Ellen Flenniken grew up in the small, rural town of Brenham, about halfway between Austin and Houston in the heart of East Texas bluebonnet country.
Her parents were criminal defense attorneys, and later her father became a district court judge. When they couldn’t find child care, they brought their gregarious daughter with them to court.
As a little girl, Flenniken watched American justice Texas style as it played out before her in the nation’s incarceration capital. She still has memories of inmates in orange jumpsuits, shackled together, being led past her into the courtroom.
As a Caucasian with a well-to-do upbringing, she said, she would watch “as other people’s lives were ruined” from her seat at the outer fringes of a system she perceived as harsh and unforgiving.
She eventually left Texas, first landing in Vermont, where she graduated from Middlebury College with a bachelor’s degree in political science and Mandarin. Then she set her sights on Portland, moving here in 2008. She worked on Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, as U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici’s (D-Oregon) campaign manager, and as the deputy finance director at Oregon United for Marriage.
When she was offered the opportunity to work on Measure 91, Oregon’s recreational marijuana ballot measure, she saw it as a first step toward fixing the broken criminal justice system she became so familiar with as a child.
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After Measure 91’s success, Flenniken was hired on as deputy director of development at Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization aimed at ending the worldwide drug war through criminal justice reform and the advancement of harm reduction.
With an annual budget of $14 million and offices in five states, it’s the nation’s leading drug reform organization.
It was the largest financial backer of Measure 91, and since then, it’s had its hand in legislation to make Oregon’s marijuana laws retroactive.
Drug Policy Alliance also played an integral role in campaigns to legalize recreational marijuana in Colorado, Washington, Alaska, Washington, D.C. and Uruguay.
Street Roots sat down with the 28-year-old Flenniken hours before she hopped in a truck to drive cross-country to her new home in Manhattan, where she’ll be working out of Drug Policy Alliance’s national headquarters. She was the alliance’s only employee stationed in Oregon.
Emily Green: The U.N. had a General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem in April. Can you explain what Drug Policy Alliance had hoped would come of it, and what actually came of it?
Ellen Flenniken: It was the first time since the 1998 U.N. General Assembly special session (UNGASS) that there’s been such a momentous international convening on the war on drugs.
In 1998, it took place under the slogan “A Drug Free World: We Can Do It.” That reveals the approach toward it 20 years ago, and we had hoped that there would be some acknowledgement of the failure of our punitive approaches to the drug war and the lack of science and health-based policy approaches. Unfortunately, that did not occur.
This UNGASS was called for by the presidents of Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala, largely because their countries are some of those that have borne the greatest burden of this war. Mexico has lost 80,000 lives – that’s 80,000 people who have lost their lives due to the drug war.
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The UNGASS was a three-day session, and it adopted the outcome document – which was drafted in Vienna a month earlier – on the first morning, which just slammed the door and basically did away with any illusions that we had that there would be some substantial debate on approaches to drug policy.
E.G.: What did that outcome document contain?
E.F.: There were some acknowledgements of human rights, and some elements of harm reduction. However, there was no mention of decriminalization and no condemnation of the death penalty for drug offenses.
One of the biggest things that came out of UNGASS was this public letter that my colleagues put together, which was addressed to the U.N. Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon, urging them to take a serious look at the failures of our past approach and consider a new approach to drug policy. It was signed by both of the Democratic presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders; even (Patriots’ quarterback) Tom Brady signed it, Richard Branson and Warren Buffett. Having all these leaders, not just from the United States, but from around the world, come together and acknowledge our failure and urge a different approach moving forward, that was a success even if the outcome document was not.
(Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon also signed the letter.)
E.G.: Were the presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia asking for an end to the drug war at the assembly?
E.F.: They were challenging it, and asking for an acknowledgement of the human toll their countries have suffered, and that, potentially, we follow in the steps of countries like Portugal that have decriminalized all drugs.
There was an informal coalition that came together from countries, mostly in Central America, Europe and the Caribbean, before UNGASS, trying to build enough momentum for reform, but unfortunately there are actors like Russia, in particular, and also countries that still have the death penalty for drug offenses, who were able to resist that push and keep reform from moving forward.
(According to Amnesty International, drug offenses are punishable by death in more than 30 countries, including Iran, China, Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.)
E.G.: Switching to marijuana laws in Oregon: Is marijuana truly legal, and is this what you envisioned when you were working with the Measure 91 campaign?
