Johann Hari: The Beginning of the End of the War on Drugs

April 13, 2016

This week we welcome back journalist Johann Hari, author of Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. Hari is a vocal advocate for ending the drug war, and he joins us this week in advance of the UN General Assembly’s special session on drugs, being held April 18 to 21. This special session was not supposed to be held until 2019, but in September of 2012, Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala expressed the need to hold an international conference on drug policy reform sooner than scheduled. The provision was sponsored by Mexico and co-sponsored by 95 other countries that are struggling with the violence and chaos surrounding current global drug policy.

Hari believes that this meeting represents a major shift in the conversation surrounding the drug war. As more and more countries are putting pressure on the United States to enact effective and humane drug policy options, Hari anticipates that these UN drug summits will become less about policy review and more about having a sane global discussion about the way we regulate and criminalize drugs.

Great. Let’s get right. Yeah. 

Could I have your listeners to something before we start, which is they should just totally pull just. I’ve got a very slight cold coming on. 

And when you’re arguing for legalizing drugs, if you start, like, rubbing your nose violently and sniffing, people get a bit suspicious. So I just want to clarify. I have a slight cold. Who else is going on here? OK, I believe you. Yeah. 

This is point of inquiry for Wednesday, April 13, 2016. 

On Josh Zepps, host of the podcast, We Do People Live a discussion, a show for planet Earth, and this is the podcast of the Center for Inquiry. Johann Hari is a writer and journalist who spent three years researching the war on drugs for his bestselling book, Chasing the Scream, the first and last days of the War on Drugs. We spoke to him on point of inquiry in March of 2015. And since then, he’s become something of a global spokesperson for ending the drug war. Now, next week at the United Nations headquarters in New York City, the U.N. General Assembly will convene a special three day session on the world drug problem. And Johan thinks it could be the beginning of the end of the status quo. 

Johan, thanks for being back on point of inquiry. I’m really glad to be back it. 

So can you explain what this U.N. meeting is and let us know if you think the sands of public opinion have shifted with respect to the war on drugs since we last spoke? 

Yeah, it’s it’s just about to happen. And I think this is a really crucial moment. It’s going to happen on the 18th, right. 18TH, the 20th of April. And in New York City, basically, once every 10 years, all the countries in the world get together to discuss global drug policy. And it’s actually happening two years early this year because Guatemala, Mexico and Colombia asked for it to happen early. And every time it’s happened before. What happens is all the countries get together and they pledge that there’ll be a drug free world. They’re not going to stop until they’ve, you know, waged war. That’s going to eradicate every law as a drug and every last drug dealer in the world. And this year, for the first time, loads of different countries are going to turn up and say, we’re not doing this shit anymore, doesn’t work. It’s been a disaster. We’ve got to choose the policies that do actually work and have been proven to work by the countries that have adopted alternatives. 

So for the L.A. Times, I’ve been talking to the three most prominent dissidents who are going gonna be speaking on behalf of their countries. And they’re kind of crazy and fascinating, a mixture of people, really. It’s hard to think of countries more different than Jamaica, the Czech Republic and Colombia. And yet they’re going to really be leading the charge for exposing what is after this was buildings. Look at the alternatives. What is each of their case? It’s interesting because they’re quite different. And I think to American listeners, one thing that is fascinating is the reasons why the drug war is being rejected across the world are the same reasons why they think it’s been rejected within the United States. There’s this very clear parallels. So Mark Golding is the justice minister for Jamaica. 

And a couple of years ago now, he had this moment that no one, no government minister warned when he had to phone a mother and tell her that her son had been arrested. He had been smoking a spliff on the street. He’d been picked up by the police and harassed and arrested. And he was then beaten to death in prison. And the guy was called Mario Dean, who was beaten to death and Mark in this guy’s mother. And he just thought, you know, I just can’t support this anymore. I can’t support the drug war. 

He goes to the cabinet and he persuaded them to support the case for decriminalizing cannabis, which has now happened in Jamaica. And I think this is really interesting when I talk to Mark Golding and he pointed out this parallel, a very interesting parallel with Black Lives Matter. When you have the drug laws are broken by such an enormous proportion of the population of almost every democratic country in the United States, more than 50 per cent of people are broken. The drug laws that you simply cannot enforce the drug laws against all the people who break them. Obviously, half the population of the United States in prison. So what happens is they get enforced against most unpopular minorities, the ones who the police happen to dislike or who are easiest to crack down on, who at least legal. Legal means to defend themselves, least political means to defend themselves. Obviously, in the United States, that’s disproportionately been African-Americans. Right back to the start of the war on drugs that we talked about this last time, you know, open chasing the scream with the story of how Billie Holiday was stalked and essentially killed by the man who launched the war on drugs. Most of your listeners will know about the enormous racial disparities and drug law enforcement in the US. African-Americans, and they’re more likely to buy or sell drugs, but they make up the vast majority of people who were punished for it. So there’s that on each city in Jamaica. Everyone’s almost everyone is nonwhite. But again, you have that that persecution of the poor young poor men are harassed by the police. And the drug laws are used as pretext to kind of crack down on them with disastrous results. So really much what Mark wanted to do was to just take cannabis off the table as a pretext for the police to arrest and harass people. Now, he bumped up against the limit, which is all the countries in the world have signed up to the U.N. drug treaties that were drawn up in the 60s, mainly by the U.S. and with U.S. pressure. And those treaties do allow a small amount of decriminalization for personal use. But they don’t allow legalization. They don’t allow you to take the trade back from criminal gangs and regulator and open up a way for people to buy the drug legally. So Jamaica is still legally required to crack down on dealers and to crack down on farmers. And, of course, so they can’t bankrupt the criminals by. Reclaiming the trade for legal market. And that means a lot of that harassment that Mark was very concerned about goes on. It also means to make a carbon tax what would be a very lucrative trade and obviously where they’d be market leaders. They have a brand associate with Bob Marley and so on that would make them market leaders. 

And just so I don’t, Robert, but just to clarify, why is it the case that Jamaica can’t take those steps? But Colorado can. And there are certainly other places in the world, Spain springs to mind where there are systems of full legalization. 

