The Odd Couple
A rumpled High Times editor and a dapper DEA agent are the most popular act on the college circuit, traveling cross-country to debate the drug war. But what happens when they step off the stage?
You wouldn’t expect an editor of High Times and a former special agent of the DEA to have much in common other than a mutual professional obsession with marijuana. But Steve Hager (the High Times editor) and Robert Stutman (the DEA agent) have gotten to know each other very well over the past decade as they’ve traveled (roughly 40 times a year) to colleges across the country to debate one another in a presentation called “Heads vs. Feds." Their natural on-stage banter and extreme opinions on all things marijuana—from legalization to medicinal use—tend to rile up crowds and lead to intense Q&A sessions afterwards. In this exclusive interview, the two men talked to The Fix about their first meeting, how the subject of legalization hits them both personally, and their most outrageous moments on stage.
So how did you two get together in the first place?
Steve Hager: We met through our agents. I was doing similar debates with Curtis Sliwa, who founded the Guardian Angels [a volunteer organization made up of citizen crime patrollers]. He was sort of a caricature—almost an Archie Bunker type—and it didn’t work out too well. So the first time I had ever seen Bob was on stage at our first debate in Florida [at Eckerd College] in 2001. I honestly thought that he was going to hit me in the face. I had mentioned that drug prohibition destroys people's faith in institutions and there was so much money involved that a lot of cops get their hands dirty. He thought I was trying to say that he was a dirty cop, which I wasn’t. It’s just an inevitable result of the police force being involved.
Probably 90 percent of the crowd is pro-marijuana. Kids are doing drugs today.
Bob Stutman: I wasn’t going to hit him but I can see how he might have though that I would. It had nothing to do with his position on cannabis. In my mind, I heard him say something like “All cops are corrupt.” I took it personally. A DEA agent who was my best friend got shot in the head fighting the drug war. My agent was sitting watching the show, thinking, “What the fuck did I just do?”
I’ve been to a handful of your debates and the overwhelming majority of people in the crowds were pro-marijuana. Is that always the case?
Bob Stutman: Absolutely. Activists are the ones who show up to these things. I always make the assumption going in that I am going to be the most disliked person in the room and it’s taken years of practice to not take it personally. I also know most of the audience is going to hold half-truths and facts in quotation marks. When I’m up there, I doggedly work the facts.
Steve Hager: Probably 90 percent of the crowd is pro-marijuana. Kids are doing drugs today. There’s way more drug use now than when I was growing up, because kids have all these pharmaceutical drugs at their disposal. Making marijuana illegal is just replacing certain plants with your new pills. It’s just a transparent scam by the pharmaceutical companies. Look at what our government focuses on in terms of recovery: there’s so much emphasis on 12-step programs, but the success rate is miniscule. Then you look at something like Ibogaine [a plant-based psychoactive that is currently being administered as an experimental compound to treat drug addiction in several countries]. Go to Canada since it’s illegal in the US, take that and you’ll be fully detoxed by the next day without withdrawal symptoms. There are dozens of testimonies supporting it, but there’s no finding, no backing and no recognition of it.
Have you guys actually changed your minds on any issues over the years?
Steve Hager: Inside the debates, there’s a little give and take. I stopped promoting smoking a few years into our shows. If you want to use marijuana, I now say use a vaporizer or put it in food.
Bob Stutman: I’m now very clear about the fact that I believe nobody should go to prison for the use of drugs and there should be mandatory treatment instead. The law is a teaching tool. You don’t avoid speeding on the highway because you’re afraid of dying but because you’re afraid of a trooper standing there with a radar gun. But the minute we say that cannabis should be legal, we’re saying it should be acceptable. There have been numerous studies on Prop 19 in California which show that there would be huge increases in marijuana usage if the bill were passed.
What are your thoughts on medical marijuana?
