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Has Obama Challenged the "War On Drugs" Assumptions?

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington.

Perhaps no issue, when it comes to domestic policy, divides Americans more than the issue of the war on drugs. Some people see it as an attack on young people, something that is putting many people into jail that don’t belong there for nonviolent crimes. Others see it as a necessary tool in dealing with addiction and crime.

Now joining us are two experts on the issue, both who have dealt with this problem for many years. First of all joining us is Sean Dunagan. Sean has served as an intelligence and research specialist for the United States Drug Enforcement Administration for more than a decade. Over the course of his career within the DEA he participated in dozens of federal drug investigations during tours of duty in Florida and Pennsylvania. He’s currently a member of the organization LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. And Kevin Sabet. Kevin is former senior adviser for policy to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama administration. He also served as a political appointee in the George W. Bush and Clinton administration. And you won’t believe it, ’cause he looks like he’s not old enough to have done any of that.

KEVIN SABET, FMR. SENIOR DRUG POLICY ADVISOR IN THE OBAMA ADMIN.: It’s all a lie.

JAY: And he’s now an assistant professor at the University of Florida, and he works as a consultant on drug policy. Thank you both for joining us.

SABET: Thanks for having us.

JAY: So, Kevin, let me start with you. Has the Obama administration changed any of the underlying assumptions of the war on drugs from previous administrations?

SABET: Well, I think so, I think pretty dramatically. I mean, the first interview that Director Kerlikowske, who’s the director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, had was with The Wall Street Journal, where, when asked about the war on drugs, he came out of the gate by saying it’s not a term this administration’s going to use. It’s a term that means so many things to so many people, the term war on drugs, it’s lost its meaning. We don’t have a war on our own people. This is a health issue, and it’s an issue that we can deal with with both health and safety tools together. It’s a unique bio-behavioral disorder that requires unique, comprehensive, and difficult strategies, and they don’t lend themselves to simple solutions, and they don’t lend themselves to simple descriptions.

JAY: Okay. But people are still going—

SABET: There are real differences.

JAY: —people are still being incarcerated more or less at the same rates, if not a little more than before. Where have the assumptions that [crosstalk] should go to jail for what you’re describing as a disease?

SABET: Sure. Well, drug incarceration rates actually have fallen in the last couple of years. And in fact the growth in prison rate over the last 10 to 15 years has not been mainly from drugs. It’s been, actually, from other—there was the growth in the ’80s, and since then it has gone down, from drug crimes specifically.

The other things that were represented (and these were actually bipartisan ideas; this is not a Democrat versus Republican sort of policy; it’s a bipartisan one) was the elimination of the huge racial disparities in sentencing, with mandatory minimums for crack cocaine, and wasn’t fully eliminated, ’cause it’s hard to move so quickly, as you know, with Congress and others, but it was drastically reduced to about an 18 to 1 ratio instead of 100 to 1, which is what, by the way, the Black Caucus and Charlie Rangel had advocated for at the time when crack was really wreaking havoc in neighborhoods all across the country.

So we’ve learned from that. We’re—you know, you constantly refine policies, and drug policy analysis is the art of refining your policies over time using data and using the best science available. And the best science told this administration it’s time to act on that, and the president signed the Fair Sentencing Act—a major improvement.

The other thing that we’ve seen is a huge investment in treatment, an investment in things like drug courts, things like supervising probation programs, like the HOPE project in Hawaii. So there are a number of things that can be done that get us away from this sort of old debate, which is really an old debate, of prohibition versus legalization.

JAY: Kevin, what do you make of the same question? Has the Obama administration changed any of the underlying assumptions?

SEAN DUNAGAN, FORMER DEA INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: No. Really all that’s changed is no longer using the term war on drugs. If you look at how we spend our counter-drug budget, the Office of National Drug Control Policy has about a $26 billion a year budget. Sixty percent of that is on enforcement and interdiction, 40 percent is on treatment. That really hasn’t changed. And, in fact, in the president’s 2012 request for ONDCP funding, he requested more than $500 million increase in law enforcement and interdiction funding, and the increase for treatment was half of that, was less than half of that. So, yes, there have been some more investments in treatment, but they’ve been far outpaced by further spending in law enforcement and interdiction.

