INTERVIEW: John Finlator
The BNDD's former chief speaks frankly on pot, narcs, and other subjects.
In 1972, John Finlator resigned liis post as Deputy Director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD). As America's chief narc, he occupied a controversial position. He deliberately made it twice as hot by openly advocating the decriminaliza-tion of marijuana white sfjli. in office.
This year, Finlator published The Drugged Nation: A "Naic's Story" (Simon & Schuster), which takes us for (he first time into the inner sanctum of drug taw enforcement. . Distasteful as this fife seems to many, it is nonethe-iess rife with adventure, Mexican gu r\ battles, cocaine-laden diplomatic pouches, corruption, clandestine espionage, and death -all pari of the jabl
The only story tliis retired narc does riot tell, is about the first time he smoked grass-it's something he hasn't yet found time to try. A lJ hough for many years he has fueled himself with liquor and cigaiettes, he is nevertheless a member of the Adviso>y Board of (he National Organization to Reform the Marijuana Laws (NORML). But don't let that fool you. "I can get better stirff than youW got;' he told High Times.
Playboy staff writer Larry DuBois interviewed John Finlator for High Times.
High Times: Now that you've left the BNDD, how do you see yourself' in relation to law enforcement in America? Especially regarding marijuana?
Finlator: I still, consider myself: a strong law and order man, but I have a different view of pot from many of those people. I think we should decriminalize it And I think a lot of law enforcement people, as well as people in the HEW [Department of Health, Education* and Welfare] and NIMH [National institute for Mental Health] feel somewhat as I do, that marijuana is relatively harmless and we ought to decriminalize it%
High Times: You feel that way now, in 1974. When did you change? Finlator: I changed in 1966. I was director of BDAC [Bureau of Drug Abuse Control), which was a law enforcement outfit in tlie FDA [Food and Drug Administration) and HEW was quite concerned what their stance should be on marijuana. HEW wanted a position paper, and I got tagged for the job. While doing it my staff and I debated for months what we knew about marijuana and what we didn't know. We also discussed the great amount of pot arrests that built up during the '60s. In the paper we came to the decision that marijuana ought to be decriminalized. Higli Times: How did you decide? Finlator: WelL we felt we ought to be paying more attention to the dealer than to the user. So we made a distinction. We decided that the ordinary person ought to have the right to possess small, amounts like three ounces. They should be able to possess this without fearing Prohibition-type arrest.,.
High Times: Before we go further into your positions on decriminalization and your experiences in aNDD, let's talk about you, yout past.. Finlator In high school I was a jazz musician-
High Times: That explains iL Finlator: I had my own otchestra with the unlikely name of Finlators Footwarmers. I played dance bands in college. Then for ten years I was a radio announcer in Raleigh, North Carolina-! was a flop. After that I taught and coached football at my high school.. I started with the government in the Depression years, in the post office in Raleigh. From there to eight different departments, as inves tigator, agent, administrative positions before I went to head up BDAC. High Times: You left the federal law enforcement field right around the lime Watergate was beginning to happen. What was your relationship with John Mitchell? '
Finlator: I knew John Mitchell, and had a good working relationship with him. I remember that Martha Mitchell, organized the Justice Department wives. They were looking for something to do under the aegis of Mrs. MitchelL The drug problem was good for them, talking to parents and young people. Nothing really came of it except we got to know her. We would see them sometimes in tlie wee hours of the morning when we'd have a big bust and they'd come down to the Bureau and spend most of the night with us.
High Times: When you retired and joined NORML, what sort of reactions did you get from friends and colleagues in BNDD, Justice, and the White House?
Finlator: One of utter amazement, not believing iu Of course, some individual people within the bureau are stilL friends. "Crazy John, but he's still a buddy." To tell you the truth, I'm very happy to be in the company of some of the people who support marijuana reform, like the Consumer's Union, the President's. Commission, the Le Daiu (the Canadian national commission investigating marijuana!*1 Professor Grinspoon, Ramsey Clark, the Board of Trustees of the AM A, and such great conservatives as James Kilpatrick, An Linkletter and William Buckley.
High Times: After 1968, weren't you suspect within the Nixon administration? "Finlator's soft"? Finlator: I think they always knew I was soft on that one issue, but I wasn't suspect, or I never would have remained as Deputy Director. I don't think Nixon gave a damn about marijuana. But being the smart, intelligent poliliciiin, probably the most intelli gent since Franklin Roosevelt,. he thought that the myths are still out there, and the great percentage of the people were with him when he said, "I will not decriminalize, I will not legalize pot under any circumstance s." The great majority of the people said hooray and cheered for him.
High Times: What's your sense of the public attitude towards marijuana legalization today? Are we kidding ourselves about change being around ihe corner?
