Grand Old Man of American Drug Reform

Arnold Trebach is indeed a godfather of the American drug reform movement. From his post at American University in Washington, DC, in the 1970s, Trebach began exploring the impact of drug enforcement on crime policy, leading him to found the Drug Policy Foundation, progenitor to the Drug Policy Alliance. The author of groundbreaking critiques of US drug policy, such as "The Heroin Solution" (1982) and "The Great Drug War" (1987), Trebach played a central role in making drug reform an issue that could be addressed in polite circles.

But as his exploration of drug policy deepened, Trebach moved toward the embrace of legalization of drug use and the drug trade as the best solution to "the drug problem." Now a spry 76-year old in retirement, Trebach continues to monitor the drug reform milieu, whether as a board member and advisor to the International Antiprohibitionist League, a compiler of drug treatment program abuses, or, as just last month, a speaker at a cutting edge conference, the Third National Clinical Conference on Cannabis Therapeutics at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. His major passion at the moment is finishing a book on drug control in the age of terror, in which he argues that today prohibition makes even less sense than before and that a rational system of legalization or re-legalization is demanded by the age in which we live and try to survive.

We thought it was time to check in with Arnold again, on the occasion of his recent birthday, and we spoke with him by phone at his suburban Washington, DC, home last week.

You've been in this game for a long time. How did you get started in drug reform and how do you think the movement is doing?

Arnold Trebach: I came out of the civil rights movement. For example, I was on the streets of Birmingham with Martin Luther King. I was there as a federal civil rights official to observe events and, truth to tell, to give aid and comfort to the revolutionaries. I made sure to call up Bull Connor and tell him I was there and that I would like to speak to him. He was unimpressed and un-cowed and called up Burke Marshall and told him that the next time he sent down a civil rights official, teach him to speak dog talk and I will let him talk to my dogs. I did not work for Burke, a wonderful man, but he told me about it later. The important point is that I marveled at the courage of the protestors, King, and Shuttleswoth and Oliver and the others. They were my heroes.

That's the tradition I came out of, civil rights not drugs and rock and roll. I often say I grew up at a time when I missed the sex and drugs revolution, damn it. I wandered into the field of drug policy by accident. I was an analyst of crime control policy and a civil rights scholar at American University, and I found my students knew more about drugs than I did. It was only when I started looking at the federal crime control budget that I got intrigued. I read that and thought, "Wait a minute, this is very strange." The alleged facts, the basis for the policy, seemed wrong, distorted or half true.

These were the grains of sand in my oyster, so to speak. I just started looking around and following my nose, and I started going to England with seminars or institutes from American University. I saw that what we said about heroin and its use as a medicine there was totally distorted. On the basis of those visits and much research, I wrote "The Heroin Solution," which title was really a play on words. What I said then was there was no solution, at least not in American terms. You can't have unconditional victory over heroin; you just have to learn to live with it. Also, if properly used, it's a wonderful drug and should be used as a medicine.

Then in the mid-1980s, I wrote "The Great Drug War." I was so appalled at what I saw in the process of gathering information for that book that when I was done I told my dean that I was not going to write another book for awhile but that I was going to start a reform organization. I sat down at the same old word processor I had used for the book and wrote out the plans for a centrist drug policy reform organization based on my experiences overseas and here. I had 50 names for it in my files and eventually came up with the Drug Policy Foundation, a real white bread name.

Rich Dennis, a truly decent and compassionate human being, was our first big funder. When he asked me what I wanted to accomplish, I told him that I hoped to make opposition to the drug laws decent and respectable. That's what I was trying to do. Back then, many drug reform conferences were places were guys got pies thrown in their faces. I wanted something more professional, more mainstream. The idea was to create a center for a movement that would pull in decent people, professionals who were proper in their actions, but very strong in their opposition, and I think I've helped that to happen. Drug reform is now in the mainstream, there is an enormous amount of support for it, there are many organizations involved and I'm very proud of that.

It seems that we have managed to win some reforms around the edges (sentencing reforms, treatment instead of jail, medical marijuana), but that we haven't made much progress in busting the prohibitionist paradigm. Is that assessment too pessimistic?