And, you know, regarding the prison population, I mean, [incompr.] that population has dipped a little bit, but the fact of the matter is we still have about 242,000 people in prison right now on drug crimes. We still arrested over 850,000 people for marijuana crimes last year. So, you know, yeah, that that may have dipped a little bit does not indicate at all that there’s a radical policy shift in the Obama administration, particularly given the continuation of the previous priorities in the ONDCP budget.

SABET: A couple of issues, I think, need to be discussed. First of all, this myth of arrests versus incarceration. There are, as you rightly point out, Sean, a number—like you said, around 800,000 arrests for marijuana possession. But we have to look at and see what actually happens as a result of those arrests. They do not at all—and you know this as well as anybody—they don’t result in, really, any incarceration days spent. This is—these are no more than, usually, a parking ticket, a summons to a judge, you come in a couple of days. I’m not saying it’s a pleasant experience. Neither of us, I think, want to be arrested. And so there are ways you can maybe even refine that policy. I but I think we need to be clear our prisons are not being filled with people whose only crime, so-called crime, is smoking marijuana, firstly.

Secondly, I think everybody in the Office of National Drug Control Policy would wish their budget was $26 billion. The Office of National Drug Control Policy, as you know, is a small office in the executive office of the president that’s there to advise the president on drug policy. Its director—and we talked earlier about him, Gil Kerlikowske—certifies the budgets of over a dozen other agencies. So, as you know, these are budgets of the Department of Defense, Health and Human Services, urban [incompr.], on and on, in terms of the budget. So it’s—ONDCP has a very small budget, but they look at the overall drug spend.

And if you look at the drug spend when you’re talking about international, I actually think that the old paradigm of supply-versus-demand reduction is also a little unhelpful and not—it doesn’t truly illustrate the conversation, because things that are oftentimes scored, for example—and this is getting a little bit into the nitty-gritty, but I think it’s important—scored as supply are things that are alternative-development prevention and treatment programs in other countries. The Mérida Initiative as you know, on the assistance to Mexico, a lot of that is on what we would traditionally call demand, but because it’s international or because it’s from the Department of Defense or State Department, it gets looked at as, you know, buying an Apache helicopter.

JAY: Well, let me just get this back to the basic issue, because I think what Kevin was saying is that there hasn’t been the fundamental change in the assumption.

SABET: Sean [incompr.]

JAY: Sean, sorry. The fundamental issue is there hasn’t been a change in the assumption that incarceration in dealing with this primarily as a criminal issue hasn’t changed in reality.

SABET: Well, we don’t deal with it [crosstalk] criminal issue. I mean, people who are only there for—who only have small—hold on—for small drug possession, not just marijuana, other drugs, most people are offered diversion programs, they’re offered things like national TASC, which is Treatment Alternatives for Safer Communities, where they’re basically assessed, given an assessment by a social service specialist, and then given treatment options and other housing options to rebuild their lives.

So this administration—and anybody should go and read the president’s National Drug Control Strategy. It may not get a lot of press, but it’s a pretty good document that lays out this health approach. So that actually has been the approach.

JAY: So do you agree with that?

DUNAGAN: Well, I don’t agree with that. I mean, yes, the $26 billion is the comprehensive counternarcotics budget that’s coordinated through the ONDCP office. It’s not all ONDCP staff that’s receiving that money.

You know, regarding the issue of arrests, yeah, that’s true. I mean, most people who are arrested for marijuana possession do not spend a significant amount of time in jail. But those arrests still have a tremendous impact on their lives. I mean, we’re looking at things like university admissions, enlistment in the military, child custody battles, employment, that sort of thing. So, you know, to say, well, you know, our jails are not full of people who were arrested solely for possessing a small amount of marijuana, that may be true, but we’re still having a tremendous impact on those people’s lives.

SABET: I actually agree with a lot of what Sean just said.