Finlator: The last Harris poll showed seventy percent still against legalization. But when asked how they felt about the new Oregon law, where marijuana is treated like a parking ticket, thirty-six percent favored it. with forty-nine percent opposed. So you can see the trend. Decriminalization is coming soon. High Times: Why did seventy percent of the public decide marijuana was so bad?
Finlator: Before Hairy Anslinger came along, the public didn't know anything about marijuana and didn't care. They just believed what people told them. Particularly, the Mexican-Americans were nsing it* and we thouglit that was bad for a number of reasons. Racial bias was one of them. High Times: You undoubtedly followed the Marijuana Initiative in California in 1972, which was the first major attempt to bring straight voters around to the pothead's point of view. What's your opinion of that approach now, considering that it failed in California although it did receive thirty-four percent of the vote? Finlator: It was a success and a failure. It wasn't a big loss. It showed there were a lot of people in favor of it. And it will come up a second and third time, and if they can garner the right state leaders, who will guide them into a more dignified campaign, I think it's got a chance. High Times: How long were you at BNDD? Could you see any changes beginning while you were there? Finlator: I was there from its creation in August, 1968, from two previous bureaus. That was a point when the government started lessening its negative attitude toward marijuana, from an enforcement point of view. That went along with the lessening of the laws from a felony to a misdemeanor; Most people don't realize that that came from a law enforcement outfit itself. BNDD actually proposed that the time had come to make at least the first offense a misdemeanor, and we hammered it out, and got the Justice Department and Congress to approve it It was really a step forward, I say it was a helluva step forward considering the risk.
High Times: Where does the DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency-the su-peragency that superceded the BNDD] get its narcs today?
Finlator: In the old FBN [Federal Bureau of Narcotics] they used to take guys off the streets who talked out of the side of their mouths, because they thought they might be good for undercover work, knowing the street ways they did. But a lot of these guys got into trouble. Later, we instituted a requirement that no one except college graduates would be accepted. Some today are ministers. We've hired a number of guys right out of the ministerial schools, and some from the priesthood, for undercover work. High Times: Could this change in types account for the change in attitude at BNDD while you were Deputy Director?
Finlator: When you go out today and hire hundreds of young agents, they're not all squares. Some of them were probably, hippies at one time. Now you take a hundred young men out of college today and telL me they're not smoking grass, and I'll say horseshit...
The first day of a new training period Td go in and look at those fifty-some guys, beards, cool characters-some of them look like they've just come from Haight-Ashbury and some from Harvard. We had a rule: we always asked, have you used any drugs? Have you ever smoked marijuana? If they said yes we refused to hire them. A bad rule, but we had it. But they wanted in so bad they soon learned to lie to that question. High Times: You think most narcs today aren't interested in pot? Finlator: I believe that most intelligent police wish we could settle the marijuana question and get on to the real drug problems, not just messing around busting kids for grass. High Times: You obviously have a lot of respect fo the men in the drug law enforcement field. If your estimate of these men is still valid, why do narcs have such a bad reputation? Finlator: It's the local narcs that have usually given the drug culture a bad time. It was realiy the local narcs that gave narcs a bad name. High Times: Were you personally involved with marijuana busts? Fiulator: As much as anybody else. High Times: What did that consist of? Finlator: 1 was in an administrative position, which isn't the same as being out on the streets.
High Times: So tell us a few inside stories.
Finlator: Back in 1966 or "67, there was a story came out of Haight-Ashbury, that there were certain procedures by which you could process banana peels-dry them and smoke them and get a beautiful high. This story was carried by the underground press. One magazine printed the process. AP and (JPI picked up the story, and people thought there was something to this banana story.
We didn't know what the hell was going on. At the time I was director of the BDAC, so we bought thirty pounds of bananas, took them into our laboratories and cooked them and scraped them and smoked them and did everything else the underground press told us to do. Wc really worked on the thing, and after about three months we found that it was a real put-on. It was a beautiful put-on. High Times: Were there any other put-ons?
Finlator: Catnip was another one. This was about '69. You could use catnip and it was a great high. Pet shops that had been selling two or three packets a week were suddenly selling it by the pound. Well, we went through the same things, explored the dangers of catnip, but by the time we found out the true story, it had died out.,
Then there was a Dr. Da Siiva in New Jersey who went to the school board at Gar Held, N.J.. and told them he had a test by which he could prove, by a swab of ihe mouth, whether any of Ihe kids had ever smoked marijuana. The school board, ihe PTA, the principals, the police department, the mayor got together and were about lo sign a contract: five dollars a head for ihe whole town. The kids found om and raised hell.. I| leaked lo Ihe press, and some of our pharmacologists knew it must be a hoax. The whole community, was up in arms about what to do about Dr. Da Silva, and by the time Ihe city fathers caught on, the guy was gone from Ihe country. They never heard from him again.
