01/03/16 Doug McVay

This week we feature a conversation with Cyndee Clay, director HIPS-DC, a harm reduction organization based in Washington, DC.

Century of Lies
Sunday, January 3, 2016
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL010316.mp3



JANUARY 3, 2016


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.

EARL BLUMENAUER: Wow. Wow. Do we have an amen? Thank you very much!

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

Well folks, it's 2016. Rather than taking a look back at the past year, rather than looking forward to what we have to look forward to, let's just have a show, shall we?

Back in November, the Drug Policy Alliance held its international reform conference in Washington, DC. A lot of great minds, a lot of great people, a lot of great activists were there. I caught up with one of them Cyndee Clay, on the last day. Cyndee is the executive director of a group called HIPS. Used to stand for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive. They're based in Washington, DC, they're a service provision outreach organization, they do work with a lot of folks, distributing needles, distributing condoms, harm reduction information, referrals to treatment -- helping people. It's a great group, and they do a lot of direct outreach. I spoke with Cyndee on the last day of the conference, let's just get to that interview.

CYNDEE CLAY: Hi, I'm Cyndee Clay, I'm the executive director at a local organization here in DC called HIPS, formerly Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive. We work with sex workers and drug users on the streets in DC.

DOUG MCVAY: What kind of work -- tell me about the the work you do, what kind of work do you do. Give me some details.

CYNDEE CLAY: Sure. So, we're a by and for organization, so we engage sex workers, drug users, and the transgender community, mainly people who are in street and underground economies, in conversations and services about increasing their health, increasing their wellbeing, and their prosperity. So, the goal is really to help people live healthy lives step by step, and to increase people's, you know, health, wellness, and self-determination.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. Now, of course, Drug Policy Alliance and Harm Reduction Coalition trade years, as far as this, I last interviewed you at a Harm Reduction Coalition conference. Before I get into some of the policy stuff, I'm curious: what do you think about the differences, is there a difference in the kind of crowd, in the kind of content, between Harm Reduction Coalition and Drug Policy Alliance?

CYNDEE CLAY: Yeah, definitely. I think that for HIPS, at least, one of the reasons we're here is, this tends to be a bunch of, like, more policy folk. There tend to be less direct service, or directly effected individuals here at the conference. And so our goal in being here, A, is to help people in the drug policy world understand how drug policy effects sex workers, and also how many of the failed tactics of the war on drugs are now being used to perpetuate criminalization of sex workers. You know, but also as an organization that works with drug users who don't do sex work, we're here to help make sure that the voices and the information and the goals of the war against the drug war, of our drug policy reform work, is centered on the voices of the people who are most criminalized and most marginalized, and that tends to be the people that HIPS works with everyday. So we're trying to make sure that our voices and our needs and the needs of the communities are heard.

DOUG MCVAY: Can you tell me some numbers? I mean, how many people do you end up working with, what kind of -- yeah, give me some numbers.

CYNDEE CLAY: Sure, yeah. And it depends on the service. So, we have a full service harm reduction center that we opened, actually we just had our grand opening this weekend. You know, and invited the drug policy community to come check us out. At our new center, we're probably seeing anywhere, we're seeing about 200 people a week in and out of the doors. Our syringe exchange program probably has six or 700 unique people who are registered for it. You know, and then it's kind of like, more intensive services, right? So people who access case management, people who are accessing our community health worker, which is a linkage and helping people remain in medical care and taking care of their health services. You know, we kind of have a bunch of different ways that you can plug into HIPS, depending on what your goals are. You know?

DOUG MCVAY: Okeh. One hundred and forty characters is not an easy way to communicate. So, your tweet, your tweet is an important message, and I want to know if you would please unpack it. I know that -- if this is -- for the people who are listening to this via Century Of Lies, the radio show that I do that's distributed through Pacifica, a lot of those people are drug policy reform supporters, at least. And, you tweeted a straight-up message o the drug policy people: just a reminder, sex workers sell services, not your bodies, these are yours, they can't afford them. Some of these people aren't on twitter. 140 characters is a tough way to talk. So, take a minute and tell these drug policy people what you're trying to tell them.

