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Neuroscientist Carl Hart: We Need to Stop Jeff Sessions from Escalating the Racist War on Drugs

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In an escalation of the war on drugs, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has rescinded two Obama-era memos that encouraged prosecutors to avoid seeking inordinately harsh sentences for low-level drug offenses. He also instructed Justice Department prosecutors to pursue “the most serious” charges for all drug offenses. Former Attorney General Eric Holder condemned the move, saying, “The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime.” Under the Obama administration guidelines, the number of drug offenders given mandatory minimum sentences plummeted, contributing to a 14 percent decline in the total federal prison population. We speak to Carl Hart, chair of the Department of Psychology and a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, and former anti-drug-war activist Anthony Papa, who was sentenced to two 15-years-to-life sentences for a single, nonviolent drug offense.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from San Francisco, as we continue to travel the country covering the movements changing America. We turn right now to the Trump administration’s escalation of the war on drugs. On Friday, Attorney General Sessions spoke at the Department of Justice headquarters as he rescinded two Obama-era memos that encourage prosecutors to avoid seeking inordinately harsh sentences for low-level drug offenses.

ATTORNEY GENERAL JEFF SESSIONS: Going forward, I have empowered our prosecutors to charge and pursue the most serious offense, as I believe the law requires, most serious, readily provable offense. It means that we’re going to meet our responsibility to enforce the law with judgment and fairness. It is simply the right and moral thing to do. … And we know that drugs and crime go hand in hand. They just do. The facts prove that so. Drug trafficking is an inherently dangerous and violent business. If you want to collect a drug debt, you can’t file a lawsuit in court. You collect it with the barrel of a gun.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeff Sessions has long backed lengthy prison sentences and mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, including for marijuana use, which is now legal for either medical or recreational purposes in many states.

Sessions’ escalation of the so-called war on drugs was met with widespread outcry. Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who served under President Obama, told MSNBC in a statement, “The policy announced today is not tough on crime. It is dumb on crime.” Under the Obama administration guidelines, the number of drug offenders given mandatory minimum sentences plummeted, contributing to a 14 percent decline in the total federal prison population. Sessions’ announcement comes at a time of growing bipartisan support for sentencing reform. In recent years, the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress and the right-leaning FreedomWorks have partnered with groups as varied as the Koch Industries and the NAACP to bridge ideological divides and push for reduced mandatory minimums for low-level nonviolent drug offenses.

Well, for more, we’re joined by two guests in New York. Anthony Papa is author of This Side of Freedom: Life After Clemency. He’s an anti-drug-war activist, painter and author. In 1985, Anthony Papa agreed to deliver an envelope of cocaine in a police sting operation in return for $500. His first—his first and only criminal offense cost him a 15-year-to-life sentence. In 1996, Papa won a sentence commutation from then-New York Governor George Pataki. In 2016, Papa received a pardon from New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. He’s believed to be the first person in New York state history to receive both a sentence commutation and a pardon. And we’re joined by Carl Hart, chair of the Department of Psychology and a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. He’s the author of High Price: A Neuroscientist’s Journey of Self-Discovery That Challenges Everything You Know About Drugs and Society. Professor Hart just returned from the Philippines, where he participated in a 2-day drug policy forum conference.

Tony Papa, Carl Hart, welcome to Democracy Now! Carl Hart, first respond to what Jeff Sessions is doing, this escalation of the war on drugs in the United States.

CARL HART: Well, let’s just be clear. I mean, one of the things that—we’ve heard some outrage about what Jeff Sessions is doing. But let’s be clear: Everybody knows that the war on drugs, as has been fought since the 1980s, has had a disproportionate negative impact on specific community: black communities, Latino communities. Everyone knows that. So, what Jeff Sessions is doing is engaged in—or he’s advocating being engaged in racial discrimination. So let’s call Jeff Sessions what he is. Jeff Sessions is a racist, if he takes on this action. It’s clear. We know it. So let’s stop playing around with it.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Anthony Papa, what is your understanding of what the attorney general is calling for right now?

ANTHONY PAPA: Well, you know, Amy, I agree with Eric Holder: This is totally dumb on crime. To go back to a failed—a proven failed policy and to enact—you know, to tell prosecutors to convict people at the harshest possible sentence is totally wrong. I’ll use myself as an example, you know, first-time, nonviolent offender. I was actually sentenced to two 15-to-life sentences under the Rockefeller drug laws in New York state, which was mandated by mandatory minimum sentencing, the same mandatory minimum sentencing laws that became in the federal system, that now Sessions wants the prosecutors to use to sentence even low-level, nonviolent drug offenders or even people who are addicted to drugs to many, many years in prison. It’s a proven fact that this policy wasted billions of dollars, and, more importantly, many human lives were wasted in this action in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Carl Hart. So, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has released this memo that tells Justice Department prosecutors to pursue the most serious charges for drug offenses. So, explain exactly how this changes policy and what it will mean.

