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Jesse Ventura on what both parties get wrong about the drug war


"I want to work as hard as I can to make marijuana completely legal in this country before the end of my life," Jesse Ventura declared in a recent interview.

Now 65, Ventura has had many acts: He was a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, then a professional wrestler known as "the Body." He made national news in 1998 when he won the governorship of Minnesota as a Reform Party candidate — as he said in his victory speech on election night, "We shocked the world!"

Since his term ended in 2003, Ventura has been an activist for a variety of causes: the dismantling of our two-party political system, supporting independent media, growing the libertarian movement, promoting marriage equality. But it’s marijuana legalization that is closest to his heart right now.

In his new book, Jesse Ventura’s Marijuana Manifesto, which he co-wrote with Jen Hobbs, Ventura offers a lucid, rights-based defense of marijuana legalization. "Here’s the way I see it," he writes. "Every person on the planet should be allowed the freedom to use his or her judgment when it comes to what’s best for his or her life and well-being, as long as it doesn’t infringe on anyone else’s rights."

I spoke with Ventura recently about the book and about his views on the drug war, the prison industrial complex, and, naturally, the presidential election. Always outspoken, he happily shared his thoughts.

Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Sean Illing: So let's start with the obvious: Why have you taken on marijuana as a cause?

Jesse Ventura: Someone very close to me was stricken with epileptic seizures at a late age and was getting three to four seizures a week. This person had tried four different pharmaceutical medicines, and none of them worked. Let me repeat that: None of them worked. And they had horrible side effects.

This person left Minnesota and went to Colorado to receive medicinal marijuana, and has been seizure-free for over two years and is completely weaned off all pharmaceutical medication.

The problem is that medical marijuana is significantly more expensive in Minnesota than Colorado, and so this person has returned home and is paying $600 a month in Minnesota for what costs $30 a month in Colorado. And health insurance doesn't pay for it because they won't acknowledge that marijuana is therapeutic, even though it helps glaucoma and possibly cures different types of cancers.

I'm 65 now, so I have to limit my focus in terms of what I want to achieve. ... I want to work as hard as I can to make marijuana completely legal in this country before the end of my life.

SI: In the book, you ask rhetorically about the war on drugs: "Why does America insist on fighting a war it cannot win?" I think we have to define "winning" here, as it’s a relative term. Your question implies the drug war is not accomplishing its aims. But the forces behind the drug war seem to be achieving their desired outcome.

The pharmaceutical industry is winning, the prison industrial complex is winning, the anti-hemp industries are winning, the Drug Enforcement Agency's budget explodes every year as it conducts more operations and seizes more assets so it seems to be winning, too. I think the problem is that too many people see the drug war as a failed but well-intentioned project, when in my view the reverse is true. What do you think?

JV: I agree with you. I won't add anything to that. I think you're completely correct. The war on drugs is devastating. The war itself is worse than any of the drug use could ever be. For some reason, we want to treat drug use criminally when it needs to be treated medically. It's a disease, just like diabetes or any number of other horrible diseases. People are born with addictive personalities — it's not their choice. It's what inside them and their genes.

People are addicted to all sorts of substances, most of which aren't illegal. We simply call these acceptable addictions. Society accepts those addictions. The thing we have to do is open our eyes and accept all addictions for what they are: diseases.

Gov. Jesse Ventura speaks to reporters on April 11, 2002.
Photo By Mike Ekern/Getty Images

SI: I was surprised to learn in your book that the federal government holds a patent on marijuana, specifically on CBD, a substance found in marijuana, on account of its medicinal properties. This seems to undermine the DEA's official classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 drug, which was upheld as recently as two weeks ago.

JV: You've got the DEA deciding the issue. Since when can a law enforcement agency decide a legislative question or a scientific question? They have a huge conflict of interest, as we show in the book. They make money by keeping it illegal. I laughed when their last ruling came out, because I could have predicted it ahead of time. They're not going to give up their cash cow.

