Episode 200 - The Rise of the War on Drugs 2.0: This Time It’s Different, We Promise

Citations Needed | March 27, 2024 | Transcript

Citations Needed
41 min readMar 27, 2024
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer warns of “rainbow fentanyl” during a press conference in October, 2022. (Racquel Stephen / WXXI News)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media power, PR and the history of bullshit. I’m Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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Adam: Yeah, I’m going on maternity leave for a month. Sarah and I are having our second child, which we’re very excited about.

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Adam: Progeny.

Nima: [Laughs] Progeny to add to our team. So congratulations, Adam and Sarah, very excited about this. And yes, the show will take a bit of a hiatus.

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Nima: “Senator Chuck Schumer warns drug dealers are pushing rainbow fentanyl to children,” cries CBS News. “‘It’s very challenging’: Inside the fentanyl fight at the border,” reports ABC News. “The hard drug decriminalization disaster,” laments New York Times columnist Bret Stevens.

Adam: In recent years, we’ve been warned about the ongoing threat of hyperpotent street drugs, particularly opioids. Fentanyl is disguised as Halloween candy to appeal to children. US Border Patrol doesn’t have the resources to keep up with drug screenings. Efforts to decriminalize drug use and possession are causing chaos and suffering on American streets.

Nima: Now the dangers of drugs like fentanyl are of course very, very real and concerns about them are absolutely legitimate. But too often, media frameworks don’t reflect genuine concerns. Rather than offering urgent solutions to help those who are truly struggling, like reduced penalties or stable housing and healthcare, media, alongside policymakers, consistently promote the same old carceral logic of the Nixon-era War on Drugs, turning a true public health crisis into an opportunity to increase policing, arrests, prosecution, and imprisonment.

Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll be discussing the War on Drugs 2.0: This Time It’s Different, We Promise, and how despite lofty liberal rhetoric about how the War on Drugs has been cruel and counterproductive, American media and elected officials are doubling down on the old playbook of fearmongering, stigmatization, and severe prison and punishment.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Emily Kaltenbach, Senior Director of State Advocacy and Criminal Legal Reform at the Drug Policy Alliance.

Emily Kaltenbach: Even though we know that the War on Drugs never went away, there definitely was a growing consensus that the War on Drugs had failed, and we have to do something different. Unfortunately, in Oregon, what we saw is that there’s a lot of public suffering. And that’s real. And that’s upsetting, that’s impacting many of us, many of our family members, but the elected leaders are really selling a false bill of goods here, and scapegoating decriminalization as the result of increased public drug use and for homelessness.

Adam: So this is a sequel to Episode 78 From June of 2019, forever ago, the militarization of US drug coverage. And this is about the latest iteration, which has really skyrocketed over the past couple years, specifically in the last maybe 18 months, which is the backlash to the backlash to the backlash. So there was kind of a general liberal consensus that the War on Drugs had been a failure, it was even hip to say it wasn’t a failure, but did precisely what it was supposed to do. And it was kind of a broader belief that we should decriminalize, especially drugs like cannabis, but also quote-unquote “hard drugs” underneath the premise that locking up people with substance abuse issues was not a solution to the problem, and that even people like Kemal Harris repeated the liberal rhetoric that we need to treat drugs as a medical or health issue rather than a criminal issue.

Nima: Yeah, so that was great and lasted about 17 seconds.

Adam: And of course, it was all mostly rhetoric because the policies themselves didn’t change much. There was some loosening of drug laws, obviously less people in prison for drugs, but in the last couple years with the rise of legitimately dangerous and very scary drugs, like fentanyl, which can obviously kill you, they sort of do all the things and all the scaremongering in the ’70s said would happen, but didn’t really happen, which is to say, kill you after one use, the sort of Saved by the Bell, kind of wished it into reality, that this has led to a response, as we’ll discuss with our guest, along with the rise of visible poverty, homelessness, and things of that nature and sort of eroding of social safety net has led to a panic and fearmongering about substance use and drugs. And reverting back to the same old playbook that they always use, which is locking people up, locking users up, using police to manage what is fundamentally a social and health problem. But of course, you have to reconcile this with recent trends and liberal rhetoric around being opposed to the War on Drugs. So we’re calling it the War on Drugs 2.0: This Time, It’s Different, We Promise, which is basically we’re going to kind of do the same thing, but we’re gonna make it seem like it’s comporting with a kind of liberal, conventional wisdom around drugs being a health issue.

Nima: Right. Added to this idea that there are some quote-unquote “liberal” cities, or even whole states, run by radical progressives that tried to do something different, and then quickly realized that that itself could not be done because really, the only possible solution is more cops, more arrests, more imprisonment, more forced treatment, and not actually giving people houses or jobs or money. And so what we get is this Welcome Back, War on Drugs, we hardly knew ye. Glad to see you again. So let’s dig in a little bit to the background of the original War on Drugs and the media’s facilitation of it. Draconian drug laws, especially those that have nothing to do with science or public health, and that disproportionately criminalized certain groups, usually based on race, have been around since at least the 1870s with anti-Chinese opium laws and later anti-Mexican and Central American marijuana laws starting in the 1930s. But the War on Drugs officially started in the early 1970s. In 1970, then President Richard Nixon signed the Controlled Substances Act into law. The law introduced the quote-unquote
“Schedule” classification of drugs, which divided drugs into five different categories, Schedule I through Schedule V, allegedly based on the medical benefits and level of potential for abuse. Marijuana was infamously classified as Schedule I, reserved for the least medically beneficial and most addictive substances. But as we now know, the legislation was based far more on stigmatization and criminalization than on anything even resembling scientific evidence.

Adam: Now, there’s a famous quote from top Nixon aide John Ehrlichman, who can be seen mumbling and agreeing with Nixon in various Nixon tapes where he goes on rants about All in the Family or Jews in the media. He did an interview in 1994 with Harper’s reporter Dan Baum that Baum first published in 2016, long after Ehrlichman passed. We’ve read this quote on the show before, but I think it’s useful because it’s kind of, assuming one believes Harper’s Magazine, which I think you should, he’s a sort of reputable reporter. This is a quite openly frank admission about the kind of true political nature of the War on Drugs. Its useful context when understanding why the framing of a War on Drugs and why the criminalization of drugs has tremendous utility to those in power. John Ehrlichman said, quote,

You want to know what this [war on drugs] was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying?

