Former Head of DEA Concedes, Cannabis Is Real Medicine

Earlier this year I published a column in this space that looked at longtime prohibition advocate and former high level DEA agent Bob Stutman’s recent conversion to supporting the rescheduling of marijuana, citing his own person medical use. In the column I tongue-in-cheek implied that Stutman may have a financial motivation for his new beliefs, as so many other former prohibitionists who later joined the ranks of the cannabis industry. Shortly after the column ran I reached out to Bob, who among other things, confirmed that he does not have any interest in the industry, nor does he plan to in the future. This led to a series of discussions that culminated in a lengthy interview where Bob and I discussed his career, the evolution of his thinking on marijuana, and ways that former adversaries can work together to effect change on this issue.

The following is a skimmed down version of the interview, edited for length and clarity. The entire hour plus interview can be heard on the Marijuana Today podcast, available here.

Kris: Thanks for joining me today Bob.

Bob: Who would have guessed when we debated the world would end up like this. But absolutely we’re fortunately we’re starting anew. I hope. I think we are living in an era where people can disagree about issues and not be disagreeable. Unfortunately, we’ve become that country now in a lot of ways, and I don’t care if it’s a Democrat or Republican, they both attack each other.

Kris: I appreciate that. The show you were you were known for on the debate circuit was Heads vs Feds. I believe you did something like 60 debates a year with Steve Hager. We also debated a couple of times and you did a number of debates with Allen St. Pierre of NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.) You always had a reputation for being able to have these conversations without taking it personally. So I’m curious to hear you talk a little bit more about your approach. Being that you were so entrenched in the drug war, I mean, quite literally at the DEA, how were you able to put those feelings aside to have a civil discourse with somebody who you vehemently disagreed with?


Bob: I’ve always tried to judge people on how they are personally, not what they believe. I can believe very different things than you, but that doesn’t mean I have to be personally disagreeable. I could bump into John Gotti on the street today and he and I would have a decent conversation.

Kris: Now, that wouldn’t be that wouldn’t be the first time, would it be?

Bob: It actually wouldn’t be. John used to tell of the mob guys, Stutman will treat you with respect. And it’s amazing. How much that one thing gets you in life. I guess I feel pretty good that if you could if you could treat a mob hit man and John Gotti with that kind of respect, I think I’m in pretty good shape here for this interview.

Kris: Tell us a bit about your sort of your history, particularly with the DEA, a little bit about what you’ve done afterwards.

Bob: I am Jewish, I graduated a Catholic college and got hired immediately, and I have no idea why they picked me out for an interview with the CIA. ] I spent almost two years in the agency, did time in Vietnam with CIA, came back and they put me behind a desk, which I hated. And I interviewed with FBI, Secret Service and DEA. I just wanted an exciting job. I knew nothing about drugs.

Kris: So you weren’t motivated by the drug war to go to the DEA?

Bob: I had no personal vendetta. I just wanted an exciting job, to be honest. And I guarantee you, I remember saying to my wife, these guys are crazy. I think I’d have fun with them. I was twenty one, graduated college at twenty. I worked undercover for five years, generally against heroin traffickers, started to do some cocaine work and then we started to see grass on college campuses. This was 1965. I actually made the first undercover buy of marijuana on a college campus in the United States. It was at American University…

Kris: My alma mater!

Bob: And that was my introduction to marijuana. So again, because I was so young and this will crack you up because you can see me, I actually had hair then, which was fairly long. I was head of international training. We train cops from 53 countries. I traveled to 73 countries with DEA. And then my boss at that time, Peter Benzinger, he was he was my Rabbi, if you will, and he said, I’m going to put you in charge of the Boston office.

So I went to Boston and that’s when I really started learning about marijuana, because at that time, Kris, I don’t know if you remember, New England was the drop off point for much of the smuggling coming from the Caribbean and Mexico. They put it on boats and shipped it up to New England. And it was tons at a time. So we were making multi-ton seizures in New England. I mean, if somebody came to me with 100 pounds of grass, I’d laugh in their face because we literally measured in tons. And I thought honestly that marijuana was just like every other drug. I just didn’t differentiate, obviously. I’ve learned a huge amount since then.

