who are in command, women in command positions, are saying that we admit this is a trillion dollar failure, we admit that this is never going to be effective, and the harms done by prohibition far, far outweigh any possible advantages to the prohibition. That's the good news.

The bad news, of course, especially at the federal level, where I, you know, in the sandbox I play in, between Sessions and a couple of guys on Capitol Hill, like Pete Sessions from -- the Congressman from Dallas, we are not going to get a vote this year or next year, we didn't get one last year, as leadership, or if you want to call it that, the guys in power, I'm not sure that I'd want to call them leaders, but the guys in power in Congress are not allowing a vote on this because, the great news for your audience is, we, especially Don Murphy of MPP, counted the nos this year, with the new guys coming in, Republicans et cetera, we now have, first time in the history of the world, a slight majority of members of the House of Representatives would vote to end the federal prohibition and make this a state's rights issue.

So we're making solid progress, it's just the, let's not call them leadership, let's call them the guys in power, are not allowing a vote of the people's representatives on this issue.

DEAN BECKER: Well, just like our home state of Texas, they created a special law to prevent a ballot measure to vote on marijuana. Right?

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Yeah, that's right. I mean, it's unfortunate that we're -- where in Austin, we'll let an individual county or city go dry with alcohol, you can't have the same vote on god's green plant. It's disgusting, but it's power politics, and it's what I deal with every day, so I, call me used to it or whatever.

DEAN BECKER: Well, anyway, there's glimmers of hope here and there, and that's what keeps us going, right?

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Well, sure, look at last fall. A year ago, out of nine ballot issues, we passed in eight including four for full blown treat marijuana like beer. The winds of time are on our back. I mean, you know, when I first started, like you kind of said, in Texas, I mean, it was a pretty good class two hurricane coming at me in Fort Worth, when I was starting to wear this shirt, and now, it's a steady breeze at our back and pushing us forward, making it easier, not easy, to go forward and go to these conferences and go out there and work the halls of Congress, because I know, every day, we make a difference.

You know, Senator Leahy, a former prosecutor, he's on the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, had a nice two minute chat with him last week, and now he knows very intimately, not just his staff, but he's met the man who represents police officers who think if you have a drug problem, see a doctor, and that's -- that's the kind of stuff that I appreciate doing with him and others in the Congress, to say you're not alone if you feel that not only is this -- this policy's a failure, you've got solid law enforcement professionals, other prosecutors just like you, Senator Leahy, used to be, are in favor of major change.

DEAN BECKER: Wonderful news. Once again, we've been speaking with my good friend Howard Wooldridge. We certainly want folks to go to the LEAP website, that's an easy one, LEAP.cc, but, you have some other outfit you might want to point folks towards?

HOWARD WOOLDRIDGE: Yeah. And Dean, you know, everyone is concerned with the 120 American citizens dying every day from the heroin, fentanyl type problems. I'd urge you to go to a website called CitizensOpposingProhibition.org, click on resources, and there you'll find a six-minute summary of the Swiss approach to the heroin problem, which is highly effective, very pro-life, and their results are fantastic. And you need to send that type of information to your Congressman, to your Senator, and to your state reps, to your governor, because the -- we're still approaching this heroin problem from a twentieth century treatment perspective which is failing people every day and they're dying.

So this is another part, I know there's a big part of your audience wants to stop this carnage, and the Swiss, the practical people in Switzerland, figured this out 23 years ago. I urge you to go to that CitizensOpposingProhibition.org, click on resources, the Swiss heroin treatment method.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: My name's Mitchell Gomez, I'm the executive director of DanceSafe. DanceSafe is a 501c3 health education nonprofit. We do a lot of things. We give out -- we go to events, we give out nonbiased drug information, we give out free water, free condoms, free earplugs, and the thing that we're sort of most infamous for is setting up at events and doing onsite reagent drug testing.