E.F.: I had no idea of the complexities of the debate that would emerge, particularly in the Legislature, around the way that the marijuana producers and retailers are regulated, and all the intricacies of that. Although Measure 91 reduced criminal penalties for marijuana, I didn’t think it went far enough. It was not retroactive. In the 2015 legislative session, the Legislature reduced criminal penalties even further, making most marijuana felonies now misdemeanors, and making that retroactive, which means there were 78,000 Oregonians who now have the opportunity to have past convictions either expunged or reduced, and their records could be sealed. That piece was what I was hoping would happen – that there would be some real impacts on people’s lives.
In the 2016 legislative session, they decided to treat medical marijuana like prescription drugs for folks on parole, probation or post-prison supervision. (House Bill 4014 became operative on March 1). However, recreational marijuana is not treated like alcohol for all persons over 21 who are on parole or probation, which means that it can still be a violation of someone’s parole, and that’s a huge problem.
It’s really not in line with the intent of voters, who, with Measure 91, indicated that marijuana should be treated like alcohol.
E.G.: While the laws went retroactive, if you’re in an Oregon prison for a marijuana-related offense, you’re not getting out early.
E.F.: Right. Is marijuana truly legal? Absolutely not. I think that Measure 91 was one small step in the right direction.
In Oregon, marijuana penalties are still much higher than similar penalties for alcohol.
If an individual grows four legal plants in their backyard but they produce – because they’re a very skilled gardener – more than the 8 ounces that’s allowed, they are then subject to a misdemeanor.
If someone’s home falls within the 1,000-feet boundary from a school and they grow beyond the four plants allowed by the measure, and instead grow five plants, then they are subject to a Class C felony.
E.G.: Politicians are coming together across party lines to tackle our nation’s mass-incarceration problem. Just how much of the problem is related to drugs?
E.F.: While we only have 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of the world’s incarcerated population, and the drug war has been a big driver of this increase in criminalization of our populice. Back in 1980, just when the drug war was in its nascent stages, we had 50,000 people behind bars for drug offenses. Today we have half a million behind bars for drug offenses, and it has had no discernible impact on reducing problematic drug use or the spread of drug-related disease and overdoses.
It has disproportionately affected folks of color. Those folks are experiencing much higher arrest and incarceration rates, even though the rates of drug use and drug selling are comparable across all races. For example, African-Americans make up 14 percent of drug users; however, (nationally) they make up 37 percent of people arrested for drugs.
E.G.: I was looking at misdemeanor drug and alcohol charges in Multnomah County in 2014, and exactly 37 percent of those booked into jail on those charges were African-American. It was the category with the greatest disparity.
E.F.: At Drug Policy Alliance, one of our goals is to reveal and expose these disproportionate impacts on communities of color and also to expose the underlying systems that drive the different ways our criminal justice system treats folks.
One of the most staggering examples of this is crack cocaine sentencing laws.
Since the 1980s, the federal penalties for crack cocaine were 100 times harsher than powder cocaine, even though there is no scientifically justifiable reason to treat these two different forms of the same drug so differently.
Back in 2010, Drug Policy Alliance played a key role in changing those federal sentencing disparities, and we got the crack cocaine disparity down to 18 to 1. But that’s still on the books. Right now, if you get caught with crack cocaine, your sentence will be 18 times harsher than with powder.
What we found was that African-Americans were the ones being disproportionately arrested for crack cocaine.
That’s just one example. We’re talking about a $1 trillion, decades-long war, so think about all the other small ways this has played out to create these huge disparities. Once folks are released from prison, if they have a felony conviction on their record, in many states they can’t vote, they can’t access public assistance, so it’s creating an entire caste system, a second class of citizens, that Michelle Alexander rightly framed as being as harmful to the black community as the Jim Crow laws. (Alexander is the author of the 2010 New York Times best-seller, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.”)
E.G.: Is Oregon considered a drug-reform leader, or are we lagging behind in some ways?
E.F.: We are seen as a trailblazer on marijuana reforms, however as far as the other elements of drug policy reform, we’re not seen as a pioneer, and rightly so. There’s still a lot of room for improvement. One step we could take is defelonizing possession of all drugs.
On the same day that we passed Measure 91 here in Oregon, our neighbors to the south, California, passed Proposition 47, which changed most low-level, non-violent offenses, including drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors, and it was retroactive so it had a huge impact.
Just last week, the Maine Legislature passed a bill changing most drug possession charges from felonies to misdemeanors. I think that’s a huge step that the Oregon Legislature could take to move us further down this road. (In Oregon, it is a felony to possess many controlled substances, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and methadone.)
