04/24/16 Doug McVay

This week on Century Of Lies we speak with Dr. Ciara Torres, a researcher and postdoctoral research fellow at the Columbia University School of Social Work; and with Phil Smith, reporter and editor at the Drug War Chronicle and AlterNet; plus part of an interview with Billy Murphy, Jr. the legendary Baltimore criminal defense attorney who represented the family of Freddie Gray, a young man who was murdered by Baltimore police in 2015.

Century of Lies
Sunday, April 24, 2016
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL042416.mp3



APRIL 24, 2016


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.

It's a full show this week. Let's do this.

CIARA TORRES, PhD: My name is Ciara Torres, I'm a scientist at Columbia University of School of Social Work, and I'm working with Dr. Carl Hart and Nabila El-Bassel.

DOUG MCVAY: All right. Tell me about some of the work you do. You were here at the Patients Out of Time conference. I want to know about some of the stuff you presented on.

CIARA TORRES: I was presenting on prenatal cannabis exposure and cognition. And, what we did was we took the entire literature of studies on -- examining prenatal cannabis exposure, and looking at long term how the cognition, cognitive development of the children, was affected. And what we found was that basically, in the overwhelming majority of the cases, 99 percent of the cognitive tests that were used found no relationship between prenatal cannabis exposure and cognition, in terms of clinically relevant results.

DOUG MCVAY: Seems pretty straightforward. And yet, we still hear people talking about concerns over drug exposure, even with cannabis. Are people just ignoring the research, are there -- what's going on?

CIARA TORRES: So, what we found is that sometimes there's a gap between the actual data that is found in the children, versus the interpretations of the data. So for example, if we find a significant negative relationship, for example between prenatal cannabis exposure and cognition, we kind of assume automatically that that's a deficit, or an impairment, however for you to even use those terms, you have to determine if they're clinically relevant or now. Or if there's still results that are within the normal range of what children get normally, even though they have not been exposed to anything detrimental during pregnancy.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. Let's switch for a moment, and, tell me about some of the work you're doing as it relates to policy. You, one of the -- someone who I admire greatly, Lynn Paltrow, you have had the pleasure of working with, and, yeah. So tell me some policy stuff that you're doing.

CIARA TORRES: So, Lynn Paltrow actually inspired me a couple of years ago to try to get into this field of examining whether, instead of the drugs themselves, including cannabis, if it's the involvement with both the criminal and civil justice system related to drug crimes, or drug problems of any kind, if that has a different effect than the drugs themselves. So what I'm doing right now is, I'm examining a group of women in New York City that were involved with either the criminal justice or the civil justice system, and what I'm asking from that data is whether involvement with the system actually has an effect on child custody. And once we know the answer to that, then we compare, well, is it really the drugs or is it the involvement with the system because of the legal status of the drug, that has a negative impact on whether families stay together or not.

DOUG MCVAY: What inspired you to get into this. I mean, hearing Lynn Paltrow, tell me what made you decide to do this stuff.

CIARA TORRES: So, I'm actually a, let's call it neuropsychopharmacologist, or molecular neuroscientist by training. So I spent many years studying how psychoactive substances work in the brain, and we did this in animal models at Columbia University in the lab of Dr. David Sulzer, and I spent a while studying methamphetamine, actually. And through that, and doing other things on the side, I got interested actually in war on drugs -- in the war on drugs instead of just focusing on how the drugs themselves work. And through this, and working in Carl Hart's courses, and having a lot of feedback about my research from Carl Hart, got me interested in the war on drugs, so I decided, well, I want to take this knowledge that I have about the molecular basis of how psychoactive substances work into kind of the real world, and how these ideas are actually affecting people in the real world.

DOUG MCVAY: You're a good person to ask. Is addiction really a brain disease?

CIARA TORRES: Well, I think that's really a difficult question to answer, because when you come to things like brain imaging of people that are addicted to anything, you usually do not have those brain scans before the person even started using drugs. So, you don't know if what you're seeing after they're already addicted was actually already there before the drugs. So you don't know which came first, the drug use, or whatever changes that the brain scans are showing.