CYNDEE CLAY: Sure. Well, again, I think in helping people understand the intersections, right? So, I think we've gotten into the world of drug policy where most people understand that, you know, you shouldn't throw around the word "junkie" anymore, repeatedly. You shouldn't throw around, you know, words, you know -- you have to be careful when we talk about addiction, and just be clear about what we're talking about. I think numerous times at the conferences, either my fellow panelists or by people in the room, there, you know, many times I heard the terms about women who were selling their bodies. Multiple times, in different conversations and presentations, and, you know, I was just recently at the law enforcement panel, which is full of wonderful law enforcement officers who I think are really trying to be a part of the reform movement, which I think is important, everybody needs to be at the table, even if we don't always agree.

But, if -- I felt like it was good that we open up the conversation a little bit, and you know, people who do sex work, or even people who are engaged in the sex trade, whether that be informal, and including people who were trafficked, like, if we really kind of unpack the politics around sex work or the sexual exchange, you know, what people are doing is, they're exchanging goods for services. Right? And that can be consensual, or that can be a coercive exchange, but it's still an exchange of services. We're not actually selling, sex workers don't actually sell their bodies. You know? And if we can change the way we think about sex work, and change the way we think about that by simply just beginning to question our language, I think it helps us look at it from a objective viewpoint, to really unpack what's wrong with that, if there is anything wrong with that, where our feeling are around that. And then, you know, what are the harms that we either perpetuate or can address around, the issue around sex work. Right?

Like, in the drug policy reform movement, we often talk about, like, how do we minimize the effects of the drug war, right? We have an understanding that it's not often the drugs themselves, but its social determinants and poverty and racism, structural issues, that cause many of the harms that we associate with drug use. It's not as much the use itself, but it's the set and the setting, and the structures that we've set up to punish people. And the sex worker movement would say that, it's very similar. Right?

Like, there are, the vast majority of people who exchange sex for services or money or goods don't experience necessarily, like, that -- the fact that I agree to do something sexual for you and you agree to hand me a certain amount of money. Right? If that happens, which is illegal so we didn't just agree to do that, but -- there's no agreement. But that conversation isn't -- people don't come to HIPS and be like, I got offered fifty dollars for a blow job and that really harmed me. Those aren't the conversations that we have at HIPS. What we have is, I got arrested, or I got beat up, and I'm scared to go to the police. Or, you know, this particular, like, these other things associated because of criminalization's what makes sex work hard, and I think that those are the conversations we're trying to help drug policy people understand, because we see drug policy people as allies, and we need people to be allies, because we really need to address how the war on drugs is becoming a war on sex workers.

DOUG MCVAY: That's pretty clear to me, and it sounds pretty reasonable. Like I say, 140 characters, it -- you know, but -- it's -- okeh, so, I'm curious. Just because I was just talking to a friend who was at a panel, and had some concerns about the, some of the law enforcement assisted diversion. Okeh, well how do you deal with immigrants? How do you deal with people who are not -- you know, who don't have their papers? People who don't have their papers. So, and, oh, not a problem, because you know that people, we just automatically dial 911. Now, the audience to whom she was speaking was largely white, and didn't seem to, that idea didn't really spark much of a response. What do you think about that idea, that people, oh yes, in America we're just trained, we call 911 all the time when there's a problem.

CYNDEE CLAY: Well, I think that in many communities, and not even in white communities, we've been, we have been trained in a sense that, you know, what you do is you, you know, we're asking law enforcement to solve these issues. Right? If there's dealers on the corner, then you call 911. If there's, if you see a sex worker or someone you think is doing prostitution, you call 911. I think the main problem with that is, law enforcement is not the right tool. Right? There -- you know, programs like LEAD I think are great, because at least officers are doing that instead of just arresting and incarcerating people. But I don't think they go far enough. Right? I think the main thing that I want us to remember is, law enforcement, like, police on the streets are only arresting people because we have decided, arbitrarily in many cases, that what people are doing is illegal.

