We dig into efforts to decriminalize psychedelic drugs and take you behind the scenes of two trials dealing with sex crimes.
To start, we break down efforts by California lawmakers to light a fire on legalizing a host of psychedelics.
Then, we hear from investigative journalist Sarah Berman about NXIVM, a sex cult with some high-profile members that preyed on vulnerable women.
We wrap it up by detailing all you need to know about the upcoming criminal trial against R&B singer R. Kelly, who faces kidnapping, coercion and child pornography charges.
This episode was produced by Kirk McDaniel. Intro music by The Dead Pens.
Editorial staff is Bill Dotinga, Sean Duffy and Jamie Ross.
Nicholas Iovino: Welcome to Sidebar, a podcast from Courthouse News Service, bringing you legal and political news from around the country. I'm Nicholas Iovino, a host for this podcast and a reporter for Courthouse News in San Francisco. In this episode, we'll hear about a sex cult that preyed on vulnerable women and an impending criminal trial against the singer R. Kelly. But first, we'll kick things off in California, where state lawmakers are considering a bill that would decriminalize psychedelic drugs.
Iovino: It was 1967. Hippies and counterculture evangelists gathered at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park for the Human Be-In, an event that would come to be known as a prelude to the Summer of Love.
Timothy Leary: Turn on, tune in, drop out.
Iovino: You just heard Timothy Leary, a former Harvard psychology professor and staunch advocate of psychedelic drug use, who came to be known as the high priest of LSD. On that day, in January 1967, he stood on a stage in Golden Gate Park, and encouraged young people to drop out of mainstream society and tune into the mind-bending experiences of psychedelic drugs.
[Trippy Laser Beams]
Iovino: It was around that time in the mid-1960s when federal and state government started passing laws to make hallucinogenic drugs like LSD and magic mushrooms illegal. Now, more than 50 years later, there's a new push to change how these drugs are classified. California State Senator Scott Wiener, a San Francisco Democrat, has introduced legislation that would decriminalize a host of psychedelic drugs in the nation's most populous state. I caught up with Courthouse News reporter, Matt Renda, who's been following the legislation. Hi, Matt, how are you?
Renda: I'm doing well. Nick, how are you?
Iovino: I'm fine, thanks. So, tell me what kind of drugs this legislation would decriminalize.
Renda: Sure. So, it aims to decriminalize a wide range of psychedelic drugs also called hallucinogenics that include psilocybin, which is the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, psilocin, a drug called dimethyltryptamine -- I'm not sure if I'm pronouncing that right -- but it's basically DMT, ibogaine, mescaline, LSD, and MDMA as well.
Iovino: A lot of psychedelic drugs like LSD were made illegal in the 1960s. Why is the push to decriminalize these drugs happening now more than 50 years later?
Renda: You know, it's a good question. I think a lot of the people who are pushing a decriminalization would argue that there was a bit of panic in the 1960s. I think it was centered actually around the work of Dr. Timothy Leary, who was the kind of ‘Tune in and tune out.’ And so, there was a lot of worry, I think, in the establishment circles, that hallucinogenic drugs had a kind of powerful impact on individuals and made them into less reliable citizens. Right now, we're revisiting those kinds of ideas, I think, as a society. I think more importantly, though, the ideas that we're revisiting as a society, particularly in California are the so-called war on drugs and a lot of the policies that have come out of that.
Richard Nixon: America's public enemy No. 1 in the United States is drug abuse.
Renda: There is a lot of new evidence and scientific studies that show that these drugs can actually be very beneficial in a clinical setting in treating things like clinical depression, drug addiction and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
Iovino: Why do some Republicans and law enforcement groups oppose this legislation?
Renda: Their problems with the bill, I think, have to do with the removal of stigma on these drugs, which they worry basically signals to a younger cohort of people that these drugs are okay for personal use and have at it. And, you know, listen, frankly, there are negative impacts of hallucinogenics and psychedelic drugs just like there's negative side effects or drawbacks of really all drugs. The research shows this, that flashbacks are common with LSD use, for instance. You could use LSD three or four years ago and then all of a sudden going about your day when you have what's called a flashback, which is basically you have the experience of tripping as though you are on LSD, which can be a very worrying and horrifying experience for some people. You know, not to mention that some people when they do take psychedelic drugs have what is called colloquially bad trips.