We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news.

Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.

Unquote. This is something that the left had long sort of suspected and there was plenty of evidence for this fact, especially the racialization of drugs, which again predated Ehrlichman, through things like cannabis and Mexican immigrants and heroin and Chinese immigrants. It’s interesting to hear that a top domestic adviser for Richard Nixon sort of explicitly admitted this before he passed.

Nima: Now, in what will probably come as no surprise to our listeners, the White House’s effort to criminalize drugs contradicted information available about drug use at the time. In a 1969 Gallup poll, only 4% of American adults said they had tried marijuana. 34% said they didn’t know the effects of marijuana, but 43% said it was used by either many or some high school kids. Now, as Gallup noted, much later in 2002 surveys from the 1960s quote “show that drug abuse was comparably rare as was accurate information about the effects of illegal drugs,” end quote. Of course, it’s possible that use was underreported in the 1969 poll, of course, but even so, 4% is really, really low. Nonetheless, on June 17, 1971, President Nixon declared drug abuse, quote,

[Begin clip]

Richard Nixon: America’s public enemy number one, in the United States, is drug abuse.

[End clip]

Nima: Continuing to describe the issue with martial-sounding language.

[Begin clip]

Richard Nixon: In order to fight and defeat this enemy, it is necessary to wage a new, all-out offensive.

[End clip]

President Richard Nixon declares “drug abuse” “public enemy number one.” (Via Richard Nixon Foundation)

Adam: In 1971, the legal publication New York Law Journal published multiple pieces to drum up support for a second quote-unquote “Manhattan Project” with regard to drug use in the United States. Publisher Jerry Finkelstein first outlined the proposal in the July edition a few months later, in December of 1971. The journal published 25 newspaper-sized pages of articles by, as The Cincinnati Enquirer described, quote, “leading medical, legal political and law enforcement authorities” unquote about quote, “just how massive the drug crisis really is, and how very meager our success against it has been,” unquote.

In this issue, Finkelstein would write, quote, “thus far the battle against drugs has been basically a holding action, we must escalate to a total war on drugs or we will lose,” unquote. And an article headline “Needed: A Total War on Drugs.” The Cincinnati Enquirer wholeheartedly endorsed the New York law Journal’s prescriptions, writing, quote,

We urge the president to call for the beginning of a total war on drugs on an even greater scale than the Manhattan Project, or the effort to put a man on the Moon. Unlike the other two, there will be no real debate on whether in retrospect, it was worth the effort.

So we’re gonna split, we split the atom and landed on the moon. Next, we need to make sure hippies don’t have ganja.

Nima: Exactly. So the War on Drugs would prove utterly inhumane and ineffective, as we have described often on the show, and as I’m sure you have heard elsewhere, not only that, it proved incredibly counterproductive. As of the year 2001, the US prison population had reached 2 million, which Graham Boyd of the ACLU attributed, quote, “in no small part to harsh sentences for drug crimes, especially for low-level nonviolent offenses,” end quote. At that point, as officials in the George W. Bush administration like John Ashcroft sought to expand the drug war, backlash was mounting with many in media and politics calling the drug war a failure. For instance, there’s this headline from the Chicago Tribune on June 5, 2000, quote, “Combat fatigue: The drug war’s mounting toll.” There was also this written in the Philadelphia Inquirer on March 31, 2001, quote, “The real cost of the drug war lies in the minimum sentencing guidelines that have triggered an explosion in the prison population,” end quote.

Adam: Fast forward to the 2010s and 2020s, then we started to see this backlash codified. As the Vera Institute noted in 2017, since the start of the War on Drugs, increased incarceration has effectively had no impact on violent crime rates. At most it has resulted in marginal decreases in property crimes. The following year, in 2018, Pew Research released a state-by-state comparison showing that increasing the incarceration for drug related offenses did not reduce substance use, overdose fatalities, or drug arrests. Many within and adjacent to the Democratic Party messaging machine began to issue their own criticisms. The Center for American Progress, a normie center-left think tank, for example, published the 2018 report “Ending the War on Drugs,” that highlighted municipal initiatives like needle exchanges and decriminalization. The Brookings Institute in 2021 called for an end to the War on Drugs, stating, quote, “We know the design and enforcement of American drug laws were racist in intent and in practice,” unquote. While campaigning for president in 2019. Even Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota vowed to reform the clemency system to roll back mass incarceration caused by drug charges. Even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer had recommended that marijuana be reclassified from Schedule I to Schedule III. So this became a kind of normie mainline position, especially around cannabis, but even sort of the broader narrative, the broader sort of premise that incarceration was not an effective tool to deal with substance abuse.

Nima: And then came a racial reckoning uprising, combined with a global pandemic. The minor progress made against mass incarceration, against massive policing budgets in 2020, and a few years later, was met with a massive backlash coinciding with the rise of fentanyl. In this time, many Democrats have effectively abandoned their previous anti-Drug War stances, instead, taking a page from the original Drug War playbook. Both Amy Klobuchar and Chuck Schumer, for example, have now been fearmongering about fentanyl supporting carceral quote-unquote “solutions.” In September of 2022, there was a media frenzy about street fentanyl being disguised as candy and pushed to children which many media outlets promised would culminate around Halloween. We actually released a News Brief about this at the time with guest and friend of the show Zach Siegel.

Adam: Yes, supposedly airport security at LAX found a bunch of Halloween candy with fentanyl, like fentanyl disguised as Halloween candy. But we just according to LA County Sheriff’s Office which originally announced this bust, and then the guy ran out of the airport and ran away, and they never found so I don’t know what happened with that. Did we ever get a follow up on the LAX Halloween candy?

Nima: No.

Adam: I looked for it before we recorded. I couldn’t find anything. If anyone has any information–

Nima: [Laughs]

Adam: If you have any information about the LAX Halloween fentanyl candy bandit that was widely reported and spent about two days in the Fox News news cycle. And then the guy who allegedly had just ran out of the one of the most highly secured pieces of real estate on Earth, and they can’t find them. So if you have any information that leads to the LAX fentanyl Halloween bandit.