So this is one of the really big issues. The U.N. treaties do not allow that to happen. 

Essentially, powerful countries can break the U.N. treaties with impunity. So, you guys, the U.S. is going to be entering the U.N. meeting in this paradoxical position. The US has always been the kind of country that using threats and intimidation and sanctions and diplomatic power and occasionally military power has really forced the drug war on the world, often against the will of the people there. 

This time, the U.S. is coming to the U.N. and they are in breach of the U.N. conventions themselves or in breach of the U.N. treaty. 

As you say, Colorado, Washington and Oregon, the people of Colorado, Washington are going to have rebelled and legalized cannabis. And you’ve now had licensed straight. It’s actually support has gone up since people have seen legalization in practice in those states. So it’s now quite a big majority. So the U.S. can’t. 

You’d think, well, the U.S. can’t then, you know, demand other countries obey the drug treaties. But they are carrying on doing that. There’s a big drug war infrastructure. If you’re a rich country, you can breach. If you’re a poor country or a weak country like Jamaica, you’re still very vulnerable to U.S. pressure. U.S. sanctions, U.S. punishment. So, for example, whenever any any country in the hemisphere has tried to experiment with alternatives, they’ve been really brutally punished by the U.S. with sanctions and so on. So, you know, Jamaica is very, very nervous about. I mean, what’s the answer? It’s looking to invade Jamaica if they legalize cannabis. Right? Could they do that? Probably they could. You can understand why they’re nervous that they’re really where they could be denied access to U.S. markets. They could be labeled international drug dealers and so on. So they’re not going to do that unless they get the go ahead from other countries in the go ahead from a change in the UN system, which is partly what Mark’s going to be arguing for at the U.N.. 

Is it possible that we could see a split between the attitude towards marijuana? When you talk about things like, you know, if more than 50 percent of Americans have broken drug laws, what you’re talking about there primarily is marijuana. Right. And it’s conceivable that you could you could cleave off marijuana from the conversation around harder drugs. Could that happen? And would it be desirable if it did? 

Well, I’m not an all or nothing person. And I think, obviously, it’s it’s grotesque that people are punished for smoking marijuana. 

And it’s disastrous for our societies that the cannabis trade is controlled by armed criminal gangs, but leads to an enormous amount of violence for reasons we can talk about later. So, yeah, sure. Clearly, that’s the lowest hanging fruit in terms of reform. It’s also worth pointing out that when I say I’m in favor of legalizing other drugs, that means different things to different drugs. So cannabis, I think, should be sold like alcohol should be only to people over the age of 21. Tightly regulated, taxed, regulated product. Anyone who sells to anyone younger should be very seriously punished and so on. I would actually go further in regulating both alcohol and kind of this, and they do in Colorado. So I wouldn’t allow any advertising. I know that’s difficult with commercial speech laws in the US, but wherever possible. I would not allow advertising or promotion of these things with alcohol or or cannabis. But I mean, there are countries that are in breach of the U.N. conventions for other drugs. So, for example, Switzerland has legalized heroin for addicts as a debate about whether this is falls under the U.N. treaty because the U.N. treaty allows for what it calls. I think the phrase is medical experiments. And Switzerland just kind of tried to get under the radar by saying this is a medical experiment. But it’s not really. Frankly, if you look, what happened in Switzerland prompted me to go back to the other to the U.N., but Switzerland may be speaking at the U.N., So this is very relevant to this question. So Switzerland has huge heroin problem. Really, really big. And they tried lots of different things and nothing seemed to work until finally, Ruth Dreyfus, who was the health minister and then president, kind of pioneered legalizing heroin addicts. It doesn’t mean you can just go into the Swiss equivalent of CBS and buy some heroin the way it works. I went to see how it works. 

You go to a clinic. I went to the one in Geneva. You turn up, you go there early in the morning. You go in, they give you your heroin. You can’t take it out with you. You have to use it in front of a nurse and nurse watches universal doctor. And then you leave. And interestingly, you go to your job because one of these that happens is when you turn up and you stop being prescribed heroin, they give you support to make sure you get work. You’ve got secure housing. And what’s fascinating is almost everyone gets jobs. What is it most intrigued me about the heroin legalization? Switzerland is there’s never any pressure to come off this program or to cut back. You can set your own doughs and you can stay on it as long as you want, but. Thing is, almost everyone does cut back and eventually stop by the time and I asked Rita Mangay, who is the psychiatrist in that particular clinic. You know, why is that? Because it seems contrary to what we’re told about heroin taking people over and all of that. She said, well, you know, I’m paraphrasing, but their lives get better and it’s their lives get better. They want to be present in their lives more. And so they don’t want to be drunk so much. That’s really important. And she leads to the second person I was going to talk about who’s going to be speaking at the U.N., which is generic. Bob, apologize to anyone who speaks Czech who had to be so horribly mangling the presentation. But he’s the drugs minister for the Czech Republic. He’s in a really fascinating guy. 

So he basically grew up as a kind of street kid. He had had a very violent alcoholic father, any any. He basically grew up more or less on the streets and from quite a young age. He was using a lot of intoxicants, anything he could find to kind of deal with the pain of it. And he was really developing addiction problems himself. He had friends who died at that point. And he he really got out of it because he became involved in the resistance to the communist dictatorship. He got involved in the punk underground plastic people of the universe and all of that. And when the dictatorship fell, he set up the first drug treatment program in the Czech Republic. But he found out that there are things you can do that are proven to reduce deaths among addicts, not just obviously things like injection rooms, heroin prescription, like we mentioned in Switzerland, worth pointing out. Literally, nobody has died of an overdose of legal heroin in Switzerland since they legalized more than 10 years ago. Not a single death. So generics was discovering that there are lots of things you can do that save addicts lives. But many of them are blocked by the U.N. treaties. Many of them are blocked by the international drug war imposed by the United States. And so he was kind of horrified. Anyway, he he became a major campaign on this. He’s now become the drugs minister for the whole Czech Republic. Incredibly brave, especially the climate in Eastern Europe for this debate is really bad at the moment. And he will be speaking at the U.N.. So it’s very different to Mark Golding. Mark Golding is talking much more about the persecution of minorities, the drug war crimes. Jindra, to be talking about the way this is causing the deaths of enormous numbers of addicts all over the world and how there are policies that have been proven to to reduce the deaths of addicts. And we’re not we’re not following them. 