Kris: Did you ever think while you were doing this to talk with a marijuana consumer to get their take on marijuana? Did you ever talk with people who were using it to maybe get a different perspective?

Bob: Well, remember, a lot of the traffickers were users.

Kris: Sure. But they’re not necessarily representative of your day to day cannabis consumer.

Bob: A lot of them were users, which was not true, by the way, of heroin and cocaine. But in marijuana, they all used grass, which interestingly in the very beginning said to me, why is this stuff different? Why is everybody who traffics in grass a user and nobody who traffics in heroin a user? The reason must be something different. But to me, it was all drugs.

Kris: When you were undercover, did you ever take a hit off of a joint when they said “go ahead and try it first?”

Bob: Never, ever, ever, ever. My first hit of grass in my life was when I got it from the doctor’s prescription. So, no, I didn’t cheat on the rules. When you worked undercover, you could not use drugs. Everybody thinks you use drugs undercover. You don’t. If you do, you’re out. So I never, ever used drugs. And that is a test that they use.

Eventually I started doing a lot of doctor talks and I started realizing, I’ve got to go where the science takes me if I’m going to work with these people, because they’re going to throw science at you and you have to be able to throw it back. And that’s when I learned the clear difference despite what everybody told me. There absolutely is no proof that cannabis is a gateway to other drugs. It may be the first drug used, but milk is used before cannabis.

Kris: When was this and what science did you rely on to come to these conclusions?

Bob: Any peer reviewed journal is where I get my science. And I learned a lot. Roughly, if I was going to pick, it would be 1989 when I started doing a lot of speeches. That was for DEA then. Then I retired from DEA in ‘91, ‘92, and I went to work for CBS as their drug consultant. And again, when you’re working, when you are the consultant, you are the one that 60 Minutes goes to, to be the expert. You damn well better be right. And that’s how I got to be so much involved with the science of all this stuff. And I learned a lot about cannabis. So that’s how it changed. I don’t do the marijuana debates anymore because I lost that war.

Kris: You said you were looking at the science going back to the late ‘80s. We were doing these debates in the in the 2000s. And I would imagine that the science was telling you that cannabis wasn’t all that bad. So were you saying things on the debate stage that you personally disagreed with? How did you justify your prohibitionist stance with the science you were reading?

Bob: I’m a prohibition is for that I think there are negative, measurable consequences to the decision to use marijuana. I do believe that there are reasons to legalize cannabis, medicinal specific problems, et cetera. And that’s the first step. Then let’s see what happens.

Kris: But what do you think about folks who just enjoy cannabis? People who prefer to come home after work and smoke a joint or vape as opposed to having a glass of wine? Do you think they should face criminal consequences?

Bob: Oh, no, no. First of all, I do not think anybody should go to jail for the use of any drug. Period. Heroin, cocaine, cannabis. Consistent drug usage is like over usage of alcohol. It is a brain based disease. Addiction is a brain based disease period. The reason I do not think we should legalize all drugs is that when we discover that Kris Krane has a dependence on marijuana that interferes with your life, we ought to give you treatment. But most people will not go to treatment unless the alternative to treatment is worse, and every treatment specialist will tell you that. The best thing that ever happened to this country in the drug world so far are the drug courts where you are given an option. You get arrested for nonviolent possession, a charge for your own use, then you are given the choice. You go for evaluation and treatment or you face the criminal justice system and most people go to treatment because of the criminal justice system. Is there if it weren’t there, almost nobody would go to treatment.

Kris: But do you think that’s reasonable for cannabis consumers? Because the overwhelming majority of people who consume cannabis do so responsibly. It doesn’t negatively impact their lives. Or if it does, it’s a pretty minimal negative impact.

Bob: I think for adults over twenty five, cannabis is no better or worse than alcohol. That’s my analogy.

Kris: You were talking about how you don’t you don’t talk about cannabis much these days.

