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Pt3 of a debate on “What would a saner drug policy look like?” between Sean Dunagan, former DEA Analyst and Kevin Sabet, former Obama Admin. Adviser

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Is there any evidence that the war on drugs now or previously has actually had any positive effect? What I mean by that, in terms of availability, it seems to me there’s not a high school in the country that a kid can’t get drugs if they want to. So it doesn’t seem like the actual supply really has changed. So are you not dealing with a policy that’s fundamentally broken? And then what?

KEVIN SABET, FMR. SENIOR DRUG POLICY ADVISOR IN THE OBAMA ADMIN.: So let’s look at that. I mean, drug use has fallen dramatically over the last 30, 35 years, especially with regards to marijuana; cocaine fallen dramatically when we actually took a comprehensive approach and looked at Columbia not only as we’re going to bring in the Apache helicopters, but doing it in a way that we worked with their institutions to build up their institutions, to help them and other Latin American parties get together around a table and say, what are the things we need to do to fix the institutions of government.

The idea that we’re going to be able to legalize drugs and solve Mexico’s problem right now—which is, I would say we both agree, a huge issue—the idea that that’s going to happen under legalization is totally, again, missing the point. It’s simplistic in that it doesn’t get to the core issues of corruption and the core issues of what’s happening in Mexico.

So what—Columbia was actually, if you ask people from multiple sides of this issue, a success story in that we were able to do that.

JAY: No, but I’m asking you something specific. The supply here—.

SABET: So the reduction in drug use—hold on—the supply of cocaine has fallen dramatically, and that’s why there’s such a reduction and drought in cocaine in this country over the last five or six years in many communities.

JAY: Okay. Let’s go point by point. So what do you make of that? Is that correct that there’s been success in reducing the supply and thus the use?

SEAN DUNAGAN, FORMER DEA INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, yeah, I mean, with cocaine there’s been a reduction in the use of cocaine.

SABET: And supply.

DUNAGAN: And supply. And—well, let me clarify that. There’s been a reduction in the supply in the United States. That’s primarily attributable to the fact that the market in Europe has exploded in that same time frame. Cocaine in Europe is worth at least twice as much on the street as it is in the United States. So what’s happened is we’ve seen a lot of the cocaine supply that was going to the United States being diverted to Europe. So it’s somewhat less available. However—.

JAY: Is that because of some effect of drug enforcement in the United States, or because it was a better market?

DUNAGAN: No, it’s a better market. It’s a better market.

SABET: [incompr.] changed for no—what was the reason? Why is it a better market?

DUNAGAN: Well, it certainly didn’t change overnight. I mean, there have been small reductions over a number of years [incompr.] cocaine. But in last year’s Monitoring the Future study, which is a government survey of high school students—well, eighth, tenth, and twelfth grade students, and they ask about their attitudes about the drugs, their drug use, and availability. Thirty-five percent of respondents who were seniors said that cocaine was readily available in their school; 80 percent said that marijuana was available in their school. So the idea that—.

SABET: But what was the use level?

DUNAGAN: Well, for marijuana it was about 23 percent, and for cocaine it was about 1.5 percent, which again makes the point that availability of a drug is not directly tied to its use, because we see a much higher percentage of students who say that marijuana is available using it than cocaine—

JAY: But they’re not using it.

DUNAGAN: —right, than students who say cocaine is available.

JAY: Okay. Let’s stop there, ’cause—okay, let’s just focus on this point. If the availability is still there but use is going down, are you saying that’s—because of what?

SABET: Okay. Couple of things. First of all, it’s a student survey where you ask them, you know, can you get cocaine, can you get marijuana. A lot of people respond yes. They asked them, can you get x drug, and that x drug actually is a drug that doesn’t exist, they have about 7 percent of high school seniors saying they can get that drug. So [incompr.] obviously there’s going to be some errors in reporting.

But even given the premise that availability—I agree with you. There is more availability than there is use. I mean, that—everyone that thinks that they can get marijuana isn’t going to go use it. What’s the primary reason for that? Primary reason’s we’ve had a cultural reason—distinction between marijuana and the other illegal drugs in this—or among marijuana and the other illegal drugs. In other words, there are multiple forces in society that says, you know, that is not normal. It is not normal for you to use marijuana. It’s harmful for you. And it’s the same thing with ecstasy and cocaine.