Another piece is Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, which was pioneered in Seattle a few years back. This is diverting individuals who commit low-level drug offenses to harm reduction-based case management instead of jail, and both Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Albany, New York, are implementing this, and I think that’s a perfect next step for Portland, but it would be phenomenal to see the entire state do it.
(Earlier this month it was announced a similar program, Homeless Engagement Alternatives Resources and Treatment, or HEART, is in the works for Multnomah County.)
The most inspirational example is in New York, where the mayor of Ithaca released the Ithaca Plan, which is a radical departure from the United States’ traditional punitive approach to drug policy, and instead focuses on public health, economic development and harm reduction. It is expanding access to medication-assisted treatment, increasing youth employment programs and opening the nation’s first supervised injection facility.
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If Portland wanted to become a pioneer and really take a hard look at health-based approaches to some of the struggles that our community experiences, these are some of the things we should do.
E.G.: When you were fundraising for Measure 91, did you get the feeling that a lot of the financial backers and people who were invested in the legalization of recreational marijuana were interested in that next step of decriminalizing other drugs? Or were most people more interested in being able to smoke their weed?
E.F.: Most of my conversations with donors to Measure 91, the biggest donors, were about these broader criminal justice reforms. But as far as having a well-funded movement or campaign to decriminalize all drugs – no, I don’t know that I see that happening.
That is the interesting thing about raising money to legalize adult use of marijuana, particularly from folks who hoped to profit off of legal marijuana, and it’s a conversation I have every single time I make an ask of someone who has a marijuana business. “Let’s be clear about what’s happening here: You’re profiting off of marijuana when there are people all over this country who are still being arrested and incarcerated for this drug. We have an obligation – you have an obligation – as someone who is making money in this industry, to help legalize it.”
When I was raising money for the marriage equality movement, it reminded me of the conversations we would have with couples who wanted the right to marry, and remind them that once they got the right to marry, there was so much more work to be done to ensure the protection and the equality of the LGBT community. I see such similar things in this drug reform movement, that if someone really cares about one piece of rolling back the drug war, that we help them connect the dots to their motivations.
Frankly, what happened in Oregon, the investment those folks made in changing the laws here, we’re not seeing as much in other states.
It’s rare, because it is a human rights and social justice issue, that all of a sudden we are creating the foundation for what is expected to be anywhere from a $20 billion to $40 billion industry in 2020. And I believe it’s (the industry’s) obligation to invest in rolling back these laws. If they’re going to benefit from it, they should certainly bear the burden of financing it, and I am so grateful to the generosity of the folks in Oregon that donated, and I know it was difficult for many of them, who are running essentially start-up businesses who weren’t making too much profit at that point.
We’ve got a few more months before the election this year when potentially 10 states will be voting on marijuana, both medical and (recreational) adult use, but I have seen no other state do as much or be as generous from the industry toward legalizing, and it’s disappointing.
E.G.: If we decriminalize other drugs, won’t more people use them?
E.F.: So we have actually found that is not the case.
Regulation and decriminalization are two different things. With Measure 91 and with marijuana, it’s very clear that marijuana is a substance that would not cause harm to public health and safety, were it to be legally regulated and sold. As far as decriminalizing possession of all drugs, that’s a different approach entirely.
We are advocating that simple possession of a drug should not carry with it such stringent penalties.
Criminalizing drugs has obviously not been a deterrent to people using them. What the criminalization of drugs does is, rather than reducing the demand, it creates this system in which the supply must be held in an illicit market. The cartels must secure their product through intimidation and violence.
On a more individual level, folks who use drugs, when they’re criminalized, don’t have the resources in many situations to use them safely. And there’s these public health consequences from that. But you have seen other countries that decriminalize drug use, like Portugal and (other) European countries (where) we have not seen an increase in the use of drugs. Instead we’ve seen positive public health outcomes, reduction of drug-related disease and illness, and reduction of violence.
E.G.: How might the decriminalization of drugs change our approach to addiction?
E.F.: Much of what has fueled the drug war is stigma and “othering” of people who use drugs. I believe the compassion that would be required to decriminalize drugs would go a long way toward advancing saner drug policies.
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The roots of this failed war on drugs are based in racism and misguided approaches to controlling certain segments of society, and as we take these steps forward, as we challenge society to question the foundations of their ideas around drugs and drug use, I believe the resulting public health and safety benefits will be enormous. There’s just no question that the last few decades of drug policy have been a complete and utter failure, and I believe society is ready to start rolling that back.