NAME: Glenn Backes
JOB: Departing Sacramento director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Capitol Weekly: Tell us a little bit about your background, how you came to work for
the Drug Policy Alliance and set up the Sacramento office?
Glenn Backes: I’ve worked in HIV prevention since ’87, specializing in high
risk groups, such as street kids, drug users, sex workers. I met the
executive director of DPA in the early nineties while I was working with
homeless youth in New York, providing counseling and case management etc to
HIV positive young people, either homeless or transitioning off the streets.
During grad school I consulted with UNICEF, UNAIDS and DPA, training Eastern
Europeans on HIV prevention among high risk groups. I came to DPA after
grad school, first running the International Harm Reduction Development
program of the Soros Foundation, and then moved to Sacto to open this office
in the wake of the overwhelming public support for Prop 36, treatment
instead of incarceration, in 2000.
CW: Talk about the goals of your organization. What were some of the major
policy successes and failures you had during your tenure?
GB: The goal, in short, is to replace the failed lock ’em up policies of the
drug war, with policies to control the harms associated with drugs, felony
convictions, and incarceration–policies grounded in public health, science,
and common sense and respectful of individual rights and responsibilities.
I’m proud of all our bills, even those that failed to pass. In terms of
impact, it’s Prop 36–providing drug treatment for the first time to tens of
thousands of people who would of otherwise cycled in and out of jails and
prisons for decades, and SB 1159, the Vasconcellos-Nation bill that allows
pharmacies to sell syringes to adults without a prescription in order to
slow the spread of HIV among injection drug users, their sexual partners and
infant children. Great bills that were signed include Senator Escutia’s bill
to reduce fatal drug overdoses, a McPherson-Steinberg effort to expand after
school programs for high school students, Negrette-McLeod’s bill to control
hepatitis C in prisons and the Vasconcellos-Leno bill to improve regulation
of medical marijuana. There are more….
My biggest frustration was the Assembly’s failure to pass Mr. Dymally’s bill
to address the racial disparity in sentencing between crack cocaine and
powder cocaine, and the Senate’s attempts to reverse the vote of 2000 and
rewrite Proposition 36 according to the dictates of the very same drug court
judges and prosecutors who signed the opposition arguments in 2000. The
Senate, and now the Governor, are wasting time and money suggesting an
unconstitutional reversal of the election, when they should be doing their
level best to implement the voter’s mandate to reduce drug use and crime.
CW: I’ve heard people in the Capitol dismiss organizations that want to
change drug laws as the “stoner lobby.” Have these attitudes been a major
impediment to your work, and have they changed in the last several years?
GB: Funny, I never heard that one. Look at the bill analyses. Among our
various bills, you will find support from California Medical Association,
the California Society of Addiction Medicine, California Nurses Association,
the health officers, the largest AIDS service organizations, unions, and the
California PTA, among others.
CW: What do you like to do when you’re not working?
GB: I like movies, live music, theatre and being with my wife and kids. But
with the stress of the job, what I actually end up doing is watching too
much TV, drinking whiskey and eating ice cream. I gained 20 pounds last
year. I hope in the coming year to regain my physical and mental health, and
spend more time wrestling with my kids. After my short sabbatical, I hope to
work with an organization that has the resources and drive to improve the
health and well-being of poor folks. That’s what it’s all about.