Baker Institute Hosts "War on Drugs" Conference, Asks "Is Legalization the Answer?"

I've just returned from Houston, Texas, where I participated in a two-day forum held by the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University. This informative discussion included representatives from law enforcement, judiciary, clergy, academia, drug law reform, anti-drug advocacy, medicine and government, from Texas, from America, from Europe, and from Mexico (where 50,000 have been slaughtered in our Drug War.)

My job was to debate the topic of "Marijuana" with a former adviser to Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, Dr. Kevin Sabet. He's worked in the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations on the issue of drug policy. Me? Well... I've smoked marijuana during the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations. But more on that in a moment. (And all following quotes are paraphrased and approximate from my sleep-deprived memory -- see linked videos for the actual quotes.)

Entitled The War on Drugs Has Failed: Is Legalization The Answer, the event was coordinated by William Martin, the Senior Fellow in Religion and Public Policy for the Baker Institute. The event began with travel author Rick Steves presenting his talk on "Travel as a Political Act," which is an engaging look at the European take on drug policy, which is not to be "hard on drugs" or "soft on drugs," rather "smart on drugs." From blue lights in bar restrooms (makes veins hard to find) to push-button cannabis menus in Dutch coffeeshops (so it's not advertised "to" you, you must request it), Steves' presentation is entertaining and informative (you can watch it here on YouTube.)

The first panel, "Examining the Premise, Considering Alternatives", featured Dr. Ethan Nadelmann, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance versus John J. Coleman, the head of Drug Watch International and a former DEA Administrator. It's hardly fair putting a bureaucrat like Coleman in a debate with a dynamic speaker like Nadelmann, especially when he equates the "War on Drugs" to a "War on Pigeons."

Next, "Law Enforcement Perspectives" featured The Honorable Patricia R. Lykos, District Attorney of Harris County, Texas, who wished that "Timothy Leary and others who ruined this country by promoting drug use are burning in hell" and lamented her docket clogged with "trace cases" where the drug seized is as low as .01 grams. Michael Dirden, Executive Assistant Chief of the Houston Police Department, worried about our country becoming a "stoned culture." The Honorable Michael McSpadden, Judge, 209th Criminal Court, also of Harris County, turned economics on its ear when he said "as long as there is a supply of drugs in this country, there will be a demand." Russ Jones from Law Enforcement Against Prohibition explained that problems associated with drugs can better be addressed when separated from the violence and crime attributable to prohibition.

Then came my time -- twenty minutes to present the case for marijuana legalization, against Dr. Kevin Sabet, Ph.D., a real live honest-to-goodness Drug Warrior. To be fair, he is a very nice person who told me he does not want to see me in a cage. But he argues for policies that equate to just that -- a cage for possession, even if it is just the forty minutes it takes my bail to get me out of a holding cell. Or the threat of a cage if I don't submit to urine collections and re-education camp (rehab).

I've garnered a reputation in the marijuana reform movement as being the "data guy". I've read more tables, charts, studies, polls, and interviews than 99.99% of all Americans. I've even written a coffee table book on the subject that still seeks a publisher (sample, anyone?) But for this debate, I didn't want to play "my chart can beat your chart," because the main tactic of the Drug Warrior is Ali's famous Rope-a-Dope (no pun intended). More Americans now believe marijuana should be legalized than not, so I feel they have to defend keeping prohibition; I don't have to defend legalization.

Instead of letting this get lost in the quagmire of what everyone can agree is purely speculation on unreliable data -- nobody's ever legalized pot and the studies we have are based on people answering truthfully to complete strangers asking them whether they break state and federal drug laws -- I decided to attack marijuana prohibition at its roots: why are we even concerned about trying to stop people from smoking pot in the first place?

I think I made the right impression. And no, I hadn't thought the tie would coordinate so well with the American and Texas flags, but in retrospect, thanks to J. Garcia for the tie.

The next panel, "Are Current Drug Laws the New Jim Crow," starred The Rev. Edwin C. Sanders II, Senior Servant of the Metropolitan Interdenominational Church, Nashville, Tennessee. He made it clear that "if you ask for a speech, a lecture, a panel, a presentation, you're gonna get a sermon, because that's what I do." Preach he did, from his informed perspective in a "no steeple church." He followed a video from Prof. Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Era of Colorblindness and continued her theme of the War on Drugs as a tool of maintaining an undercaste system in America. "They are mining black gold," he intoned, "when every black boy who's arrested represents $30 to $40 thousand dollars to the prison industrial complex!" He described as "sinister" and "evil" the practice by private prison corporations to examine third and fourth grade reading levels to help determine where they'll build the next new prison.

Next was "International Alternatives and Insights" with Prof. Alex Stevens from Univ. of Kent in England, Gary J. Hale, retired Chief of Intelligence for DEA with insight on Mexico, and Bill Piper, director for congressional affairs with Drug Policy Alliance to cover US legalization strategies. Prof. Stevens impressed me with his steady, engaging refutation of much of the myths surrounding Europe's varying drug policies, including Swiss heroin assisted treatment and clean safe injection sites and Dutch coffeehouses and Portuguese across-the-board decriminalization. Mr. Hale's explanation of the futility and tragedy of the American Drug War in Mexico, as seen even by our own anti-drug forces, was disturbing. Mr. Piper's summation of American state policies toward decriminalization and medicalization led him to proclaim, "The US government can't really do all that much about what its own states do in this area, I don't think they can do very much to other countries that want to experiment with drug reform."

The forum concluded with a keynote speech from The Honorable Larry W. Campbell, Senator, Parliament of Canada; Former Member, Royal Canadian Mounted Police Drug Squad; Former Chief Coroner, British Columbia; and 37th Mayor of Vancouver. There is so much to be excerpted from his jovial and educated remarks. This one will suffice: when discussing his support in Vancouver of the supervised (heroin) injection site, he explained "saying no to needle exchange because it'll cause addiction is like saying flies cause garbage."

It is incredible to me that we have reached this point where, as President Obama once said, marijuana legalization is a legitimate topic for debate.