Two quick things. Firstly, just as an aside, on your note, that in Switzerland, people showed up at a clinic and then go to their jobs. Can you do a job while you’re high on heroin? 

Sure. But there’s very widespread misconceptions about heroin. 

I mean, heroin is given to people all the time in hospitals in Western Europe. 

Yeah. But I’ve seen my dad high on morphine after a back operation, and I wouldn’t want him driving a lorry driver lorry. 

But sure you can. There are lots of jobs you can do. Ruth Dreyfus, he was the I mean, in particular, if your you know, you’ve been using it for a long time. If I think about my ex-boyfriend and he could do incredible amounts of work when he was using heroin. 

Yeah. Particularly he developed a tolerance for over time. And as they get jobs, what they tend to do is reduce the reduce the dose so that they can work it. 

But actually, read the former Swiss president told me a beautiful story about that. One day she went to see a treatment that the details and maybe some of the details of the slightly wrong. But remember the core of it, she. She went to see a heroin treatment program. She’d been involved in opening when she was the minister of health. She was involved in opening it. And when she was president, she went to see it. And while she was there, someone handed her a note and kind of ran off. And she later she went and opened the know and it said, you know, I used to be a homeless addict. I got into this program. It turned my life around. And the end a letter, it said, and now I work in your office. You’ll see me if you look at this desk now. And Shakya, Ruth is a really extraordinary person, actually. 

You know, she was the first female president. Switzerland should big deals. Women got the vote in Switzerland. He lost women got by in Switzerland in 1973. She was the first Jewish president. Big deals for anti-Semitic country. And the way she led that campaign to legalize heroin was so brave. And so I’m just full of admiration that, you know, one of the things she said is that I’m paraphrasing. 

But she explained to the Swiss people, you know, when you hear the phrase legalization, what you picture is violence and anarchy. What we have now with the drug war is violence and anarchy. We have unknown criminals selling unknown chemicals to unknown drug users all in the dark, all filled with violence and disease. Legalization is the way you restore order to that violence. And chaos has one thing. 

The Swiss love its order. 

Exactly. Well, I’m a Swiss citizen because my dad’s from there. And yeah, it’s illegal to flush your toilet after 10 p.m. at night. 

And so it’s a serious. I’m not joking. Literally, you get. And you. People do actually ring the police if you do. And you get the results. 

So Switzerland is a super conservative country, right. And yet look at the results in Switzerland after this. This program had been in practice for a couple of years. There was a referendum on it. They have referenda on everything in Switzerland. 

And 70 percent, seven zero percent of Swiss people voted to keep heroin legal in their country because they see it in practice. And it wasn’t particularly cause of compassion for the addicts. It is just that crime went down so much. And I’ve got the figures in chasing the scream from the main study on this. I mean, I cut my into my head, but I’m think it is something like a 70 percent fall in property crime. 

I mean, it was extraordinary. Fallen crime, street prostitution just ended, which I think, by the way, I think tells you something should be part of prostitution debate that, you know, turns out women don’t want to have sex with disgusting random men. If you if you give them the drug that it’s due to that. 

Yeah. Or if they’re sober. I just I just wanna touch on race because you mentioned in your conversation about Jamaica the disproportionate impact on minorities of the war on drugs. And it occurs to me that Switzerland is is a fairly racially homogenous place. It’s pretty white country. And you mentioned Black Lives Matter earlier as well. 

And I wonder whether or not the uptick in concern or in recognition about the failure of the war on drugs in the past few years in the United States has to do with the fact that the devastation of drugs has actually exited minority communities and is now being keenly felt in white suburban communities. The heroin epidemic in New England, the meth epidemic in the Midwest. 

Yeah, I’m about to go to New England to watch a lot of people about that. And you’re totally right that one of the ways of building. I mean, there has been a decline in racism in the United States. We know that there are certain ways you can measure that, not least the rise in mixed race marriages, not least the fact that we remember the majority of American citizens think twice to elect Mexican-American president. This is not to say they’re not still absolutely enormous problems with race. They definitely are. But, you know, there has been a decline in racism. 

But also, you’re totally right that, you know, once it ceases to be something that’s confined to African-Americans and Latinos. Well, rhetorically, it was never confined to these things, but rhetorically confined to those to those groups. 

It becomes harder to make the case to the majority of white people for the for the crackdown. There was always a degree to which poor white people there were dehumanized when they were addicts as well. 

You know, if I think about perhaps the most harrowing, one of the two most harrowing things that I did for the book was investigate this. When when I went to Arizona, I went to this terrible prison. I went out with this group of women. I made to go out on a chain gang wearing T-shirts saying I was a drug addict. And they’re forced to dig graves for members of the public, jeer at them. And just before I went out, I was phoning round and talking to various people about, you know, what I should look into when I was in Maricopa County in Arizona. 

And there’s this extraordinary woman called Donnally own Harim, who runs a and she runs the only one of the only two groups that monitor prisoners rights in Arizona. And I said to her something like, you know, tell me about something that shocked you at the time you’ve been doing this work, which was a good question. Usually it’s interesting. 

She came up with this big, long list and then somewhere down the list, she said there was the time they put that woman in a cage and cooked her. That was quite bad. And then she carried on this thing and I said, sorry, Donna, can we can we just go back a second? 

And there was a woman, white woman called Marcia Powell, about whom when I started the investigation, very little was known, except that she was she had a crack, a meth problem, and she kept being busted either for using crack and meth or prostituting herself to get cracking meth. And she was put in prison in Arizona. And one day she woke up in the prison. She had been judged by the court to be mentally incapacitated, profoundly mentally incapacitated. You can see that when you read the police transcripts that I managed to track down, she was she was profoundly mentally unwell. One morning she woke up in the prison and she was suicidal. And the doctor did want to believe she was suicidal, but she was just pretending to shut her up. 

