Format: video with audio
Running time: approx. 28 min 23 sec.
Summary: Pinky interviews drug policy expert Clifford Thornton: "The War on Drugs has absolutely nothing to do with drugs - it's about power, it's about control, it's about coercion, it's about money."
Pinky: Recently, I had the opportunity to do a short interview with Mr. Clifford Thornton Jr. on the subject of the War on Drugs. Mr. Thornton is an internationally recognized expert on drug policy and the founder of Efficacy, a Connecticut based nonprofit. Efficacy's work is guided by principles of science, harm reduction, human rights, and compassion. Their solutions are based on methods that have been proven effective instead of ideas that come from emotional or political responses to social problems.
Pinky: Hi, Mr. Thornton. Welcome to The Pinky Show.
Mr. Thornton: Thank you Pinky. Thank you for having me.
Pinky: The FBI predicts that there'll be almost 2 million arrests for drug law violations this year, the highest number ever. What's going on?
Mr. Thornton: Well, what is happening with the drug situation is that every year, the total for drug arrest goes up, and the reason for that is that more and more people are starting to use drugs. The last statistical analysis taken by the UN says that drug use has risen over the world something like 12%, especially among young people. And see, one of the reasons why people like myself do the work that we do is because we understand that. And young people, if we can cut the use of, young people getting into using drugs, then we have a better chance of stopping people from going on to harder drugs. And understanding that young people get into drugs basically through the illegal drug market, that is, through marijuana, what we want to do is legalize marijuana outright to cut the access. Most people don't realize that what we have in place right now with the War on Drugs and drug prohibition is that we have a very liberal market. And what that means is that anyone that wants to secure these drugs can get them, and we're talking eight, nine, ten year-olds. It is much harder to find, or buy, or purchase alcohol and cigarettes because those drugs are inside of the law, and they're easier to combat and come down on proprietors selling illegal to the young people. So to answer your question, Pinky, those figures have been rising for the last 15-20 years that they started taking statistics on that. And it's going to get exceedingly worse.
Pinky: What are the main objectives of the War on Drugs?
Mr. Thornton: Well, in January 17, 1971, President Nixon declared the modern day War on Drugs, and the main tenets of the Drug War is, first of all, to interdict as many drugs as possible to drive up the price so people can't readily secure these drugs, and secondly keep them away from our children. Those two main tenets of the Drug War has absolutely failed. When you start to look at the overall statistics of drugs, and the DEA readily admits that they catch less than 10% of illegal drugs coming into this country. At the state, local, and federal level, we spend 50 billion dollars on the interdiction of drugs alone. So the question we should be asking is this: Do you think it's a good policy to have a rate of interdiction of less than 10% and spending 50 billion dollars for a 90% failure rate? Is that a good proposition? And when we look at the overall situation of this, Pinky, and talk about how drugs proliferate this society, we've got to understand and ask two questions. Do you think that the War on Drugs is working? And secondly, a more important question is do you think people are ever going to stop using these drugs. The overwhelming response to those two questions is no. Not only from people who advocate as I do, but the authorities as well. Before we can go anywhere else, those questions have to be answered in their entirety.
Pinky: Okay. So you don't think this is an effective program, but is there any part of the program that you think is working good?
Mr. Thornton: When you understand the War on Drugs you'll understand this, that the War on Drugs has absolutely nothing to do drugs. It's about power, it's about coe... it's about control, it's about coercion, it's about money! That's all it's about. So this has become the biggest farce, not only in the 20th century, but the 21st century. We learned from alcohol prohibition that you are not going to be able to curb an individual's appetite for whatever substance they want. This particular problem of drug prohibition has been going on for almost a century, and we've had almost four decades of the War on Drugs. We've spent a couple of trillion dollars on interdiction alone. Yet, there are more drugs at cheaper prices on our streets than ever before. It is a complete farce. The Drug War has absolutely nothing to do with drugs. It's about power, control, coercion. It's about money.
Pinky: Hmm… what has been the effects of having over 35 years of this kind of drug policy?