That effort is very difficult to happen under legalization. We tried it with tobacco. We brought tobacco down pretty successfully, about 10 percent over the last ten years. It’s now going up. And tobacco and alcohol are legal, available drugs. Compared to use rates of illegal drugs, there’s no comparison. That’s not an accident. That’s because culture and society and the law come together to talk about what is acceptable and what’s not, and a lot of people follow the law.

DUNAGAN: Well, you’re right, certainly. Just to get back to the survey, of course, you know, you’re asking high school students a question, there are going to be errors in the reporting. But the government still spends millions of dollars a year conducting the survey, so it is [incompr.] right?

SABET: Sure, there’s errors in every survey. But the issue is availability.

DUNAGAN: I mean, it’s the best metric we have about the availability and use of drugs in our schools.

SABET: I agree.

DUNAGAN: It’s the single best metric. So it’s imperfect, but it’s the best metric. You know, regarding tobacco, you know—.

JAY: Before you go there, I just want to get clear on this point, because if the evidence is that drugs are available, especially pot, but other drugs as well, and use is going down, are you saying that—.

SABET: Those drugs are far less available than are legal drugs—let’s remember that. (B) Those are used far less.

JAY: But let me just finish my question. Let me finish my question. Is there any evidence that incarceration, the criminal justice system, has to do with lowering of use?

SABET: Well, I think when done right, there is evidence. When you look at the fact that when there are swift and certain sanctions that are—and they don’t have to be severe sanctions. And that’s the issue. When there are swift and certain sanctions, for example, for people on probation—. We’ve seen methamphetamine use—. I mean, this is—you know, we’re still busy debating legalization. We don’t actually look at what are some of the success stories that have been.

In Hawaii they have reduced methamphetamine use about 70 percent among all probationers in that state because of swift, certain, but moderate sanctions. In other words, the two to three day in jail, the threat of that and actually going through, so not you’re arrested and then next year you might go to court and then the year after that you might go to jail, no. They’ve reformed their public administration system, actually. A very courageous judge, a Clinton-appointed former U.S. attorney named Steve Alm, said: I’m sick of seeing the same people in and out of the system; we’re reforming the system, where we’re going to have people—if you are testing positive as a probationer, you’re going to go to jail immediately, you’re going to have a 2 to 3 day stay, and then you’re going to come out, we’re going to help you adjust with jobs, etc. They’ve seen over a 70 percent reduction in positive drug screens. And that’s a group of meth users. It’s not marijuana or anything else.

So I think the criminal justice system has a huge potential to help out. Look at drug courts. Drug courts take the carrot and stick of the criminal justice system, merge them with treatment, and say, look, we’re going to get you help, we’re going to get you treatment, and—but we are also going to test you. And if you stay in the treatment program, you’re good. You’re not going to have a criminal record. You’re not going to go to jail. If you don’t, we—there is that threat we’re going to hold over your head. And you talk to the people who’ve gone through drug courts—. Forget about us, forget about policy wonks on this issue. Talk to the people who—and the families that this has been attributed to. They say the best thing that ever happened to them were that they were caught by the criminal justice system, but then diverted to a program that offered them help. But there was always that threat of incarceration that was real. That’s important.

JAY: So what do you make of the argument? You need the stick to get people involved in the health care system.

DUNAGAN: Well, you know, nationwide, the single best substance abuse related public health success we’ve had was with tobacco. Smoking cigarettes, the rate of smoking cigarettes has dropped about 40 percent in the last 30 years or so, 35 years. So—and we didn’t arrest anybody to achieve that. What did we do? Some public health campaigns, it was awareness, it was education. We haven’t had that kind of success with any drug.

SABET: We have. I mean, with marijuana we’ve had a reduction in over 50 percent in the last 30 years, and using the same survey you talked about.

DUNAGAN: Well, right. Use rates go up and down. In the most recent years, the use of marijuana is higher. And today, a higher percentage of high school seniors smoke marijuana than smoke cigarettes. That’s about 23 percent to about 13 percent. So, you know, to suggest that making a substance illegal will necessarily lead to reduced use, it’s just not the case.

