12/03/17 Maia Szalavitz

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We speak with journalist Maia Szalavitz and policy expert Sanho Tree about federal drug policy and this week's announcement that presidential adviser and spin doctor Kellyanne Conway will head up White House efforts in regard to opioids.

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TRANSCRIPT

CENTURY OF LIES

DECEMBER 3, 2017

TRANSCRIPT

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

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

On Wednesday November 29th, Attorney General Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III and DEA administrator Robert Patterson held a news conference in Washington, DC, to announce steps that the federal government is taking to try and address opioid use.

At this news conference, in addition to outlining steps for law enforcement, Sessions announced that the White House was putting Kellyanne Conway, a former pollster, and an adviser to the current president, basically a spin doctor, a PR specialist, in the position of coordinating White House efforts against opioids.

So, to make sense of what's been going on, I spoke to a couple of friends who are the best in the business.

Journalist and best-selling author Maia Szalavitz joins us by phone to talk about this. Maia, thanks for being on the show. Let’s start with the question that I think is on everyone’s mind after that news conference Wednesday: what the living hell are they thinking?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Yeah. I do not know. Obviously, one can become a public health expert who is in charge of everything by six to eight months of going to meetings.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, I mean, she's a pollster, she's a communications person. Are we looking at yet more PR?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Yeah. I mean, it's just, to me, it's just gotten ridiculous already. We've had commissions, we've had reports, we've had debates, we've had panels, we've had summits, we've had all and all of this talk, talk, talk, and all of this getting these new people up to speed every time, and coming up with some mealy-mouthed recommendations, and not doing anything. It's just sickening.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, the White House opioid commission, that was headed up by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, Christie's about to leave office. The White House has yet to nominate someone to be head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, well, the other guy had to drop out.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Frankly, I would like to see that agency eliminated. I think that if we want to coordinate drug policy, it should be coordinated by health people, not by law enforcement, and that office was a creation of the drug war, it is often a continuation of the drug war. The previous guy was actually pretty decent, but it really depends on the leadership of that person, and anybody Trump is going to appoint, as far as I can tell, is going to be some kind of hardcore drug warrior. So I'd rather it just get left alone, and actually we could spend that money a lot better on treating people with evidence based medication.

DOUG MCVAY: All the rhetoric has been that the best way to do this is just to stop people from every trying, and so we're back to prevention, and as Jeff Sessions said, law enforcement is prevention. He's talking about more money for the DEA -- yeah.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: This is just ridiculous at this point. If the DEA could have solved this problem, we wouldn't have been here by now. I think we've spent a trillion dollars on law enforcement, trying to stop capitalism, basically. Like, if there is a demand, there is going to be a supply. This is sort of economics 101. And we have tried to break the rules of economics for drugs for the past century, and we have never succeeded in stopping addiction by cutting supply.

In fact, what has happened now, with this particular epidemic, which is just really distressing to me at this point, is, we have a lot of people who are medically on opioids. Now, some of them probably should not have been prescribed those opioids in the first place, but they are on them now, and cutting them off and putting them, pushing them out to the street market, is simply going to risk their lives with fentanyl.

You do not cure addiction by stopping the person from taking drugs from a doctor and just throwing on the street. It does not work. We know it doesn't work, and we've seen this massive increase in overdose since we did this big effort to cut the medical supply which we have succeeded in doing. But we have not succeeded in helping, because cutting supply does not treat addiction.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, switching gears for a moment, back at that news conference, Sessions was asked about marijuana policy and he said they're “looking at that very hard right now,” and that DOJ is quote “working our way through to a rational policy,” unquote. Do you think Sessions is going to take a run at states with legal adult use marijuana?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: I think he would be profoundly stupid if he did so, but, I'm not going to make a statement on that, but what I will say is that even Alberto Gonzalez, a former attorney general, a conservative, said that that would be a very dumb idea, and we have now almost a dozen studies showing that medical marijuana is linked with reduced rates of opioid use, and reduced rates of opioid addiction, and reduced rates of opioid related deaths.

So, coming down on marijuana in the midst of an opioid epidemic would -- is frankly suicidal and stupid.

DOUG MCVAY: Which sadly doesn't really preclude it from being a possibility.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: No, no, and I mean, you know, like, I -- I have given up trying to predict what these people are going to do, it's -- it's just so depressing, because so much of it is completely unrelated to what we know works, and what we know doesn't work.