So people can actually bring us their pills and powders, blotter, whatever it is that they're thinking about consuming, and we reagent test the substance itself to determine the primary composition. So these tests don't do purity or potency, but they tell you what it is.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: And then, we, you know, we let them know what it is that we found, you know, we never advise them to take or not take a substance, we don't ever say this is a good pill or a bad pill, or a safe pill, we just say, you know, this is a positive reaction for MDMA, or this is a positive reaction for something else.

Twenty-ish chapters, it tends to fluctuate a little bit. We're hoping to double that number in the next two years.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: Over a thousand volunteers, a lot of volunteers.

DEAN BECKER: Well, Mitchell, it occurs to me that, you know, you guys are trying to protect our children. I mean, that's basically it, the, let me continue to say, it is the government which insists that our controlled substances are not controlled in any fashion whatsoever. Your response to that little conundrum.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah, I mean, I think that's a valid point. I think, you know, drug control is when you go to the store and you buy a bottle of liquor that says it's 18.5 percent alcohol. You know with 100 percent certainty that it is 18.5 percent alcohol. You know that that's the case, because the government is controlling the manufacturing and distribution of the alcohol, so you know that it's controlled.

Prohibition is the abdication of drug control to the black market, it's giving up all of the control to the black market. Giving up control to people who, yeah, don't necessarily care about what it is that they're selling, they don't necessarily care about the end user, and that's certainly not all dealers, but then there's also dealers who simply don't know. I mean, just like there's end users who don't know that adulteration and misrepresentation is such a huge problem.

DEAN BECKER: Well, if you never listened to my show, I close my one hour program with the thought that, because of prohibition, you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah. It's, I really do believe that the ultimate goal of harm reduction is legal regulated access to all drugs. I think that's the ultimate end goal for, if you want to make drug use as safe as possible, you really have to make sure that people have a legal and regulated way to achieve it. So it's not just de-felonization, it's not just decriminalization, they actually need to have a legal way of accessing these substances.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: Now, whether that means -- I don't think that necessarily means selling acid at 7-11. I do think there's probably some room for either creating places where it's allowed, so you would have sort of a temporary autonomous zone, you know, like a, what we now call festivals, but there would be a legal mechanism for applying for, at this place during this time, people can go to a booth, purchase, you know, a hundred and twenty micrograms of LSD that's gone through QA in a legal, regulated way, and they can -- they can't take it with them but they can use it at this event.

And I think that we either, we can do it that way or we could even do a sort of licensing model. You know, where people could get a license to use either drugs in general or specific drugs. You know, so you would have groups like MAPS, that are doing the MDMA therapy, could have a center where you could go do MDMA the first two times, or three times, and then you would have a license to purchase MDMA, and if you abused that license in any way, if you drove on it, if you gave it to somebody who wasn't licensed, if you gave it to a child, they could pull your licensing. I don't think legalization necessarily means, like I said, just putting it up for sale at 7-11.

DEAN BECKER: At 7-11, sure. Well, Mitchell, let me as you this, you know, what we've been talking about is really one of the main contributors to the fear of drugs and drug users, is that ofttimes they take drugs that are not what they thought they were taking, the result is often horrendous --


DEAN BECKER: -- and that was not the intent of that person. It was exact -- it was the exact result of this prohibition.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah, I think, and the irony there is those incidents are then used to further strengthen the prohibition narrative, this idea that oh, these drugs are so dangerous we have to keep them away from everybody. I would say really that five percent of what DanceSafe does is harm reduction that is intrinsic to the drugs. You know, whether MDMA came from the black market or a government licensed facility, it's going to impact your ability to thermoregulate, it's going to increase your likelihood of overheating in a hot environment. That is intrinsic to the molecule, there's no getting around it. We are going to have to provide harm reduction services for that no matter what.

The other 95 percent of what we do is really harm reduction for the ills of prohibition. It's harm reduction specifically for the things that are being caused by the illegality of these substances. And so yeah, a lot of our work is sort of doing the work that the government should be doing because of the bad things the government's doing. It's, it is, it's frustrating, sometimes.