Mr. Thornton: Well, when we start to look at the overall problem of drugs and the criminal justice system, there are 7.6 million people in our criminal justice system, Pinky. Almost two-thirds of them are young black, Latino males. 70% of them are there for drug related charges. 10% of the African American population is in the criminal justice system. And when we talk about the criminal justice system, we're talking about the people that are on parole, probation, halfway houses, prison, or jail. At present, there are 2.3 million people in our prisons. There's another million or so in our jails. And again, with over 70% of those people being there for drug related charges. Now, drug reformers like myself say 70%, but when you start going into these prisons, and you start talking to the prison guards, they say it's 80% of the people that are there for drug related charges. And when you go to the judges, the judges say it's 90%.
So, let's look at this problem realistically with everything that's going on in the United States today. We're in a fiscal meltdown. We have a huge problem with health care, not having enough. Look at it like this, Connecticut has a population of 3.5 million people, and we have a prison population of some 18-22,000 with another 52,000 that are either on probation, parole, halfway houses, or prison, or jail. Now, we have an operating prison budget of 800 million dollars. Now, if in fact drugs were legalized, medicalized, and decriminalized, over two-thirds of the people within in that prison system would have to be released. Now we're talking about taking almost 600 million dollars out of the prison system. Now if we were smart, we could have health care for every single person in the state of Connecticut. We could have an effective drug program for every single person in the state of Connecticut. We could also fund public education until the cows come home so to speak. But see, that makes too much sense.
I'm for reparations. Reparations for Drug War maladies. Not a check to each individual that's been harmed by the Drug War, but what I'm for is revolutionizing our education system, not only at the public school system but also at the higher education. I want to take the savings and the taxes from marijuana and hemp and put those back into education programs. Yeah. I mean, there's a lot to that.
Pinky: Uh, huh.
Mr. Thornton: I'm just trying to zero in as to what I see and what I see that has to be done because when we talk about this, the money is there. It's just reallocating and shifting it. And we have an untaxed market that was unaffected by the fiscal meltdown, and that is the illegal drug market. Matter of fact, it's flourishing.
Pinky: Why would such a failed system remain in place for so long? Is there anybody benefiting or profiting from having the War on Drugs stay the way it is?
Mr. Thornton: The way in which it profits is this way, and look at it like this. Let's create a simple equation, Pinky. On one side you have the drug dealers and the drug cartels, and we're talking about a world-wide economy per the UN of a 600 billion dollar a year underground illegal drug market. On the other side of the equation, you have the authorities. You're talking about the prison system, you're talking about the lawyers, the doctors, the urine industry. You're talking about all of the counselors that you need, so forth and so on. Both sides are dependent upon each other for their existence because what keeps them in place in the middle of this equation are the laws governing drug policy. The policy, the drug policies keep these, both sides of the equation in business. If we change the laws, both sides would lose. However, the side of the drug dealers, those people have to be re-educated, and the side of the authorities, let's say, can do the education. Not only of the prisoners, but the drug dealers and the drug cartels.
Pinky: You mentioned legalization, medicalization, and decriminalization. Um, can you please explain more what these really mean?
Mr. Thornton: Yeah. There are three terms that are thrown around all the time. Legalization, medicalization, and decriminalization. Understand when people start talking about decriminalizing drugs, what they mean is that the laws actually stay the same as they are on the books, however there is an addendum that says, well, if you're caught with two ounces of marijuana let's say, you're going to get a slap on the wrist and a fine, or just a slap on the wrist and no fine, and it's a misdemeanor. It depends on what area because it varies from area to area and state to state. And no prison term. Of course if you drive up there with a truck load of marijuana, you're not using it just for personal use, so you can't use that as a decriminalization argument.
When we talk about medicalized drugs, think about Pinky going to the doctor, or in your case, the veterinarian, and getting a prescription for what ails you. Just think about now what we have in place now is called safe injection sites, heroin maintenance, cocaine maintenance, and methamphetamine maintenance. Thinking about going to the doctor and saying, "doctor, I'm addicted to drugs", and "okay, we're going to put you into this program". Or, "Doc, I'm thinking about, well I want to try heroin". The doctor's going to sit down and tell you what the true effects of heroin is. So medicalization is a form of legalization, however, it's only given through a doctor's prescription or recommendation.