Clip from 1970 documentary: LSD is incredibly powerful. Eating or injecting even a smaller quantity of LSD can cause such symptoms as hallucination, distortion, panic, impulses toward violence, suicidal acts and psychosis.
Renda: Their benefits that they may have in a clinical setting, sometimes when they're used recreationally, these drugs can have very deleterious effects on individuals, and I think Republicans are concerned that the decriminalization process will remove the stigma, will perhaps make these drugs more easily accessible to younger people.
Iovino: I understand that mescaline derived from peyote is excluded from the drugs that would be decriminalized. Why is that?
Renda: Well, it's interesting. So, mescaline is actually included, but only in its synthetic form. Mescaline is the main ingredient in peyote and peyote is a substance that is derived from an endangered cactus plant that's native to the American Southwest. And it's used ceremonially, and ritually by certain Native American tribes. And so, California lawmakers and I think Wiener in particular was concerned that decriminalizing mescaline and peyote in particular would encourage people to kind of raid these endangered cacti and also infringe upon the territorial rights of certain tribes, but mescaline can be created synthetically, and it's also an active ingredient in certain members of the bean family so the extent that it appears in beans or that it's created synthetically, mescaline will be decriminalized.
Iovino: Have any other governments decriminalized psychedelic drugs like this?
Renda: Well, yeah, you know, so magic mushrooms, psilocybin, that's the ingredient, the first major city to decriminalized that was Denver, Colo. and they did it in May of 2019. Oakland, Calif. followed suit in June of the same year and then Santa Cruz, Calif., which is actually where I live and I cover that government sometimes, they decriminalized it in January 2020. Somerville, Mass., Cambridge, D.C. have all decriminalized it. Oregon, of course, decriminalized personal possession of just about every controlled substance during the election cycle last year. And just like a quick glimpse internationally, magic mushrooms are legal in many countries, including Brazil, Jamaica, Nepal, Mexico allows it for certain indigenous communities, Austria, for instance, decriminalizes it. So, I think the sort of international and national attitude towards magic mushrooms in particular, which are naturally occurring and can be cultivated, is increasingly trending towards decriminalization.
Iovino: How would the legislation in California affect people previously convicted for possessing these drugs?
Renda: The bill, you know, SB 519, in its current iteration, in its current form, does nothing to address those people. But Wiener has been adamant that much like when California legalized the recreational use of cannabis legislature then went back and in a separate targeted bill addressed releasing, or at least reducing prison sentences related to the personal use of cannabis, and then even reduced some related to the sale. It's important to note that SB 519 does not decriminalize the sale of hallucinogenic drugs, just the personal possession of it.
Iovino: What's the status of the bill right now?
Renda: You know, it passed through all of the committees of the Senate and then passed out of the Senate. And then it basically goes to the other house, which in this case is the Assembly and because the bill gets revised, and there are different iterations of it, it'll probably have to go back to the Senate where I think it will be widely expected to pass again, and then we'll head to the Capitol, the governor's desk.
Iovino: What's the most interesting thing you learned covering this topic?
Renda: The most interesting thing that I learned, well, I think that the actual research into the mental health benefits of hallucinogenics is really surprising. I think that there is an increasing acceptance of the efficacy of these drugs. I mean, one of the things that some of the opponents to decriminalization say is, oh, well, it's going to create this addiction. But I think within the mental health communities, they've found that actually magic mushrooms, for instance, can help people with addiction. That, if they're treated in the clinical setting for use disorders related to things as serious as heroin and methamphetamine, that actually they can come back from these sort of hallucinogenic experiences without a desire for their cravings. And I just think that that's, you know, I don't mean to drift into hyperbole here, but it's kind of miraculous.
They've seen a lot of success in with clinical depression, these psychedelic experiences, you know, done in the clinical setting under the direction of doctors, I think proved very helpful to these people. And so, I have to say, when I first got into covering this, I thought that this was going to be like a pretty standard criminal justice issue of we need to stop putting people in jail over this. But to me, the most surprising element of this has been really digging into the mental health benefits of these drugs. And I think that there's increasingly kind of a consensus coalescing around their benefits.