JAY: But let me just add one piece to this. You’re making a big wall between people who are just possession. But, for example, we’re doing a lot of work in Baltimore right now, and there are a lot of people in jail for very small-time trafficking, like, very small amounts, but they’re charged with trafficking and they are going to jail.

SABET: Okay. So I’ll address that.

JAY: And let me add to that. A lot of that’s pot. It’s not crack or heroin.

SABET: So I definitely want to address that. But really quickly, on the issue of—which was related, on the issue of, you know, how bad, you know, is arrest—and even just the arrests, as you’re saying, have impacts on people’s lives, I couldn’t agree more. And I think we need to look at areas of our policy. And you bring up the issue of small-time distribution versus higher level of trafficking. Those are two areas that we should actually look at to fix. And they can be fixed.

There are actually communities all across the country, local communities—remember, drug policy is mainly a local community exercise. You can have the best drug strategy, $26 billion, as you want. Local law enforcement, prevention, and treatment—two-thirds of the budget spent in this country is on the local level. So it’s about convincing local politicians, local elected officials, that there are programs out there that can be helpful for them.

One of them (to address the exact thing that you brought up, Paul) is this idea of what do we do with the small-level, the lower-level people who are distributing, and how can we do this so that they don’t get into the system, they don’t, you know, mix in in jail with people that are there for far worse crimes, and how can—what can we do to rebuild their life.

And there is an example that’s actually been piloted by the Department of Justice (and it’s more than piloted—it’s now in over 30 communities) called the Drug Market Intervention program by Professor David Kennedy in New York. And Drug Market Intervention basically takes people who would normally be arrested for exactly what you’re talking about and rounds them up in the community. They actually think they’re going to jail when they’re being rounded up, but what they are—what they’re really doing is being a part of a community meeting, where their clergy, their mothers, their grandmothers, and other people that they actually really have a connection with talk to them in person about the impact their dealing is having on their community.

Remember, the African-American community and the communities in Baltimore, Representative Cummings, who is a huge advocate of drug policy and has been active for 20 years, they are the last people calling for things like legalization. They see it as more drugs entering their community that they don’t need. But there are ways to do it, do exactly what you’re talking about. So when the windshield wiper breaks in the car, let’s not total the car: fix the windshield wipers.

JAY: Let me ask you to pick up from there. But, also, should we separate the issue of pot from other drugs?

DUNAGAN: Well, I think we should separate the issue, I mean, if for no other reason than the fact that we have almost 8 million people in this country that use marijuana. We’re certainly not going to arrest 8 million people overnight. It’s by far the most prevalent. There are other issues related to its enforcement, such as it can be produced here so we’re not looking at as much interdiction. So, certainly I think that it should be treated differently.

Unfortunately, you know, the pilot programs that Kevin’s talking about are very small. The reality is that the vast majority of people who are arrested for dealing a very small quantity of drugs don’t get brought to a meeting with their clergy and their mothers. They get brought to prison, and they get long sentences.

There’s a horrific case in Oklahoma right now, Patricia Spottedcrow. She’s a mother of two. She was arrested for selling $31 worth of marijuana to an undercover officer, and she received a ten-year sentence. She’s sitting in jail for ten years for selling $31 worth of marijuana. Now, that’s an extreme example, just as the idea that you get arrested for dealing crack and you get brought to a meeting with your mother is an extreme example. The reality is—.

SABET: Well, that’s—actually, hundreds of people would counter that that has changed their life, and that’s a big impact. [incompr.] challenge is this stuff is hard.

DUNAGAN: It is.

SABET: Public policy and drug policy’s hard. We have to roll up our sleeves and get stuff done, local communities, as opposed to advocating for policies like legalization that are only going to bring more drugs to these communities. These communities, the last thing [crosstalk]

JAY: Okay. Well, what do you make of [incompr.] Well, you’re an advocate, I think, of legalizing.

DUNAGAN: [crosstalk] that’s a quarter of a million people that are in jail for drugs. So it’s a tiny, miniscule fraction that—really, to kind of present that as an example of where our drug policy is today, it’s just not the case.

SABET: That’s not what I said.

End

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