They put her in this cage. That’s like a kind of holding cage, like a holding cell in a police station. So when you check in, they can put you there. But you’re only meant to be put there by law for 45 minutes because of this is Arizona is the desert. And it’s an it’s just a cage. There’s nothing covering it. You’re in the desert. And they put her there and they left her there and she cried and she screamed and she begged for help and she shot herself. And depending on who you believe, the prison guards claim they forgot her. The witness statements from the prisoners who were there claimed that they mocked her. Either way, they she eventually collapsed. 

And when they finally got called an ambulance, she had been kicked and ships that died in hospital a few hours later and. Here’s the thing. 

No one was ever criminally punished for what happened to Marcia Powell. I then went and tracked down the father of her children and got the story of her life, which is this really extraordinary story, I think, which I a bit. But, you know, the degree to which why did. Why was no one ever punished? Because she was an addict and addict. Lives don’t matter, you know. So I wouldn’t want to go. And that was only in 2009. So I wouldn’t want to go too far in saying that it’s a significant racial component. But I also think that people who were you regard, Marcia, how would it be regarded as a disgusting term, white trash? No one gave a shit about Marcia Powell either. You know, Marcia Powers was treated as badly as Billie Holiday. I mean, there is. Don’t get me wrong, there is a significant racial difference, but I don’t think it’s only a race. 

Yeah. I mean, I’m I’m not even I’m not even suggesting that we attribute the majority of the discrepancy to overt racism, simply that if you’re a political candidate or a mayor or a congressperson or a state senator and you happen to be traveling through a town and a heartbroken white woman who works at a diner is talking about how she just lost her son. That just resonates with the institutions of power more than the existence of of a drug den in a poor black neighborhood where you have associations of its being a scourge and and a high crime area anyway. You know, it’s it’s more insidious or invidious than overt racism. 

I think you’re totally right. And you’ve seen that in the Republican field. You know, an extraordinary number that you’d had, like, you know, like so many of us had had addiction in their family. Carly Fiorina, whose daughter died of an addiction problem and Jeb Bush’s daughter was in prison because of an addiction problem. Donald Trump’s brother died because of an addiction problem, didn’t make them any more compassionate. I have to say maybe that some family did. No. 

I would say, well, precisely didn’t make them adopt any more compassionate drug policies. But yes, Ted Cruz’s sister had an addiction problem. So it’s very striking how many of them had relatives at DJ Grothe. And you’re right that they because they’re white or in Ted Cruz’s case, Latino, they don’t quite fit the most demonized, you know, dehumanized box. 

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You talk about how we have a sort of inverted culpability and you just sort of touched on it, that this woman would have been considered to be white trash and she would have felt terribly guilty about her own illness. And can you just speak to that the way that we sort of frame the villains here in somewhat the wrong way? 

This to me is, you know, I spent the last year traveling around 70 different places talking about this issue. To me, this is one of the things that’s been most. Emotionally tough, in a way, to realize how many of the people I was talking to feel that they if they’re bad or morally wicked or, you know, I was in Colombia a couple of weeks ago and I said in one place, I think it was on managing the world really owes this is this is different addiction, but related. The world really owes Colombia a massive apology for what we’ve done to Colombia. Yeah. I mean, it’s worth bearing in mind more people have died in the drug war violence in Colombia and Mexico than have died in Syria, according to some estimates. And by that, I don’t mean what we’ve done by using drugs. I mean, it’s what we’ve done by prohibiting drugs which caused the violence. And I come back to that in a minute if you want. But this young woman kind of stood up and got quite emotional and said something like, you know, no one’s ever said that to us before. We’ve always thought that we were the people who had to apologize to the world. And you really see how one of the things that I found very frustrating is the stigma has flowed the wrong way in this war. You know, he’s it flowed towards drug users who are, you know, an assistant outside of prohibition on harming anyone, drug addicts who are actually trying to deal with terrible pain and suffering and need our love and compassion. Stigma will actually make them worse. Drug dealers who are if I think about, you know, his story, Historia telling the burqa transgender crack dealer in Brooklyn or I got to know one of the wisest people I know people in really tough situations trying to get by. If we think about the supply route countries, which have been absolutely devastated, they are not the people who should be stigmatized. The people who should be stigmatized are the politicians who maintain the system of prohibition, knowing it has those effects and continuing with it. Anyway, there’s a quote that I think every American taxpayer should know for American citizens should know. Michelle Leonhart is the head of the DEA, the Drug Enforcement Agency, until a few months back. And she was asked in Senate testimony, they said to her. What do you think about the fact that 60000 innocent civilians have died in Mexico? That figure was actually wrong. It was higher than that. But that’s what they put. And she said these were her exact words. It’s a sign of success in the war on drugs. I mean, the stigma should be flowing to people who can say things like that, not to the people, not to everyone else. 

So you mentioned Colombia, Jamaica and read about it is representative. Yeah, he’s in kludges, which Foxon and I know I’m doped up on cold medicine, and it’s a rambling slightly. So Mauricio Rodriguez, who I met up with in Costa Haina recently. He is actually a former Colombian ambassador to Britain and a very distinguished economist. And he’s advising President Santos on the position to take it was the unjust. And Marcio is an extorted peasant like President Santos, unlike so many Colombians. 

Mauricio lost a relative when roads when his Rhodes’s was murdered, when narco traffickers were taking over Colombia. 

And Mauricio’s line, it again, is different to the other two sides. Mark Golding, it’s about persecution of minorities. Ginger Forell. It’s about the persecution of Addicks from Mauricio. It’s really this issue about how the how drug prohibition causes catastrophic violence. And it’s worth explaining this because it’s easily misunderstood. So when people hear the phrase drug related violence, generally what they picture is someone using drugs, losing the plot and attacking someone. That does happen. It’s a there’s a study of this. It’s about three percent of was generally described as drug related violence. Most of the rest of it is a whole other dynamic. And if you want to understand how it happens, you can do it. Little kind of experiment, what you can do while you’re listening to this podcast. If you’re feeling brave and go into your local liquor store and try to steal a bottle of vodka. Right. If they catch you, they’ll call the cops and the cops will come and take you away. So that liquor store doesn’t need to be violent. It doesn’t need to be intimidating. They’ve got the power of the law to uphold their property rights. Once you’ve done that, unless you’re in Colorado and Washington, Oregon, go and try to steal a bag of weed or a bag of cocaine or a bag of meth. Right. 

