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The "War on Drugs and Terrorism": An Interview with Sanho Tree

Sanho Tree is a fellow and director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. The project works to end the domestic and international "War on Drugs" and to find feasible economic alternatives to the illicit drug economy.

Tree was brought to Syracuse in March by the Columbia Support Network to speak on United States drug policy. He stayed with Doris and Dan Sage, members of the CNY Columbia Support Network and the CNY/SOA Abolitionists. They interviewed him at their home; an excerpt of his interview follows. (See SPC's website,, for the complete text of this interview.)

How do policy institutes such as the one you work for get the most "bang for the buck?" What strategies does the institute use to make a difference?

The Institute for Policy Studies was founded in 1963 by disgruntled Kennedy administration officials. Our philosophy has been to "speak truth to power." At least that's the motto we were founded upon. We try to combine scholarship with activism. There are plenty of universities and think tanks that produce 250-300 page studies. The trouble is people who make policy, the young congressional staffers, don't have time to read those. If you can distill your points into the vernacular and into things that people can actually use, whether they are journalists, policy makers or staffers, then you have a chance. I spend a third of my time working with grassroots organizations around the country, a third of my time trying to educate media to do greater outreach, and a third trying to educate policy makers and their staffs.

The catchy title for your recent talk at Syracuse University was "Marrying the Drug War to the Terror War: Hitching a Lame Horse to a Broken Wagon." Would you elaborate on the metaphor; why is it a lame horse and a broken wagon?

The war on drugs and the war on terrorism are two paradigms that have been dismal failures, because there are limits to what one can coerce. For example, look at terrorism. What are the key ingredients that are necessary? Number one is extreme hatred; that is, unaddressed hatred that is not resolved and not taken seriously. Second is the extreme frustration that terrorists sometime feel because they have exhausted all their options and they want to make you feel their pain. How do you cope with people who are not afraid to die? How do you coerce a kamikaze? Yes, it is possible to bomb an essentially stone-age country back to the stone age-but ultimately, for the hundred or thousand individuals in this world who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to carry out an act of terrorism, bombing does not destroy that hatred. Bombing increases hatred. We learned that during World War II. During the German Blitz, when the Germans sought to break the Londoners' morale by bombing, quite the opposite happened. Rather, morale and their hatred of Germans increased, strengthening British resolve to carry out the war to the end.

So we look at what the military has been dreading all these years-a decade at least-and see this concept of asymmetrical warfare, or fourth generation warfare, as they call it. In the old days, you have an army, we have an army, and we go at it. Now, I've got a $300 billion- a-year military, the world's most powerful, and you are someone who has a grievance and no budget. You are going to look for ways to even that playing field. So this asymmetry very often means lashing out at civilian targets, the soft underbelly.

There is ultimately nothing you can do to prevent someone from strapping twenty sticks of dynamite around his or her body and walking into a crowded building, as we have seen in Israel. There's nothing you can do to protect this country from extremism. Even in the administration's cold calculus, money aside, it isn't who you kill, it's who survives. Whatever doesn't kill them only makes them angrier. So yes, you can wipe out 50 percent of the Al Qaeda, or maybe 75 percent, but that leaves 25 percent who will come back in a very ferocious way. Also, we are pushing those who are sitting on the fence, who could really hate us but have not been ready to take that ultimate step. God only knows how many people we are pushing over that fence.

It's the same dilemma with the drug war. You can't coerce people who are sick. If you believe addiction is a public health problem, coercion is not an appropriate tool. Do we use police, prosecutors, and prisons as the primary means of making people better? It's like curing clinical depression with a baseball bat: "Smile and be happy or I'll whap you again!" Such an approach doesn't address anything. Our policy of escalation-more prisons, police, prosecutors, helicopters and guns to Latin America, all to deal with the drug problem-is like digging more graves to solve the international AIDS problem. It solves nothing.

Syracuse has a significant community of activists, with a long history of dissent to many US policies. This dissent continues today. How should we be reacting to the growing attempts to suppress dissent, as seen in the USA Patriots' Act? Do you have any wisdom for us in this respect?

Most of what I have learned is through making mistakes. I can share some of those lessons. I think there needs to be traction. Any action I choose to take should lead to political action. I've been to countless protests in Washington where we demanded all kinds of things. Peace, for example. First of all, if you bring 50,000 people to Washington and you don't have them take half an hour to visit their congressional representatives' offices, the representative thinks, "Oh those are Barbara Lee's people, or Nancy Pelosi's problem. They are from Berzerkely. They're not my constituents." But they are. They are from Peoria and all over the place. They're from Syracuse. The "ask" has to be something that is deliverable. You have to ask for something specific. Not fifty different issues, but one issue, or at most two. I was a big fan of what happened in Seattle. It was a clear message about an unelected body (the World Trade Organization) that was going to be governing people's lives in how they interacted with the world. It brought together labor, faith-based and environmental groups, and students (including some anarchists who broke a lot of windows), but at least the message was clear and the media reported it fairly well.

I was not as enthusiastic about what happened with A-16 (April, 2000); the attempt to shut down the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings. There were literally dozens of different groups and messages being put forth. We want X,Y,Z-it was issue soup. The journalists who covered the event were not as well versed in these various issues. They didn't know how to prioritize and frame these issues, so they focussed on the protester with green hair breaking windows.

I think that we need be very focused on who we are trying to influence. For instance, if you are trying to influence the World Bank, there are a lot of "faceless bureaucrats" involved. They are the ones who make decisions and influence policy. They are very thick-skinned and operate in a conservative environment. Having protesters call them names helps them. Try, rather, to get into the minds of the people you are trying to influence. Where are they vulnerable? What do they respond to? What are they afraid of? They are afraid of getting their budgets cut, or any kind of appropriation that might be involved. They don't like anything that might make more work for them, such as human rights reporting language or environmental impact studies. They want to avoid anything like that, or anything that might hamper their careers. So you link a bureaucrat to an environmental disaster-then you've got some leverage. Simply standing outside their offices and calling them names isn't going to accomplish much.

The same thinking applies with members of Congress. While there are very honorable people there, Congress operates on two principles: fear and opportunity. Fear in the sense of "How can this blow up in my face?" because of my vote against or for it. And opportunity in the sense of "How can this make me look good?" If the issue can be framed so that the Congressman cannot be painted as soft on drugs, but can be shown to be for the environment or for human rights, or vigilant against foreign military quagmires, we have a better chance of gaining his support. For instance, we have the least effective drug control policy we could possibly have, dollar for dollar. So, a needed change in our drug policy could be framed as being fiscally conservative-not throwing good money after bad. Because all they have right now is fear -fear of looking soft on drugs and soft on terrorism.