Stephen Downing is a former LAPD officer who once led the department’s narcotic enforcement program, and now serves as Chairman of the Board of Cannabis Sativa Inc., a licensing firm for cannabis-related intellectual property. While those things might seem incompatible, Downing saw firsthand the effects of cannabis prohibition on people’s lives, and went into the industry after retiring from law enforcement. I had the pleasure of interviewing him about his history, where the drug war went wrong, and how we can fix it now.
What is your background, and how did you get your job?
When I became a cop, I needed a job so that I could complete my education. I knew that cops work at night, and believed that it was a way to support my family and finish my education.
I was already married, had one child, lived in my hometown, Hanford, CA (pop.10, 000) and knew that if I stayed – and stayed in the dead-end job I had – I would go nowhere. So, I joined the LAPD, hauled my family over the ridge route to L.A. after graduating from the academy, and set up housekeeping.
From there, the LAPD grew on me. I stayed and progressed through the ranks until I retired in 1980.
What should we know about the federal war on drugs right now? Where do we stand?
With regard to cannabis, I believe we have passed the tipping point for legalization, regulation and control.
Although we had a setback when Sessions pulled back on the Cole memo [a 2013 Department of Justice memorandum that prevented the federal government from interfering with state-compliant cannabis businesses], Barr stated in his confirmation hearings that he would restore it. I think he’s smart enough to follow through on that promise, even though he is a “tough on crime” advocate.
There are many bills that have been introduced on both sides of the aisle aimed at honoring states’ rights with respect to cannabis, as well as one (Cory Booker’s) to remove it from Schedule One.
I believe that this will eventually come to pass, but not right away.
In the interim, as long as businesses conform to state laws that regulate seed-to-sale cannabis, I believe the feds will leave them alone, per the Cole memo.
The big problem to overcome now, besides Schedule One, is the high taxes on cannabis, which encourage the black market to continue to thrive rather than disappear. Time and uniform state-to-state agreements will eventually solve that problem.
Taxation corrections will occur as state legislators begin to recognize that black markets are created not only by outright prohibition, but also by taxes that drive the market to the dark (cheaper) side, regardless of the controls that ensure safe products. Their quest for the promised tax revenue from cannabis will wake them up to the relationship between high taxes and the black market.
As for as the other drugs on Schedule One, the war on drugs continues in its abject ignorance.
When Schedule One is abolished, drug prohibition and the war on drugs as we know it will become a thing of the past, replaced by evidence-based regulation and control.
The DEA and local law enforcement (LE) continue to support drug prohibition, and most politicians still depend upon their uninformed expertise, as opposed to evidence-based data.
The hardcore “tough on crime” politicians point to LE as their experts, and continue to beat the prohibition drum rather than pass legislation to regulate and control all drugs, and treat addiction as a medical, rather than criminal, problem.
A big part of that problem is that drug-war money continues to flow directly into local law enforcement coffers from the Feds. This corruption of justice-system engineering leverages local LE away from public safety concerns to help the Feds continue the drug war, in spite the social harms the federal incentive programs deliver to their communities.
We are, however, beginning to see a creeping recognition that addiction is a medical, rather than criminal, problem, especially at the local and state levels.
Many harm-reduction initiatives are starting to emerge at the local level, such as safe consumption spaces, law-enforcement-assisted diversion, medication-assisted treatment, heroin-assisted treatment, syringe-exchange programs, Naloxone, and treatment on demand.
All of this is solid evidence that the harm-reduction movement is underway and will, over time, influence more and more politicians at the federal level, while state and local programs spread along with a growing recognition that the legalization of cannabis did not result in the sky falling, so neither will a complete, intelligently planned end to the war on drugs.
In addition to the kinds of harm reduction programs I meantioned, we are also beginning to see attention given to the harms imposed by the criminal justice system through the war on drugs, especially as they apply to mass incarceration and its associated ripple effect: broken families, foster homes, kids going to the streets, teen prostitution, sex slavery, etc.
At the federal level, the First Step Act, recently signed by Trump, reduces mandatory minimum sentences in certain instances and expands on “good time credits” for well-behaved prisoners looking for shorter sentences. It also requires the DOJ to establish a risk- and needs-assessment system to classify inmates’ risk and provide guidance on housing, grouping, and program assignment.
Although those who passed the First Step Act hail it as monumental, it is, in my opinion, tiny-step, copycat legislation that began – and is expanding - at the local and state level, the place from which the rest of criminal justice reform will come: the crucible of democracy.
I also believe that the UN Drug Treaty will begin to unravel as the people of the U.S. continue to build an understanding of the harms imposed by the drug war and its devastating impact upon the government’s social contract with the people. But that is many years in the future.