If the guy in your neighborhood who sells that catches you, obviously, he can call the cops. 

The cops will come and arrest him. He has to fight you. In fact, he doesn’t want it. Obviously attractive. He’s not having a fight every day to establish a reputation for being such a bad ass that no one will come and pick a fight with you. You have to establish your place in that neighborhood against rival dealers through acts of violence and intimidation. The writer Charles Boughton said the war on drugs creates a war for drugs that Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman calculated. 

There are 10000 additional murders every year in the United States as a direct result of that dynamic. I learned about this a lot, partly from Chino. The crack dealer I was telling about was it from a Rosalio Reta who was a hit man for the worst Mexican drug cartel who I interview. 

But if you want to understand. How much of that violence is caused by not by the drug, but by the prohibition of the drug? Ask yourself, where are the violent alcohol dealers today? 

Does the head of Heineken go and shoot this man off in the face? Does your local liquor store send kids to go and kill the people who work in the rival liquor store? Of course not. Exactly. That happened. And alcohol prohibition, right? Everyone listening to this program knows who Al Capone was. I bet none of you know the name of the head of Heineken or Coors or Smirnoff. What’s the difference? The drug didn’t change. What changes? We went from a system of prohibition, which meant that the drug had to be controlled by warring criminal gangs with no recourse to the law. And then it was transferred to legal businesses to compete through price, quality of product and so on and not through violent murder. 

So the idea of an alcohol dealer today sounds like a joke, right? And yet that that’s pure. But, you know, if I should say this by a friend in New York who his boyfriend is into one key, I’m sure this will aggravate public inquiry listeners through a rough is into raw milk. 

Right. And, you know, like what’s called unpasteurized milk. Yeah. And this is about you go to my friend, and he had to go and pick up for his boyfriend. And we went to this is illegal. So we went to this this ban and there was this kind of woman and she was quite upset. She’s a small woman in about her 50s. And we were like, oh, what’s wrong? What happened? Is she basically someone to come to take some milk? And they distracted her and what they’ve been doing that someone gone around the back and just stolen loads of supplies and got off with it. And she was really annoyed. She’s like, well, I can’t. What can I do? I can’t call the police. And for all your learning, the first lesson of drug dealing. Right. You’re too weak. You’re too vulnerable. You know, you’ve got to be you’ve got to be violent. You’ve got to be tough. 

You know, you’ve got to be a violent unpasteurized milk tells you something. Right. 

It’s nothing to do with the substance. It’s to do with the fact that it’s illegal and prohibited. Right. 

But just to push back and play devil’s advocate, you know, the pro drug war people would say all of that can be well and good. But the head of me and often Heineken are presiding over empires that cause untold devastation and destruction in people’s lives. They cause alcoholism. They cause domestic violence. They cause cirrhosis of the liver. They cause cancer. And so why not try to. Maybe the world would be a better place if you were trying to minimize them. If you take if you bring heroin into that regime and you have Merillat bring marijuana and all sorts of other drugs into that regime, the upside will be that you don’t have turf war between drug gangs. The downside will be presumably a lot more people will use them and a lot more people will die from them. 

The several things that I think firstly, we have to be candid about this. There was a modest fall in in alcohol consumption during alcohol prohibition. We know that because you can measure rates of cirrhosis of the liver. And Jeffrey Miren, Professor Jeffrey Meyer at Harvard, has done the work on this. 

And it does look like there was a modest fall in in alcohol use. It was modest. It wasn’t huge. Certainly alcohol use didn’t stop or anything like it. You did have a huge increase in alcohol poisoning, partly because if you don’t have if it’s not regulated, obviously costs and health and safety inspectors into the anus of whichever drug mule is smuggling your cocaine, you know, across the certain unpleasant events. 

Yeah, but you got to be caught. 

You can’t you can’t inspect an illegal product. So you had a modest for a modest fall in alcohol consumption, but you had a significant increase in deaths from alcohol poisoning. That was Daniel Okrent, his amazing history of alcohol prohibition, which I really recommend to everyone. It’s fantastic book. It’s for the best history books I read. There was one incident in Wichita, Kansas, one which I remember Riley’s, for instance, I read it like five hundred people died of alcohol poisoning. And it wasn’t regarded as that that massive because it just was just huge death from alcohol poisoning, from contaminated alcohol across the states. That’s actually one of the biggest drivers of it’s not the only driver. And it’s important. That was one of the biggest drivers of deaths from from heroin is contaminants in the drug and also not knowing what the dose is, cause you can get you buy street heroin, it can be 10 percent heroin, it can be 70 percent heroin. You don’t know. Be like if you drank alcohol and you didn’t know if it was, you know, some very light beer, will absence obviously be much more likely to get sick? 

So there’s a complicated relationship and it’s not you’re right to point out that it’s not. There are drawbacks to all of these systems and there are drawbacks to a regulated system. I was careful to say when talk about heroin being brought into the system, obviously I don’t think heroin should be sold like alcohol should. I believe in the Swiss model. But I also think sometimes you get people who say, well, we have all these problems with alcohol. 

Do you want to add to the problems caused by you want to add a whole other set problems caused by marijuana or a whole other set of problems caused by other drugs? It’s an interesting phenomenon that seems to happen. I want to stress that the evidence for this is not massive, but there’s suggestive evidence for it. I think is right. 

Which is the sweet dance party, good way to illustrate, it’s from California when California effectively legalized cannabis with HD medical marijuana. With such a low threshold, anyone could just go to the doctor and say they had about back and to get a carton. And then you can to Bisi, it’s de facto legalization. 