Iovino: Well, thanks so much for joining us, Matt.
Renda: Nick, hey, listen, I really appreciate you having me.
Iovino: It's been a real trippy conversation.
Renda: [Laughter] It has indeed. We should have more as much out there conversations in the future.
Iovino: All right, Matt, thanks so much.
Renda: Yeah. Thank you. Bye now.
Iovino: For more updates on the psychedelic decriminalization bill, be sure to follow Matt's coverage at courthousenews.com. Up next, we're going to jet across the country to Brooklyn, N.Y., where some prominent people were recently sentenced for their roles in a sex cult pyramid scheme. Bianca Bruno has the story.
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Bruno: The personal help industry has capitalized on women's insecurities to sell them diets, lifestyles, careers and relationships. But the self-help group NXIVM, ran by now-convicted sex cult leader Keith Raniere, took manipulating women's insecurities to an art form. Raniere and the leaders of NXIVM were arrested in 2018 for running a secret sex pyramid scheme within their self-help organization called DOS or The Vow. The group recruited women based on the false promise of self-betterment, through a mentorship program ran by and for women. In reality though, DOS blackmailed women into submitting collateral, like nude photos, sexually explicit videos and other incriminating information. Leaders of the group forced women to have sex with Raniere and branded them with his initials. How did successful women get caught up in a sex cult? Journalist Sarah Berman sought out to answer that question. She covered the trial and detailed it in her book, “Don't Call It a Cult.” Here's my conversation with her.
Bruno: You covered the NXIVM trial for Vice. Can you kind of bring me into the courtroom and talk about what that was like to be sitting there and hearing the details of this case, and you know, what was promoted as a self-help group which really turned out to be a sex cult?
Berman: His own lawyer was saying on Day One, ‘Yes, Keith created it, but he created it to help women.’ So, that was a big twist on Day One. Because before that, NXIVM and Keith Raniere were actually trying to say, ‘No, women created this group. He had nothing to do with it.’ And the twists didn’t really let up almost any day that you went in, there was something just completely mind blowing being revealed. You had, you know, the first witness her name was given as Sylvie, her last name is protected. She had been helping out at Clare Bronfman’s stables before she sort of got funneled into this indentured kind of role in NXIVM and then eventually was recruited into DOS. Even though she was married, she was having to send naked photos every day to Keith Raniere and trying to keep it a secret from her husband, which sounded absolutely harrowing. And it was all because she just felt so trapped, she had put all this collateral on the line, and she just could not fathom trying to leave, it would just require so much.
Bruno: A big part of your book is how these women were basically duped into joining what ended up being a sex cult based on this idea of female empowerment. And so how were Keith Raniere and Allison Mack and the other leaders able to successfully basically trick women to become involved?
Berman: Yeah, I mean, the short answer is they lied, they misrepresented what this group was, when they were asked questions about Keith’s involvement, they straight up said false statements to say no, he's not involved. This is all about, you know, women pushing each other against their fears. And I think what made it convincing, though, was that a lot of them had just years and years of training within NXIVM, and that had laid this groundwork. So, pushing it against your fears was already something people were practicing in the classes and wanting to, you know, rewire yourself to be more efficient and productive was already there existing, right, like they were already counting calories. Before they joined, they were already potentially losing sleep, sacrificing it for more involvement in the group. And they already had these sort of really deep, dark secrets shared with some of the other women. So, the elements of DOS sound really insane and intense to somebody from the outside, but on the inside, once you've had this NXIVM programming already sort of installed, it sounded just like an a more intense version of what you're already used to. Once they gave their collateral, which in some cases was rights to property, or, you know, accusing their own parent of sexually abusing them as a child. With that in Allison Mack’s hands, you've lost just all your leverage to be able to assert yourself, especially when they're, you know, threatening, sometimes implicitly, but it seemed like sometimes overtly that this collateral is going to be released if you go against anything that we say in this group. And they thought that Allison's interest would always be for their growth for their wellbeing. But it was for Keith's wellbeing the whole time.