Nima: Call 1–800-Citations-Needed.

Adam: I’ve been trying to follow up on the story for I can’t, no one knows what happened. I guess he just got away. I guess he was clever enough to get away.

Nima: But what happened is that the media picked up on this and it was all fentanyl Halloween candy all day. At the same time. Chuck Schumer was issuing warnings about this and called for additional funding presumably for the DEA to combat this alleged threat. Here is a clip from CBS News around that time, fall of 2022.

[Begin clip]

Dana Tyler: Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is warning about the dangers of rainbow fentanyl. He’s calling for an additional $290 million in funding to help in this drug fight. Senator Schumer says more drug dealers are pushing brightly colored fentanyl to make it more appealing to young teens and children. He says an increased number of drug use and overdoses is traced to fentanyl especially in New York City and on Long Island. Teenagers are getting hooked, he says, because it looks like candy.

Chuck Schumer: This is a picture of real fentanyl. These are Sweet Tarts. And if you opened up this little container of Sweet Tarts, it would look about the same.

Mikhail Varshavski: With this new rainbow fentanyl, this presents a completely new and more difficult challenge. Because what drug traffickers are essentially trying to do is to make a very dangerous product look fun, safe, and accessible.

Dana Tyler: And doctors say fentanyl is 50 times more dangerous than heroin and 100 times more lethal than morphine.

[End clip]

Adam: Yeah, and what’s being ignored in the Halloween candy demagoguery is that at best, it’s a way of disguising fentanyl to get it into the country. It is not a way of distributing it to children. But Klobuchar, Amy Klobuchar, as well as other Senate Democrats jumped on the bandwagon, along with Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden, fearmongering about fentanyl being smuggled to the US border. Obviously, this helps stoke anti-immigrant panic and anti-Chinese panic, have sort of people like JD Vance and Tucker Carlson routinely imply or explicitly say that fentanyl is actually part of a explicitly or implicitly an anti-white conspiracy to kind of undermine rural white America, which I guess is sort of a way of undermining the core of the United States as they see it.

Nima: Right, because fentanyl is now coded as, like, a white person drug. So it’s especially dangerous.

Adam: Right, so it’s sort of a white genocide device. It’s like the Chinese version of the smallpox blanket. So there’s kind of two versions of this. There’s the paranoid kind of paleo-conservative version. And then there’s the liberal version, which is not that much different, but is sort of premised on a similar dynamic, which is fentanyl again is legitimately scary, right? It’s not like we’re not making it up out of whole cloth. But it’s been hyped up beyond its proportionate dangers, and obviously also the appropriate ways of approaching those dangers, with education, with needle exchanges and public health awareness and save-use sites, and fentanyl testing strips, that these things are not the solution. The solution is to do the same cops, cages, and borders and Border Patrol baton approach to the War on Drugs because again, that’s easier, cheaper and plays to the reptilian id, and also of course funds the national security state, which is always a win-win for everybody.

Amy Klobuchar tweeted the following on January 21, of 2024, quote, “We must stop the flow of fentanyl over our borders. I’m working with senators Bob Casey and Mark Kelly on a bill to give Border Patrol agents and law enforcement the staff and technology they need to take action.” So everything’s about action. It’s about force, police, borders. And this is a point reinforced by the media all the time, this idea that Border Patrol is just kind of overwhelmed and needs more money. ABC News from November of 2023, quote, “‘It’s very challenging’: Inside the fentanyl fight at the border,” with the subheadline “Customs and Border Patrol is seizing 860% more fentanyl since 2019,” unquote. According to themselves because they have incentive to sort of hype that up because that’s how they get funded. Here’s another ABC News article from around the same time: “Border Patrol seizing a lot of fentanyl but say it’s a complicated problem to solve,” with the subheadline, “Customs and Border Protection is asking for more resources for the frontlines.”

So it’s sort of a war. There’s a frontline there on the war against this drug. NBC News from March of this year, quote, “Scanners that spot smuggled fentanyl at the border are unused because Congress hasn’t approved the cash to install them,” unquote.

Nima: Those clowns in Congress have done it again.

Adam: Well, they need to sort of let them turn the key and keep pumping money into the carceral state. And of course, as we noted in Episode 184, Nativism in Media Part I, where we discussed the militarization of the border, the number of federal employees charged with border security, in 1994, was 4,200. By 1999, 8,400. By 2012, it was 21,000 and had an increased budget of 5x. The budget for border security when adjusted for inflation, in 1999, was $755 million in 2023 dollars. And today, it is over $5 billion. So there’s been an increase in the number of federal employees enforcing border security from 4,200 to well over 22,000. In addition, the budget is increased from about $755 million to $5 billion. But that’s not enough to stop the fentanyl, man, we got to give them more money, more resources, Border Patrol, ICE, and other law enforcement officials at the border are constantly being framed by our media as bumbling and underresourced. Again, it’s amazing our country even functioned in the 1970s and ’80s, I guess we were just overrun with with all kinds of deadly drugs. And this is similar to the way the military is always kind of bumbling and always needs more money no matter what. And this, of course, fuels the perception that the response to fentanyl is, of course, more cops, more cages, more arrests.

Nima: And that anything less than that is not only inadequate, but irresponsible. And so we see how even small gains made in certain places, specific cities, certain municipalities, certain states that have actually rolled back some of the most devastating effects of the War on Drugs, especially in recent years after the murder of George Floyd and the uprising that happened and the policies, some policies that were enacted to change police tactics, to change bail, to change certain criminalization, even that now has been deemed ineffective. And we have to go back to where we were in the ‘70s.

