03/05/17 Tyler Williams

This week we speak with Tyler Williams from Students for Sensible Drug Policy about drug policy reform, activism, and SSDP's upcoming international conference in Portland, Oregon March 24-26.

Century of Lies
Sunday, March 5, 2017
Tyler Williams
Download: Audio icon col030517.mp3



MARCH 5, 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.

TYLER WILLIAMS: My name is Tyler Williams, I'm a Regional Outreach Coordinator at Students for Sensible Drug Policy for the Mountain, Midwest, and Heartland Regions, and also temporarily Oregon.

DOUG MCVAY: And, for the benefit of listeners who aren't aware, and full disclosure: I'm on the Advisory Council for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, could you tell folks just a little bit about the organization?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, absolutely. So, we are primarily a grassroots organization, made up of students from around the world, we're in 16 countries right now, who believe that the war on drugs has failed us as a generation and as a society. So we're a chapter based organization, and our students, and our chapters, work to end the drug war, whatever that means to them. Because we are so global and we are focused in many places, the work that they do looks very different depending on where they are.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, before we get into some of the other stuff, you have a conference coming up, at the end of the month, rather, March 24th, 25th, and 26th, if I'm getting my calendar right.


DOUG MCVAY: In Portland, Oregon. What's going to be happening there?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yes, so, it's really exciting. This is our annual international conference. So, students from, I think the last count is probably just shy of ten of our countries will be gathering in Portland, and it will be a weekend of panels, workshops, networking, actual work, you know, students getting together and putting things together, and generally just bringing the whole network together.

It won't only be students. We're also of course bringing in expert speakers, amazing keynotes and guests, we will of course have our excellent alumni in force as well, from what I hear. So it's going to be, you know, everyone who's got some connection to SSDP, and even folks who are new to the network, are going to be coming together in Portland and talking about drug policy, talking about what students can do to end the war on drugs, and how to do it as quickly as possible.

DOUG MCVAY: So now, as you said, it can take different forms, depending upon where people are and what's going on in those places. What are some of the different projects that you have, that SSDP has going on?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, I'm really glad you asked. So, we of course are really interested and invested in ending marijuana prohibition. Right? So, we put together the phone bank that really helped push the ball forward during this last election, and I'm really proud to say, we actually made more calls and actual connections in Maine than the initiative passed by. So the initiative passed by just shy of like 3,000 votes, and we made just over 3,000 connections in Maine, but actually about 5,000 dials, which was really exciting.

It was cool to see sort of the way that students can really, like, make a huge impact when they all get together and put their minds together. So, you know, we had students work on legalization, and now we've got folks in those states, and particularly Massachusetts, we have a really -- Massachusetts and California, we have really strong presences, and that's where our students are getting really involved in, you know, what the sort of implementation looks like, and, you know, making their voices heard about what they want a legal marijuana landscape to do for them, as residents of those states.

But we go beyond that, certainly. So we have a lot of students, I'm based in our Denver office, and I've got students here who, you know, since, for the last five years, they haven't really been, they haven't had to worry as much about the cannabis question, so they're moving on to other things. I've got students here who are working a lot on psychedelics as medicine, a lot of our folks also work with MAPS, or they start their own psychedelic clubs, or they, we've got one, the Naropa Association for Psychedelic Studies, which works really hand in hand with MAPS, and they actually right now I think are the night attendants at some of the -- we've got students who are night attendants at some of the test sites in Boulder, which is really cool, so they're kind of involved in this sort of, this research thing, going through the FDA, about MDMA to treat PTSD, and that's really exciting.

And then certainly there's a lot of folks who are working on issues of criminalization, and stigma, and this is something that impacts I think a lot of people who inject drugs, so we've got students who are really interested in harm reduction, they volunteer at syringe exchanges, or they do research papers on syringe exchanges, or they, you know, we've actually got students who are interested in doing some lobbying for law enforcement assisted diversion. There's actually, and again I'll talk about Colorado just because I live here, and I've got students here, but, we've got a Colorado bill coming up for that, and our folks will be lobbying on that.