So that's a difficult question to answer, unless you have, you know, controlled brain scans before people even started using drugs to then be able to compare to, this is them after ten years of addicted to X drug.

DOUG MCVAY: So, when Nora Volkow and several other people say flat out, addiction is a brain disease, is that maybe stretching things a bit?

CIARA TORRES: I believe so. I believe it's kind an over-interpretation that most times is not actually based on longitudinal studies of brain imaging. I think they already know this, so, I know that now that's kind of the goal, to try to get brain scans at different points in development, and then be able to compare what happens after the drug.

DOUG MCVAY: The perception in the public, I mean, you keep hearing that over and over, and I think that that perception is, you know, becoming lodged in the public. And, it's led me to wonder, how much of our sort of attack on drug users, and especially on pregnant women who may be using drugs, how do you think that brain disease thing influences some of that negative policy, that bad policy that we're generating?

CIARA TORRES: Believe it or not, I think that now that we've been hearing this brain disease model, I think it actually in a sense is actually protective, because it's kind of seen as people who are addicted are not in control, because they have a disease. That doesn't mean that it's necessarily accurate, and, I mean, I think like with everything, with anything that's related to psychiatric disorders, which addiction, or substance use disorder, is classified as, I believe that at the end of the day, it will be a combination of two things, like it always is. It will be a combination of nature and nurture.

DOUG MCVAY: It's -- and thank you for correcting my terminology, because I should -- I mean, I'm the one who's always trying to remind people, and, substance use disorder, as opposed to addiction, because, you know, negative labels are stigma. This Patients Out of Time conference delivers continuing education for attorneys, for doctors, for nurses, and a lot of those were here. But by far, the largest segment of the audience at this conference were people, the public -- patients, veterans. What do you hope the public take away from this conference?

CIARA TORRES: Well, I'm a kind of on a personal crusade to actually share what us scientists do with the public. And I think that what I can do personally, being that I'm here for Patients Out of Time, is that whenever I publish a study, whether it's related to cannabis or not, that I can just share that with you guys. The scientific community has access to these studies all the time, through their ties with universities, but the general public usually has to pay like 35, 40 dollars for one article, and that obviously is not doable when you want, you know, to really get a full picture of about anything. You know? You should be reading dozens and hundreds of papers. So what I can do in terms of my work is share that with Patients Out of Time, whenever I have a paper that's published.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Dr. Ciara Torres, she is a postdoctoral research fellow at Columbia University School of Social Work. I spoke with her at the Patients Out of Time conference in Baltimore, Maryland. 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.


DOUG MCVAY: I'm talking with Phil Smith, one of the best reporters I know, and he's the writer and such for Drug War Chronicle. Yeah, brilliant journalist, and a good friend. Hi, Phil.


DOUG MCVAY: We're here in New York, it's the UNGASS, and I have to ask you the obligatory question about the UNGASS, which is, what do you think is going to come out of this? Well, I mean, the outcome document's settled. Not the document, but in terms of the drug policy debate, how do you see this impacting it, and where do you think we go from there?

PHIL SMITH: Okeh, well, yeah, I don't see a whole lot coming out of UNGASS, because, as you said, it was settled at the CND last month. However, what we do see is the increased presence of civil society, and we are also starting to see a handful of countries at least standing up to denounce the status quo, which is new. And the role, the increasing role of civil society is new. These are both good things. But man, it's the UN. I mean, it is so slow, and we have to deal with really retrograde countries as well, like Russia and China, Indonesia, Singapore, Iran, places like that. Yeah, I don't expect much to come out of this, except we advance the conversation a little bit, look down the road towards 2019 and beyond.