Right? Like, the only reason that they arrest people for possession of drugs is because we've decided, as a community, that drug possession should be illegal. If we changed our mind, we could redivert those resources to, you know, researching or going after people who are violent. Right? We could redirect those resources toward ending violent crimes in our neighborhood, or finding, like, the officer on the panel said today, the former officer said today, like, you know, we can't find missing, we don't have resources to find missing children or to prosecute rape cases, or to, you know, look into other kind of violent activity, because we spend so much time locking people up for the drug war. And I would say that, as we've started to look at racial disparities in drug arrests, like, there are -- I'm going to say that we probably have very similar disparities in arrests for sex -- for prostitution and for sex work issues, that I think it's really important that we look into.

So, I definitely think that there are communities who, because of the drug war, don't see police as a resource. You know, people in the sex trade often don't see police as a resource, it's something that they're very scared of, even if they do need help and assistance. You know, and I think it's because we're asking law enforcement to do the wrong job.

DOUG MCVAY: What have you thought about the conference so far? It's, they do these every two years now. There has been, from my perspective there's been a fundamental change in the character of them. For a while it was like, yes we're doing this great job, it will never actually work, but by gosh we're trying; to, you know folks, we're making a change, and we can make this stuff happen, and there's -- I mean, I've seen a lot, it's at least a little more upbeat. Yeah. You've been to a couple of these. What do you think, as far as the, do you think the tone has changed? I mean, it's no longer a Republican administration, we now have Obama. It's a Republican Congress, so they're not allowing anything to go through. But, beyond that, do you think -- what do you think of the tone? The change in tone?

CYNDEE CLAY: You know, I think that we've definitely had some successes. I think that people are feeling like there's an opportunity and there's hope in moving forward. You know, I think we have a long ways to go. And, I think what I've particularly appreciated about this conference is we have, there have been conversations that are beyond, like, the wins that we're making as far as, at least, marijuana decriminalization across the country. There have been at least attempts at deeper conversations about what the drug war is, and why the drug war is still happening. You know, so, I think we still have a long way to go, but I did like some of the more informal discussion formats for the presentations, I thought allowed us to get into some deeper issues, but also in some sense, I with that we could have had more spaces to really strategize, as opposed to educate.

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.

DAWN PALEY: Hey, my name's Dawn Paley, I'm the author of Drug War Capitalism, and I just want to give a shout out to the people at Drug Truth Network who are doing amazing work to get the stories out. You know, Amy Goodman from Democracy Now talks about trickle up journalism, I'm a firm believer. You know, like, where these stories are being reported first, who's on the ground covering this conference and doing all these interviews? It's Doug McVay, Drug Truth Network. So, listen up, and thanks again for your so-important work in terms of just getting the truth out there and getting these stories, which are just so repressed in the mainstream media, out to the broader public.

DOUG MCVAY: Thank you!

I am talking with my good friend Kris Krane. Kris, when I first met you, you were just a green, wet behind the ears guy working at NORML, trying to get college kids to get active on this marijuana issue stuff. And then you go off and you become the executive director of SSDP, and you did a tremendous job there. And after that, well, now you're on the board with me at Common Sense for Drug Policy, you're in private business, you're doing consulting, and you are one of the top people in the marijuana industry. How you doing, friend?

KRIS KRANE: I'm doing great, it's really, it's great to be here, it's good to be at the Drug Policy Alliance conference, and great to see old friends like you, and -- yeah, couldn't be happier.

DOUG MCVAY: Okeh, so, the company you're with, tell me -- your company, it's four, what is -- 4Front, right?

KRIS KRANE: Yes, that's right. 4Front Advisors and 4Front Ventures is now our parent company. We've got a few other projects that we've got going under different names, and so, yeah, we're -- 4Front Advisors has been the company that we launched in early 2011, we've been working with prospective dispensary operators around the country, we help them navigate the really complex and challenging licensing processes, of getting one of these licenses, and then we help them set up model dispensaries, which we hope will be, you know, a good model for communities, and, you know, able to demonstrate to folks that this can be done in a way that's socially responsible, that meets patients' needs, and helps change the stereotypes and the public perception about what cannabis distribution can look like.

DOUG MCVAY: Let's get back to that interview with Cyndee Clay. She's the director of HIPS, that stands for Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, a harm reduction organization based in Washington, DC.