DEAN BECKER: Cities and states around the country are considering or have passed good samaritan laws to protect those, saving the lives of others who may have used a dangerous or deadly drug.


DEAN BECKER: How is that progressing? Are we making progress still in that regard?

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah, I mean, I thought we were. I've sort of given up on my ability to predict politics. We're sort of in the post predictive politics age, yeah, there's no way to know what's going to happen an hour from now right now.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: But it does seem like the conversation has shifted in a lot of ways. But you do still see on, when, we're now starting to talk about safe injection sites, you know, places where people can go and use injection drugs, and you do still see, on, you know, comment threads, if you go on news stations that are talking about these safe injection sites, you do still see a huge percentage of people who, their attitude is basically, well, these are junkies, a lot of them die. And you see that, you see it a lot.

I think part of that is people are willing to say things on the pseudo-anonymous internet that they maybe would never say --

DEAN BECKER: Oh, right, right.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: -- in person.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah, in church, I don't know how many of these people go to church, I mean, I guess maybe a lot of them.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: But yeah, I think, good sam laws are I think an absolute no-brainer, the idea that if a person calls 911, they should not be able to use the fruits of that call as part of a criminal prosecution. I think that makes sense to almost everybody who it is explained to properly. But I feel that way about harm reduction in general, that if you explain it properly, even active duty super pro drug law enforcement generally understands what you're saying when you explain harm reduction properly.

DEAN BECKER: Sure. No, I think in general, the US population is finally waking up to the, I don't know, maybe not the totality, but a lot of it. They're starting to recognize how poorly it's functioning. And the dangers and death that it's -- it requires, in essence.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah. I try to avoid conspiratorial thinking, I do, but, if you look at the drug war from like a realpolitik perspective, if you look at the drug war from, not what the people say they want it to do, but from what it actually does, you know, I don't think the people who are enacting these policies are stupid. I think some of them are quite evil, but I don't think they're dumb. And so if the goal of the drug war was to reduce drug use, clearly it's an unmitigated failure. That can't be argued. We have more people using drugs now than at any time in history, we have more people dying from those drugs than any time in history.

And yet, they keep doubling down on these policies, and so to me what that says is, the drug war is doing what they want it to do. They wouldn't be doubling down on these policies if it wasn't doing what they wanted it to do.

DEAN BECKER: I won't go there, but I hear you.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah. And, I mean, what the drug war really has done is, it's allowed them to erode the Fourth Amendment, it's allowed them to increase private prisons and funnel massive amounts of public tax dollars into the private prison industry. It's allowed them to pass legislation that allows them to spy on American citizens in a way that I think is really, on its face, entirely unconstitutional. I don't know if you've ever heard of parallel construction, this is the --

DEAN BECKER: Oh, yeah.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: -- so, you know, yeah, the feds can find information about drug transactions, and they feed it to local police, and then the local police even hide it from the judge --

DEAN BECKER: Right, and they swear they actually got --

MITCHELL GOMEZ: -- where they got the information, right. And so the fact that this is an open -- this is not even a secret anymore, this is open information at this point, that parallel construction. And so it really has allowed them to, if you wanted to make a checklist of everything that people who hunger for power would want over a free population, the drug war has really allowed them to do almost all of it.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah, the drug war is a mechanism, I don't know, I think of it in many different ways. It's like spokes on a wheel, of, you know, border violence, and you know, international intrigue, and empowering terrorist cartels, and gangs, et cetera. And at the heart, I just see the hub is evil. Just evil --


DEAN BECKER: -- emanating from it. I'm not asking you to go there.


DEAN BECKER: But I'm just saying, I find nothing positive in it, anywhere.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: I agree, I think there's, I think there's almost nothing to recommend policies of prohibition. I think, even from the arguments they claim, you know, we want to reduce children using drugs, we want to reduce the number of people using drugs, we want to reduce the number of deaths, I think it's so clear that the policies have failed at this point.