Drug War hawks have been especially vocal lately in response to legislation in the state of Oregon. Here’s some background. In November 2020, Oregon voters approved Measure 110, or as it’s also known, the Drug Addiction Treatment and Recovery Act, which reclassified Schedule I through IV drug possession from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class E civil violation. As Kassandra Frederique, the Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, and a previous guest on Citations Needed–shout out to our Very Special Episode on very special 1980s and ’90s primetime TV episodes. As Kassandra wrote, quote,

[Measure 110] prevented tens of thousands of arrests, saving Oregon nearly $40 million in criminal legal system costs — savings used to help Oregon start to fill its gap in effective addiction services. Measure 110 also invested an additional $302 million from marijuana tax revenue in addiction services, resulting in an increase of more than 100 percent in people accessing services they need, including substance-use disorder treatment, housing, and overdose prevention.

End quote.

Adam: In response wealthy businesspeople in Oregon, had sought to fund a recriminalization ballot measure and everybody from Fox News to the New York Times panicked over Measure 110 and Oregon blaming all kinds of social ills on the measure. In August of 2023, New York Times columnist Bret Stephens called measure 110, quote, a “Hard drug decriminalization disaster” in a widely republished column. Stephens suggested that the rise of opioid overdose deaths and homelessness was a direct result of decriminalization, with no evidence to support this, because there isn’t any. In fact, a study published the following month in September of 2023, and a psychiatry issue of the Journal of American Medical Association found quote, “no evidence of an association between legal changes that removed or substantially reduced criminal penalties for drug possession in Oregon and Washington and fatal drug overdose rates,” unquote.

And as Media Matters noted, Oregon data shows the opioid deaths were rising before Measure 110 was passed because of the nature of the opioids themselves. Stephens, meanwhile, did not acknowledge the lack and underfunding of effective addiction services, affordable and/or public housing, health are, all of which of course is shown to contribute to the reduction in overdose deaths. Stevens went on to write, quote,

…addicts are not merely sick people trying to get well, like cancer sufferers in need of chemotherapy. They are people who will often just do about anything to get high, however irrational, self destructive, or in some cases, criminal their behavior becomes. Addiction may be a disease, but it’s also a lifestyle, one that decriminalization, there’s a lot to facilitate. It’s easier to get high, wherever and whenever you want when the cops are powerless to stop you.

Unquote. The Wall Street Journal followed with a piece by its editorial board on January 29 of 2024, which claimed that Measure 110, quote, “had led to a surge in addiction, overdoses and homelessness,” unquote. Also, of course, without any evidence, because there isn’t any.

Nima: And in March of this year, the bill HB4002 had passed the state legislature, threatening that anyone caught with small amounts of drugs, like meth or fentanyl, with a penalty of up to six months in jail, thus recriminalizing drugs across the state. Now, the bill also allows people to pursue drug treatment instead of accepting criminal penalties. Now, while on its surface, this may sound compassionate, it’s far from it. As Dr. Ryan Marino writes, quote,

In academic circles, this is viewed as coercive treatment. Coercive treatment is not only unethical, it increases overdose risks and other harms. Resources should be used to expand access to voluntary treatment and ensure best practices are being offered. Criminalizing drug use for some people has the added negative effect of a criminal record that adds barriers to jobs, housing and other services can also keep people from seeking help. Research has repeatedly shown that incarceration increases the risk of future overdose and that incarceration itself is actually a risk for overdose. In fact, just being arrested on a drug charge increases someone’s overdose risk, even if that person is not incarcerated.

End quote. Now the advancement of this recriminalization bill also happened despite the fact that there are very recent examples to cite showing that reinstating tough-on-crime policies often makes conditions more dangerous. In 2022, for instance, after a campaign funded by tech and real-estate groups, San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin was recalled and replaced by the tough-on-crime Brooke Jenkins. Jenkins revoked plea deals for drug offenses offered during Boudin’s time in office and promised to more aggressively prosecute possession of illicit fentanyl. Since Jenkins took over the job, overdose deaths in San Francisco have risen significantly. Specifically during the first quarter of 2023, overdose deaths in San Francisco were up by 41%. Still, that same year, 2023, hundreds of fentanyl criminalization bills were introduced in 46 states, a particularly damning statistic indicating just how superficial these institutional appeals to rolling back the War on Drugs were in the first place.

Adam: Yeah, it’s similar to what we talked about in our episode on homelessness, and visible poverty, it’s a sort of obviously they’re part of the same architecture of security and moral panic, which is to say like, when things like drug prevention, education, social housing, healthcare, when these things are super, super expensive, and require wealthy people to be taxed, a right to housing, things of that nature, which obviously undermines low-wage labor and reduces inequality and gives labor too much power. When these things are off the table, right, when social solutions to these ills are simply off the table either because of false austerity, or because they want to discipline the lower rungs of society, the only solution is carceral, because that’s the only arrow in your quiver that’s there.

And so naturally, that’s also the way culturally one looks tough, right? You have a task force and you have a bunch of guys with badges, with barrel chests, with cowboy hats standing beside you. I can’t tell you how many of these press conferences Brooke Jenkins has had in San Francisco, how many press conferences Eric Adams has in New York, where he’s flanked by guys with automatic weapons looking really tough. It’s kind of the way you look like you care, the way you look like, because again, people have family dying of fentanyl, right? They have family who are addicted to drugs. And people don’t really, maybe don’t understand, they’ve never really been offered a social solution. They’ve been offered this kind of negative rights libertarian argument about the externalities and downsides of incarceration. I think that’s fine. But they’ve never really been offered, much less actually seen and manifested, a robust social state solution to substance use.

So all they know, the only sort of grammar they know, is sending police after it, because that’s the way you show empathy. It’s the way you show you care about the kids that died of fentanyl or the kids that are addicted to heroin or cocaine. It’s sort of how you articulate empathy, is to just keep throwing money at cops and cages, and that obviously creates a moral hazard. So when they recall these kind of weak on crime prosecutors, and then the tough-on-crime guy gets in power, sometimes drug use goes down, sometimes it goes up. There’s no causal relationship between the two. And it’s totally random, just like we see, you know, during 2020 and 2021, when murder rates skyrocketed in red counties and counties with tough-on-crime prosecutors, versus those so called, you know, Soros or soft-on-crime prosecutors, it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter how much the evidence didn’t show that. It’s about vibes, it sort of feels like you’re doing something about it and looking busy, and feeling like you’re doing something when we’ve foreclosed on any social solution is why you have to just keep reheating the War on Drugs and the logic of the War on Drugs because there’s no real alternative, because it’s not enough to just decriminalize things. People on their way to work and see that people are addicted to some more severe substance than they were five years ago. People, you know, see visible poverty, they see homelessness, and they say, Well, something’s not right here. And when social solutions are not on offer, when there’s no robust social state that either party wants to fund, much less sustain, then all there is is simply reverting back to locking people up and using cops too, as a form of social intervention.