DOUG MCVAY: There's a new nominee for head of HHS. Azar, I think his name is, he's former, he's a pharmaceutical exec. The, I mean, HHS would have some influence on expanding treatment and on making effective policies happen. Do you know anything about this guy?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: No, unfortunately I don't know as much as I should about that. I think one of the things that we really do need to do is expand access to methadone and buprenorphine. We know that with access to these drugs we can cut the death rate in half. And, that is the easiest thing to do, it is legal to do, we could do it if we had the will, we've done it in the past during HIV. It is infuriating that we haven't got there yet, and with the public health emergency that was actually declared, you could cut through a lot of the regulatory red tape that prevents these treatments, which are not expensive if you do them right, from getting to the people who need them.

So, HHS, whoever heads it, it's going to be really important in terms of, you know, getting the right things done, and one thing that I have to say, which I cannot believe I will now say, in favor of somebody of somebody in the Trump administration, is that the FDA commissioner, Gottleib, has said some really great things about medication treatment. He gets the difference between addiction and dependence. He gets that addiction is compulsive use despite negative consequences, and dependence is simply needing something to function, and if you can replace addiction with dependence via a medication, you are going to end up reducing harm, saving lives, stabilizing lives, getting people back to their families, getting people back to work -- all the good stuff that you want to see.

So he gets it, and if he were to be able to use his powers to, you know, reduce regulation on medication, reduce the caps, like, doctors are only allowed to prescribe to a certain number of patients, they have to take special training, there's all kinds of pressure from the DEA to, you know, prescribe only in very specific ways rather than the ways that are needed, in other words, we need to be able to prescribe to people who are still using.

And, so, yeah, so he could do a lot of good, if were unleashed to be able to do so. So that is one person that I am actually hopeful about.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, so, just so you don't feel too, just so you don't feel alone on that one, I've heard him a couple of times at hearings, and he actually -- and you're right, he makes sense -- he's actually making sense on some of this, he seems to even understand that pain is a real condition, and there's a reason why people use painkillers.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Well, and I mean, I think one of the things that just sort of horrifies me about this current time that we're in, is that everything lacks compassion. We think, oh, these pain patients should just suck it up, we're going to take their opiates away for their own good because, well, maybe they might overdose instead of being curled in a corner in pain. Why don't we let them make their own choices? You know?

And the idea that, like, if you're on a high dose of opioids you're automatically at high risk of overdose, and so therefore cutting the dose will reduce your risk, is simply not backed by science. Yes, high doses are associated with overdose, but that doesn't mean that that connection is causal.

So, it's really, I think, you know, I've just been hearing so many stories of these pain patients who are suffering so greatly for no reason, and, you know, I feel like we have no empathy for them, we have no empathy for the people who are going to lose out on healthcare because of these tax cuts, we don't care about immigrants that are, you know, some of whom are just randomly having their lives disrupted so somebody can make a political point to somebody else.

It's just, as you can tell, it is a very distressing time for me, and for everybody, I feel like.

DOUG MCVAY: Any closing thoughts for our listeners?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Well, I just hope that people can keep up enough hope to stay active on the issues that they care about, so that we don't all drown.

DOUG MCVAY: Well again, folks, I’ve been speaking with Maia Szalavitz, she’s an award-winning journalist and author of the best-selling book Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. Maia, thank you so much.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Oh, thanks so much for having me.

DOUG MCVAY: You're listening to Century of Lies, 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.

On the phone with me now is a good friend, and a friend of the show, Sanho Tree. Sanho is a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and the director of their drug policy program. Sanho, how they heck are you doing?

SANHO TREE: Good to be with you again, Doug.

DOUG MCVAY: Oh, man, it is always such a pleasure to have you. So, on Wednesday, the 29th of November, Jeff Sessions held a news conference to announce some moves in federal drug strategy. There's still no one been appointed to the Office of National Drug Control Policy, but, the, one of the announcements he made is that, is the person who will be taking point on opioids for the White House, and that's Kellyanne Conway, a former pollster, a sort of a spin doctor, we used to call them, and a close adviser to our current president.

So, I guess, and I just talked to Maia Szalavitz a little while ago about this, and so I'm going to start with the same question that I asked her: what the living hell are they thinking?

SANHO TREE: Well, you know, they say in the recovery field, the first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem, and Kellyanne Conway is someone who never admits there's a problem. She is literally the president's liar in chief. That is her main claim to fame. She is literally the person who came up with the term "alternative facts." Right?

