04/02/17 Betty Aldworth

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Part one of our coverage of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy conference, with SSDP's Betty Aldworth and Stacia Cosner, plus Nazlee Maghsoudi with the International Center for Science in Drug Policy.

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APRIL 2, 2017


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling for for decriminalization, legalization, the end of prohibition. Let us investigate the Century Of Lies.

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy held its annual international conference recently in Portland, Oregon. I had the pleasure of attending, saw some amazing people, and got some great audio for you, so let's get to it.

STACIA COSNER: I'm Stacia Cosner, I'm the Deputy Director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

DOUG MCVAY: It's the first day of the conference, a little early to ask, how's things going?

STACIA COSNER: Things are going great. You know, we just keep getting better and better at this. This is the seventh conference that I've attended, and they keep getting smoother and smoother, and our team is as solid as it's ever been, so things are coming up roses.

DOUG MCVAY: It's already March, I guess I can ask, how has the, for SSDP, how has this school year gone?

STACIA COSNER: It's been great, really solid. We're focusing on, you know, shoring up our existing chapter network rather than a really, you know, aggressive expansion type of approach. We've got about 300 active chapters across the US and in 18 countries abroad, so we're just focusing on firming up the resources that we have for them, making sure that they're set up with any campaigns that they want to engage with, and make sure that they have the tools that they need to fight the drug war.

DOUG MCVAY: Back when this all started, there were NORML chapters, there were SSDP chapters, sometimes there was crossover. Are there still NORML chapters out there? I mean, marijuana legalization has moved so far, is that -- is there still a one or the other, is it -- do you folks own the field these days?

STACIA COSNER: You know, I don't know if it's fair to say that we own the whole field of chapter based drug policy organizing. I would say that we have the majority of, you know, students that are organizing on their campuses around drug policy reform. There are still a few SSDP/NORML chapters, and some standalone NORML chapters that work with standalone SSDP chapters, but much much fewer now than -- that was a pretty common occurrence when I first got involved about 11 years ago, and it's pretty rare to see that these days.

But, yeah, it's, you know, chapter organizing is very high turnover, so it would make sense that it changes up every once in a while.

DOUG MCVAY: What kind of programs and projects do you have peopel doing these days? What are some of the highlights?

STACIA COSNER: So, we're really excited about our peer drug education program. It's called Just Say Know, and it's being run by Vilmarie -- Doctor Vilmarie Narloch, who's an SSDP alum who has her doctorate in psychology, specializing in drug use and abuse programs and things like that. So, she's put together this really amazing set of resources where our students can get trained to be trainers, to, you know, then deliver that evidence-based drug education to people on their campuses.

So, you know, right now, when students are on a campus and they need to turn somewhere for drug education, most of the time all they have is what is provided to them by the school, which, you know, in a lot of cases, is not terribly closely tied to reality, you know, or like an honest and fact-based approach, so we're trying to provide that, sort of be the anti-DARE program, if you will, and really talking to people in an honest way. You know, we find that peers delivering that information to their peers is a much more effective approach than, you know, some campus administration telling students to just say no and drugs are bad.

So, that, our peer education program is something we're really excited about. Of course, we still have a lot of chapters that are working on 911 Good Samaritan policies. We've seen a big rise in students working on naloxone access policies, which is really exciting. We've had a few chapters being wildly successful with that. In Georgia, actually, our chapters were responsible for the implementation statewide Good Samaritan law, and a naloxone access law, so now all police officers and first responders are trained on naloxone, and have naloxone available. And that was, you know, due in no small part to our Georgia students.

So, yeah, a lot of harm reduction type things. We have people talking about psychedelics, the future of psychedelic law and policy, and, yeah, just the other bedrocks of SSDP, activism such as knowing your rights, how to deal with police encounters, general awareness raising events and things like that.

