Are Jails Another Form of Slavery?
Pt4 of a debate on "What would a saner drug policy look like?", Megan Sherman, who grew up in Baltimore, joins the debate between Sean Dunagan, former DEA Analyst and Kevin Sabet, former Obama Admin. Adviser
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: So welcome back to the final segment of our discussion and debate about drug policy in the United States. And in the course of this, I’ve been talking about Baltimore and what people in Baltimore might say. Well, we have a member of our crew, one of our colleagues at The Real News, who grew up in Baltimore. So we figured we’d bring in Megan Sherman and asked Megan to join us and help question and make comments. So what do you make of the debate so far?
MEGAN SHERMAN, TRNN: I don’t know. I think it’s pretty interesting. Like, I think the idea of legalization’s kind of complicated, in the sense that, like, like you were kind of saying, like, if you introduce a drug into a community and, like, if the prices go down and the economy kind of, I don’t know, encourages drug use, that could really be a issue. But I don’t know.
I also understand what you’re saying about community members not wanting drugs to be legal in their communities. Like, drugs like heroin and crack cocaine and stuff like that, like, you would not want that to run rampant in a community, especially whereâ€”. I know in a city like Baltimore it’s like, whatâ€”the statistic is, like, 60 percent or something like that of people in this city are addicts or are exposed to drugs or have been using drugs. So I don’t know. I think it’s a complicated thing, but I don’t think it’s theâ€”a really clear answer. It’s not one way or the other.
JAY: Well, let me ask you ifâ€”. Let’s separate marijuana from other drugs.
JAY: What’s your opinion and what’s your sense of what people in the community is towards the issue of legalization of pot?
SHERMAN: I don’t really think that marijuana is an issue. Like, I think it becomes an issue when people start to mix it with other drugs, andâ€”I don’t knowâ€”and people start to, like, have weird effects. Like, when you mix heroin and marijuana together, those two things aren’t a good combination. But, I mean, as far as marijuana by itself, I don’t really think it’s a issue. If anything, I think that the tobacco products that we use to roll marijuana or toâ€”you know what I’m saying? Likeâ€”.
KEVIN SABET, FMR. SENIOR DRUG POLICY ADVISOR IN THE OBAMA ADMIN.: Blunts.
SHERMAN: Yeah, blunts. That’s the most addictive thing. But marijuana itself isn’t. I think thatâ€”and the term I use is lethargic. Like, the lethargic, I don’t knowâ€”I guess, yeah, the fact that you become lethargic after you smoke marijuana, I think that is the addictive thing thatâ€”.
JAY: But are people going to jail for marijuana use, or are people going to jail for low-level trafficking? And do people in the community want legalization or not?
SHERMAN: I don’t think that peopleâ€”I think that older people in the community might have a problem with legalization, just because of the taboos that we have around drugs and the culture that, I guess, has formed over the years over drugs. But I don’t really think thatâ€”I think that young people kind of understand that it’s not really an issue when it comes to a community being productive andâ€”you know what I’m saying, that type of stuff. But I don’t think it’s necessary forâ€”.
Like, for example, one of my friends, he was arrested ’cause he had a roach stuck to his back pocket. And he went and he spent the night down in bookings. And, like, just talking to him after that situation happened, like, he didn’t get any, like, serious jail time, but that experience to him, like, that was a traumatizing experience, and I know that that is something thatâ€”he would’ve, if he could have, avoided it. And I don’t know. Yeah.
SABET: Yeah. I mean, so the issue of [incompr.] earlier, Megan, that I think we haven’t touched on at all in terms of the lethargy and the long-term effects of marijuana, I mean, that actually isâ€”and we’re seeing that having an impact in schools, for example, ’cause itâ€”oftentimes, you know, you lose your ability to be able to learn and to stay in school if you’re high all the time. I mean, and we see that. And there are actually, you know, studies, very complicated studies, looking at school outcome and school performance and high grades and how that is correlated with regular marijuana use.
And so the long-term effects that we’re seeing are not trivial. I mean, we should separate them, but the long-term effects that we’re seeing from today’s pot, which is ten times stronger than the stuff that maybe our parents tried once or twiceâ€”that is, like, totally different drug. It has high levels of THC. I mean, you really canâ€”you know, you feel the effects. And the long term, for example, connection to mental illness, and schizophrenia especially, but also some connection to depression, I mean, that actuallyâ€”we’ve been seeing that in other countries. I don’t know what you think of that or what you’ve seen.
SHERMAN: I would agree.
SHERMAN: Wholeheartedly. From theâ€”I mean, I know a lot of people who smoke marijuana, so I can see just from the group people who I come in contact with that those things are really prevalent. But I don’t think it’s necessarily something that should be criminalized [crosstalk]
SABET: That you necessarily need to spend time in jail. Yeah. And that’s, again, a discussion to have and looking at alternatives. And that’s the complicated productive discussion, not the one about, well, should we make it legal and available. That’s, I think, where we would maybe differ.