And, man, you know, we've got almost 300 chapters, so, it's too tempting just to like run through the list of things I know that are going on. But we've also got students in Ohio who are working on Naloxone access, and county-wide Good Samaritan policies. So, Ohio does not have medical amnesty, which is where you call 911 and even if you've got, you know, a bag of drugs on you, you're not going to get in trouble because you called for help. Ohio doesn't have that policy state-wide, and I've got folks in Cincinnati who are working on -- who are working with the chief of police there to get that to happen.

We've got folks all over the country who are trying to get Naloxone in the hands of resident advisers, you know, RAs and other first responders on campuses. So, you know, our folks are really doing a lot of work, pretty much, you know, if it touches drug policy, our folks are doing work on it.

And then the international work is just phenomenal. We had our international coordinator, my counterpart, Jake, was actually recently in, he's traveled to Bangkok and Indonesia for different summits of international drug policy reformers, getting together to talk about, you know, levels of like global drug policy and how the UN treaty is effected, and how US models, like, sometimes are good, but many times are actually worse than what we're seeing out there, and how we can be more supportive to our folks around the globe.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. I mean, it's -- what I really appreciate is the fact that it's not just a self-interest, it's not just motivated by self-interest. I mean, people, coming out of the marijuana legalization movement, we heard that all the time. It's like, oh you people just want to get high. It's like, well, we can do that anyway, the activism gets in the way of all that, actually.


DOUG MCVAY: But especially, I mean, the overdose, sure, there are certainly going to be young people who are using and maybe injecting, but it's not about the self-interest. At the other hand, it is also that old -- the concept of "nothing about us, without us." Talk to me for a moment about that. A lot of times, the drug war, people, the justification for some of these measures is, you know, oh, we've got to protect the children. What do you think about that?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, you know, I think that's misguided. You know, I think that the best word for it is misguided. It's understandable, you know, if you're a parent and you don't have -- even if you do have some experience using illicit substances, but, you know, maybe it didn't cause any negative consequences in your life, but you're watching the news, and you read, you see some reports or propaganda about the way that drugs are going to, you know, keep your student from accessing education, or land them up in jail, or, you know, like, or dead, whatever it is.

Understandable that parents then think, okeh, well let's use the law, like, let's use the government to solve this problem, I want to keep my child safe. That's, I think, an understandable impulse, and I think that's part of the way that we've really been conditioned, although I think that that sort of conditioning is sort of breaking down, as people trust government less and less, but I think we've been conditioned to think that that's a reasonable response.

And so, one of the really powerful things about having students and young people, and we also now, because of our global -- the way we're kind of shifting our focus globally, we talk about students as young people, right, because in a lot of countries, the concept of what a student is doesn't have as much to do with your enrollment status at an institution of higher learning, but rather that you are a young person who is interested in learning things. I think that's really interesting.

So, when we talk about students, I now talk about students and young people, or sometimes just young people. So the powerful thing about being a network of young people is that we can say, we can talk about things that have happened to us, and I'm starting to not be able to be part of this "us," but we, you know, our students can say, hey, you know, you all created these laws and these things, and you're enforcing them in this way, and it's hurt me personally, and it's hurt my friends, and it's actually not helping. Oh and by the way, we can access all of these drugs any time we want, because there's nothing you can do to stop that. And I think that's a really, I think it is really powerful.

So going back to, you said: nothing about us without us. There are all these justifications for contemporary drug policy that are centered on young people, and improving their public health outcomes. And young people are saying it hasn't, and that's, you know, there you go, like, that's the chink in the armor, is, you know, coming from like the mouths of babes, it's like, no, like, this didn't work.

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, and we're speaking today with Tyler Williams from Students for Sensible Drug Policy. We're talking about campus politics, we're talking about drug policy reform and the youth movement, and of course we're also talking about the SSDP annual international conference, which is March 24th, 25th, and 26th in Portland, Oregon. Information and how to register at SSDP.org.