DOUG MCVAY: Georgia, I know a few other states. You've had -- you've got, your chapters do a lot of work at their state legislatures, am I just paying attention to those bits, or is that the case?

STACIA COSNER: Yeah, absolutely. I -- you know, we give our chapters a high level of autonomy. They're entitled to choose what, where they focus their chapter's energy, and a lot of them do tend to focus on state-level reforms and get plugged into initiatives that are being spearheaded by other reform organizations, the Drug Policy Alliance, Marijuana Policy Project, other groups like that, so if there's, you know, something in the works in the state-level and, you know, it's time for testimony to be had, a lot of times those groups will turn to SSDP to turn out some passionate young students that can come speak on it.

DOUG MCVAY: What do you have planned for this coming year?

STACIA COSNER: Yeah, so, we have switched to an annual conference model, so I'm excited that, you know, once we get through this weekend, we'll be turning our sights to our next year's conference, which is going to be March Second through the Fifth in Baltimore. And that way we can have a lobby day attached to that as well.

So, we'll be gearing up for that, you know, building out this Peer Drug Education Program, as I was just mentioning. Of course, supporting our chapters continuing their work, and then in June, the annual board and staff meeting occurs, where we sort of evaluate the organization's progress over the previous year and set goals for the next year. So our plan for the next program year is going to be set in around June. Until then, we're just focusing on doing what we do best.

DOUG MCVAY: Do you have any closing thoughts for the listeners?

STACIA COSNER: I guess I would just say, you know, that the drug war is far from over, and there's still a lot of work to be done, and if you're a student or know a student, or supportive of students, definitely give SSDP, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a look, and follow our important work, get involved with a local chapter, and we'll end this drug war.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Stacia Cosner, Deputy Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. I caught up with her at the SSDP conference in Portland, Oregon. You're listening to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay.

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: My name's Nazlee Maghsoudi, and I'm the knowledge translation manager at the International Center for Science in Drug Policy in Toronto, Canada.

DOUG MCVAY: You were presenting earlier today on novel psychoactive substances. What was the gist of your talk?

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: Yeah, so, I had the opportunity to focus on the different policy responses to NPS, as we call it, in different jurisdictions around the world, so I spoke specifically about the New Zealand model, and then about the UK blanket ban approach, which is kind of emblematic of the approach taken in other jurisdictions, and then I contexualized both of those within the international drug control system, and thinking about the emphasis at an international level on scheduling and on different supply reduction measures to deal with drug related harm.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, new psychoactive substances, novel psychoactive substances, people may think that these are only the stuff that's being produced by chemists, you know, new chemicals, new analogs, but it also includes things like kratom, and salvia, and things that we're not necessarily accustomed to in the west. Are people treating them differently at all, or are they pretty much -- is the newest designer chemical being thought of in the same way as a thousands of -- as a plant that's thousands of years old? Are they approaching it differently at all?

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: Well, I think it depends on the jurisdiction that you're looking at. Unfortunately, I think the dominant approach is to lump them all together. If you look at the UK situation, for example, they have one of the broadest definitions of what a psychoactive substance is within their blanket ban, and it actually even includes things like for example incense, anything that produces a psychoactive effect in a person, that is consumed, is covered by that definition. So, and it makes no differentiation, to your point, between more harmful NPS, so thinking about things like synthetic opioids, or some cannabinoids for example, and things like laughing gas. Laughing gas is under their definition and treated just the same as the other more harmful NPS that you would see. And laughing gas isn't even an NPS, right? But it all -- it's this catch-all that they've used.

I think in other jurisdictions, thinking about New Zealand specifically, there has been an opportunity to think about new psychoactive substances qualitatively differently than other, more traditional drugs, which created an opportunity for the drug policy reform movement and individuals working within this field to kind of propose different policy approaches for these types of substances and this class of drugs.

But, as we can talk about, if you'd like, in the New Zealand model, an implementation that has just met prohibition, even though it was promising, but, I think there were some jurisdictions that try to take a different approach with these substances and look at them a bit differently.