SEAN DUNAGAN, FORMER DEA INTELLIGENCE ANALYST: Well, I would disagree with that characterization. You know, we’re not talking about instituting a new policy that would make marijuana available, because marijuana is available. There’s no question about that. So we’re talking about how to manage that in the best way.
Of course, I mean, drug use among students in high schools is terrible. You know, drug use in general is terrible. It’s very detrimental to individuals. There are certainly health consequences. And nobody’s suggesting that it’s a wise or prudent thing to do. The question isâ€”you know, it’s a fact that drugs have already flooded Baltimore, as you could probably attest that marijuana particularly has already flooded Baltimore and has flooded our schools and has flooded the entire country. So, you know, we’re not talking about a policy that’s going to suddenly make marijuana available. We’re just talking about regulation and getting people who use drugs out of the criminal justice system.
SHERMAN: I agree with that, that part of it. And the funny part, when we were talking about the statistic about young people who smoke tobacco as opposed to marijuana, like, I know a lot of more people who would smoke marijuana before they would smoke tobacco. Like, that’s [crosstalk]
SABET: Well, because we’ve madeâ€”well, ’cause there’s been a cultural offensive against tobacco. There’ve been, you know, all these things which hasn’t happened with marijuana, and people have, you know, sort of said, well, it’s this harmless drug and it doesn’t do much. So people do think it’s less of [incompr.] Now, more people still overall in the general population use tobacco and alcohol more than marijuana, but with high school seniors it’s about the same, a slight increase, even, of tobacco.
JAY: Are people in Baltimore, young people or older people, going to jail for use?
SHERMAN: For use of marijuana? I think it’s both. I think most of the people who use marijuana also probably sell marijuana too, and I don’t think thatâ€”I think there is an overlap. Like, say, if you buy an ounce of marijuana, you can sell, you can easily sell half of that and then, you know, still make a profit from it. So if you’re caught doing that or if you’re caught with that amount of marijuana on you, then you still are going to jail regardless.
JAY: And does the possibility of going to jail reduceâ€”in your experience, people you know, does it reduce use, that I won’tâ€”I’m not going to smoke marijuana, ’cause I might go to jail?
SHERMAN: I mean, I think if you’re looking at communities that haven’t are already been criminalizedâ€”. Like, many of the communities in Baltimore have already been criminalized for a number of different reasons, and if you look at the way that the criminal justice system has been in black communities and the way that, like, I don’t know, police do what they do in communities, I think that that is a separate issue in and of itself. So I don’t know. I thinkâ€”I don’t think it deters people from selling drugs, becauseâ€”or using drugs, because they’re already criminalized even before they do those things, you know what I’m saying, if that makes any sense.
SABET: But in other communities you were sayingâ€”.
SHERMAN: Yeah, I don’t think it’s a deterrent. I mean, I think if you’re scared to go to jail, then yeah, it’s a deterrent. But if you were going to go to jail anyway just because you walked down a street inâ€”you know what I’m saying, ’cause you are who you are, then no, that’s not a fear, because you’re already criminalized. So I don’t know if that makes sense at all.
JAY: Because you’re saying there’s just so many people get involved and get arrested for one thing or another [crosstalk]
SHERMAN: Yeah. I mean, I thinkâ€”.
JAY: â€”poor inner cities.
SHERMAN: My perception of the criminal justice system is one thatâ€”I think it’s just another form of slavery. So I feel like they were going to find a way to enslave the people who live in these communities, whether that means through their jobs thatâ€”or, I don’t know, through their schools, or through the lack ofâ€”like, all the issues that you brought up, kind of those type of things, I think in one way or another they were going to be enslaved. So I think that the criminal justice system is just another form of enslaving people.
JAY: In terms of what you think and people you’ve talked to about this, what kind of drug policy would you like to see in Baltimore?
SHERMAN: I think kind of a combination of the two. So, I guess, decriminalization of a small amount. Like, I don’t want to see people, like, walking around with, like, I don’t know, pounds of weed on them. Like, that’s way too much. But I don’t know. I think if you have a small dosage of your crack cocaine, then do your thing. You know, it’s your crack cocaine. Do what you need to do.
But, yeah, I don’t know. I think it would have to take a lot of, like, thinking about it. I don’t think that we in the community have even figured out what exactly is going to be the best option, because I think especially, like, on the street level we kind of have an understanding of how it affects our communities. But, like, if you’re talking about, like, on an international level, I could never understand the economics that goes with drug use.
SABET: What it would affect if Baltimore did that, how that would affect other states, countries [crosstalk]
SHERMAN: Yeah, that’s a lot. I think that that is something that should be brought up and that maybe that’s something that should be brought up in a town hall if we were to do that. But, yeah, I don’t think that people have figured it out just yet. I think we’re kind of still scratching our heads like everybody else.
JAY: Do you have any questions for these guys?
SHERMAN: No, not particularly.
SABET: Well, thank you.
JAY: Do you have any questions for her?