Nima: To discuss this more, we’re now going to speak with Emily Kaltenbach, Senior Director of State Advocacy and Criminal Legal Reform at the Drug Policy Alliance. Emily will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Emily Kaltenbach. Emily, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Emily Kaltenbach: Oh, it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for the invitation.

Adam: Let’s begin by discussing what the broader theme of this episode is, which is the sort of redoubling down on the War on Drugs fueled by many of the same media tropes we saw in the ’80s and ’90s, but kind of rebranded and retweet for kind of more skeptical, liberal or libertarian audiences. Now, clearly, the War on Drugs never ended, I think there was this idea that we live in a post-War on Drugs time, that never really occurred. So we want to make sure we don’t say that, but it definitely feels like at least rhetorically among liberals, there was an acknowledgment that the War on Drugs as a sort of criminal response to substance use, had been a failure. And it seems like that kind of has regressed in the last couple years. So I want to begin by talking about one place where we feel like that regression is most profound and most depressing is that of Oregon, specifically what they call quote-unquote, “fixing,” the fixes, to Measure 110. I like the idea of fixing, it sort of makes it again, sort of keeps it squarely within that kind of liberal milieu of like, ‘Oh, we’re not getting rid of it. We’re just fixing it.’ I want to talk about the latest developments in Oregon that were sort of reactionary, obviously, we’ve seen this many, many places, as you know, the Drug Policy Alliance, that there’s this kind of like, ‘Oh, well, this time, it’s going to be different’ reaction to some of the sorts of responses to what is basically a rise in visible poverty, which we can talk about later, and how you view Oregon as part of a broader national trend.

Emily Kaltenbach

Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, I mean, it’s very upsetting to see what’s happening on the West Coast, in Oregon. And actually, more recently, there was a ballot initiative passed in San Francisco, which, you know, we can talk about, but yes, in 2020, Oregon became the first state in the United States to decriminalize possession of small amounts of drugs. That was huge. Here we are four years later, and there’s been this intense disinformation campaign by Drug War defenders and Oregon’s elected leaders who unfortunately, scapegoated Measure 110 for every issue in the state. And obviously, that’s happening in Oregon, but we’re seeing that same sort of rhetoric pop up in different places. And so, even though we know that the War on Drugs never went away, to your point, there definitely was a growing consensus that the War on Drugs had failed, and we have to do something different. Unfortunately, in Oregon, what we saw is that there’s a lot of public suffering. And that’s real. And that’s upsetting, that’s impacting many of us, many of our family members, but the elected leaders are really selling a false bill of goods here, and scapegoating decriminalization as the result of increased public drug use and for homelessness.

Nima: Yeah, actually, to that point, you know, I’d love to kind of dig into this idea that beyond just these narrative frameworks, right, of where visible poverty comes from, of what potential solutions there are, a recent piece in The Daily Beast by Drug Policy Alliance Executive Director Kassandra Frederique noted this, that, quote, “There is no evidence supporting claims that decriminalization increased homelessness, overdose, or crime rates,” end quote, but this seems to be an emerging consensus. So Emily, I’d love to talk about how the idea that police, prosecutions, prisons are always viewed as like the way out of visible poverty or of addiction, or of homelessness of quote-unquote “crime,” however, that is defined in a very narrow sense that allows cops to do their job, but only in certain neighborhoods sometimes, what do you think the issue is here when it comes to don’t love this term, but I’ll use it anyway, the quote-unquote, “facts on the ground,” right, because so often, I think local politicians would say, Well, look, you know, the stats are clear, what we’ve seen is there’s this, you know, rise in homelessness, and there’s this rise in overdoses, rise in addiction, and that has everything to do with decriminalization efforts. Therefore, we need to roll that back to then end these problems, but what you all at Drug Policy Alliance have done is shown, quite conclusively I think, that those things are actually not the same thing. And that if you actually look at the data, you actually look at the stats, they are not complementary to the politicians’ rhetoric. Can you talk a little bit about what the truth is here and how that is then twisted in favor of the pro-law-and-order narrative?

Emily Kaltenbach: It was very clear that Oregon leaders just ignored the evidence. And yeah, let’s step back here, Measure 110 took effect in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was a very slow rollout of the funds. It was a big bureaucratic shift. We saw, you know, increased turnover of staff and there wasn’t a lot of leadership on the ground to get Measure 110 implemented as it was intended. And then in 2021, we saw COVID-19 eviction protections end, which led to skyrocketing eviction filings. But also, Oregon has led the nation, I think it might have the second-highest unsheltered population in the country, per capita. So it was already a huge issue there. But COVID-19 contributed to Oregon’s already extraordinary housing crisis. And so the homeless population increased 23%, during the early years of the pandemic, and then increased even more in 2022–23, at the same time, fentanyl began to proliferate on the West Coast. So we saw fentanyl really slowly move across the country. And that obviously, dramatically increased overdose deaths in Oregon. So what we found was that Measure 110 was not the catalyst to the overdose deaths, it was not the catalyst to our unhoused population now living on the streets. And it was very clear that that was true. At the same time, Measure 110 was putting hundreds of millions of dollars back into the addiction services and social support system. Here are lawmakers saying, Oh, you know, this is terrible and Measure 110 is to blame for, you know, this huge public suffering we’re seeing every day when people walk to work, walk out their front door. But they’re not only ignoring the facts, they are then rolling back a program that started to work, but we just never gave it time.

Adam: Yeah, the War on Drugs is infinite time and resources and decades and decades. And again, millions of people sucked up into the meat grinder of the carceral state.

Emily Kaltenbach: Yes, 50 years of that, right.

Adam: Right. And then you get 10 minutes of minor decriminalization without any sort of other context.

Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah.

Nima: Let’s half-try this thing for 10 minutes. And when there’s still any single homeless person, or anyone that we think is maybe suffering from addiction, clearly the new policy didn’t work. 10 minutes over, let’s go back to the previous 500 years.

Adam: I want to talk a bit about fentanyl and other kind of more hardcore drugs and people I’ve talked to in the sort of substance unhoused, or substance abuse spaces will tell you that drugs have gotten objectively worse, that strikes me as being true for a number of reasons. Obviously, keeping people up longer can lead to sort of more kind of mania, things of that nature, which again, is very visible, very public, I think drives a lot of this, of course, that correlates also with a lack of housing, which we can get into and lack of sort of sufficient healthcare and medical care. But the kind of traditional liberal adage of the sort of classic liberal mating call, which is I oppose every war but this war, I oppose every war on drugs except for this one, I oppose every criminal, you know, sort of racist criminal, except for this latest one. So they’re saying this time, it’s different. This time is not like the old War on Drugs.

And I know that when they were trying to recall Chesa Boudin in San Francisco, and then Brooke Jenkins took over saying, Oh, that’s not the old War on Drugs, sort of a new one. And you look at the fine print, you’re like, well, it’s the same War on Drugs. It’s the same logic. And like you said, this doesn’t matter how anti-empirical it is, everybody acts like they just sort of cracked the Da vinci Code, because they figured out you can solve social ills with criminalization and they act like it’s this new thing. And not only that, it’s the sort of forbidden knowledge we’re not allowed to talk about, because supposedly, there’s some kind of far-left cultural hegemony that exists that again, I don’t, I don’t know where they get this stuff from.

But I want to sort of talk about, that was the same logic, right, it’s sort of same logic, which is you have social ills, you have substance abuse, you have mental health issues, which again, oftentimes come from a lack of housing rather than the other way around. I know everyone wants to sort of make it out to be, people are mentally ill or are sort of drug addicts, and then they become unhoused, rather than the other way around. But I want you to talk a little bit about the sort of, what it’s like to operate in a space where it’s just vibes, it’s just all vibes. There’s, no matter how much data you show, it’s just, I want them to be locked up and thrown away and how this vibes-based approach is amplified by things like fentanyl, which I think people sort of view as being this such a dire threat, almost sort of it’s framed as a national security threat by people like JD Vance and others, that then makes us go back to the old playbook of lock them up and throw away the key.

Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, I mean, if we disappear people out of sight out of mind, then Oh, life’s fine. Unfortunately, what will happen is, then, you know, those same folks will be back on the street minutes later. So yeah, I mean, I guess I’d like to say that we are in an overdose crisis. That’s very real. We are seeing hundreds of thousands of people dying over the last couple of years. And those are our friends, our neighbors, our coworkers. And it’s really impacting many people. And so I just want to recognize that that is real. And we desperately need to address both the overdose crisis but also the unsafe supply that we have in the market. And you know, fentanyl is different in that it is much more dangerous. And we have a drug supply that is much more dangerous, unchecked, adulterated, but we’ve created that problem. And so we have to remember that prohibition creates a dangerous drug supply in the drug market. It may not be the same War on Drugs decades ago, but we’re seeing the same outcome, we’re seeing black and brown people being disproportionately impacted by our policing and our response, when we employ the same strategies, we’re gonna get the same outcomes. But even worse, because we have fentanyl, and potentially many other, more dangerous substances. So when you crack down, you know, the market is going to find a way to circumvent that, right. So when you crack down on prescription drugs, we saw an increase in heroin use, you’re gonna crack down on heroin, we see all these more potent drugs popping up that are easier to transport. And so I guess I just want to mention that in the context of of your question, we are in a different moment in the sense of the drugs, and the increase in overdose. But we’ve created that.

Adam: The whole point is that like, even if the drugs get worse, the underlying logic, or illogic that people saw in the War on Drugs doesn’t change, right? Prohibition creates less safe drug supplies, that stigmatizing substance use and substance abuse, again drives people to the shadows, has them not seek help. All the underlying logic that everyone accepted doesn’t change just because the drugs become worse. But again, you see this kind of just disappear the problem, right.

Nima: Right. But then the solution, when the drugs become worse, becomes all the more aggressive.

Adam: Yeah, well, people assume that that prison is some kind of like Betty Ford Clinic where people go in and you see this from Mike Shellenberger and these fucking dipshits and their confederates in Silicon Valley, who fund all this stuff. The assumption is that people get arrested, and they go in and they sort of find Jesus and they just clean up.

Nima: Yeah, exactly.

Adam: Yeah. And that’s just, of course, empirically, the opposite. People are more likely to relapse, they’re more likely to substance abuse in prison. It is not that Betty Ford Clinic, and Betty Ford Clinic wasn’t even a Betty Ford Clinic, right. And so there’s all these misconceptions about how you kind of arrest your way out of substance abuse problems, because nobody wants to deal with the actual underlying issues and solutions because they’re difficult and expensive, and require redistributive policies, all of which are obviously a non-starter.

Betty Ford poses outside her eponymous rehab facility in 1987. (Bob Riha Jr. / Getty)

Emily Kaltenbach: Exactly. And that politicians aren’t taking responsibility for how they have created this moment. It’s been decades of underinvestment in the social supports and services that people need.

Adam: No, no, that’s not what I heard. San Francisco and Oregon are socialist paradises. No, no, no, don’t you know, we have housing first in California. I mean, just the shit you got to deal with. Sorry, I was a monthly columnist for The San Francisco Chronicle for a couple years. And I dealt with all these like, ‘Wait, don’t you know that if you can just be a homeless guy and walk in San Francisco and they hand you $1,000 and a housing voucher and they put you up in the fucking Ritz Carlton. You didn’t know that?’

Nima: And you can walk into any Walgreens and take whatever you want.

Adam: You take whatever you want. Yeah, do whatever you want. Sorry. Go ahead. Forgive me.