DOUG MCVAY: Definitely interested, I mean, a lot of people are interested in what's going on in New Zealand, and there's a lot of, I think that a lot of people aren't very sure, there was the New Psychoactive Substances bill -- yeah. What happened there, what's happening there?

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: Yeah, totally. So, in, August 2013 was when this new bill that you mentioned was introduced, and it was actually quite revolutionary because it really allowed for the regulation of the sale and the manufacture and the importation of new psychoactive substances. And what it did was put the onus on proof on the manufacturer, so if they could prove that they -- the substance that they wanted to sell, the new psychoactive substances, was below a certain level of harm, was a low level of harm for people's consumption, then they would be permitted to sell it.

So that was the original intention of the Act, and I think it's worth noting that actually this came to be after a long game of cat and mouse between the government and chemists and others involved in NPS manufacturing, where they were trying to simply ban NPS that were emerging, and then of course it would be slightly tweaked, and that would not be covered by the ban, so they would ban that, and on and on and on.

So it was only after a sustained, long cat and mouse game, as I've described, that they came to this regulation. But actually, the regulations have not been implemented in the way that they were intended. So in April 2014, there was a U-turn, if you would call it, in the national legislation. Originally it was permitted that products would -- that were deigned to be in a certain level -- below a certain level of harm, so had not produced any health harms for the last three months, were permitted to continue to be sold between the creation of the regulations, or the legislation, and the actual scale up of the regulatory body that could actually approve them.

So they said in this interim, as we figure out our legislation, we'll allow those substances to continue to be sold that have caused the least amount of harm, because we don't want to push people that are dependent on these substances to the illegal market, and also we want individuals and manufacturers to have some confidence in the system that we're building.

But in April 2014, there was a complete U-turn, where all of these interim products were taken off of the market. And that was really largely ascribed to be for political reasons. The Health Minister in New Zealand said that it was because they had a number of substances that were producing health harms in individuals, but they couldn't ascribe it to any one specifically, so their response was to ban all of them.

Of course, that's a huge departure from a law that was conceived around the idea of evidence and due process before the removal of a substance. So that was really a dramatic U-turn. But, yes, it was largely said to be politically motivated, it was an election year, there was really a lot of fear-mongering media around NPS, other political parties were making proposed changes to NPS that were gaining some traction.

But, the fundamental flaw that emerged in the legislation, that occurred also in that month, April 2014, was when they put in some language stipulating that animal tests could not be considered for this establishment of lowest level of harm. And that was in response to a lot of uproar from animal rights kind of communities. But, what that means is, actually a lot of the tests that are required to prove a low level of harm still are dependent on animal testing, and actually the agency itself in New Zealand has said that they do not believe manufacturers and wholesalers would be able to prove a low level of harm without animal testing.

So despite the fact that in November, I believe, 2014, the regulations were fully developed, and they were ready to start accepting applications and approving those applications, they had this self-defeating legislation where they'd acknowledge that, to prove a low level of harm you need animal testing, but they couldn't permit animal testing, so therefore they could not actually use the legislation in the way that it was intended. And to this day, the implementation is completely at a standstill, no applications have been received or approved, and if you go on the website, it actually tells people not to apply at this time, and they think it will take at least another three years before they're ready.

So who knows what they're conceding? I think it's unclear how they're going to mitigate this crucial flaw in the legislation. But it was a really promising legislation that, just because of this kind of crucial flaw, has not been implemented and now stands at a standstill, and in reality, prohibition just marches on, when it comes to NPS in New Zealand.

And we can talk about maybe some of the on the ground effects and stuff too, but I think from a drug policy reform opportunity perspective that it was quite a disappointment, although some are still hopeful that it could turn around and be implemented in the way it was intended to be.