But also, I also want to say that, you know, I think to a large degree the international drug conventions are irrelevant. They are, they're toothless, all they can do if you violate them is wag their finger at you and say, oh you're a bad country. And before, the boogeyman was the United States, the drug treaties had the United States behind them. But that seems to be changing in the last few years, especially under Obama, the Obama administration seems to be taking a much more relaxed role towards what other countries are doing. So I think that's a good thing. Will we have that under our next president, whoever that is? We'll see. But, yeah, I don't hold out a lot of hope for the UNGASS. I understand it's a -- the international process, but, god, it's slow, and I don't see any reason for countries to wait for the treaties to change to go ahead and change their own laws.

DOUG MCVAY: And in fact, that is what's happening. Canada, Uruguay, and even in the United States, at least within the states, that's exactly what's happening. Let's switch topics, because we're doing the UNGASS to death, and there's so, you do so much more. This is -- just down in Baltimore, talked to Billy Murphy, the legendary Billy Murphy. Among other things, of course, he was the attorney for the family of Freddie Gray. Today is April 19th. This is the one year anniversary of the uprising in Baltimore, the one year anniversary of the murder of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police. The city was torn apart, and a lot of things have happened.

Of course, the #BlackLivesMatter movement really began because of Ferguson and the murder of Michael Brown, and it's gathered steam over time. Eric Garner here in this city of New York, and I wish that the list weren't so long but it just keeps going, and god, it has to stop sometime. But, back -- okeh, let's get a question out here. One of the things I asked Billy about, and I've talked to a couple of other people -- Neill Franklin, among them. It's been a year, literally, and the #BlackLivesMatter movement, how do you think that the rise of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has influenced the drug policy debate?

PHIL SMITH: Well, it's made people in drug policy think more broadly about how we fit drug policy within the larger criminal justice context, and the larger conversation about race and class in this country -- well, I guess we can't say class, but at least the conversation about race. You know, the war on drugs is an integral part of our criminal justice dilemma, problem, crisis, whatever you want to call it here. And I think it serves drug reformers to really pay attention to what the black community is saying. I mean, not, you know, not just about the drug stuff, but more broadly. Because it's all wrapped together.

DOUG MCVAY: And it's -- you stopped yourself from saying class because of course if we talk about class we get accused of engaging in class war, which is when people who are being oppressed complain about being oppressed. Anyway, here, yes.

PHIL SMITH: Well, there's only one class that gets to fight the class war, and we know which one that is.

DOUG MCVAY: Yes, they're the ones on top. So, three years from now, there's the Sustainable Development Goals, another UN meeting -- oh, enough of the UN. What kind of stuff are you working on these days that you can talk about?

PHIL SMITH: Well, it's a year when we're probably going to see five or six states legalize it, maybe four or five at this point. You know, you watch these states go through the legislative process and it looks so promising, and then at the end there's some subcommittee chair that screws it up. I'm afraid that's going to happen in Vermont this year, we'll see, it's not dead yet. So, of course, the continuing progress of marijuana legalization is something I write about frequently.

Also, you know, the opioid slash heroin, quote, "crisis." You know, the large number of people dying from drug overdoses, and what we're going to do about it. One of the things I have been writing about is, some of the nasty, regressive responses to it we're seeing, like prosecutors wanting to charge people with murder if they sold the heroin that someone died on. And in some states, we're seeing attempts to stiffen drug penalties again for certain classes of drugs, I mean, totally a move in the wrong direction.

On the other hand, we are seeing an increased acceptance of harm reduction, I mean, whether you're talking about the spread of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, that's really going through the states in a real hurry, and we're even advancing on some of the more controversial harm reduction issues, like safe injection sites. One of the stories I'm going to be writing soon is about a safe injection site that's going to open in Seattle, without anybody's permission. So we'll see how that goes. But, you know, they're not waiting for permission, they are just going to go ahead and do it, and take it from there. That's very exciting. I know there's another safe injection site in San Francisco that's operating, but no one wants to talk about it. So that's all I can say about that.