When you think about legalization, think about the drugs like alcohol and cigarettes. Regulation and control. That's when you talk about regulation. What Efficacy, the organization that I represent, and the Green Party, with the resolution just passed a couple of weeks ago, what we're talking about is we want to legalize marijuana outright like alcohol and cigarettes, and along with it hemp. We want to medicalize heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and ecstasy. And we want to decriminalize all of the rest of the illegal drugs for future debate and true and honest medicinal study. That's what we mean about legalization, medicalization, and decriminalization.
Pinky: Wait, I think I'm not really understanding the decriminalization part. Can you give me an example of how decriminalization would work in real life?
Mr. Thornton: Okay. Understand decriminalization would stop many people from going to jail. However, it would have no effect on the crime and violence associated with drugs because understand that with decriminalization these drugs are still outside of the law, underground, and uncontrollable. The only thing that you're stopping with decriminalization is x number of people, let's say, going to jail or prison.
With medicalization, medicalization goes a step further. Medicalization helps curb the flow of AIDS, hepatitis c, and it puts in effective rehabilitation or drug programs to help people get off of it. But again, it has little to no effect to, with the crime and violence problem. The way in which it's... you stopping the crime and violence problem is to apply all three concepts at once. Immediately the crime and violence will go away. Then, we have the hard task of getting down with drug use, drug abuse, and drug addiction. That then and only then is when the real work starts. Right now we're looking like a dog chasing its tail. We all know that a dog can't chase, can't catch its tail, well very few of them. And we will never come to grips using the type of tactics we're using to fight the War on Drugs.
Pinky: Are there any programs, maybe in other countries or something, that you guys are looking at, that might be able to serve as some kind of model for solving these drug related problems?
Mr. Thornton: Um, in um, Switzerland and Amsterdam, they have what they call heroin maintenance programs. And it's very interesting. Ten years ago, um, there was a, the medical association in Switzerland said that "we want to implement a heroin maintenance program". Law enforcement was totally against it, but it got off the ground. They brought in 3000 hardcore heroin addicts. They stabilized their dosage per metabolic rate and heart rate. Instead of them shooting up three or four times a day, now they're shooting up once or maybe twice a day because under medical supervision, you're able to stabilize the dosage per metabolic rate and heart rate. Now, understand too that instead of getting the heroin that is on the street, that is cut with all kinds of stuff, they were administered pure, or what they call pharmaceutical heroin. That way, you could be sure about the exact dosage each individual needed. Now, from that program came, um, within three months of instituting that program, within a 30 mile radius of each clinic, 80-90% of the crime associated with the use of heroin was gone. The drug dealers had to move out because they could no longer make a profit. And more importantly, we're talking about 50-70% of those people were able to reintegrate within their family because they were on medical supervision. A large percentage of them went back to school. And of course you always have that small, there was a small percentage, maybe 7% of them, left the program, didn't complete the program, or it didn't work for them. Now, law enforcement is out in front to bring these programs in.
Here in, well on the mainland, at Columbia University, they are now holding trials for heroin maintenance, cocaine maintenance, and methamphetamine, and ecstasy maintenance. Canada has produced in Vancouver, Montreal, and Quebec heroin maintenance programs with the same types of results. Yet and still, the government of Canada, since they got this conservative person as Prime Minister, is looking at the program and wants to shut it down. Why? Because again, the Drug War has absolutely nothing to do with drugs.
Pinky: Hmm. Okay. I guess this might be a stupid question, but...
Mr. Thornton: There is no stupid question, Pinky.
Pinky: Okay. I guess I'm wondering if these programs you're talking about are so successful, why doesn't the government just make programs like these?
Mr. Thornton: Any time you talk about legalizing or brining these drugs inside of the law, you're only talking about one thing and one thing only - the redistribution of income and wealth. These people are afraid of losing income. Some of these people are definitely what you call moralists, and you shouldn't be using drugs for whatever, but come to find out, one of the biggest moralists, uh, Bill Bennett, who is one of the first drug czars, he was uh, he should be arrested for gluttony. He should be arrested for uh, gambling and all of that other stuff. What you find out these moralists actually have serious problems themselves. And what is the uh radical conservative talk show host? Um... He was arrested for uh... um... OxyContin. Uh, I can't think of his name right now.