SABET: It’s about even for twelfth graders. But that still, I understand, gets to your point that there’s cigarettes and marijuana. But let’s—23 to 13. It’s about even, which I think is troubling. And you’re right, you don’t arrest for tobacco. But tobacco has a different cultural place in our society than marijuana or other drugs. So I don’t—that’s why I don’t advocate for the prohibition of tobacco and alcohol. And alcohol, as we talked about, contributes to violence more than any other drug.

There are cultural reasons. You can call it a cultural accident why those drugs are legal and the others aren’t. We have seen a reduction in marijuana. We’ve seen a huge reduction in ecstasy, MDMA use from the heights of the ’90s.

JAY: Okay. Let me get to something very specific. Take Baltimore. There are hundreds of people in jail, either going through the criminal justice system, even for short times, sometime for longer times. There’s youth being charged as adults and doing longer time, mostly for, I’m told, pot, very low-level trafficking, and some possession. And, I mean, I’m hearing over and over again that if you’re white in the county and get caught for marijuana, it’s quite a different issue than if you’re black and in the inner city. Is there—does there not—and then add to that the layer of gang culture and the level of violent crime and murder that’s all associated with control of drug trafficking. Do you not have to have a radical departure from the current policies to break that?

SABET: You do have to have a radical departure. But that radical departure doesn’t necessarily have to mean legalization and increasing availability and use in a community for which which substance has been the result of the downfall of the community. And that’s what community members will tell you. But you do do the radical departure. You look at how could we divert these people from the criminal justice system, from having records their whole lives, which is going to prevent them from getting public assistance, prevent them from going to college, prevent them from getting a job, because they have to answer on that form, have you ever been arrested, do have a felony conviction. Those kinds of things we can work to change. And, you know, that’s what we need to do in Baltimore.

But let’s take a longer view here. It has a lot more to do than just drugs and how we change our drug laws. It has to do with structural inequalities to society. It has to do with economic opportunities. It has to do with housing. The idea that we can legalize drugs and all of a sudden we get the criminal justice system out of it and then we can start doing other things is really an idea that’s sort of just thought of by people who are not in the community. Honestly, you go talk to Representative Cummings, go talk to people in the community, and they want a different approach. They also want law enforcement that they can trust. Let’s focus on doing all of those things.

JAY: Well, we’re talking to young people in the community and families, and we’re hearing they want a different drug policy, if you want to—.

SABET: Change the drug policy. But does a different drug policy mean legalization? I’m with you. Change drug policy. Get rid of the severe sentences. Do the job opportunities.

JAY: Okay. So does a different drug policy mean legalization? Is there an alternative to that?

DUNAGAN: Well, legalization would be the most different drug policy, right? That’s one end of the spectrum. And, you know, of course, again, I mean, I’m not suggesting and no one is suggesting that legalization will immediately do away with income inequality and blight and the existence of gangs in our country.

SABET: That’s your choice, that’s your policy choice [crosstalk] question,—


SABET: —is legalization, a policy choice.

DUNAGAN: Yes, I think legalization and moving from a criminal justice model to a health model would really have tremendous benefits for people in those communities that we’re speaking of.

JAY: Okay. You’re the mayor of Baltimore and you’ve just been given extraordinary powers by the president and the governor. What would you do?

DUNAGAN: Yes. I mean, I would—well, if I had that authority, yes, I would legalize drugs, I would stop incarcerating people for possession of drugs, and I would establish a system where people who were drug addicts could go and—just as in Switzerland, could go to their doctor and receive, well, pure unadulterated doses of their drugs, where there’s an interface between those addicts and the health community. And I think that that would greatly reduce crime, violence, the presence of gangs, the influence of Mexican cartels in our cities. We now have Mexican cartels operating in 1,000 cities in this country. Yeah, I think that would definitely be a positive change. But, again, it’s certainly not a panacea for every social ill in Baltimore.

JAY: So what’s wrong with that as a beginning?

SABET: I think we can do better than giving heroin to people in controlled settings and assume that their misery’s going to go away in a place like Baltimore. I mean, it’s ridiculous to think that those are our only options.

You know, if you were to ask the question of me about what I would do, we would increase treatment in the community, we would increase prevention and community support. We would make sure that the criminal justice system is there as a way to enforce the public health, as a way to enforce—. You know, addiction is a disease of denial and we—you oftentimes need the criminal justice system to intervene in a positive way, not in a way that if you have pot in your pocket you’re going to be ruined for your whole life.