Indeed. Now, and, let's project to the future, because we'll be getting together again, the Drug Policy Alliance has its next conference in 2017 down in Atlanta, Georgia. Obviously we're going to have a new administration. Hopefully we're going to have a different Congress, I'll cross my fingers. I'm a hopeless optimist. So, where do you think we're going to be in another two years?

CYNDEE CLAY: You know, what I hope in the next two years is, as we're moving through the future, harm reduction organizations and direct service organizations specifically are going through a very tough time right now. Health reform is really going to affect our programming, and our ability to do services. You know, our success in doing syringe access and our success in reducing HIV rates, which is where the majority of HIV prevention and syringe exchange money comes from, is being threatened, because we're so successful. Right? And as the CDC is changing to put its resources to communities that are the most affected, we're becoming victims of our own success, because our -- we're not getting increased, even though we're seeing, at HIPS we're seeing increased need. We've doubled our syringe exchange numbers every year since we opened, since we started doing syringe exchange, but we've received level funding. So at HIPS, we're now at the point where I could continue to double my numbers almost every six months, but I don't have enough money to buy any more syringes.

And so I'm hopeful that, you know, I do believe that it's important to, again, make sure that -- the drug policy movement has really benefited from having these on-the-ground organizations who know the issues, who have the experience, who can bring the voices of community to the table. And my concern is that, as our funding is, becomes more and more restricted, and as we have to fight more for a limited amount of resources, that it's coming because of HIV prevention, because of the biomedical things that are now being pushed as far as prevention, there's going to be fewer and fewer of us able to do that work, therefore we are going to have a harder time informing the policy movement. And, that's -- I think that we have a lot of good things to look forward to in the next two years, but it's also a major concern that I think we all need to be aware of.

DOUG MCVAY: Funding. Now, of course --

CYNDEE CLAY: That's a giant can of worms. Let me explain ACA in 140 characters or less ....

DOUG MCVAY: Something a little less impossible. No, really, something a little less impossible. And, I remember back in 2007 at that methamphetamine conference in Salt Lake City. Dave Purchase, rest his soul, was on a panel, they were discussing the federal ban on funding for syringe exchange. Dave was taking the contrarian position that, fine, good, don't want federal strings, don't want to have to follow their bloody guidelines and stay in their restrictions. Keep the bloody ban, that's fine, I don't want their money. Other people were, possibly, let's just say, more pragmatic. And, you know, funds are funds. And, so, what do you think? I mean, the ban was gone, for a year. And then, thank you miserable people in Congress, it's back again. So, and, we still have a ban on such a basic public health thing that even the United Nations and everyone else -- Sweden has five syringe exchanges that are taxpayer supported. Sweden, the boogeyman, to Americans, Sweden is practically the anti-Christ for drug policy, they are the people in western Europe who are the worst. And yet, they have state-funded syringe exchanges. Only five, but they have them.

What do you think? I mean, first of all, what do you think of the federal funding ban, and do you think we have a chance of repealing it again, maybe this time for longer?

CYNDEE CLAY: Right. Well, not every syringe exchange is going to want to do federal funds. Right? There are strings that come attached with that money, and there's hoops that you have to jump through, and not everybody's going to want to do that, but that doesn't mean that we shouldn't be able to if we want to. Right? That doesn't mean that there are going to be programs who decide to play that game, like -- just like I said with coalition buildilng, like, we need to support everybody at the table who's working toward positive change. Right? And so, the federal ban is particularly evil, because it hamstrings highly successful programs, it is nothing but an administrative nightmare to enforce, and it wastes resources. And, quite frankly, I'm absolutely sick and tired of people bringing up, you know, absolutely irrelevant and untrue moralistic concerns, in order to perpetuate a law that makes no sense, is frankly really dumb, and it's killing people.

DOUG MCVAY: I'm curious. Do people ever, do you know if people ever bring up the federal funding ban as a reason for their own personal, or their agency's, not being willing to give more support to syringe exchange. Not that, oh that's federal money, more like, well the feds don't approve of this, so we're not going to approve it either. Does that actually happen, or is that -- ?