Trebach: Enormous progress has been made on many fronts and we are starting to make some small progress on -- as you say -- busting the prohibitionist paradigm. Let me back up a bit and explain what I saw back in the 80s. DPF never supported legalization, but I eventually got to a point where I did. I supported treating all drugs like alcohol and tobacco. Near the end of my time there, when we were going through battles at DPF which led to my leaving, it was not over policy, but power and prestige, who was going to run the biggest organization in drug policy reform. Obviously, I lost that battle, a power struggle. But we never had a real battle over whether we should stand for legalization; our battles were over tactics and who would control the money and who would appear on TV and who was the fairest in the land -- that kind of bullshit. It wasn't about legalization; legalization never really came to the fore as a major internal issue, even though it was discussed.

By the time I left DPF, I had published "Legalize It? Debating American Drug Policy" with Jim Inciardi. He supported prohibition with some humane adjustments and I laid out the case for legalization. What's happened since then is that the Drug Policy Alliance, the descendant of DPF, has gone on to do all kinds of great things, and at times it sounds like a legalization organization, but as we all know, it's not. Fortunately, DRCNet, Dave Borden's group, is definitely out there as a legalization proponent, and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Jack Cole's group, is about legalization, too. And there is the International Antiprohibitionist League, a very good organization led by Marco Perduca and Marco Cappato, that stands for legalization and for something related that I believe is very important -- going after the United Nations treaties. I was president of the IAL for about a year, but I've stepped down because I'm tired of running organizations.

Back to your question -- some progress has been made on directly attacking prohibition but not nearly enough. The main movers in the so-called reform movement are afraid of it, I guess, figuring it is the third rail in the politics of reform.

As much good as is accomplished by the push for harm reduction and the medical marijuana issue, the movement fails in not fully embracing legalization as one of the main thrusts of drug reform. Here in Maryland, we just passed a treatment-not-jail bill -- in many respects a good advance, but it implies that large numbers of marijuana users need treatment, when most just simply like marijuana. That shouldn't be a crime. Sending people to treatment who don't have anything wrong with them is preposterous. While I'm not unhappy about such laws, they may do some good, they don't deal with the main issue. Reform organizations ought to have their eye on the ball, and the ball is ending prohibition. Achieving legality for medical marijuana is short of that goal.

Yet, it is a step that I support. I was just down at the medical marijuana conference in Charlottesville, and the science was stunning. I was amazed at how much I learned. Wow, there is a massive amount of movement forward showing many more uses of marijuana in medicine than I knew existed. The science is incontrovertible; to deny the utility of medical marijuana is obscene. But I just reread Lester Grinspoon's "Marijuana: The Forbidden Medicine," and at the end Lester says that we can't get marijuana into medicine until we legalize the drug. I mentioned that to people down there, but I am not sure they all wanted to hear it. Still, I don't think we can have a healthy situation regarding drugs as medicine until we treat them as ordinary substances, and that means legalization. The whole mindset will be different then. While I support the legalization of medical marijuana, that alone is not sufficient.

But before any real progress can happen, one thing that is necessary is that law enforcement must listen to the voices of reform. I recently gave a speech at the Association of Retired Federal Narcotics Officers; it was a debate with my friend Robert Stutman; Peter Bensinger, the former head of DEA, moderated. I was proud of them that they were open enough to invite me and to treat me with respect. At one point, I said, "Look you won't agree on legalization, but you have to face the fact you, as good law enforcement officers, need to stay out of medicine. If you keep interfering with the use of narcotics or marijuana in medicine, you will be extinct like the woolly mammoth." I was wonderfully eloquent, I think, but I made zero progress. That shows the difficulty we face. It might be easier if the feelings on the other side were based on mean motives, but they are based on sincerely held beliefs.

You quite presciently warned a few years ago that the drug war was diverting valuable law enforcement resources away from real enemies. Now there are reports that Al Qaeda is benefiting from the Afghan opium trade, that the Spanish bombers financed their misdeeds by selling hash, etc. Do you see any possibility this link between prohibition and terrorism could help create a different attitude toward prohibition in the ranks of government or the voting public?

Trebach: Back in 1996, I was at a conference in Israel and I observed that the same skills used by courageous drug enforcement officers could be used in going after terrorism, and that I think we'd all be a lot safer if they were going after terrorists who might blow up a building or an airplane rather than worrying about drug dealers selling the inhabitants and passengers marijuana and cocaine. I am stunned by the extent to which those few sentences have been repeated all over the world, time and time again. I was not predicting the future, but it struck me as a father and grandfather that I could deal with drugs in my family, but I expect law enforcement to deal with bombs. Protect me from bombs, not bongs. Since then, what really shocks me is finding out the extent to which we have been incompetent in dealing with terrorism. When you listen to the 9/11 Commission testimony and read Richard Clarke's book, it is all unbelievable. Some FBI offices didn't know how to get on the Internet! If we don't have the competence and the troops to go after terrorism, it is absolutely obscene to think we are wasting one second of law enforcement time on drugs.