The issue of socioeconomic you mentioned is huge, the way blacks are treated differently than whites in this country with regard to drugs. I agree with that. And that’s often because of economic opportunities. A white person has their mom’s basement to go underneath and to smoke pot, whereas oftentimes people of color are hanging out on the stoop or in the public housing complex. Legalize drugs and that’s going to go away? Of course not.

We need to focus on the structural, fundamental issues there. So this idea that legalization is going to be the answer and the optimal policy is to send people to their doctors, what doctors? What health care? Who’s supplying the heroin?

JAY: Well, I know when young people—I’m guessing, although we have—we actually have one—a person working with us on our crew who grew up in Baltimore, and I’m imagining what she might say. In fact, we might ask her to come in and say something.

SABET: Great.

JAY: But I’m imagining what they’re going to say is, okay, great, work on the structural problems, but for, you know, 100 years we haven’t seen a change in the structural problems, but right now families are getting destroyed. So there needs to be some—.

SABET: By drugs and the criminal justice system, not only by—.

JAY: And by gangs.

SABET: Right, and gangs. So the point is not only by the arrests isn’t—the arrests isn’t the reason, the only reason.

JAY: And people do want a safer community, but you get to a safer community with policies that have essentially been the same for decades, because part of what you’re talking about is a lot more resources into the health care system. And if anything, the opposite’s happening right now.

SABET: Yeah. Sure. Well, and if we think that, you know, providing heroin—I don’t know where we’re going to get the heroin from, but the production of heroin and bringing that into the community is going to be—we have resources for that and we don’t have textbooks in a sixth grade class I think is just totally missing the point, and, frankly, I would guess would be offensive to most of those folks.

JAY: So what do you make the point that Representative Cummings is making, we’re told, that if you do your policy, you’re going to wind up flooding the community with drugs, and drugs is inherently debilitating for people?

DUNAGAN: Well, it is inherently debilitating for people. But the reality is our current model of prohibition does not keep people from getting drugs, you know, as we mentioned before. Drugs are very available. If we were to drive to Baltimore right now, it probably wouldn’t take us half an hour to buy heroin. So the idea that by establishing a very regulated system of legalization, you know, that we’re going to greatly increase people’s access to drugs just isn’t the case, because that availability is already—exists at such a high level, particularly in the inner cities.

JAY: What do you make of that?

SABET: Well, let’s look at liquor outlets, let’s look at alcohol, which is the most available thing, and let’s look at where the liquor outlets are. They’re not in the white communities. They’re in the underserved communities. That’s not an accident. That’s because they’re preying on the structural inequalities that we’re talking about. So we can’t have this discussion without talking about all of the issues that are going on in society and—to narrowly look at it in drugs and say that if we allow those people who are using heroin to then go to their doctors and get—to get heroin instead of from the guy on the street corner, the guy on the street corner’s going to go away and the economy’s going to get better, and, by the way, your health care issue, we have the health care resources for that, it just doesn’t represent reality.

DUNAGAN: Well, I don’t think there’d be anybody selling heroin on the street corner.

SABET: You’re saying before I said there would be.

DUNAGAN: Well, you mentioned heroin.

SABET: No, no, I was saying heroin on the street corner, they’re not doing that anymore under your model; they’re going to the doctor’s. That’s what I said.

DUNAGAN: Right, or some other, you know, regulated system of distribution, but something that doesn’t involve a criminal element. I think, you know, the violence that we see so much of, the gang activity, is a function of prohibition. It’s because we’ve created this black market, it’s because we’ve turned a multibillion-dollar industry and entirely turned it over to the hands of violent criminal organizations. So what legalization would do would be to take that criminal element out of the drug trade, just as it’s been taken out of the alcohol and tobacco drug trade.

SABET: Very little of evidence that that—we talked about this earlier—that that would go away, and that’s not anywhere comparable to alcohol and tobacco in terms of the—again, Al Capone compared to these criminal organizations. So they will find other things to peddle, they will lower their price. It’s simple economics. And so we have to find much better ways to deal with people’s problems, as opposed to saying, well, we’re going to—they’re not going to have the arrest record, and that’s because we’re going to supply heroin to them. I just—we can do much better.


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