And some of the things we start doing in order to try and, I mean, just -- well, I was talking to you before this, about some of the just weird and scary developments. The push, for instance, on college campuses to have those campus security offices upgraded to full-on, sworn law enforcement, carrying guns, running drug investigations, running confidential informants. I mean, that's a -- you know, yeah, snitch culture. Let's go there for a minute.


DOUG MCVAY: The, one of the disturbing things has been the law enforcement forcing young people, forcing students and other young people into the position of confidential informant. They get caught in some minor scrape, a hit or two of LSD or ecstasy, and with the, they put all the fear of years in prison in front of them and suddenly they've got themselves a snitch. And, I mean, often -- sometimes with some really horrendous consequences. How often does this -- I mean -- yeah, talk to me a bit about that.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Sure. So, it sounds like you might have wanted to ask me how often this happens, and the answer is, we don't know. Many, much of that practice is really, really on the down-low, and not recorded well. And I think that's partially a, you know, a protection mechanism for police forces who, like, can't talk too much about their confidential programs, but also I think it's protection from the public's wrath. Right?

So, this is something that's a huge issue for us, and is actually a project that I'm working on personally. So one of the things that SSDP does is, so, you know we are student driven and we say to our chapters, like, you tell us what you want to accomplish and we'll help you do it. But, you know, some students, you know, they don't have enough context, and they say, well, I don't know, I just want to do something good. And we say, great, here's, you know, we've got almost, I think, like, 18 different campaign plans. You know, here's something that's been tried and true and we understand it, so here, try these steps, and, like, this will do something good, that we think will work really well.

So, one of those toolkits that I'm developing right now is around confidential informants, and particularly, it's about how students can create protections, so that these, the practices that the police departments are using are ethical. Right? And mostly so that there are no longer young people used as confidential informants. That's really what I think this boils down to. But, this has been spurred on by a number of high profile cases. Right? So we know some details of some of these, and that, and we only know that because they turn into tragedies.

So, you know, in 2008, there was the case of Rachel Hoffman, who was actually an SSDPer, who was murdered doing an undercover drug deal. And she had been caught just two times with a small bag of marijuana, it was like less than an eighth of marijuana, and they did the exact same thing, they said, look, you know, you're going to go to jail for years unless you wear this wire, and attempt to buy two handguns, two ounces of cocaine, and 1,500 ecstasy pills using thirteen grand in cash. And that's, I mean, that's not just a step up from an eighth of marijuana, that's a whole different league of illicit drug trade, and arms trade.

And, you know, her handlers lost her, and she ended up murdered. And it was, you know, a huge tragedy, and I think, you know, something that people still really feel, in a serious way. I mean, she was 23 years old, and that's, I mean, like, I'm 23 years old. So that's, that's just a little hard for me.

The only, you know, I think the only real -- the only real good thing that came out of that was Rachel's Law, which now in Florida requires law enforcement agencies to provide special training for officers who recruit confidential informants. They instruct informants that reduced sentences may not be provided in exchange for their work. Right? So these cops are promising something that they can't promise. They cannot promise reduced sentences, and so now in Florida, you can't even say that. Like, you must not say that.

And it also permits informants to request a lawyer if they want one, which is another thing that, you know, happened in this case, and we actually saw more recently in the case of Andrew Sadek that, like, they don't call in the parents, and they don't call in the lawyers, and they say, you know, they put them in holding and they say look, you know, here you are. We just arrested you. You had these drugs, and, you know, you're pretty much going to go straight to jail for a long time. Sometimes they'll pretend to be buddy-buddy, they're like, look, it's just weed, you'll probably only get three to five years. And, like, usually that's wrong, too, right?

They're like, but, instead of getting three to five years as a minimum, like, why don't you just, you know, go do a huge drug deal for us, and we'll go ahead and, you know, you'll be fine, and we'll reduce your sentence. And, you know, in the case of Andrew Sadek, that also didn't happen. You know, they found Andrew Sadek, the circumstances of his death are not known the way that Rachel's were, but they found him in a river with a gunshot wound and a backpack full of rocks.