DOUG MCVAY: See, that -- thank you, because that's the -- I remember, this is a brilliant thing, this is a brilliant thing, whoops, okeh it's not happening. And then the, okeh but maybe it will, and the last part, about, so --

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: Yeah, and if you think about what's happening on the ground, too, now in New Zealand. So, NPS continues to be seized by police, it continues to be sold in places as plant food, as incense, and of course, individuals continue to access these substances online. So the reality is, the demand still exists, and when there's no legal source, individuals have turned to the illegal market.

And, although there is less of a presence of head shops and the visible signs of NPS have gone down, it's just been put towards the illegal market, with all the increased health harms and lack of information, everything that comes along with that.

DOUG MCVAY: Is anybody -- is anyone else in the world getting it close to right? Or is New Zealand pretty much -- yeah, anybody doing this right?

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: No, honestly, as far as I know, they were really the only ones to take a qualitatively different approach when it came to NPS. There were some -- I don't know very much about it, but there were some suggestions at the EU level, originally, when NPS proliferation was being discussed as a problem, to take a similar approach, where those with low level of harms would have some sort of regulated model, but of course there was resistance within the EU system and that wasn't taken up, and countries like Poland and Ireland and the UK have taken these blanket ban approaches. So no, I think unfortunately it has not been dealt with in the way we would have liked to see.

DOUG MCVAY: Okeh, so tell me about some of the other work that you do up there at -- up in Toronto.

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: Yeah, for sure. So, we're based at St. Michael's Hospital in Toronto, and our work is really about conducting research, and conducting outreach to support the development of evidence-based drug policies at local, national, and international levels.

So, because of the fact that we're based in Canada, we do -- and Canada is quite an interesting area to be based in when you're working in drug policy at this moment. We have been paying a lot of attention to both the cannabis issue and also the overdose crisis issue, which has really been impacting our communities, and also the US, really traumatically.

So for example, on the cannabis side, we were really involved and continue to be involved in the task force consultations that happened to develop the report that was released last November or early December, that will hopefully be the basis by which the legislation is drafted to be released in spring, which it's now spring, so we're waiting. Probably it will be the last day of spring, as are most things on the legislation side.

But yeah, so that is something that we've been prioritizing and will be continuing to monitor and speak up around things that we don't believe are in alignment with the best scientific evidence and are not going to protect health in the way we'd like to see. But a lot of the things that we did support, such as for example legal ages that were in alignment with alcohol, and suggesting that sales be separated from alcohol, those types of things were seen in the task force report, so we're happy about that.

And, yeah, on the overdose crisis issue, too, I think that's something that we are continuing to push forward, and ask for more timely and evidence-based responses. There -- we're lucky in Canada that we have a very -- a government that's supportive of harm reduction and has scaled up some harm reduction interventions such as naloxone and is in the process of continuing to approve supervised injection sites, although of course actually we still only have the one that we've always had, Insite, in terms of outpatient, and, yeah, they are -- it takes time, I guess. There's red tape and there's bureaucracy. We'd love to see a faster response.

I think things that we are pushing for include for example declaring a public health emergency, as has been done in BC, to kind of promote the use of interventions in a more timely manner, and move resources maybe faster than they are otherwise, although of course our government has said that that isn't something that actually gives them more power and they're not willing to do, but in BC we've seen some good movement, although they are of course impacted particularly in the Downtown East Side, and in Vancouver, at rates that are much greater than other parts of Canada, but it's still very alarming, the rates we're seeing elsewhere.

So, I think we will continue to be pushing for a more timely response and more emphasis on these types of harm reduction approaches, also including things like heroin assisted treatment and realizing that treatment and harm reduction are linked of course.

And, yeah, pushing back against perhaps some of the more supply reduction oriented measures that in many cases got us into this mess, when you look at Oxycontin, overprescribing, and the supply reduction interventions that were taken in regards to pulling back those prescriptions. That left a lot of people accessing in the illegal market, and being exposed to risk environments that meant lethal adulterants in their substances, and overdoses. So, I think yeah, those are some priority areas for us in Canada at the ICSDP.