Pinky: Rush Limbaugh?
Mr. Thornton: Oh, there you go! There you go. That's Rush Limbaugh. Very good, Pinky. You're on the ball. Rush Limbaugh is one of those moralists and I could remember hearing him talk about race and drugs and how bad it was but then a couple of months later he's busted because he's paying his housekeeper to get OxyContin for him. And, you've got to watch these people and understand that there's a method behind their madness. One thing you gotta ask yourself is, "why do people use drugs"? Pinky, do you know why people use this drug? Use drugs?
Pinky: Mm... hm?
Mr. Thornton: Okay. People use drugs for two reason and two reasons only. To increase the pleasure and all of those variables within the pleasure dome or to decrease the pain and all of those variables within the pain dome. I got a message the other day from uh, um... this person was saying that actually legal drug use is starting to escalate among the upper socio-economic people because of this fiscal crisis. Alcohol sales are up, cigarette sales are up. People tend to go to drugs when they are in... they're in a stressful situation, and it's understandable. And as a result, these drugs, they're selling more of these drugs, in both the illegal and legal market. Those are... that's important criteria to understand because you've got to look at the entire problem. Not just one segment of the problem.
Pinky: I'd like to ask, um... an education type question if you don't mind. How did you decide that you should spend your life teaching people about the effects of the Drug War on society?
Mr. Thornton: I did not arrive at this, my conclusion lightly. Some 45 years ago, two weeks before I was to graduate high school, one Sunday morning, me and the family, my grandmother and three brothers, we were having breakfast. And a knock at the door and upon exchanging pleasantries with the individual, my grandmother instructed me to accompany the gentleman. And he drove me to a field of abandoned cars. And in one of these cars was the body of a naked woman. She was my mother, who died from an apparent heroin overdose. Now, there are no words to describe how I felt, but one thought resonated as I came to my senses and that was all illegal drugs should be eradicated from the face of the earth. But as I watched my native Hartford, Connecticut go downhill decade after decade, and seeing that they were putting more money into fighting these drugs and more and more people were going to jail, basically black and brown people, I decided I had to learn more about these, this particular drugs.
About 10-12 years ago, the straw that broke the camel's back for me was that two federal agents came into my place of employment, Southern New England Telephone, and they arrested one of my supervisors for supposedly selling drugs. And come to find out, I knew this guy for ten years. He didn't smoke, he didn't drink, he didn't even have a girlfriend. He was one of these computer whizzes, uh... I think the young people call them nerds. He wore white socks, and his pants were all the way up here, and he walked around with a keyboard under his arm all the time. Come to find out unbeknownst to him, he was introduced to a drug dealer. The drug dealer gets busted, and in order for the drug dealer to get leniency he has to finger x number of people. They gave him ten years for, under the conspiracy laws to sell drugs. That next week I went in and I retired early, and I have since dedicated my life to ending drug prohibition. So, I didn't all of a sudden look at a few facts and say we gotta legalize drugs. It took me a great deal of time to come to this conclusion.
Pinky: Uh-huh. Well, thank you Mr. Thornton. I know you have to run, but is there any last thing you'd like to tell people before we have to say goodbye?
Mr. Thornton: I don't go in to talk to people expecting to change their minds. What I do expect is the information that I give them, is now for them to put this information through critical thinking. Critical thinking is something that is lacking in today's society. It's more or less a knee-jerk reaction to problems and so forth. Again, when you talk about radical or revolutionary things, you're only talking about one thing - the redistribution of income and wealth. And that's what people are most afraid of.
Pinky: That was Mr. Clifford Thornton, Jr., founder of Efficacy.
guest: Clifford Thornton, Jr.
video location/date: Honolulu, Hawaii, October 7, 2008
other images: titles by Pinky
video credits: Special thanks to Daisy for recording the interview.