Bob Stutman: To me, medical marijuana is a strategic political move by the pro-legalization thinker as a way to get legalization. Keith Stroup, when he founded NORML [a non-profit organization whose goal is make non-medical marijuana legal in the US] in 1970, even claimed that they were going to try and make marijuana legal for sick people first. Medical marijuana in most states is abused. 92 percent of the people who have access to medical marijuana in California do not meet the definition of a sick person who qualifies for it, which means suffering from either multiple sclerosis, AIDS wasting or chemotherapy. Nobody can tell you that medical marijuana in that state isn’t a farce. There’s a new mouth spray that will be likely be approved by the FDA soon called Sativex. It’s a pure extract of two of the 435 drugs in cannabis that are good medicine. You get all of the pluses of medical marijuana, but you don’t smoke it and you don’t get high. Because this will remove most of the need for medical marijuana, my guess is that the stoners are going to end up dissing Sativex.
Steve Hager: I don’t see legalizing mariuana as a political strategy at all. Marijuana advocates looked at the battlefield and asked ourselves who the priority on this was and who should get marijuana first. We looked at the sick people as the people to concentrate on. In my heart, it wasn’t about trying to be a scam. It was a question of who needed it.
Steve, now that you're a parent, do you view this issue differently?
Steve Hager: When my first child was born, the hospital tried to seize him and drug test him. My kids have never seen marijuana or smelled it—that’s child abuse as far as I’m concerned. But the removal of kids for parents who use marijuana is a far greater crime than the one being committed by parents who use it recreationally themselves. There’s no bigger trauma for a child than being removed from their parent. It’s just sad.
Have you been able to sway the opinions of those who attend your shows?
Steve Hager: The most common reaction I get is kids coming up to me and saying, “I was abusing marijuana, but you straightened me out and got me to focus on my education.” I tell kids when we’re up there to focus on their schoolwork. I don’t condone marijuana abuse or drug abuse in any way.
Bob Stutman: I don’t really expect to change anyone’s mind. I often get as many kids coming up to me after the shows as Steve does and they usually tell me, “I disagree with you, but you’re making me think.”
How much has the marijuana landscape changed in the 11 years you’ve been doing this and how has that affected your debates?
Steve Hager: There have been so many constant changes. The playing field changes so rapidly that we have to change rapidly in our debates. Luckily for me, it’s been an evolution that has changed on the side of legalization.
Bob Stutman: I speak at a lot of physicians groups, so it forces me to be on the ball with this subject. The entire marijuana landscape has changed. What hasn’t changed is that there still aren’t enough studies on the subject. Fortunately, marijuana studies are now being published in peer-review journals on a regular basis. Unfortunately, my own little world hasn’t changed because 90 percent of people I talk to about this subject are mobilized against me.
I noticed that during the audience Q&A session, almost all of the questions and comments were directed at Bob.
Steve Hager: I think that’s because a lot of students fail to recognize the format of these debates. They can ask us any question they want. You’ve got a guy like Bob who has risen to the top of the DEA, he’s confronted John Gotti, but it’s all this hostile heckling and trying to convince him that his opinions are wrong. Every now and then we get schools where they aim it to both of us and we really enjoy that. Our debate is 45 minutes of the show. It’s up to the students to make it happen after that.
Bob Stutman: It’s frustrating because there are some colleges where we get very good, complex questions from the audience. But usually I have to confront stoners lining up to show their friends they can take on the narc. That’s certainly not a reflection of the colleges themselves though. I will say, though, that I don’t like going back to Colorado. I’ve found the most obnoxious stoners are Colorado students. That doesn’t mean all Colorado kids are stoners, but the ones that show up to our presentations are relentless. There was one show where they were booing and hissing the whole time, Steve is telling them to shut up. This one student came up to the mic in front of 1,000 people, looked right at me and said, “You’re full of shit. I think I’m going to beat the shit out of you.” Even at my age, I’m pretty good with my hands. I motioned to him to come up on the stage. He never did. But that’s why colleges like us. They get a population of their campus to turn out for the show that they don’t normally get. And most people that we come across are incredibly polite. I don’t have to do these events. I do them because they’re fun.