And, she has absolutely no experience to be spearheading any of this stuff, and in the one pronouncement she did make before this occasion about opioids and how to prevent overdoses is, she said the best way to prevent that is to -- for people not to use drugs in the first place. This is straight out of Nancy Reagan. This is their starting point?

Her greatest asset is her ability to lie about the elephant in the living room. And she'll say, Doug, you know, there is no elephant here. And even if there is, lots of people have elephants in their living room. Don Junior has an elephant tail in his living room. I mean, don't we all have elephants in the living room? And the real thing we're not talking about here, Doug, is Hillary Clinton's awful opioid elephant in her living room, no one's talking about that. That's what she's going to bring to this debate, to this issue.

She -- it's inconceivable that they would put anyone like her in this kind of a position. She's got no experience, and her -- as you said, her background is in spin.

DOUG MCVAY: And let's, let's look at, I mean, she has been the White House spokesperson at these things. Back when the draft [report by the White House opioid commission] was announced, of course that was overshadowed by comments about, you know, nuclear attack being, you know, and so no one paid attention, but she was there on the podium alongside then-Health and Human Services Secretary Price, to talk about opioids.

After the final report [of the opioid commission] came out, she was the spokesperson going on Fox to talk about the opioid strategy, and -- well, for lack of a better word. And when you talk about prevention, now, this is, just to remind folks, back in, it was July of 2017, Jeff Sessions, well, Beauregard -- if you've got a name like Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, why would you just call yourself Jeff? You know? Beauregard.

So anyway, Beauregard, back in July of 2017, spoke to a DARE conference and said, quote, "law enforcement is prevention." I mean, the idea being, you know -- end quote. The idea being that, you know, you can just arrest your way out of any kind of a problem.

That's what we saw at this news conference from Beauregard on Wednesday, was we'll have more law enforcement, more law enforcement, more law enforcement. What do you think their strategy's going to end up looking like?

SANHO TREE: Basically, a wall on steriods. Plus law enforcement.

There are so many things they could do, right? I mean, there are, you know, DPA put out a good list of two dozen things you could do to, you know, help the opioid crisis, and they're ignoring just about all of them, from, you know, medical marijuana, to safe injection, supervised injection sites, to, you know, all kinds of different things that we could be doing, but they're obsessed with these simple minded ideas, that if you just build a wall it won't come anymore, and the drugs will stop, and everything will be fine again. It really -- they should know better.

They should know better because Donald Trump did particularly well in areas of this country where the opioid crisis is hitting particularly hard. I'm not saying there's direct, you know, correlation there, but there's certainly a hell of an overlap, and I think there's a lot of -- a lot of really interesting things to be gained from those overlaps.

I think it's the kind of poverty, despair, and alienation that is hollowing out this country, that helped get Donald Trump elected. He offered simple answers to extremely complex problems, that a lot of people fell for. But, it's hurtful, the way he's betraying those people who put their faith in him, and his simple minded answers. But that -- that's just particularly bitter for me, is to see that, and those parts of the country are going to get hurt even more by these policies.

DOUG MCVAY: Yeah. Learning from history is not something that the prohibitionists -- I'm going to start sounding like a fanatic soon, but it's not, it's, learning from history is something that the prohibitionists really don't do, it's that whole definition of madness, trying the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result.

I mean, they realize that, you know, Sessions realizes that arrests have not yet managed to increase the price of drugs, actually the prices have dropped, the purity has gone up, that all the things you want have not happened, whereas, in fact the trends have all been in the wrong direction: the availability is higher, the purity is higher, and the cost is lower. And yet, and yet, Beauregard says law enforcement is prevention.

There's another thing that Sessions mentioned that I want to get to real quick, and that is, in that news conference, he was asked about marijuana policy. He said they were looking at that very hard right now, and that DOJ's quote "working our way through to a national policy," end quote. Not long ago, the, he was at a Judiciary committee meeting, hearing on DOJ oversight, they, one of the panelists started to ask him about marijuana, he interrupted the question [sic: actually the questioner was able to finish] so that he could just reel out the very standard, we have this policy from back, from back in the Holder and Lynch era, and that's what we've got right now and that's the end of the story.

And they, you know, they took it at face value. In fact, a lot of the folks seemed to think that that was brilliant, that was great, oh look, he said this great thing, in a presentation that was full of lies and evasion and disingenuous garbage, somehow or other, this thing that he said, well that must be true because we like it. So, the question I guess is, what do you think we're looking at? Do you think that, do you think Sessions is going to take a run at states with legal adult use?