They've made a lot of people a lot of money, these policies, on both sides of the equation, have made a lot of people a lot of money. But that's about the only thing they've done is generate tremendous economic impact in some parts of the third world that maybe would not have had access to those sorts of resources.

DEAN BECKER: Right. There's always the destruction it seems --

MITCHELL GOMEZ: There's a lot of destruction that comes with it, but yeah, that's again, a policy of prohibition, right? This is, you know, one of the things that I try to stress is, you know, you have this idea that MDMA production for a while was responsible for something like 15 percent of global deforestation.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: You know, people were cutting down the safrole trees --

DEAN BECKER: The pollution of the Amazon.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: -- and pollution of the Amazon, yeah, really terrible stuff.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: But there's perfectly sustainable ways to produce all of these drugs, it just requires that you're not hiding from the police.


MITCHELL GOMEZ: You know, as long as you're not hiding, as long as you're doing it legally, there's nothing to stop you from doing fair trade organic cocaine. You could grow the --

DEAN BECKER: I look forward to the day when you've got coca leaves at a Kroger store, you've got big gobs, one ounce balls of opium at the drug store.


DEAN BECKER: At a reasonable price.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah. Those I feel like are, those I'm okeh with being at 7-11. I really am. There's a few that I think --

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. Let's sell it to adults, and --


DEAN BECKER: -- and fine them and close the store if they sell to kids.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah. Yeah. And we certainly -- we already have mechanisms for enforcing those things because of alcohol, like it doesn't require any additional enforcement mechanism.

DEAN BECKER: Right. I hear in Canada, they're going to legalize weed but they need hundreds of millions of dollars more for law enforcement, which just puzzles me a lot.


DEAN BECKER: There's --

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Well, I mean, if you could ask the government for a hundred million dollars and nobody would question it, you'd do it too, right? I mean, so, don't let it puzzle you too much.

DEAN BECKER: I agree with you.


DEAN BECKER: All right, well, I tell you what, I've really enjoyed this conversation. It's good to see a young buck like you with the knowledge --

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Well, thank you.

DEAN BECKER: -- and the attitude, and perspective, and a go-getter.


DEAN BECKER: I appreciate it. Closing thoughts, a website you might want to share? Yeah.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: So, DanceSafe.org is our website, if you want to volunteer, the volunteer training is all online now, so it's much easier to get trained as a volunteer now than it ever has been. We're also a 501c3 and always looking for donations, if you're in the neighborhood for a donation as well, that's a great way to do it.

And we also are partners with the lab at EcstasyData.org, which is a licensed laboratory with a full GCMS setup that people can submit their substances to, and have them tested by a full analytical laboratory, and the results go online with the code that you submitted. And so you just get the results on the internet.

DEAN BECKER: Another way to save lives.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: And another way to save lives.

DEAN BECKER: Mitchell, I commend you for your work. I wish you great success, and, look, we are in Atlanta, we're at the Omni Hotel, we're not hiding out in the suburbs or in, you know -- and I guess what I'm wanting to close my thoughts here with Mitchell, we're right in the heart of CNN.


DEAN BECKER: We have an opium crisis going on in this country that's unparalleled, the mayor of Atlanta just signed a bill in essence decriminalizing marijuana. Does that not tie into what we are doing here, and where the hell are the CNN cameras? Your response, please.

MITCHELL GOMEZ: Yeah. I think the media, in some ways, in this country is really a pillar for what good media can be, and in some ways it's not. And I think one of the ways that they really fail is, you know, the old phrase if it bleeds it leads, right, this idea that you want to put the bad news on the front page, and it's hard for people to wrap their head around the idea that the movement to reduce the dangers of drugs is not being led by the police, it's being led by us, it's being led by the people who are saying hey, we need to legalize these things, we need to create policies that make it safer for people to use these substances, and it's not a -- it's not a sexy image, right?