Bob: No, I don’t. When somebody asked me a question about cannabis, my standard answer is I really don’t care. People are dying every day from opioids, benzodiazepines, etc. and I’ve never met anybody that knew anybody that died from cannabis. So to me, it’s not an issue.

Kris: Why not just say, let’s just take this out of the Controlled Substances Act, deal with it the way we deal with things like alcohol and tobacco and let’s focus our law enforcement resources on other drugs? Let’s just take cannabis out of the equation.

Bob: We may get there. I do think the Biden administration will make some changes on cannabis. I’m all in favor of that. I just don’t think that we should put up a rule that says you can use cannabis whenever you want, however you want, and there will never be a potential criminal consequence.

Kris: Well, but that’s not the case for alcohol, right? We don’t say people can’t use alcohol wherever or whenever they want without consequence. The criminal consequences for alcohol are not for drinking alcohol. They’re for irresponsible use of alcohol. It’s the things that you may do while under the influence of alcohol that we criminalize. And I don’t think anybody would argue that we wouldn’t have the same system for cannabis.

Bob: But I think just saying it’s not against the rules any longer tells every young kid in America that it’s OK. And that’s the problem. If we didn’t have the first problem, I would be a lot more comfortable with the second issue in my mind. I think the science is irrefutable, that regular use of cannabis starting at a fairly young age, say 15, does cause molecular changes in the brain. So just say “it’s OK, anybody should be allowed to use it as long as they’re of age. No criminal penalties there.” But we can’t say it’s going to be “legal” because we don’t want to encourage young people to use it. Even if we have age restrictions in place.

Kris: But you still wind up then with the cartels and trafficking and gangs and the other things associated with illicit market production, which puts the lives of your former colleagues at risk. Right? Having to go after these folks for something that you say people shouldn’t be criminally penalized for use in the first place puts your former colleagues in danger.

Bob: The problem you guys have is you can’t produce it as cheaply as the illegal trafficker.

Kris: Not until not until the walls of federal prohibition come down completely

Bob: This is a guess, not necessarily inside knowledge, but I think that they will change the federal banking laws. That will allow you to use banks. I think that will be a tiny change for the public. But a major change in trafficking patterns, once you guys can do it legally like a business and not have to worry about how do I fund it, where does the money go? How do I cross state line, all that kind of stuff. I think it will make a big difference.

Kris: I’d be curious to hear more about what you wrote in The Hill. I’ll say when I when I read that, I was stunned because we had been on the debate stage together and you’ve been such a big voice on your side of the issue. So to read that you’re now advocating for rescheduling was quite stunning. So I’d like to just give you the opportunity to tell us what caused your change of heart.

Bob: Well, it was it was personal and simple. I’ve had three major back surgeries in two years. I’m talking about big ones. After one of them, I got a pretty serious infection. Ever since then, I’ve had back aches and hip aches that really have almost debilitated me at times. I have gone to an orthopod and I’ve seen my surgeon five times. I’ve seen everybody. And the only option I got offered was obviously opioids, oxy, hydro, Vicodin. The last doctor I saw said you really should try cannabis. She said, I don’t know if it’ll help you or not, but you should try it.

Kris: Given your background, what was your reaction when your doctor said you really should try cannabis?

Bob: I said I’ll think about it. That was my on the spot reaction. I said, I’ll think about it. I was averaging two to three hours a night and it got really tough. So she gave me a recommended of two or three different types of cannabis to try. The first two I tried did nothing for me. But the third kind I tried absolutely cured my insomnia. And I said, well, now I’m going to go back and get a regular prescription. And then I felt guilty, I just felt guilty. I said, wait a minute, I used to debate Steve Hager all the time, argue against everything that I’m now thinking. And then I said, well, maybe that means what I was arguing was stupid. That clearly this stuff is changing my life for the better. And seventy two thousand people died last year from opioids. Why in the hell am I not feeling guilty about getting a script for opioids, which I almost never filled, but feeling guilty about taking a script for cannabis which never killed anybody? And I said, this is crazy, why feel guilty? So I said, screw it. I’m going to write a piece for the paper.

Kris: How did your DEA colleagues respond to this?