DUNAGAN: If I could just ask, what’s the perception of law enforcement in your community?
SHERMAN: Oh, we don’t like police at all. I mean, I’ve done a lot of work with police officers, and even after that work I still know how police officers treat people in the streets. And I understandâ€”like, I understand my community members. Like, we haveâ€”like, some people at the place where I used to work, we did training, like, training sessions with the police officers to try to, like, bridge the gap between young people and law enforcement. And, like, I would ask a couple of people, like, you know, would you like to come to these training sessions and do stuff? And they’re like, I don’t talk to police. Like, if a police officer walks down the street, I’m not speaking to you, I’m not making eye contact.
SABET: So is it a lost cause? Or could it actually be improved by some way, that relationship?
SHERMAN: I think it could be improved, but I think that the first step is forâ€”I don’t know. I think law enforcement and communities got to kind of know the truth behind what law enforcement started off as. Like, I mean, if you think about the way that the policing system in this country started, it came out of slave catchers and people with, like, that kind of, I don’t know, demonization of the black community. So if you want toâ€”if we want to solve that issue, then I think that’s where we need to start, and we need to, like, work through that and theâ€”I guess, the racism and all of that other stuff that comesâ€”and the classism too, because it’s not just black people that are harassed by police officers either.
DUNAGAN: And if the police in your community stopped arresting people for drug possession, how do you think that would impact the relationship between the community and law enforcement?
SHERMAN: I don’t think it would change it too much. I think they wouldâ€”I think they would still treat the community members the way that they treat them. Like, I think that the police officers of Baltimore kind of feel like it’s like, I don’t know, cowboys and Indians, like that kind of thing.
SABET: So it’s these fundamental issues [crosstalk]
SHERMAN: Yeah, it’s a people thing.
SABET: It’s the community relations, as you just said. It’s the race issues, it’s the underlying what is the economics, why does this school have these resources, and a five-minute drive away these schools don’t have the resources. That’s the crux of it. I mean, drug possession is a minor thing if we’re talking about these more important issues, from what I get from you.
SHERMAN: Yeah. And thenâ€”and like you were saying, after you fix all of those things, then we can talk about legalizing drugs and we can talk about all those other things.
SABET: Other policies and things. Yeah.
SHERMAN: But I think legalization would beâ€”if we could fix all the other problems with our communities, then that would be the smartest thing that we could possibly do, because it’s a good way to make money. People like drugs. I don’t really see a problem with it. But until we fix those things, I don’t really see it as an option just yet.
JAY: You don’t see legalization has an option.
SHERMAN: Not just yet.
JAY: Because it’s not possible to get it passed? Or ’cause you don’t think it’s the right thing to do?
SHERMAN: I mean, it’sâ€”I don’t really think it’s an issue of morality or right or wrong. I think it’s an issue of whether or not it’s realistic. Like, I mean, maybe we could get it passed. I don’tâ€”I don’t reallyâ€”I’m not a political fan or anything like that. I don’t know what theyâ€”what people in Congressâ€”how they feel about it. But yeah, I don’t think you could get enough community members to back that idea, or you might be able to, butâ€”.
SABET: But instead, maybe you can have community policing and policing done in a way with the relationships to actuallyâ€”I mean, a lot of times what I’ve heard in these communitiesâ€”and I’ve goneâ€”mainly spent time in South Central Los Angeles and similar sort of socioeconomic/demographic communities, where they say, actually, we want more police in our communityâ€”we just want the right kinds, to be able to help us with these issues. So it’s notâ€”you know, why would we tolerate this in Compton and we would not tolerate in Beverly Hills? ‘Cause in Beverly Hills, the police will be there. Why don’t they come in Compton? They’re only coming to do something negative. Why not something positive? That’s some of the experiences I’ve had. Butâ€”and then thatâ€”which tends to meâ€”to bring me to the conclusion that you’re saying, which is that we need to deal with these community relations issues and these other issues in the community and get to the core of trust and what’s happening.
JAY: Okay. Is that your final sum-up?
SABET: That’s it. Yeah, no, I appreciate it.
JAY: Okay. Final words.
DUNAGAN: Yeah, no, I mean, I think we do agree on a lot. You know, we agree that drugs are bad for people. We agree that the goal of drug policy should be a reduction in the number of people that are using drugs. There’s no question about that.
The question is: how are we going to do that? You know, is arresting people, is arresting 850,000 people a year for possession of marijuana really the way that we want to go about addressing this problem? Or do we want to move to a model that’s entirely rooted in public health, that sees addiction entirely as a health issue, which is fundamentally what it is, which is exactly how we look at people who are addicted to nicotine or alcohol?
So, yes, I mean, it is a radical change that we would propose, but I think it’s one that at the end of the day would have positive benefits for the community, because it would take the element of criminality entirely out of this $400 billion a year industry.
JAY: Okay. And, well, thank you for joining us.
SABET: Thank you.
JAY: Thank you for joining us.
SHERMAN: No problem.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
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