It's this idea that, the idea that the government has been wasting literally trillions of dollars for literally decades, I think is one that a lot of people have a really hard time wrapping their head around, because it is really a failure of our society that we've allowed this to go on so long.

HOLLY BRADFORD: My name is Holly, I'm an international drug user activist, and human rights worker. I am formerly from Boston. I was in Cambodia for seven years doing human rights work with drug users. I'm now in the bay area working at the San Francisco Drug Users' Union.

DEAN BECKER: Now, we're here at the Drug Policy Alliance, there's folks with all kinds of focus and endeavors going on, but, yours is of, I think, great concern during this time of extreme numbers of overdose deaths, and, just the, the lack of knowledge about what people are putting into their bodies. Your thought there.

HOLLY BRADFORD: Well, we have a lot of thoughts about it. We'd like to see prescription heroin. Until that happens, I think the best thing we can do is supervised injection facilities, or safer consumption spaces as they're often called. In California, we just had a bill called AB186 that was going to allow various counties throughout the state of California to have a supervised injection facility. We made it through the house, and we made it to the floor of the senate for a vote after a lengthy process, and we lost by two votes. I think we're going back to bat in January.

We also have a mayor's task force in San Francisco that I was member of, that made recommendations to the mayor to have a supervised injection facility in San Francisco. Those recommendations are being released publicly, and then we'll wait to hear back and see if Mayor Ed Lee is the hero that he says he is, and is going to sign our bill, or our task force papers, and let us move forward with a sanctioned SIF in the United States. It would be the first one in America.

There's also an underground supervised injection facility somewhere in America, that there's some researchers doing some research on. They won't name where it is, but that facility's been running for three years already, has I think they said has had over 2,500 injections in it, and reversed quite a few overdoses. So, they apparently work in America, and we'd like to see one, you know, get the support it needs and the funding it needs in California.

DEAN BECKER: A few years back I was privileged, I went to Vancouver, while there I was able to tour the Vancouver safe injection facility. I found it to be amazingly clean, to be sterile, to be warm and welcoming, and to be a vital part of their community, because it saved so many lives. Your thought there, please.

HOLLY BRADFORD: I'm very aware of Insite. I know the founders of Insite, and they're certainly heroes in the harm reduction movement. They fought very hard for that program, and got knocked down, and they got back up and now it's up and running and saving a lot of people. I think America's a little different. We have federal laws that we bump up against here that are separate from state and local laws.

Also Vancouver's is a one-stop, all shop, place. It's got a detox, it's got a housing facility, it's a very, very expensive program to run. I love that model. I don't know if we have the money for that model, so what we're looking to do, at least where I live in California, is to open up various small injection facilities within existing programs throughout the city, so they're more accessible and it doesn't cost us multi-million dollars to run them.

DEAN BECKER: Right. And you don't have to travel across town and lose other opportunities back and forth. Any closing thoughts you'd like to share, a website?

HOLLY BRADFORD: Yeah. My closing thought is, we're in an opioid crisis right now. The Global Commission on Drugs just came out with their paper on the American opioid crisis. I helped with that paper, and I think it should be read. It gives you the numbers, it gives you what we need to do in the future, and until we can really have prescription heroin and have SIFs that are sanctioned, people need to go back to the old do not get high alone, always have naloxone, always do a test shot. Enough deaths that we need to stop this, and right now, in my mind, it's state sanctioned genocide because nobody's like stepping up to the plate to save our lives.

DEAN BECKER: Ladies and gentlemen, this is the abolitionist moment. We must stand. We must speak. We must demand an end to the madness of drug war. This 94 year old prohibition of non Fortune 500 drugs must be brought to an end. This prohibition has no basis, no dignity, no embrace of reality, no reason to exist. As did the abolitionists stand against slavery, and alcohol prohibition, so too must we stand for truth and reality itself. Do your part. Join forces with other abolitionists. Please visit EndProhibition.org. Do it for the children.

Well, I hope you enjoyed the program. Please visit us at DrugTruth.net, and again 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.

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