Also, Doug, I'm no longer just writing for the Drug War Chronicle, I'm also writing for AlterNet. I'm the AlterNet drug reporter/editor, and that gives me the opportunity to write some fun stuff, not just serious policy stuff. I mean, it's actually the fun stuff that gets much more widely read than the serious policy stuff. It seems like people really want to know what makes their pot turn purple, and why Blue Dream is so popular. So, as someone who's interested in the broad issues of drugs, and culture, I'm enjoying myself doing the AlterNet stuff. I still get to do the politics, but I get to do some more fun stuff too, and I get to write about psychedelics a bunch more than I would with the Drug War Chronicle, because there's not much happening with it in terms of policy but there's a lot going on in terms of medicine, and a seeming psychedelic renaissance these days. In fact, we're sitting here in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza waiting for a demonstration to mark the, well I guess it's the 71st anniversary of Albert Hoffman's bicycle ride, where he tripped his brains out on LSD.

DOUG MCVAY: That's right, can't forget, April 19th, Bicycle Day. And, yeah, they're -- I haven't seen them arrive yet, the other end of the plaza, there's a, it's kind of a cafe between them and us. But that's okeh, it's quieter over here, that's why we're doing the interview.

See, that's the thing. I've always said that there has to be a cultural change, there has to be the cultural shift before you get the legal, the policy shift, and that's why -- well, in, I mean, like in California, there were buyers clubs, there was Prop P, which was trying to make it and there was an unofficial network, even in DC, for years, we had an unofficial network operating, I was, I helped out once in a while myself in getting cannabis to AIDS patients. And that kind of -- do you think we're going to see more and more of that? I mean, I -- do you think we're going to see more and more of that, I hope that we do, but what do you think?

PHIL SMITH: Yeah, I think we are.

Well, if you look at the places where legalization has taken place first, those are -- you know, it didn't happen by accident in those places. Right? It happened because there was cultural acceptance already. And I think that the fact that we now have it legal in Colorado and Oregon and Washington and Alaska and DC, is going to diffuse that cultural acceptance more broadly in the country as a whole. So I think that's going to, you know, accelerate marijuana legalization, and hopefully not just marijuana legalization but a more advanced conversation about drug policy more broadly.

DOUG MCVAY: Say once again where people are going to find your stuff, if you're on twitter give us your twitter handle, and of course, any closing thoughts for the listeners?

PHIL SMITH: Yeah, I don't do twitter, but you can read me at www.StopTheDrugWar.org, that's the Drug War Chronicle there, or if you go to AlterNet.org/drugs, I'm the AlterNet drug reporter/editor there, there's lots of good stuff there as well.

Closing thoughts, well, Doug, I've been doing this stuff for 15 years, and it has really changed. When I first started doing this, I had to hunt for stories, there was basically no drug media, there was High Times, and that was about it. It is definitely not that way anymore. There's -- if you want to talk about marijuana alone, it's crazy how much is out there. And, even with other drugs as well. And, we, the conversation has really advanced in 15 years. I mean, you know, we're not in utopia, but we're heading in the right direction.

DOUG MCVAY: Excellent. Phil Smith, thank you so much.

While we still have time, here's a little bit of that interview I did with Billy Murphy, Jr. We'll have more of it on a later show.

BILLY MURPHY, JR.: As I said in my address to this group on Thursday, America has all these great people, and they want to do the right thing, but they don't realize that they're playing with each other, and with us, and I don't mean that in a bad way, on this incredibly ossified structure that's built on white male supremacy. And so, unless we go beyond being good to each other in this generation, and expressing our good will about the problem and we look at the platform that this country is built on, that's still there, this racist structure, then we're not going to do anything to change that structure. So, although there are tremendous opportunities to meet people, to interact with people today, to exchange ideas, if we don't all focus on that structure, that platform upon which America's based, the one that we're standing on now, and destroy that, then the beat goes on. The structure continues, and it's the structure more than the people that is responsible for the lack of progress in eliminating poverty, getting kids a great education, getting people back to work, and returning them to productivity. It's the structure, not the people.