High Times: Does Ihe DEA [Drug Enforcement Agency-ihe super-agency that oversees all operations] see it in Iheir interest to continue prohibition? Or are they merely reflecting the Administration line?
Finlalor: I Ihink lhal if we passed the [avits-Hughes decriminalization bill that most of ihe law enforcement people in the country would say, lhank God we don't have to worry about lhal problem any more. But so long as there is a law, most will continue to enforce ii.
During Prohibition, when John Nance Gamer was in Congress, at the end of a day he'd calL in his newspaper friends, lock the door, open a bottle of boutjbon, and say, "Now let's strike a blow for freedom." High Times: Have there been any repercussions from your decision lo go upfront on marijuana? Finlalor Not really. Kind of a "leave him alone" attitude. I say what I believe, lhal I iliink that no conceivable amount of law enforcement can stop ihe marijuana traffic, and I go to bed at night and sleep like a baby. I know I'm right-,
Iam not pro-grass at all.. I just don't believe we should arrest people for simple possession and use. I look around and see my friends along with millions of people using it and I see a growing disrespect for the criminal justice system. I expect lo see Ihe lime when people are out carrying banners and really fighting for a change in the pot laws. ThaCs coming for sure. High Times: When you explain your, position you are very careful lo make Ihe distinction between legalization and decriminalization. Could you explain that?
Finlator Before you can start talking about legalization, you've got lo take the first step. Decriminalization would eliminate criminal penalties against the user, but retain Ihem against Ihe seller. Legalization would go a step further and create a legal market where ihe smoker could pur/ chase it without going to the black market.. Legalization is going lo be damned difficult- Bui decriminalization could be easy. I think it's going to be done poliiically, step by step.
Last October, Oregon adopted a form of decriminalization, which other states are watching closely. Several additional slates will probably adopt decriminalization in the 1975 session.
I favor decriminalization.. rather than legalization, in order to continue a policy of discouragement by focusing law enforcement resources against the seller. We may eventually want to legalize marijuana but for now I would be satisfied with decriminalizing the user.
If you're gonna have eventual legalization, you're likely to have big companies in there making money out of it. Someone's gotta produce iu We have a capitalistic society. Someone needs to study various methods of legal distribution. The government will undoubtedly license manufacturers and distributors. So when we gel lo the "keep the companies out", thatls just a bunch of shit,. Maybe it will be Ford Motor Co., or ABC Pot Co., but what's the difference? They're stilL going lo make money and be just like R. J. Reynolds.
High Times: Are rumors about cigarette companies preparing for legalization true?
Finlator: I would suspect that Ihey have an abiding interest... High Times: Are you, then, totally persuaded that legalization wilL happen eventually and this isn't just wishful thinking?
Finlaton When you find a society such as ours lhal uses a substance such as this as much as we do, something must happen. Here we are in 1974, with twenty-six million people using or experimenting with grass, and it's not just kid stuff anymore. It's people in my profession, young doctors, lawyers, dentists, men in the executive suite. So it's not just kid stuff. Marijuana is today, in many parts of our-society, a respectable drug for recreational use. It's going lo come down to the proposition that an American has a right lo any substance he wishes so long as it doesn't harm others. High Times: One of Ihe excuses for keepi ng grass illegal is lhal it causes fatal car accidents.
Finlaton I'd rather be riding with a guy who's stoned lhan with a guy who's drunk, or on heroin. High Times: What about the effectiveness of local initiatives to decriminalize grass, for example the Ann Arbor and Ypsilanii referendrums? Finlator Thatls .good if it can hold up in court... But what in Ihe hell, does a town like Austin do? At Ihe University of Texas, some seventy percent of the students smoke, Ihe student president testified before Ihe Slate Senale. And they have forty thousand students there. What does a community, like Austin do with forty thousand students, seventy percent smoking, with a penalty of two years lo life? Easy to say we don't have to do anything.
High Times: Why haven't rock groups and festivals been busted more? Finlalor Simply because we felt it was not good publicity. It was bad i publicity, and it didn't prove any-. thing. I can see Harry Anslinger going i in and putting ihem all away at Wood-
■ slock. There was a helluva difference
■ between the old FBN and BNDD. High Times: One of the most public
, ci2ed attempts of the BNDD to deal with the "real" problem of heroin . pushing was the Heroin Hotline. How I did that work out in practice?
IFinlato~: It's been a big failure. Who in the helts going to use ii? What they I got was a large percentage of crank i calls, guys calling up and saying, I "You a narc? Fuck you!" You can call. J them right now. I've got the number. -High Times: I wouldn't want to admits to you that Pd do something like thaL. Finlator Oil, IVe done it several times ... but not on the telephone.
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