Bruno: That's a good segue, because I was going to ask you about Allison Mack’s sentencing. So, you covered that a couple of weeks ago, and she only got three years in prison, which I think, to an outsider, kind of like you already mentioned, that seems like a light sentence. So, do you have that take? Do you think it was light? Or was it appropriate because she was also a victim of Keith Raniere and that was something that prosecutors and the judge had to consider during that hearing?
Berman: I think the judge did seem to weigh all the factors in an interesting way and not an inappropriate way. You know, I thought that yes, in most trafficking schemes, the women who were already victimized if they were under threat of some kind of violence or ruin, do something to another person. Usually that's not held against them. And so that logic certainly applied, she also did cooperate, and the prosecutors underline that at her sentencing hearing, they said, you know, she was willing to testify. And she gave key evidence that they use both in their opening statements and closing statements. This was a recording of them discussing how these quote-unquote branding ceremonies where a cauterizing pen drew, essentially Keith’s initials on the women's bodies, but that recording where he says and they should ask for it so that it doesn't appear coerced. That was key evidence at trial, and that was only there because Allison had provided it. That said, I mean, the sentencing guidelines were 14 to 17-and-a-half years, so three is quite a departure from that. You know, like, I thought maybe because Clare Bronfman, you know, she wasn't involved in the DOS scheme, had a, you know, six, almost seven-year sentence that maybe they would put Allison at eight years or something like that.
Bruno: There's some important sentencing hearings that are still coming up in the case, including the sentencings for Lauren and Nancy Salzman. So, what kind of sentences do you think they face based on your extensive coverage of the case? And especially in light of the sentence that Allison Mack got.
Berman: Lauren Salzman is such a fascinating figure in this case. She testified for many days at trial, she admitted to helping confine a woman to a room for nearly two years. So, that's a separate and apart thing from her DOS membership. She didn't recruit women for sex in DOS, but she did collect collateral from people. And so that's why she did still plead to extortion, forced labor and essentially documents servitude when it comes to Daniela, who is the woman who was confined to a room. And she thought, the confinement aspect, that was the worst thing that she had done in this case, and she really emotionally broke down at that moment describing what she participated in. So, that is a different set of crimes that she was involved in, and no less serious. However, she did cooperate way more than Allison Mack did. She cooperated earlier, she testified, which Allison was willing to do but didn't end up doing. I think it could go a couple different ways. You could see a light sentence. I think certainly the level of cooperation will work in Lauren's favor. But there is just that extra element of seriousness that could balance that out. So, I think yeah, the three to five range is what I might expect for Lauren, and then maybe less for her mother, Nancy. The only charges she pleaded to were related to doctoring evidence for a civil case. So really not as serious of charges. Albeit I guess judges are allowed to take into account you know, sort of a bigger picture at sentencing. And Nancy, having been the sort of number two lieutenant in NXIVM, at least in the like, bigger self-help organization, not DOS itself. She didn't know about DOS, it seemed until basically news had broken in 2017. So yeah, I can see an even more lenient sentence in that particular case.
Bruno: Can you talk about your book, “Don't Call it a Cult”? What do you explore about the NXIVM trial?
Berman: Well, so the title is a little cheeky. You can call NXIVM a lot of things. You can call it a pyramid scheme. You can call it, you know, a mafia-like organization. You can call it a cult, absolutely. All the experts do say it checks all the boxes. But yeah, when I first came to the story, that was just not something any of the women were willing to say. And that was really disorienting for me as a reporter. I didn't understand it. I hadn't really gotten steeped in the levels of manipulation. And so, I guess that was just a major turning point for me when I really started to realize what I was in for with this story was when Sarah Edmondson, one of the first women I interviewed said, “Oh, it's not a cult. I can't say the C-word on record. No, no, no, no, you'll have to cut that out.” And I was just like, whoa, what? Like, you just described being branded and, you know, the sashes, calling this guy “Vanguard” and the most ethical man in the world, and you go to a retreat on his birthday. Seems like it yeah, checks all the boxes. It turned out that that wasn't something that was even unpacked during the trial. The word cult barely came up. The prosecutors weren't interested in proving that was the case. Like I said, they used more domestic abuse experts, not thought reform, not cult experts. So, even though that did seem to come out of the evidence, people did describe feeling like their thoughts were changing and their isolation made them you know, vulnerable to things in a certain way. I just thought it was way more interesting to set that debate aside and really just talk about the harm in the actions that are going on. Because you can describe what actually happened without having to say, this is culty, this is not culty, you know, it's a bit of a fraught label that you don't actually have to use.