When they did that, there was a fall in Devi’s in California. If I remember rightly, I want to double check this, but still like seven percent. It does look like what happened is that you had some people transferring from alcohol to cannabis. So people who might have gotten out, gone out and got drunk on a Saturday night, instead went and got stoned on a Saturday night. There are some people who say that’s a good thing, that transfer is good. I don’t think it’s either good or bad. I’m I’m neutral. I don’t use either of these drugs. I’m neutral between alcohol and cannabis. But what I suggest is that you don’t get so much add on as you get. And it kind of makes sense to me that I think if you add intoxicants, what you tend to get is people who wanted to get intoxicated that night have a broader range of choices. And we don’t. It is a kind of massive. We know you don’t get a huge increase in drug use because of Portugal decriminalized all drugs and there was a very modest increase in use. But a fall in addiction can talk about why, if you like, that they we know and we said no, there hasn’t been a huge increase in cannabis use in Colorado as far as we can tell. 

So it’s a complicated business, but I think it’s very hard to imagine harms that would occur that would be worth more than twenty thousand people dying in the most horrific possible ways in Mexico to more than hundred thousand people dying in Colombia in the most horrific possible way to to around 10000 people dying every year in the United States. That’s just to the drug related violence. Not all people who die because of contamination. 

Will people die because we punish addicts and shame them, make their addictions worse? You know, I can’t imagine saying to the people of Mexico, well, you know, we’re going to kill more more than 120000. Are you? So that’s slightly fewer of us get stoned. I just don’t think that’s morally defensible. 

So as I mentioned, you mentioned Colombia, Jamaica and Czech Republic, as the three countries sort of keep an eye on this upcoming summit, as the revolutionaries in this regard. The ones who are pushing for reform. And you cite four other countries as being great obstacles, Russia, Cuba, Saudi Arabia and China. Can you briefly, if possible, unpack what their rationale is? Is it is it just a tendency towards authoritarianism for its own sake? Is it. 

I don’t know as much about them. I haven’t. And I’ve met very briefly met Viktor about off the Russian drug czar a few years ago. 

I think he’s won the most frightening and wicked, but that he’s a cold, dead KGB. 

Russia has the Western policies in the world and doesn’t have the worst drug problems. No. I mean, has bad drug problems. But it’s always that Russia has very bad alcoholism and drug problems. But one of the reasons why Russia has such terrible drug problems is precisely because they have this policy. So to explain it, there’s several dimensions to it. But one of them is the such. And briefly in the U.S. in the 80s, but it is very quickly abandoned. What they do is if they catch you with a needle, they charge you with drug partan breaching the drug paraphernalia laws even if you have any drugs on you. Just if you have a NATO and they suspect you’re a heroin user and they crack down on you if you wanted to spread HIV. I’m not is why they’re doing I think a conscious wants to. But if you wanted to spread HIV, that’s what you would do, because it guarantees that heroin users will share needles because no one wants to be carrying a needle because, you know, you’re going to get busted and you don’t want to be busted and put into a Russian prison for drug offenses. So Russia has a catastrophic HIV crisis for Eastern Europe, has it not quite as bad, but almost as bad among drug users. I mean, the figures that I commentary’s from a habit that it’s an overwhelming majority of drug addicts in Russia are HIV positive and drug and treatment for HIV positive people, especially stigmatized HIV positive people, is atrocious. So you basically get a death sentence. So you Russia, you know, these are high means that the Saudis are obviously Islamic fundamentalist fanatics, that monstrous hypocrites. They themselves, of course, we all know about Saudi royal family and alcohol and cocaine. But the talk to anyone who works in a London luxury London hotel and they’ll tell you all about that, but at least publicly and towards the people, they’re monstrously hypocritical. Cuba is one of the great mysteries to me. I’ve never been a strongly leftwing, but I’ve never been. I’ve always been baffled by lefties or massive defenders of the Fidel Castro dictatorship. But weirdly, the Castro brothers are the last Reaganites in the Americas. It’s bizarre. Cuba has awful drug policies. 

It’s a bit like, I guess, you know, the kind of old crazy communist stuff about, you know, the opiate of the masses is actually opiates. 

You want to be a clear headed revolutionary sort of launching forward for the into an optimistic future. You want to be dead. You don’t have your senses. Didn’t buy a by depravity in China, I suppose, falls somewhere in between. 

I know that in terms of Asia, the place I know best is Vietnam. I went to eight years ago now Vietnamese drug users, it started just kind of disappeared and no one knew why they went there couple of years go to find out what was going on. And basically after a while, they started to kind of reappear and they were basically put into these gulags. There’s no other way to describe them, really, forced labor camps where they were kind of made to work, do hard physical labor. His theory was that would kill the addiction. 

And it actually was on the more disturbing things that I did, because when I would meet the people who’d been in this in these gulags thing, I was expecting to be kind of angry or indignant that they were just really they were really broken and they kind of were really shamed and they really thought they deserved it. And then, of course, the Open Society Foundation research found 99 percent of them relapse as soon as they get out. And, you know, again, you know, you can have a kind of abstract debate about should we punish addicts, should we know, you know, and when it’s abstract, you can talk any bullshit, but you can actually go and look at these places. Right? I mean, you can go to Vietnam. It’s hard to imagine punishing drug addicts more than doing what I did in Thailand, which is to shoot them. It’s hard to imagine in a democracy punishing them more than they do in Arizona. 

Well, okay. Arizona has a massive and growing her own crisis. In contrast, what’s happened in Switzerland and Portugal, the most compassionate drug policies in the world, they have not solved all their problems. 

It’s important to say that there’s been a massive and significant fall in their problems in not, you know, so since Portugal 15 years ago now. 

And I went and reported on this from my book. So 15 years ago, Portugal decriminalized all drugs from cannabis to crack. 