[Author’s note: The "cash cow" to which Ventura refers is the asset seizure program the DEA has exploited under the cover of the drug war. As this Washington Post report explains, the DEA and other law enforcement agencies have seized billions of dollars worth of property from citizens who, in many cases, are never charged with a crime. Ventura points out in the book that law enforcement agencies have seized $2.5 billion in cash from people who were subsequently cleared of any wrongdoing.]

SI: You note in the book that the DEA continues to claim that more research is needed to affirm the medicinal value of cannabis.

JV: We don't need any more research. It's already been done, in Israel and elsewhere. The "we need more research" argument is a red herring. It's a stalling technique designed to evade the question. The research is in. Case closed. And all the new research is serving only to buttress the case that marijuana is medicinally therapeutic. The list of ailments that marijuana can treat goes on and on — glaucoma, seizures, cancer, PTSD, etc. And yet we're still having this non-argument with the government.

SI: In 1991, Milton Friedman, a conservative economist, said, "If you look at the drug war from a purely economic point of view, the role of the government is to protect the drug cartel." I've never quite understood why the GOP hasn't owned this issue – it's staring them right in the face.

JV: Too many people in big government are making money because marijuana is illegal — it's that simple. Follow the money. Having been a governor, I can't stress to you how accurate that dictum is. If you want to learn the truth about anything in government, follow the money. The money will lead you to the answer.

People can grow marijuana for nothing on their own without having to consult big pharma or defer to big government. That's the threat. If people can grow marijuana in their backyard, big corporations can't control the distribution and profit from it.

SI: You have a chapter about America's scandalous prison industrial complex and its ties to the drug war. The Department of Justice announced recently that it will stop using private prisons. How big of a deal is this in your view?

JV: I think it’s a very big deal. People need to understand that the government is not like a corporation. A corporation is a for-profit business and has to be run for profit. Government is not a for-profit business. It exists to provide services. When you turn prisons into corporate institutions, when you say, "Let the private sector do it; I pay too much taxes," the problem is this: Once they take over the prison, it becomes a for-profit business. And in order for them to make a profit, they need the prisons to be full.

SI: You also talk about large corporations using the prison system to exploit cheap labor.

JV: Yes, the current system allows corporations to basically use inmates as slave laborers. These inmates don't get minimum wage. They're lucky to get pennies on the dollar, and corporations are exploiting them with impunity. What's the difference between this and a sweatshop in Asia? Why should these inmates be required to produce something for a corporation that profits from the production of their work? They have no rights, no collective bargaining agreement. They can't argue about what they're paid.

SI: You're an outspoken critic of our two-party system, and you have been since you ran for governor of Minnesota in 1998 as a Reform Party candidate. What are your thoughts on this year’s election?

JV: To me, this is the prime election where we should see the rise of a third party. You look at Hillary [Clinton and you look at [Donald] Trump, and their negatives are the highest in history. People don't like either one of them. Yet we’re such lemmings in this country that we won't look to a Gary Johnson or a Jill Stein. People won't leave the two-party dictatorship. They say, "If I vote for one of them, I've wasted my vote." No, you haven't. You've wasted your vote if you do vote for them.

I support Gary Johnson. He'll do everything possible to get us out of these wars in the Middle East. And he'll also end the war on drugs. Those are two things that, if accomplished, would change the direction of the country.

SI: I spoke to Green Party candidate Jill Stein recently, and I asked if her she thought Trump and Clinton are "equivalent evils." I put the question very simply. She refused to answer it. Will you?

JV: Is there a difference between them? Not really. Let me explain why. They'll both be governed by their parties, and the parties come first, like the lobbyists who fund them. It's very simple: Go to the Democratic convention, go to the Republican convention, and you'll see the same lobbyists paying off both sides. They're working the system they created, a system of bribery. If you bet on both teams, you can't lose.

SI: What about the Supreme Court?

JV: Well, okay, that will play a big role — I agree there. This is the one place where I'd say we have to keep Republicans out of power. My problem with Republicans on the Supreme Court is that they want to tell us how to live our private lives, and that isn't the role of government. This is one of the reasons I'm a small-l libertarian and support Gary Johnson.

Weed is not more dangerous than alcohol