CYNDEE CLAY: I don't think that that happens has much, but it does make it harder for health departments to support syringe exchange organizations. It means that, as an organization that receives federal funds, I have to be able to prove that, not only were no syringes, you know, purchased with the federal funds, but they're not stored in any location that's, the rent is paid through by federal funds. Three of my case managers on staff can't do syringe -- like, if a client wants syringe exchange, instead of being able to hand them syringes and help them dispose of them, they have to walk them downstairs to another office and have them talk to yet another staff member. You know, moralistically we're not getting anything. The Republicans and the people in Congress who are against, you know, who put the federal ban in, they're not getting anything from it. It's, you know, they're basically standing on a moral high ground that, quite frankly, just becomes an administrative nightmare. And that's been my personal experience with the federal ban.

And also, in DC, we're always under the threat that the local ban for syringe exchange will be re-enforced, which means that not only can we not spend federal dollars, but DC can't spend its own local dollars, for a program that has reduced new HIV infections among injection drug users 80 percent in the 7 years that we've been able to expand it. You know, this is the most proven form of HIV prevention. I don't care if you're morally against it. We need to do it. I mean, you can be as morally against it as you want, but that doesn't give you the right to stop from saving people's lives. I've lost all of my patience.

DOUG MCVAY: I think that's the best formulation of that that I've heard -- that is -- what you said! Yeah. It's really tough sometimes doing these interviews because I have to remain quiet, I have to remain calm, and there are oftentimes when the person I'm talking to says something that is so well formulated and so brilliant and so very on point that all I want to do is do an arm-pump and go, Yeah, what she said! And, you know, I find that happening often when we talk, which is. Thank you. You're amazing, you do incredibly good work. As I say, again, any of my secular listeners, I apologize, but Cyndee, you are doing god's work. And you are to be praised. I mean, heaven's above, and I say this as a backsliding Methodist agnostic. But -- okeh. You have the end of a plenary to try and get to, and then you have to get out of here, I know that your time is limited and I'm very grateful to you for stopping by. Before you go, do you have any closing thoughts, and where do people find information about HIPS, do you have a website, and throw out your twitter, there, while you're there.

CYNDEE CLAY: Yeah, sure. So, you can find me @CyndeeClay, it's @CyndeeClay. Tweets are my own, and as it says, generally not safe for work. And then also you can catch us @HIPSDC. Or, small minds, I guess, sometimes not safe for work either. But I always warn people. You can check out HIPS, it's www.HIPS.org. We've a brand new website that we rolled out this week, it's really beautiful, check it out. You can get our "Be Nice To Sex Workers" and "Be Nice To Drug Users" swag on it. They make great Christmas presents, or holiday presents, or Festivus presents, whatever works for you.

Closing words for us are, you know, we've got some interesting years ahead, at least for those of us who try to do both policy and to make a difference on the ground level, and we're going to need everybody's support. If you can't support HIPS, then support your local syringe exchange, support your local organizations doing the work on the ground. Because without us, the policies aren't going to work.

DOUG MCVAY: It's the thing about -- I mean, I've done policy for the longest time, you know, policy's easy, it's just talking, it's just debate. It's the outreach, the actual service provision, going out there and, you know, being with the people who need the help and giving them that help, the syringe exchange, or treatment programs, or condom distribution, or whatever. I mean, that takes a special kind of courage, and I am --

CYNDEE CLAY: I don't know, I think going to the Congress, and the Senate building, takes a special kind of courage, and I would so rather be at my drop-in center. So, a big shout-out and thank you to all the policy people out there. Because, I like to stay where it's honest.

DOUG MCVAY: Cyndee Clay, from HIPS DC. Formerly Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive, now simply HIPS.


DOUG MCVAY: Just HIPS. Cyndee, thank you so much.

CYNDEE CLAY: Thank you so much, Doug.

DOUG MCVAY: That's part of a conversation with Cyndee Clay, she's the executive director of a group called HIPS-DC. That's Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive. Based in Washington, DC, they're a harm reduction organization, and we talked at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference back in November.

And for now, that's all the time we have. Thank you for listening. This is 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.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please be sure to give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, please give it a like and share it with friends. You can follow me on twitter, I'm @DrugPolicyFacts and of course also @DougMcVay. 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.