They transferred all the money they used to spend on making addicts lives worse spent instead of turning their lives around. And it’s not really what we think of as drug treatment. You know, there’s a bit of rehab and a bit of psychological support. But the biggest thing they did is the opposite of what we do. So we give them criminal records. We shame them. We put barriers between them and reconnecting with the society. What they did in Portugal was a huge program of job creation for addicts who used to be a mechanic or go to a garage. And they’ll say, if you employ. Guy for a year will pay half his wages. Hershberger microloans are addicts, could set up small businesses. You know, the results are really clear. Full injecting to British Journal of Criminology did the most detailed research into this. Injecting drug use fell by 50 percent in Portugal. Overdose deaths massively fell. Street crime massively foul. HIV transmission among addicts massively fell. And yet Portugal has a competitive political system, really competitive. And none of the parties want to go back to the old system. That tells you something, right? 

This is really a pattern. Everywhere I went when people were debating, changing, it’s hugely controversial. And people are really anxious for perfectly good reasons. 

And then they see the alternative in practice and support massively increases for it, you know, and it ceases to be significantly controversial. You see that Colorado, Washington, Oregon, you’ve seen it in Portugal. You seen it in Switzerland. You see it in the Netherlands. 

You know, I think really you you mentioned at the beginning the show that that small countries or countries that don’t have a huge amount of clout on the global stage like Jamaica will find it difficult to transgress the line in the sand that the United States has drawn in the war on drugs. Portugal is not a big or influential country. It may be aided by the fact that it’s part of the European Union and the rest of Europe would probably have its back. And I don’t know whether it’s even legal for the United States to impose sanctions or tariffs on a European Union member that don’t apply to other member states. But could that be a way forward? And what do you hope to come out of this this upcoming meeting with your rosiest scenario? 

Well, you know, Portugal decriminalized it, didn’t legalize and just explain the difference. Decriminalization is where you you stop punishing users, but they still have to go to armed criminal gangs to get that drug. And legalization is where you have dropped some legal route for them to get the drug. So decriminalization shuts down. 

Orange is the new black and legalization shuts down Breaking Bad, basically. And the U.S. is opposed to decriminalization nationally, but much less so. It’s legalization. That’s the thing that really has attracted the most opprobrium and sanctions and threats and so on. But Switzerland did legalize heroin, as we said. It shows this incredible moment when Barry McCaffrey, when he was the U.S. drug czar under Clinton, went to Switzerland and kind of started berating Ruth Dreyfus, the Swiss president, for the legalization. 

And she said something like, I’m completely paraphrasing, I have to go back and look at her exact words. But, you know, how dare you have the president of Switzerland? I was elected by people who voted in a referendum to keep this policy in place. Who the hell are you? Were. How many Swiss people voted? You know, and I think Switzerland can do that in a way. Jamaica, make a car. Right. Right. You for obvious reasons, Switzerland is a rich country. It’s a long way from the United States and for all sorts of other reasons. 

It’s also just gotten a dog in the fight. It really doesn’t. So what what what’s the U.S. going to do to Switzerland? 

It’s also not on the supply route to the United States. And obviously, what the U.S. would claim is that the U.S. will claim if Jamaican starts to legalize drugs, his own work, you’re facilitating drug smuggling and so on. The other small country that’s going to I reported producing Scream and I actually, along with Ruth Dreyfus, is perhaps the most admirable politician I’ve ever met. So President Mahiga, now the former president, Hosni Mahiga, Uruguay, his story, just the most crazy, crazy story. He was the leader of the two Chamorro guerrillas against the dictatorship in the 70s. They used to do things like hijack food trucks meant for poor neighborhoods and take them to the moment the rich neighborhoods and taken to poor neighborhoods and distribute food to the poor. My favorite fact about the Timorese is that they named as their honorary leader, Miss Marple, the Agatha Christie detective. 

I thought that she embodied justice. How could you just not like a revolutionary movement? That was the development. Anyway, that’s the runner up was her Kupwara. But they. And Mahiga. 

This is to a kind of bowheads short story. Mahiga was captured. He was captured the bottom of a well by the dictatorship for three years. He went crazy, obviously. Then there’s the then they let him out of, well, this is the uprising and he gets out of the well and he becomes a politician. He runs for president. He becomes president. He continued to live in the shack that he had always lived in. And I went to see the shock that his wife showed me round. And it really is a shock. Like I’m not kidding. Like the British prime minister, David Cameron would not keep his shoes in the place where he has them. He collects president anyway. 

And he then became the first president to fully legalize marijuana. 

And when I spoke to president, he came, he explained, you know, this is a man who made huge sacrifices for the regrind democracy. You know, it ain’t fun to be the bomber well to three years. And he was very conscious that drug supply routes in Latin America move around the whole time. This phrase that describes it called the balloon effect. If you picture a balloon full of possible of air, if you push down in one place, the air pops up somewhere else. There’s never any less air. And it moves around. And, of course, you know, drug war insist that they fly it in Juarez or Bogota or Medellin or wherever. That happens to be the political pressure that day. 

And, of course, it moves around. President Reagan was very conscious. If it moves to gwai, what can they do? If is tiny country, very weak military? If if Colombia, which is a rich, relatively rich country in Mexico, can’t resist these criminal gangs taking over their state and they certainly couldn’t. What hope is Uruguay got? He said we’ve got to begin the end of the war on drugs. He actually wants to end prohibition beyond cannabis. He was conscious that this was the first move. You know, you’ve got to start that that now. He was really incredible, man. And the guy will be. It looks like a Renoir will be part of the dissident block at the U.N. But in terms of what could could come out of the U.N. meeting, so what the dissident countries are asking for something pretty modest. They’re saying basically they’re going to have to be another meeting in two years. Could this is the one this happening two years earlier. This has to happen on a 10 year schedule. What they’ve said is let’s set up a group of experts to look at, study the alternatives and figure out what drug policies are working and what one’s on and report back in two years so that we can develop evidence based drug policy for the world. 

It’s a very modest request. You’d think it’d be quite hard for countries to resist it, but they are. And I always think it’s revealing when people don’t want to set up panels to look at actual evidence. It reminds me of Harry Anslinger, the guy who invented the modern war on drugs when he was at the UN. It wasn’t for quite one of these meetings because something similar, many countries is with him, he said. These were his exact words. I’ve made up my mind. 