You know, we have a prison structure, we have a structured criminal justice system. We have a welfare structure, we have a capitalist structure, we have a financial services structure, and each in its own way reflects the historical racism of this country. So you can be as good a person as you want to be, and you can treat me swell, and whenever you meet black folks you can treat them swell, and hey, that's a great thing, but it's not enough. We've got to join together and get rid of this ugly structure, that more than our personal behavior and our personal choices makes choices for people that are ugly, and regressive, and repressive, and racist.

DOUG MCVAY: How do shift from -- I mean, no more business as usual, and disruptive, how do we shift from that to constructing what you just talked about?

BILLY MURPHY: Well, we, first of all, have to understand it ourselves, and I think it's the responsibility of great leadership to teach people what the problems are in a way that is compelling and inspirational. And so we've got to look for those leaders, we've got to try to cultivate them, we've got to make our children like that, we've got to make sure that we groom a generation of people who are going to fight this ugliness, and convert it to the beauty it should have always been. And this requires a community effort, so in every way, every day, we need to be forces for progressive change, big, small, medium sized, progressive change. And we've got to teach, you've got to teach, you've got to make sure that these kids, who grow up in poverty, understand why that happened, so their curriculum in public schools has to reflect the greatness that they used to have, and why, and what happened to them so that they were born in a muddy log drinking -- in a hollow log drinking muddy water instead of standing on firm ground with an excellent educational background, knowing who they are, where they came from, and where they need to go.

And as long as our school system doesn't do that for these kids, they will blame the circumstances of their life on themselves. They will see themselves as worthy of living in West Baltimore, as worthy of living in East Baltimore, and that somehow this is their lot in life. No, the education that they get has to be inspirational, it has to be uplifting, it has to teach the evil of the past so that it's not repeated. And people who don't want to do that, they've identified themselves as who they are. They're the forces of regression, and of oppression, and of suppression, and we can't have that anymore. So, we've got to teach each other this history, especially our children, so that, you know, the old saying, people who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat it doesn't result in the repetition of the last five, six generations in Baltimore and cities all over this country, where things just keep getting worse.

DOUG MCVAY: So it's really not just that I picked the wrong set of parents before I was born?

BILLY MURPHY: Well, what I say about myself is that I thank god that he put me in the household of Bill and Madeline Murphy, and they are responsible for 95 percent of the good in me, and I'll take responsibility for the rest. That's how I look at it.

DOUG MCVAY: Sage words. You're the kind of person, just like, just set the microphone going, let you start riffing, and it's just brilliant. While I should be thinking of questions, I just find myself just sort of focusing on what you're saying and just nodding, yeah, what he said. Not really a great interview style.

BILLY MURPHY: But nice words, I appreciate it.

DOUG MCVAY: Your presentation on Thursday really did have me in tears at points, I mean, because you're absolutely right. And thank you for saying some of the stuff that you said -- minus the f-bombs -- that you said in your presentation. I won't have to do much editing with this one.

BILLY MURPHY: Well, some things are just so obscene that only an obscenity will accurately describe it.

DOUG MCVAY: And if it's said -- yeah. Gratuitous versus the passion, if you're saying this because you feel it, because it's the passion that you feel, and that's -- you need to communicate that, somehow, and yeah --

BILLY MURPHY: Well, look. I learned to curse when I was a criminal lawyer. My first mentor was a cursing machine. And I said one day, Milton, why do you curse so much? He said, if you know better words to describe this bullshit, let me know. And, he was correct. And there's nothing irreligious about, you know, saying that, you know, these kids are living in a pile of bullshit, you know, that's not irreligious, that's an accurate statement. I think everybody knows what thoughts have just been communicated. So, you know, I'm not against cursing, I'm against inappropriate cursing. But as I look around, there aren't too many circumstances where cursing is inappropriate.

DOUG MCVAY: That was an interview with Billy Murphy, Jr. He was the attorney for the family of Freddie Gray, who was murdered by Baltimore police a year ago.

And well, that's it for today. Thank you for joining us. You've been 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. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give it a like and share it with friends.

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!

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.