Emily Kaltenbach: No, it’s exactly, I know, every, like I can jump to all these frustrating times because, you know, facts don’t matter. And you know, anyways, oh, well, I was also gonna say, though, to your point about how there’s a misconception of like jail and prison solving someone’s drug dependency or, you know, their chaotic drug use or whatever. And that’s not true, right? We see, the harms of the correctional system are dramatic for people who use drugs. We see overdose rates skyrocket after people are released. There are no good treatment programs in jail, you know, and so you’re right, there’s this huge misconception about how locking people up is going to solve their problems, and they’re going to come out better. And we know that drugs are rampant in our correctional system. And it’s a real problem.

Nima: Emily, as the Senior Director of State Advocacy at Drug Policy Alliance, I’d actually love to take you more in that direction of what we’re seeing across different locations in the country. These kind of liberal paradises, you know whether it’s an entire state like California, or certain cities, here and there, Portland, but in our media, especially political rhetoric, but also then really spread through so many media reports, this idea of the liberal paradise that tries this progressive decriminalization anarchist free-for-all. And then 15 minutes later realize, Oh well, we really just should have been raging NRA advocates and pro-cop Benevolent Society donors this whole time. We really messed up. You were right all along. Let’s bring this back, let’s, you know, recall prosecutors or let’s replace the mayor, let’s refund rather than defund, let’s recriminalize instead of decriminalize. What are you seeing across the country, especially when it comes to this idea of the liberal paradise turned drug nightmare in our rhetoric, and then the reality of what that rhetoric turns into when it comes to policy?

Emily Kaltenbach: I think San Francisco, let’s go there for a second, is a place where we’re seeing this. That being said, we see the public suffering, it’s real, very much, but it’s the reactive approach that’s very concerning. So I don’t you know, for listeners who don’t know, Measure F was passed early March, and that this was being pushed by the Democratic mayor, and basically what Measure F does, yeah, this is very simply, but people who are accessing public benefits, if they don’t go to treatment, and they’re shown to have a substance use disorder, then they can lose potentially lose benefits. And this is supposed to solve the homelessness crisis there.

San Francisco Mayor London Breed promotes Measure F in March, 2024. (Beth LaBerge / KQED)

Adam: Right, well, the way you solve poverty is by making people more poor,

Emily Kaltenbach: Exactly like, Oh, okay, you know, let’s take away their housing voucher.

Nima: Then they’ll shape up.

Emily Kaltenbach: Right. And, you know, again, San Francisco has had longstanding problems with housing affordability. Who can afford to live there? But unfortunately, sort of homelessness and drug use have become very intertwined for voters. You see that same, where the voter is conflating drug use with public suffering they’re seeing on the street. Now, of course, there’s a relationship, but the so-called liberal, progressive policies are not to blame.

Adam: Like you said, you’re always sort of arguing against the sort of fictitious socialist utopia where everybody is provided for, because that’s the only way they can sort of justify, Well, well, obviously, social systems, social welfare is not going to work. Again, even though we never did it. It’s not one of these sort of No True Scotsman. No, you know, we’ve never had real communism things like we literally just don’t have, we have not had the resources, commensurate of that type of approach. And so that’s a classic sort of austerity thing where you underfund it and say, Oh, look, it’s not working. It’s like, Yeah, well, you underfunded it. And so in that system, and we’re in that sort of ideological paradigm, then obviously, the only solution is to kind of lock away the problem. And you touched on the issues of housing and being unhoused. And so much of this is based, I think, on visible poverty, that people want to walk from the train station to the Starbucks without being confronted by visible poverty. I know from your perspective, you know, again, no one can approach any kind of criminal justice reform issues like we saw this, when I worked at The Appeal, Justice Collaborative, like you really can’t meaningfully address it without talking about social services, because people want to know a solution. And social services and social approaches to poverty are so abstract to most people that I think that really what they want is the visible poverty sort of just to be gone. So I want to talk about the sort of the political context from a kind of brass-tacks, local retail politics perspective of the power of visible poverty, especially in urban areas, and how DPA kind of addresses that concern. Does one sort of continue to sort of explain that these things exist within a socioeconomic context? And they’re not just moral failings? Have you had any traction there? Or is it just kind of like, all we want is more cops and cages?

Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, I still think that many people are interested in a public-health approach. Like, I feel like those values still exist. It’s what’s being sold to the voters. It’s what’s being sold and what they’re seeing. In San Francisco, the mayor decided that it’d be more advantageous for her to scapegoat the poor, and those living on the margins than it would be to actually tackle what is a longstanding problem. I think it’s just like we’re taking voters on a ride here with us, especially in an election year. I just want to name that too, that we’re seeing some of this happen in an election year where people are, will do anything, sort of desperation on showing that they’re addressing an issue, even though we know that it’s designed and likely to fail. We’re definitely not giving up. We see this just sort of as a detour, and in all social movements, we’re gonna see to steal the doubling down on our side right, of this work. But yeah, I mean, I think it’s scary to see elected officials sort of scapegoating this, selling this false bill of goods and in two years, the voters are gonna see that nothing’s changed. In fact, things have gotten worse.

Adam: Yeah, like overdose deaths have gone up since they recalled Chesa Boudin.

Emily Kaltenbach: Right.

Adam: This is gonna sound like apologia for carceral mayors and carceral district attorneys. But it’s like, to me the system is rigged to fail in so far that the amount of resources it would take to actually create social solutions that many of these cities legitimately don’t have at their disposal. I did see this a lot with Chicago, for example, given with a mayor who’s progressive. And again, I sound like I’m making excuses here. But I think like, even if they wanted to invest $5 billion in extra housing and social services, they don’t have the money. So they have, you know, half their budgets, half of the LA budget, city budget goes to the LAPD, right. They have infinite resources at their disposal from you know, DHS and Federal Police grants to put people in prison. But when it comes to social services, even if they wanted to, they don’t actually have sufficient resources. You really do need a federal approach to a robust, you know what I mean? And so in some senses, and even California, which has billions of dollars, and they have actually put billions of dollars towards housing solutions to their credit, to some extent, it just seems like the only local solution, the only arrow in their quiver is just more cops and cages, like almost by design, I get them. I know that sounds like I’m making apologetics for them.

Emily Kaltenbach: But well, but yeah, I’ll push back a little bit on that. I mean, let’s take Oregon as an example.