Don’t try to confuse me with the facts because they’ve got a lot to be for the entire drug war. 

So there’s a minimum amount that we’ll get out of this, which is no one will ever be able to say again that the entire world is united behind the idea of waging war on drugs and a drug free world and prohibiting prohibition or the disasters that causes. 

No one can say that again. And I think what you will certainly see is this is like the beachhead. This establishes the principle that these meetings are debates between rival positions. 

And as the evidence grows and grows, these rival positions will grow. Bob Burrell was talking about the guy who was a street user in the Czech Republic, is now the minister for drugs, told me this great quote. He said to me to read it out, said what he wants to tell the U.N. This is reality. This is hundreds of thousands of people dying for one simple reason. Some governments just don’t want to change nothing else. And I think that that message will really resonate, just as you would say, just as I’ve been playing on my mind a bit. And I think he’s saying that U.S. citizens to to look out for. So the drug war is becoming indefensible in its current form in the United States. Obviously, you’re having that huge, really big majorities now favor legalizing cannabis. When Bill Clinton left office, about 15 percent of Americans were in favor of legalizing marijuana. If his wife becomes president in January, which looks like the most likely scenario now should enter a country where more than 55 percent of Americans would legalize cannabis. It shows how quickly opinion can move. But I’m worried that you’re getting your kind of defensive rebranding of the drug war as treatment. So give you an example. Chris Christie got a lot of praise when he was still running for a speech he gave on the campaign trail where he talked about how, you know, we need to think more compassionately about addicts. He talks by his mother, who was never able to give up smoking. And he says, well, what we’ve done in not in that speech, but instead subsequently is, you know, what we’re doing in New Jersey is we’re ending the drug war, moving towards a compassionate approach because what they’ve actually done. So you’ve got they’ve taken a prison and they’ve renamed it as a drug treatment center. People are still mandated to go there by the corps. 

And although I haven’t looked into the treatment or the treatment regimen in that place, I’d be very surprised if it’s not shame based treatment. Most treatment in the United States is shame based blaming turn. People have moral defects, all of that stuff. So my worry is what you’ll get is people saying, well, we can’t defend the drug war as it is now. 

So what we’ll do. Than I think it’s quite consciousness. That’s what they’ll do is they’ll basically I mean, it is slightly better for it to be called the treatment center. But if you’re forced to be there and the treatment is shame based and it’s in a form former prison, you know, I mean, then if the dots. 

Exactly. You know, this it’s an improvement, but it’s a tiny improvement. 

And if what that does is Draine makes people think, oh, we’ve got a policy now that doesn’t shame addicts. That would be worrying to me. 

Why would just such people as you know. I know you’ve got a lot listeners in in New York City, and I really urge people to come out to protest at the U.N. It’s really important that they know that the people. Don’t support a particular American citizens, can the U.S. government position will not be very good at this at this meeting. It’s really important to U.S. citizens to show some of the groups that are organizing artistically, the Drug Policy Alliance, if you will, to look up. Also vocal New York, amazing community based New York group based in Brooklyn. 

I mean, there with people looking into any way they do. Extraordinary, extraordinary work, as they say, future. I’ll give you one example of something that they successfully did. They’re saying that anyone in the US. This is some of the lowest hanging fruit. If you want to save the lives of people who have drug problems, they’re saying it should begin in New Jersey. 

To be fair. So a lot of people who die of overdoses died because people don’t call the ambulance people with them when they’re overdosing. Don’t call an ambulance for quite a long time because they’re afraid, quite rightly, that if the police come and find them using drugs, they’ll be busted for drug use or even worse. People have been charged with murder. If it showed that they helped someone or was called when you help someone to commit a murder, if you’re shown to have helped the person inject themselves or use the drug that led them to overdose, you should be done. You can get a murder one beef or a manslaughter charge. And you have loads of awful kind of urban myths about, you know, if you put the person in a really cold bath, they’ll wake up. If you delay, if we delay a few minutes when someone’s overdosing, it can be a disaster. If you delay like 45 minutes, it’s catastrophe and it really increases the death rate. But what you can do is have a really simple thing that originated in New Jersey, a campaign in New Jersey. 

It’s just called a Good Samaritan law. We have a legal guarantee that if someone starts to overdose and you call an ambulance, you will not be arrested for using drugs with them. 

And it significantly reduce the death toll from overdose in New Jersey. And vocal New York led an amazing woman there called Elizabeth Edwards, who says self, a former homeless addict, you know, one of the bravest people I know. She led the campaign to introduce Good Samaritan law in New York State, which is now past the next stages. 

You have to tell people that people have to know that there’s a Good Samaritan law, because obviously the crucial thing is that they they know that they’ll call an ambulance. So, yeah, if people if you’re in it, if you’re in your state, is only about a handful of Good Samaritan states with Good Samaritan laws. Look up with your state has one, if not start a campaign for one through the Drug Policy Alliance or the other groups, because, I mean, you have to be a proper scientist to oppose a Good Samaritan law, right? You have to actually want addicts to die. It’s very hard for the drug war people to defend that policy, opposing that policy. 

So this is a long fight. It’s going to be a long time before we get all of this. But there’s so many small steps that even the small steps save huge numbers of people’s lives. 

And we really you know, things are shifting because people are banding together and demanding this. It would have seemed bonkers if you had said 20 years ago you would have fully legal marijuana sales and marijuana stores in, you know, three purple states in the United States. That would seem crazy. 

Yeah. You know, eight years ago. Five years ago. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. It’s great to talk to you after wrap it up because we’re out of time. But Harry’s book is Chasing the Scream. And we will, of course, be waiting with anticipation to see what happens at the United Nations. Go ahead. Thanks for being back on point of inquiry. 

I just very quickly that he wants any more information or they can hear the audio of the interviews with people I’ve been talking about, the Mexican hitman and so on, because it w w w dot chasing the scream dot com and its scream as in or scream as in the screen. You look out to watch television. And the subtitle for the book is The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs. 

Yeah. Hi. Thanks for being here. 

Oh, thanks so much. Just a reminder that. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.