CARL HART: Well, what it means is that he—well, as you know, under Eric Holder, Eric Holder has suggested—or his memo said that we shouldn’t engage in those mandatory minimums. So he gave judges flexibility, whereas Jeff Sessions is encouraging the judges to go back to mandatory minimum. What that means is that people will get harsher sentences for drug-related violations now. And what that means ultimately—as Papa has said, we all know the drug war didn’t work. That’s not entirely true, because the drug war did work for certain segments of our population. And that’s where the crux of this policy really needs to be interrogated. It allows—Jeff Sessions is allowing us or is using drug policy to separate the people who we like from the people who we don’t like. And it provides a way to go after those people we don’t like, usually poor minority folks, without explicitly saying we don’t like those people. And that’s how drug law—that’s how drug law or drug policy has been enforced in this country. And so, if we allow Sessions to turn back the hands of time, then shame on all of us. The blood is on all of our hands, because we know the consequences of his proposed actions.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, Jeff Sessions’ view on drugs have a long history. He famously was quoted as joking in the 1980s about the white terrorist organization the KKK that he thought they were “OK, until,” he said, “I found out they smoke pot.” Your response to this, Carl?

CARL HART: Well, that’s an interesting thing, because one of the things that has happened in the country since that time, we now have eight states that have legalized recreational marijuana use. And those states were concerned that Jeff Sessions would come after them, on the one hand. Jeff Sessions has not come after them, because there’s a lot of money involved, and there are a lot of wealthy white people involved in this. Now, I don’t want to pit white people against other groups in the country, but let’s just be honest about this. And he won’t go after them. I know people have some anxieties about that, but Jeff Sessions is ignorant, but he’s not stupid. And so he won’t go after those folks.

So, even though he made his comment about marijuana, we should see actually what his actions are. I mean, he can make these comments to kind of give a wink and nod to the people who are supporting him, so he lets them know that “I’m against drugs,” but he’s not going after marijuana. He’s going after all the other sort of drug offenses. And I hope the people who are engaged in the marijuana industry and this business make the connection about how their substance was once vilified—it’s no longer vilified in the United States, particularly as these states liberalize their marijuana policy. I wish they make the connection, so they can see the hypocrisy. Like before 2012, we were arresting people for marijuana in Colorado, in Washington and those other states. We’re no longer doing that. Now we’re saying it’s OK. It was always OK. It’s just that our laws were not in line. Now we’re doing—now we’re arresting people for things like cocaine, heroin and those sorts of things, sending people to jail for extended periods of time. Now, this is not to say that we should legalize drugs. That’s not the argument here. We certainly should not be sending people to jail for those extended periods that Jeff Sessions is advocating for. And he’s doing so because he’s going after people who we don’t care for in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: In a statement, Kentucky Republican Senator Rand Paul criticized Sessions’ change in drug policy. Paul, who’s a doctor, said, quote, “Mandatory minimum sentences have unfairly and disproportionately incarcerated too many minorities for too long. Attorney General Sessions’ new policy will accentuate that injustice.” Rand added, “Instead, we should treat our nation’s drug epidemic as a health crisis and less as a 'lock ’em up and throw away the key' problem.” That’s the Republican senator, Rand Paul. Dr. Hart?

CARL HART: I agree with Rand Paul on that point. But, you know, we have to be careful about our language in terms of epidemic, because all of those sorts of things kind of provide cover for folks to behave like Jeff Sessions. If we’re really concerned, for example, like the opioids and heroin, we need to tell people how to stay safe, if we’re worried about overdose there. About 13,000 people die every year from heroin-related overdoses, whereas 35,000 people die from automobile accidents. We don’t ban automobiles. Instead, we have regulations, and we try to make sure that people stay safe. We have speed limits. We have seat belts. We have all of these sorts of things. But with the opioids, we’re talking about arresting people. And by the way, for the opioids, at the federal level, 80 percent of the people who are arrested are Latino and black. And we know this. And so, if we want to be smart or if we want to save our people or help people, we would not take the approach of someone like Jeff Sessions, who is—who wants to take us back to the 1980s and experience all the bad things of the ’80s.

AMY GOODMAN: Anthony Papa, before we go, can you briefly tell us what happened to you, the amount of time you served in prison, and what this change could mean now?

ANTHONY PAPA: Well, I spent 12 years of a 15-to-life sentence for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense. And, you know, I brought an envelope with four ounces of cocaine from the Bronx to Mount Vernon, was roped into a police sting operation—20 cops came out of nowhere—placed under arrest, did everything I could do wrong, and I wound up getting sentenced to two 15-to-life sentences for a first-time, nonviolent drug offense, under the mandatory provisions of the Rockefeller drug laws.

The mandatory minimum sentencing is a poison that has broken the criminal justice system. This is a fact. Under President Obama, he tried to fix this broken system by incorporating changes. And Eric Holder, in his memo in 2013, said to prosecutors, “Don’t use mandatory minimum sentencing laws.” Now, Sessions is reversing this policy. And we’re in for a hard, hard, long road to hoe, because people are going to be put in prison, nonviolent offenders. The prisons are going to be flooded. They’re going to break the banks of many states in the federal system, incarcerating low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. And many of those offenders have substance abuse problems, and they needed to be treated medically, not punitively. And to have Sessions come out with this law is a travesty of justice. And I hope that they realize this mistake and they don’t follow through on this memo that he wrote, telling prosecutors to use mandatory minimum sentencing laws and to throw the book at low-level, nonviolent drug offenders, no matter, you know, how small the crime is.

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