Bob: Well, I’m going to tell you, that was maybe my biggest surprise. A lot of them who I didn’t expect, who have always been very anti cannabis over the years, said to me what [former DEA Administrator] Peter Benzinger said. He said, this is probably the time and you are the person to do it, which really surprised me. Now, I’ve had some people in DEA who consider me a traitor, but that’s very few. Honestly, most of them are like Peter. Many of them say, who gives a s**t? Who’s dying from cannabis? Who cares? Nobody likes making marijuana cases in DEA. I will tell you that.

Kris: I feel like you keep kind of proving my point here, let’s get this out of the Controlled Substances Act. Let’s take this and let your colleagues focus on things that they want to be focused on. Descheduling cannabis just seems like such a no brainer if even the majority of folks at the DEA are saying, I don’t want to make a cannabis bust.

Bob: But nobody would want to make it Tramadol bust and Tramadol is a schedule five, so it’s a scheduled drug. It just happened to be a lower scheduling. That’s where I think if we treated cannabis like Tramadol, we’d be OK.

Kris: But even putting marijuana in schedule five doesn’t makes sense. It’s just so much more comparable to alcohol or tobacco that it could be regulated through those agencies rather than kept in the Controlled Substances Act. But I think we both agree that it is just not based in fact or science for cannabis to be schedule one.

Bob: We both absolutely agree on that. There is not one piece of science that can convince me that it should be schedule one. I think if the worst is scheduled two, but probably even less than that. So honestly, you and I are close on that issue. And I think I think we’re doing a huge social experiment right now. I think five, eight years from now, we will see how Colorado, Oregon and some of those other states made out. And see what the consequences were, either negative or positive, and make a decision based on that.

Kris When you look back on your career in the DEA, do you feel any remorse for any of the arrests that you made? Bust that you made in which people’s lives may have been upended as a result of those enforcement actions?

Bob: Of course, you can look back and say, holy s**t, what did I do? I feel more remorse, to be very honest with you, with the crack epidemic, because I really spearheaded that. I was the head of the New York DEA from ‘85 to ’91. We just threw everybody in jail. Had those been all white people who were becoming crack addicts, then we wouldn’t have thrown them in jail. We don’t generally throw white kids in prison today for being addicts. We offer them treatment. Where was the treatment in ‘87, ‘88, ‘89? There was none. Everybody went to jail.

Kris: There is a clear reason why the discourse around the opiate crisis today is so different than the discourse was around the crack cocaine epidemic. And that simply has to do with who’s using it and what neighborhood they live and what color they are.

Bob: And anybody who denies that.

Kris: I’m glad to hear you say that and reckon with it, because that’s the first step to being able to move forward and make sure that these things don’t happen again. It’s important.

Bob: You can’t undo what happened, but you can’t you can make sure it doesn’t happen again.

Kris: Are you are you looking to get into the cannabis or CBD industry any time soon?

Bob: I will never say I would never do it, but I will tell you absolutely, I am not involved in cannabis now. I have no deals on the table. I have not talked to anybody about it. What happens a year from now? I don’t know. But I can tell you right now, I don’t make them a penny from the cannabis industry. I’m going to be on the board or a consultant or anything like that. And I’ve had a lot of them approach me to being a board member, a consultant, etc. and I’ve just always said no.

Kris: I’d be remiss if I didn’t bring it up, you see, I made the point that we were both receiving speaker for our debates and that I donated all of it to Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which is the organization I was the executive director of at the time. I made an offer in the article and I will renew it here to turn over the URL You can do whatever you want with it. All I ask, now that you do support rescheduling and seem to be very close to our position, would you be willing to make a donation to NORML or SSDP to help accomplish the work that you now advocate for?

Bob: No, because everybody I know on your side goes beyond what I want to do. If you come up with an organization that me that fits within the four corners of what I in favor of, I think about it.

Kris: I really appreciate you taking the time and being with us here today and addressing this audience. I hope this is something that others can learn from and we see more of. So thank you so much for being here.

Bob: Kris, it’s a pleasure and thank you for having me.

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