SANHO TREE: Well, it was just two weeks ago when he testified at that hearing and said, you know, the old policies are still operative. But on the other hand, he is someone who is constantly conniving, whether it's voter disenfranchisement and voter suppression, or it's the war against marijuana, or it's deportations, he's always, always trying to move the goalposts.

And so, never take him at his word on these things. It's good that we have him on record two weeks ago saying that the old policies are still in effect, but he has got a long history of trying to undermine these things. It wasn't, just a few months ago he asked Congress to not carry this, the Rohrabacher-Farr Amendment forward, that would prevent, you know, cracking down on medical marijuana. So, which Congress I think rejected. If I recall correctly.

But again, he tried. All right? So, he can say one thing, but he keeps trying to undermine things in the meantime.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, and as far as -- it's Rohrabacher-Blumenauer now -- the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer bill is, or amendment, rather is, I mean, maybe, actually I saw one committee rejected it, another committee maybe, but the thing is we don't have a budget yet. The Eighth, December Eighth is the deadline for adopting the new budget, and that's, I mean, I've already seen a few, I've already seen reports that they're working on yet another continuing resolution to carry the thing closer to Christmas. So that if we do have a shutdown, it will be right around Christmas vacation anyway, so what the heck. Enjoy your holidays, folks.

SANHO TREE: There are so many trains on this track right now, that Congress, the Republicans cannot possibly hope to accomplish all of the things they need to accomplish before the Christmas break. And some of them are drop dead issues, like the budget, and all these other things are just colliding. It's the ultimate train wreck in Washington right now.

DOUG MCVAY: It's --

SANHO TREE: Plus, you've got the president and the White House freaking out over, you know, the Flynn, you know, admission of guilt, and everything else, and it's just a really awkward scene in this town. You know, I keep expecting Oprah Winfrey to jump out of the bushes at the White House Halloween party -- Christmas party, and say "you're wearing a wire, and you're wearing a wire, and you're wearing a wire!"

That's the level of paranoia right now, because the Trump administration doesn't know who to trust in their own administration, because they don't know who's already, you know, turned, has been turned by the Mueller probe, and is recording stuff, or, you know, going to turn against them. So good luck getting stuff done in this town.

DOUG MCVAY: Thanks for reminding me. We are recording this on Friday, December First, and this morning, the news came out that Flynn, one of the -- is it former National Security Adviser, am I right, what was his -- ?

SANHO TREE: Yes.

DOUG MCVAY: Former National Security Adviser has agreed to plead guilty to lying to the FBI, a low enough level charge that the speculation is he's flipped.

SANHO TREE: He's flipped.

DOUG MCVAY: Yeah. Flipped, in the sense of he's going to roll over on his former boss. So, then -- which is, that's a little bit outside of the purview of our show, at the same time, at the same time, I have to wonder how much of the drug war stuff, how much of the bluster and such coming out of Sessions, might be a, nothing but an attempt to try and divert attention away from some of these things, the Russia probe, the corruption, the indictments, the inevitable downfall of the current administration.

SANHO TREE: Well, there is a drug policy connection to all of this, in the sense that this is unfolding like a mob drug, you know, case. You know, they're rolling people up, starting at the bottom, and working their way up and seeing who they can turn, and it's like the Godfather in many ways, right?

So it's a good lesson, if people aren't familiar with how these prosecutions go, follow this one, and that will give you a good insight into how other big cases go.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. And very, and, well, yeah, and it's the, you start with the soldiers, you get to the lieutenants, and then you get to the capos, and then finally capo di tutti capo. But that's -- ah, I remember my mafia investigations. Ah yes.

SANHO TREE: It would be ironic. I mean, Michael Flynn is trying to keep his son out of prison, because he faces some very serious charges as well, and by cooperating with the prosecutor he might succeed in doing that, but that might involve throwing Donald Trump's son under the bus. And so, it's really Godfather-esque.

DOUG MCVAY: Let's get back to a question about -- let's get back to drug policy for a moment, in a more direct way. Because with this, they're basically just saying out loud that Kellyanne is their spokesperson who's going to be handling spin on this particular thing. But there is still the National Drug Control Policy office, the, you know, the drug czar's office.

We had Congressman Marino, who was embarrassed into withdrawing his name, because of just issues, and corruption, and not just because his policies were awful, but because he was just a terrible person. So, now, Chris Christie is about to finally leave office in New Jersey, I know a lot of people who are very happy about that. Do you think there's a chance that Christie's going to get the nod, or do you think they'll just leave it vacant, and let acting director Baum keep running a very low key show?