DOUG MCVAY: I'm curious, because we've seen it down here, the, a growing number of communities that realize that they have significant issues with injection drug use, with overdose, and with HIV, AIDS. You've got states, Indiana, New Hampshire, North Dakota is even looking at syringe exchanges, there's a bill on the North Dakota -- as we record this, there's a bill on the desk of the governor of North Dakota to legalize syringe exchange in North Dakota. I mean, very rural, very rural. Outside of Downtown East Side and downtown Toronto, do you, are you finding much rural injection drug use, is that a thing in Canada?

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: Yeah, I think definitely the overdose situation, as a result of the use of street drugs, such as heroin tainted with fentanyl for example, is something that's been occurring in rural communities as well. It's not just the hubs of Toronto and Vancouver. We've been seeing it all across the country. There's reports in places like Alberta, and more rural areas, that you wouldn't expect to be as impacted, definitely being impacted, and when you look at the prevalence rates, like within the context of their population, is just as remarkably high as we are seeing in the places of Toronto and Vancouver that are more highly populated.

DOUG MCVAY: What kind of things are going on that people aren't paying attention to yet, that they should be? You're probably, you're -- I'm thinking you're looking at a bigger picture than probably a lot of other people are, and are noticing some of these things popping up before they hit the media, certainly. What's on your radar that we should be looking out for in the near future?

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: Yeah, totally. So, I think that -- I alluded to this a little bit before, but one of the things that we are looking at and trying to speak out about as much as we can is the emphasis on supply reduction. So, yes, I think that in Canada and the United States, we did see a period of overprescribing, and maybe that put opioids in the hands of individuals that did not necessarily need opioids, and led them to have health problems that they would not have had otherwise.

However, when the response to that is to just pull the availability of those substances, without making sure that the appropriate demand reduction, so thinking about treatment and harm reduction interventions, are in place to support those people, all we see is an exacerbation of health harms. So I think something that's really important to think about, in the context of situations where maybe supply reduction is deemed to be necessary, is about the sequencing of your supply reduction activities and your demand reduction activities.

All right, so really giving careful consideration to the order in which you implement those things, because otherwise I think we can end up in much more dire situations than those that we were trying to prevent in the first place.

So I think that's one thing that's really important. Another thing, too, that is particularly relevant in Ontario, as our Ontario overdose plan, that was released in October of last year, does this, is looking at where those, when it comes to supply reduction measures and taking away prescriptions, who are they impacting? And in a lot of cases it ends up being individuals who are living below the poverty line, and whose -- the insurance coverage for those substances is through the province, so by no longer allowing for example the provincial, provincially provided pharmaceutical access to cover these types of drugs, that means that the individuals who have this pulled away from them are those without insurance coverage, who are living below the poverty line, and are facing a series of other vulnerabilities that are just amplified by this type of situation.

So, when it comes to prescription monitoring and pulling supply, I think it's really important to look particularly at the details of the legislation and say, well, who, all the individuals with insurance coverage are continuing to get their opioids in Ontario, right, maybe not at the same rates, but not as negatively impacted as those living below the poverty line, who are perhaps more susceptible to being pushed towards greater risk environments than others.

DOUG MCVAY: So, closing thoughts, how do people keep up with the work that you're doing, website, twitter, that kind of stuff.

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: Yeah. Yeah, so International Center for Science in Drug Policy, we're on all social media, we're @ICSDP on Twitter, we're actually livetweeting from #SSDP2017, so we're here and doing that. And also we have a facebook page, just International Center for Science in Drug Policy, and of course our website, ICSDP.org, you can find our work there as well.

DOUG MCVAY: Yeah, closing thoughts for the listeners.