This may be the opening that starts people rethinking prohibition and the war on drugs. Right now, as we speak, there is a terror alert out, pictures and names of seven suspected terrorists. Has the Justice Department ordered the DEA to stop all drug investigations and go out and look for them? Should the federal government be spending one minute looking for drug dealers when there is an alert for seven terrorists who want to do us immense harm?

I have recommended many times that we dismantle the DEA. There are almost 5,000 armed federal agents, most of them good decent officers, in DEA and it seems to me that the president ought to say he is assigning them to the front lines of the war on terror. That could easily be done, and would have the support of at least half of Congress, I suspect. What I mean is that I believe that the president probably has the executive power to accomplish this without an act of Congress but Congress must be informed and brought on board. In any event, this is a time when we might want to consider abolishing the DEA or redirecting all of its agents into other work, and the same with other state and local narcotic units. That would be a real signal that we are serious about dealing with terror.

Drug profits support terrorism; that's well documented. The drug laws should be called the Human Savage Full Employment Acts because they empower some of the worst people on the face of the planet to sell the drugs because the profits are so high and to use the profits for whatever they want. They also may use the profits to buy guns and carry out terrorist enterprises. By keeping the drug laws, we allow terrorists ready sources of cash and guns. There is a connection and we ought to be rethinking what we do.

Reports from Afghanistan provide a brilliant piece of revealing theater about the absurdity of drug prohibition. Those people in Afghanistan are growing opium for one reason: because people come and pay them many, many tens of times what they can make growing anything else. The farmers are largely innocent, but as the opium goes up the line, it goes into the hands of bad people, including terrorists. All of this exists because of the framework of prohibition. This shows the horrors we have created with our well-intentioned laws. And we have to face the fact that this is only one of the many defects in these laws.

I spend more time these days looking at the broader world situation then I used to. A couple of things affect my view of the world and drug policy very much. A lot of people on the left and in the Democratic Party see what is happening today as proof of the fundamental rottenness of America. A lot of our colleagues in drug policy around the world, look at our drug policy and say this shows the Americans are rotten to the core. I react badly to that. I want to say that I view our drug policy as bad but not proof of the rottenness of America. I'm amazed with how much I like Andrew Sullivan, a gay Republican moralist conservative. Like me, he goes back and forth and agonizes about Iraq and a lot of things, but when it comes to the standard liberal Noam Chomsky-like critiques of America, Sullivan is furious and so am I. When I was in the European Parliament chairing a conference on legalization several years ago, I told them that I was a critic of American policy, but I fiercely resent the broadside attacks on my country. There I was in Belgium, where I could glory in the guts of our people, not too far away and not too long ago in Bastogone, so I said please don't talk to me about how bad America is. At the end of the day, I glory in this country and what it stands for, especially at times like these when so-called liberals and leftists the world over are on a detest-America binge.

In "The Great Drug War," you began to expose some of the abuses that have gone on in the name of drug treatment, and you have been involved in the issue in recent years as well. Are you still?

Trebach: I've worked on that issue for almost 20 years, and I'm proud to say I helped put Straight, Inc. out of business, but I've backed away now. I feel like I've done my part. Still, these problems have never been resolved. One of my concerns about treatment-not-jail laws is the simple but very disturbing fact that there is no core medical consensus on what works in treatment. If you have a broken leg, doctors may disagree on the best treatment, but there is fundamental agreement on the nature of the problem. That doesn't exist with drug treatment, the approaches are all over the map.

It is shocking to note that some high level physicians, including Robert Dupont, supported the behavior of Straight, Inc. and its descendants. They signed off on the brutality of Straight, Inc. There is still unfinished business with these abusive treatment programs, and we clearly have a long way to go to reach an understanding of the Hippocratic Oath's injunction to first do no harm as it applies to drug treatment. It is another defect of the war on drugs. Because we so irrationally fear drugs as a nation, we say that you can practically destroy children to prevent them from using drugs.

Visit StoptheDrugWar.org

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