Iovino: There's been an update in the NXIVM case since Bianca recorded that segment. On July 20, the leader of the group, Keith Raniere, was ordered to pay nearly $3.5 million in restitution to victims. Raniere was previously sentenced to 120 years in prison. For our last segment, we'll hear about an upcoming criminal trial against R&B singer R. Kelly. Nina Pullano has been following the case, and she has this report.
Pullano: Just as a heads up, while we won't get especially graphic, this segment does discuss alleged sexual abuse. This summer in Brooklyn, a federal trial will kick off involving R. Kelly, an R&B singer who's been followed by sexual abuse allegations for over a decade. R. Kelly, who you probably know from songs like “I Believe I Can Fly” and “Ignition (Remix),” is facing nine counts of racketeering in the Eastern District of New York, involving kidnapping, coercion, child pornography and violations of the Mann Act, which prohibits transporting people for the purpose of prostitution. The trial is set to begin in August. But there's already been a lot of courtroom action, most of it involving Kelly's legal team, which has shifted dramatically over the past few weeks. Before we get into that, just some background because, as you may know, this is not the first time that the singer whose full name is Robert Kelly, has been in court over alleged sexual misconduct. In 2008, he faced child pornography charges in Chicago concerning a video that state prosecutors said showed Kelly having sex with a minor. The problem for prosecutors in that trial was that the young girl they said was in the video and her family said it wasn't her. A jury exonerated Kelly after just a few hours of deliberation. Jumping ahead in 2019, a documentary series produced by Lifetime gained national attention after multiple women, including Kelly's ex-wife, detailed allegations of serious sexual, mental, physical abuse that took place over decades. Among the allegations were that Kelly lived with multiple girlfriends, some of them underage and would sort of track their every move, forcing them to ask permission to use the bathroom or eat, sometimes not allowing them to eat for days at a time. The women and other people close to Kelly also described him filming videos of his sexual interactions which often took place at his recording studio. Following the documentary, Illinois prosecutors moved quickly to charge Kelly with enticement and other counts related to sexual abuse of minors. He faces both state and federal charges out of Chicago, which is where he grew up and began his career. Those are in addition to his trial in Brooklyn. One of Kelly's former attorneys says this racketeering trial in New York doesn't make too much sense and is really the product of prosecutors trying to determine how to charge the singer who was indicted in the wake of both the Me Too movement and the Lifetime series.
Michael Leonard: Here in New York, they kind of put their heads together and said let's call it RICO and RICO has been traditionally user reserved for two classes of defendants: mob bosses and drug cartels. In those instances, makes a lot of sense, like how do we get them? Well, you know, the cartel is a criminal enterprise because that's what they do. Same thing with the mob, but to you know, try to apply the logic to a band. No, we've always said there's quite a reach. So, that's why we always felt that this case was, you know, quite defensible.
Pullano: That's Michael Leonard, a Chicago attorney who represented Kelly until his motion to withdraw from the case along with attorney Steven Greenberg, was granted on July 15. Leonard said that charging Kelly on these RICO counts may make the prosecutors’ jobs easier, at least at trial.
Leonard: The beauty of that is then you get to introduce all sorts of evidence because in the beginning you said hey, this is a criminal enterprise so, we're going to show you all the all the predicate acts, all the bad acts to this criminal enterprise. But it's difficult, you know, for appellate purposes, like considered to win, that they've really met their burden of establishing this is really a criminal enterprise because you know, criminal enterprises is just the fact that they say it’s so.
Pullano: Since he's off the case, Leonard is now a spectator when it comes to the Brooklyn trial, as two attorneys shuffled out two more have been added to the team recently. And in the meantime, yet another lawyer has been the subject of a conflict-of-interest hearing, based on her interaction with two alleged victims of Kelly. The attorney, Nicole Blank Becker, said she met up with the women to attend court hearings in Chicago back in 2019. She would walk them into court and said she joined them to go to a Dunkin Donuts and another cafe. She insists that she never gave them any legal advice. And after confirming with the judge that he understood the risks of having a potentially conflicted attorney representing him, Kelly decided to keep Becker as his counsel. I asked Leonard about this and about his withdrawal from the case.