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: I think that -- we're sitting in Portland right now, and Portland is a really awesome place in terms of sensible drug policy. We've had cannabis policy reform here, which is really wonderful, but I think that one of the important things to think about is just that we cannot stop at cannabis.

In the context of this conference, a lot of people are really enlightened and are thinking about that, and I think when we have greater problems like the opioid overdose crisis, which of course are perhaps more important in terms of the harms that are caused for individuals, cannabis is great, but the amount of harm it causes, on an individual basis, is probably not as high as heroin use. So when we're thinking about legalization and regulation, I think it's important not to stop at cannabis, and to think about some of the other substances that warrant the same treatment for all the same rationales that we give for cannabis itself, while starting with cannabis, because it is a cash cow and it is very important to start with something that is likely to be more understandable by individuals in the public, and building awareness around that.

DOUG MCVAY: Brilliant. Nazlee, thank you so much.

NAZLEE MAGHSOUDI: No worries, thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Nazlee Maghsoudi, the knowledge translation manager at the International Center for Science in Drug Policy in Toronto, Canada. I caught up with her at the annual conference of Students for Sensible Drug Policy held recently in Portland, Oregon. Global drug policy reform efforts were a major focus of the SSDP conference, and in spite of efforts by some US border agents, many students from nations other than the US were in attendance.

BETTY ALDWORTH: I'm Betty Aldworth, I'm the Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. We're a network of 5,000 activists on 300 campuses in 22 countries and 43 states, fighting to end the war on drugs.

DOUG MCVAY: This has been a terrific conference, I want to ask you about all kinds of stuff, but really I want to ask you about something that someone mentioned. You have international students trying to attend, I interviewed one earlier who could not bring his laptop with him because he was flying in from Pakistan, and they wouldn't let him bring his laptop. You've had other -- what kind of hassles have you had with, on the international scene for this?

BETTY ALDWORTH: So, for this particular conference, we had one student, a 24 year old young woman from Chile, who was detained at the border, detained at LAX, where she was interrogated for some number of hours, strip searched, and turned -- ultimately turned away, and sent back home, unable to enter the country or come to the conference. Not because she was carrying contraband, not for any purpose other than denial of her ability to come participate in reform activities.

Our understanding at this point is that it was explicitly stated that that was the reason that she wasn't able to attend, to enter the country, was because she was planning to come for this conference.

DOUG MCVAY: From Chile. This isn't one of the countries on the -- on our current president's infamous list, this is Chile.

BETTY ALDWORTH: This is not about terrorism. This is about the drug war. And we certainly understand that enforcement activities at the border are escalating across the board, that is a reality, that is entirely separate from the Muslim ban and other efforts to -- purported efforts to control terrorism, which are, you know, in many ways, very closely related to the drug war.

Not only was this particular student turned away, we had other students who were inconvenienced, and when I use that term I mean it in a way that I don't think any naturalized US citizen would really understand, or US born citizen would understand. When I say inconvenienced, I mean detained for many hours, sent on absurd trips through, you know, in very expensive taxis, scammed in New York City to get from one airport to another when they had to switch their flights. Students who have been, gone through extraordinary invasive searches, as I mentioned, but also less invasive but still extraordinary searches at the border, just so that they could come and engage in some education.

And this is not the first time, either. It should be noted that one of the enormous challenges of organizing international students from the US or at the United Nations in New York is that any person convicted of a drug offense, or who admits to having used cannabis, even in a legal state, will not be issued a visa to enter the US, which means that we are silencing the voices of the very people whose lives we are destroying in their home countries through our prosecution of the drug war.

DOUG MCVAY: That was a part of my interview with Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. We'll hear more from that interview later this month.

For now, we're out of time. Thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century Of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programming is also available via podcast, the URLs to subcribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

The Drug Truth Network has a Facebook page, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give it a like and share it with friends. Remember: knowledge is power. You can follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty minutes of news and information about the drug war and this Century Of Lies. For now, for the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay saying so long. So long!

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