Right now we are in a regression mode, with the Trump Administration strong-arming struggling nations into escalating the global drug war, while at the same time the violence created by our drug war in South and Central America is driving family migration. And the Administration’s only perceived solution to that problem is the wall, rather than recognizing and accepting the fact that we are the nation with millions of addicts who rely mostly upon the black market for Schedule One drugs.
This Tree image below, Developed by LEAP (Law Enforcement Action Partnership), says it all.
America is rapidly embracing cannabis legalization. To what degree do you think the opiate crisis is driving this change in attitude?
I believe that America’s embracing of cannabis legalization began well before the opiate crisis, but has been somewhat accelerated and supported, first by popular empirical references, and now by opiate-related studies.
One study (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4392651/) in particular, recently published in JAMA, shows that opioid deaths decreased by approximately 33 percent in 13 states over a period of six years after medical marijuana was legalized.
The sad fact is that 60 years of cannabis prohibition have prevented 60 years of cannabis research. Just think where we would be if we had been able to study this plant for the past 60 years, as well as deal with the greed of big-pharma marketing and their lying – about the “addiction-free” quality of opiates such as hydrocodone and oxycodone.
Just think if the more than 100 million Americans who suffer from chronic pain had access to fully researched, non-addictive cannabis products, as opposed to legally marketed opiates.
Just think how the overdose death rate (the current crisis) would have been abated if the feds woke up to the addiction problem caused by the lies of big pharma, [and] instead developed and implemented weaning programs through the use of cannabis and other harm-reduction treatments. [Instead, they cut] off the legal prescription supply from physicians, and [forced] drug-dependent patients to the adulterated black-market drugs to relieve their pain and service their addictions.
How does a conservative government stand to benefit from legalization? Will the money persuade them?
Money has done a lot to persuade politicians to legalize, regulate and control cannabis, but on the other hand, federal (tax) money has done too much to incentivize local governments to escalate the war on drugs.
The “incentive money” comes in the form of Byrne and COPS grants, as well as the wildly corrupt federal asset-seizure program.
The money that should persuade conservative government reform is the $1 trillion-plus we have spent on the drug war, and the billions we continue to spend on mass incarceration.
Governments are starting to hear that financially draining drumbeat, but the only thing that will make it louder – and heard – is a continuing education of the public.
Today that education is coming primarily from grassroots organizations who see the harm, study it, and try to make their evidence-based voices heard over the knee-jerk wails of the tough-on-crime-prohibitionists, who continue to have the louder voice within our justice system.
What can individuals do to help those incarcerated for drug crimes?
Educate themselves, become teachers when confronted with drug war mantra from friends, relatives and associates; write op-eds and letters to the editor at every opportunity; attend civic gathering; join advocacy organizations; ask the kinds of questions that evoke the opportunity to educate; promote change and legislation - - - - and vote!
If cannabis is federally legalized, will cannabis prisoners automatically be freed?
There are several federal bills to end Schedule One for cannabis, all of which have provisions to create paths to expungement for those previously convicted of low-level marijuana crimes.
But, I do not see in any of the legislation, other than that introduced by Cory Booker in Aug. 2017, that provides for a wholesale freeing of cannabis prisoners.
The other legislative reforms are mostly aimed at preventing incarceration, reducing felonies to misdemeanors, and enabling citations for violations, rather than jail.
Should cannabis prisoners be automatically freed if the statue for which they were imprisoned is no longer in effect? Yes. But, that is not what’s happening now.
When Booker introduced his bill, he said that it “would free thousands of state and federal inmates incarcerated for possession and trafficking,” but I am not so sure that will be the result if it is eventually passed.
Removing cannabis from Schedule One is a giant step, but the states will still have a lot to say about who gets out of state prisons [when it happens]. State laws will then prevail – and [state prisons are] where most prisoners now reside.
What steps do we need to take now to help integrate cannabis prisoners back into society?
Generally, we need to take all the steps we aren't taking now, and there are many.
We do very little to nothing to properly prepare inmates for reintegration into society after years of incarceration. About the most we do is give them few dollars, show them the door and say, “Good luck.”
The stress and hardships after prison include age and ability concerns, the challenges of social integration and connecting with family, and finding housing and a means of subsistence. Other concerns specific to the individual are related to mental and physical health, and the extent to which physical mobility has been affected during incarceration.
Each of these release concerns should be addressed the day the prisoner enters prison, and continue with specific program design during his or her stay, all aimed at providing for successful integration on the day of release.
I could write a book on this subject and still not cover what can be and should be done, as opposed to what we do now, which is to apply punishment for the crime, and continue that “punishment” after release with Draconian laws that preclude those with criminal records from integrating back into society.
We give lip service to “he paid for his crime” by never allowing the previously incarcerated to escape the crime they paid for.
We can do better. Much better.