SANHO TREE: Now there's a horrifying thought. Chris Christie coming back? He's the least popular politician in New Jersey at the moment. I don't know why Trump would want to embrace him at this point. He doesn't like losers, and though he's been a loyal foot soldier in many ways, it's a bit of a lightning rod, to bring Christie on, and right now, ONDCP isn't really doing a whole lot, so why not keep Rich Baum in there as a placeholder?

You know, they wanted to eliminate it in the budget originally, so it's not something that I think they give a whole -- you know, a high priority to. But god I hope Christie doesn't come back. He's the one, you know, the opioid commission, not only ignored marijuana, medical marijuana as, you know, a way to reduce opioid use, as numerous studies have shown, but they went out of their way to attack marijuana. So that was Chris Christie's doing. So let's hope he stays out of ONDCP.

DOUG MCVAY: What's happening in the Philippines? Has anything resulted from that meeting with those two people?

SANHO TREE: It's been dismal and depressing. So, about a week before Trump's visit, and this was in conjunction with the ASEAN meetings, the Asian -- South East Asian leaders in Manila, they're hosting the 50th anniversary of ASEAN. President Duterte ordered a somewhat of a ramp-down of the drug war, temporarily. And I think it was done for PR purposes, so that international media wouldn't focus on his bloody record while the entire, you know, world press corps was there.

But, he basically told the Philippine National Police, no more drug cases for you, I'm handing this over to the Philippines DEA, which is tiny in comparison and can't possibly do the amount of work that's required. And, I said at the time, this is for PR, this is for a one month thing, to make it blow over until all these world leaders leave the Philippines.

And sure enough, Trump fails to mention human rights in his meetings in the Philippines, and then President Duterte, as soon as all these world leaders left, started talking again about, well, maybe it's time to give it, give the drug war back to the Philippine National Police, that has killed so many thousands of people.

And, so, we're back to the series and cycles of killing again. But not only did Trump fail to bring up human rights in any meaningful way, but it also sends a green light to other countries in the region. So, you've had Indonesia now looking to adopt the Philippine tactics, and their death rate is going up again. And then, just this week, the, one of the members of parliament in Malaysia, again, discussing the internal budget and judiciary at the time, said, look, why don't we adopt what they're doing in the Philippines, just shoot drug dealers, just shoot suspects that try to resist arrest?

And so that's how the Philippines ended up with more than, by many accounts more than 13,000 dead. You know, President Duterte has killed on average more than one person per hour since he took office last July. That's a staggering number. This is literally a pogrom that's happening under our noses, as we speak, right now.

And the international community isn't doing a whole lot to stop him, certainly not led by the US. Europeans are thankfully, you know, at least making some protests. But it's hard to get traction with the Philippines. The US could, because we have a, you know, the old 50 year colonial relationship with the Philippines. And a lot of economic ties and things. But Trump refuses to use that kind of leverage, probably because of Trump Tower Manila, I suspect, this $140 million development project, this luxury resort in the middle of Manila that, you know, Trump has his name plastered all over.

So, it was a very disappointing meeting, and it's not looking good in the Philippines.

DOUG MCVAY: Again, of course, we're speaking with Sanho Tree from the Institute for Policy Studies, and one of my best friends. It's so good to hear your voice, my friend. Do you have any closing thoughts?

SANHO TREE: Well, I would say don't lose hope. You and I have been in this for a long time, you even longer than I have, and I've seen more, you know, positive changes in the field of drug policy in the past five years than I have in the previous 15 years combined. Even though we're hitting some bumps in the road with the Trump administration, the overall trajectory is still good. It's the rest of the planet, and these other issues, we have to, you know, really show some solidarity with, and eventually we'll get there.

And as a former historian, I can tell you that the only thing that's inevitable is change itself, and sometimes it's even for the better.

DOUG MCVAY: IPS-DC.org is the organization website, am I right?

SANHO TREE: Correct.

DOUG MCVAY: Cool. And, oh and give your twitter handle, because that's how people can follow you, right?

SANHO TREE: It's just @SanhoTree.

DOUG MCVAY: Perfect.

SANHO TREE: The only one of me on Twitter, so.

DOUG MCVAY: Sanho Tree, thank you again, thank -- yeah, brother, thank you so much.

SANHO TREE: My pleasure.

DOUG MCVAY: And that's it for this week. 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 programs are available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

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

We'll be back next week with thirty more 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!

For the Drug Truth Network, this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition: the century of lies. Drug Truth Network programs archived at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy.

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