Leonard: We, you know, had taken the position that they're not experienced enough, they brought in that other attorney, Mr. Cannick. So, you know, they bring in a trial lawyer to try the case.
Pullano: That trial lawyer is Devereaux Cannick, who's based in New York and joined the team just a few weeks ago on June 21. And Cannick said in court the other day that another attorney will soon be retained, bringing the number back to four. As to what this big legal team shuffle means for the actual trial, it's something of a distraction, said Leigh Bienen, a senior lecturer at Northwestern University School of Law and a criminal defense attorney.
Bienen: You have this whole like little whirlpool besides a large stream, right? So, this little whirlpool about can a defense attorney represent them and does a defense attorney have a conflict? And who's been doing what is like this little stirring thing, beside the question of whatever is the regular question, can he go to trial on the substantive issues?
Pullano: These diversions don't just take away from the case itself, Bienen said, they can also skew the way that people view criminal court proceedings.
Bienen: What you get is this kind of tapestry or overlay over the events that the legal system is supposed to be handling, and the legal system can't handle it. And one of the things that is troubling, I think for observers, is to what extent does it call in question of the authority, legitimacy and credibility of the legal system itself. If the legal system itself is seen as tied up in knots, ineffective, not doing what it should be doing, you know, tripping over itself with all this procedural back and forth, right, some legitimate, right, then, you know, what is the message that’s sent out about this? And does this just make observers who may not be familiar with the procedures or even some who are just throw up their hands and say, you know, this is ridiculous.
Pullano: With some of the representation questions behind us now and the trial coming up quickly, it's full steam ahead for both the defense team and prosecutors as they prepare. We don't know exactly which witnesses will testify, but unlike the 2008 trial in Chicago, we expect to hear directly from alleged victims of Kelly. I talked to Dr. Candice Norcott, a licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the University of Chicago, about what it might mean to these women to be heard at trial. As she explained, trials can be challenging for survivors of sexual assault.
Norcott: The very nature of a trial is to rehash and go over your trauma and your traumatic experience in an untherapeutic place, right? So, you know, reviewing narrative and exploring narrative of your trauma is the feature of many trauma therapies, but that's where there's like a trained professional, people who care about your well-being. And in a trial, you have people actually trying to poke holes in your story and question your reality, which you're doing on your own anyway. We have people trying these cases, both in the jury, the judges, the lawyers, the bailiffs, everybody in the courtroom, and nobody knows anything about trauma. Nobody knows how to talk to people who have experienced trauma.
Pullano: Norcott said that court cases involving sexual assault present an opportunity to talk about sexual violence, gender-based violence and also support services. I asked what it means to survivors when a case garners national attention, whether it helps or hurts.
Norcott: The process of speaking truth saying this happened to me, is important. However, there can be some harm and disillusionment when people don't ultimately get convicted, you know, go home, get to go about and live their lives. So that's why I say a little bit of both.
Pullano: According to a study by the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, known as RAINN, out of every 1,000 sexual assaults, 975 perpetrators go free. It's hard to argue against the idea that the trial R. Kelly faces in Brooklyn, was born out of the Me Too movement, which centers on the idea of believing and supporting sexual assault survivors. But we're still seeing and we have yet to see here how exactly the influence of that movement will play out in the courtroom. For survivors, Dr. Norcott said it's important to separate the eventual outcome at trial from an individual's own healing process
Norcott: The emotional health of the survivor and the people around the survivor, you cannot rest their emotional health on conviction.
Pullano: For anyone looking for resources, either as a survivor or to help provide support for someone else, Dr. Norcott recommended visiting RAINN’s website. It's rainn.org.
Iovino: That's our show. You can find more coverage of the upcoming R. Kelly trial and other stories at courthousenews.com. Please tell your friends about us. And make sure you subscribe to Sidebar on Apple Podcasts or Spotify. You can also follow us on Twitter. We're @courthousenews, and the podcast is @sidebarCNS. If you're listening to this on Apple podcasts, please rate and review our show. You can also email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for tuning in. See you next time.