Adam: Okay.

Emily Kaltenbach: Oregon reinvested or redirected marijuana tax revenue, right back into the community. I mean, that’s like, hundreds of millions of dollars. At the same time, we saw that in Oregon, you know, just the savings from not locking up people in cages was significant to be reinvested back into the system. So I do think that there are ways that states and localities can start redirecting some of these dollars, that then does become impactful. I mean, again, in Oregon, we saw 143% increase in substance use disorder treatment, as a result of Measure 110. Peer services increased 205%, housing services increased 296%.

Adam: Yeah, I guess I’m not trying to dispute that they have resources at their disposal, especially again, especially southern California, which is basically, you know, an economy the size of Britain, I guess I just meant this sort of, like real kind of, especially when it comes to housing, I guess is what I’m getting at housing seems like something that is just so very expensive. That it’s like, if you don’t really address housing with a lot of these issues, you can kind of put people in a drug clinic till you’re blue in the face. But if they don’t have a house, it’s, you can’t really get better, and so much with housing.

Emily Kaltenbach: Absolutely. No, I totally agree. We’re not addressing the social determinants of health. And, you know, like I said earlier, this has been decades of underinvestment in these services. That’s really what’s to blame. And politicians are covering their, you know, behinds here.

Nima: You can say “asses” if you want to say “asses.”

Adam: I like it, it’s wholesome, we need more wholesome things.


Emily Kaltenbach: [Laughs] I’m too wholesome. If only you knew me, no. But yeah, no, I think it’s, it’s both, right, we can start making some differences with a Measure 110-like model in other communities. And we need to address what needs to happen at a federal level. And we need to start reinvesting, you know, if we stop locking up people, we’re going to save money.

Nima: You had mentioned this idea that the War on Drugs, right, is 50-plus years old, it also plays upon societal stereotypes and cultural narratives that reach back many more decades, possibly centuries, possibly millennia, just about how power works, how our societies are supposed to operate the idea of taking care of each other versus individual responsibility. At Drug Policy Alliance, how do you see your work? And what are you all working on?

Emily Kaltenbach: Yeah, absolutely. Criminalization is deeply ingrained in our history and systems. And this change is going to take time and perseverance through these tough setbacks. We’re not going anywhere. In fact, we’re just ramping up. Because we know that criminalization and then this recriminalization in Oregon is extremely harmful. It’s black, brown, and poor communities that are in need of resources that will face the consequences. And while you know, these elected officials really rest easy for a little bit on their decision there. But we’re doubling down on our work. We know that Americans still want a health approach to drugs. I believe they’re still really some shared values there. But criminalization doesn’t get us there. So we’re continuing the movement to replace drug criminalization with care. And currently there’s a movement in Vermont, in New York, and other places to pass drug decriminalization measures and we won’t back down until our communities are helped.

Nima: Well, I think that is such a great place to leave it. We’ve been speaking with Emily Kaltenbach, Senior Director of state advocacy and criminal legal reform at the Drug Policy Alliance. Emily, it’s been so great talking to you. Thank you for joining us on Citations Needed.

Emily Kaltenbach: Thank you.


Adam: Yeah, I like the optimism. You know, everyone who’s operated in the decriminalization space runs into the same problem, which is that you actually do have to provide a vision for how you solve the social problem, it’s sort of not enough to just say, prisons don’t work. You do need a coherent moral vision and for all of its obvious racism, and pseudoscience, and human suffering. Carceralism is a vision, it’s a vision for how you solve problems. It’s just a dark, cynical vision, but it is a vision, it’s some kind of plan, right? And you really do need to have robust social safety systems in place. Housing, single payer, or universal healthcare of some kind. And that’s just not on the table. And so really, the only other vision is this fascistic vision of trying to incarcerate our way out of these social problems.

Nima: Exactly. The vision of invisible-izing oppression is still a vision. And so there needs to be a more compelling vision for a future that is not built on arrests and prosecutions and imprisonment.

Adam: And fundamentally, and I don’t you know, this sounds kind of hacky, but it’s true. It’s just fundamentally pseudoscientific. It is, assuming you’re operating in good faith rather than just racist, you know, lizard-brain demagoguery. There is no scientific basis to any of this.

Nima: The facts do not matter when it comes to promoting criminalization. Criminalization is always compelling.

Adam: Right, yeah, you can show data after data, Brookings Institute, Pew Research, doesn’t matter, saying, Oh, look, there’s no correlation between incarceration and a reduction in substance abuse and overdose.

Nima: Because it’s all vibes. It all feels right.

Adam: You need to sort of do something and the only thing you can do, right, the only thing you can do–

Nima: Is just arrest your way out of this. Well, right, because when you foreclose actual solutions, right, housing, employment, voluntary treatment, safe-use sites, when those are deemed impractical or impossible or just never actually get funded, then you’re left with one option. It’s the thing that we’ve you know, said for years now on Citations Needed, if someone’s drowning and right, like you offer them a piece of barbed wire, they’re gonna grab on to it, because it’s the only fucking thing there. It’s not because that’s an awesome solution. The solution is to make sure that they’re not drowning in the first place. And so the vision needs to have people not be drowning. But that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. As we mentioned at the top of the show, we are about to go on our annual spring break, this time extended. So congratulations, Adam and Sarah, and of course, brother Petey, all love to you from the crew.

Adam: Yeah, we’re very excited. Thank you so much, Nima. And again, thank you for going on year seven, we’re very grateful for the support and we are very excited to come back from the break and hit the ground running with some of the episodes we already have recorded and ones we’re working on right now. So thank you so much for the support that you give the show.

Nima: But that will actually do it for this episode of Citations Needed. I mean it this time. Of course you can follow the show on Twitter @citationspod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show if you are not already. It really does help keep the show sustainable. You can do that through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. Thank you all for your ongoing support of the show. It is really meaningful to us. Of course, an extra special shout out goes to our critical level supporters through Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Have a good spring break, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, March 27, 2024.



Citations Needed

A podcast on media, power, PR, and the history of bullshit. Hosted by @WideAsleepNima and @adamjohnsonnyc.