So, anyway, you know, this is not, it's not an uncommon practice, and it's something that we have some really high profile cases about, and we're working to see more Rachel's Laws. And actually, in the case of Andrew Sadek, they are coming up with a law, I think it just passed the House there, and is going to the Senate. I haven't heard anything else. This is in North Dakota, so I think that it just passed the North Dakota State House, and it would be basically the same thing as Rachel's Law, that has all these provisions that provide enhanced protection, really not enhanced protections, they're just reaffirming the rights that everyone has when they encounter law enforcement, and like making sure that law, that, like, police officers follow the rules.

Like, that's what these things are, so they're just extra rules to make sure that the police are, you know, doing what they should be, which is not tricking young people into going into dangerous situations.

DOUG MCVAY: Right, and you mentioned the, you know, the, I mean, not notifying the parents, that's actually one of the threats. You know, we're going to tell your folks, it's going to lose your scholarships, because I mean the, it's -- you know, even if the kid thinks, well, yeah, okeh, really I'm probably going to get probation, oh, but my parents. Oh, but my scholarship. Oh, and suddenly things start rolling downhill. It's sad.

So, you're putting together a package, and, to help -- what can people do?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, so, we're still, you know, kind of in the early phases of this, but what it's going to look like, I think, is that we'll end up having, and we're actually working with a lawyer in Nevada to develop some model bill language, that will be based off of Rachel's Law, and hopefully the soon to come Andrew's Law, and any other laws in other states that already exist, that provide these protections in an adequate way.

So, we'll have this sort of model legislation, and for the most part, you know, I think we're going to target sort of a state legislature sort of campaign, where we instruct students, like, hey, look, like, here's the problem. Right now, you know, police officers can use young, put young people in dangerous situations because they can manipulate them into thinking that's the only choice they have. We're here to solve that by making sure that police officers tell the truth to young people about, you know, what they're actually facing and what they can and cannot get in return for this sort of work.

And, you know, what you'll need to do as a student yourself is take this model legislation, go to your representative or your state senator, you know, go to their office hours and say, look, my friends are in danger. You know, like, I'm a young person on a university campus, we know drug use happens there, we know there's increased police presence there, and we know that those police are likely to try and take advantage of young people who don't know better about the law.

So, we want to run this bill, and then you take the sheet of paper that you printed out and you say, here's the bill. We want you to run it, we want you to protect students, and hopefully they're talking to their representative or state senator in the district that their school is in, and be like, look, you've got 30,000 constituents, all of them voting age. They're, you know, they want you to do this because they want you to protect their community.

And then we, you know, we're going to build into this guide talking points about how to do your press conferences, how to write letters to the editor and op-eds about it, how to stay on message about like what you're talking about, and then of course some lobbying guides. We already have some lobbying tips on our website, so that won't be new content, necessarily, but it will be a reiteration of how to lobby for this specific bill, and how to talk to other legislators and say, you know, explain your point, tell a story, get them to feel emotional about it, get them to feel a real personal connection, and get them to vote yes on it.

I think that's really going to be the, you know, the terms of victory here are going to be how many confidential informant protection bills can we pass, you know, state by state, and let's make sure we don't have to name them after anyone. Right? Like, you know, let's make sure that we get ahead of this thing so well that none of these new bills that we're going to run in the coming years ever have to have any young person's name attached to it, ever. They can just be called something boring, like the Confidential Informant Protection Act. Something like that.

DOUG MCVAY: It's -- SSDP has done, for years has been working to help with, you know, to help people understand their rights, and, well, know their rights. The, that organization Flex Your Rights, Steve Silverman has been doing for many years, started with you folks. So this is, it's so very much part of the mission. I mean, really, it's just -- I hate to say it, it's sort of civics. Really you're just helping, you're just, you know, we don't have civics education in the schools anymore so you folks are picking up the slack. I think it's wonderful.

TYLER WILLIAMS: And you know, that's what we tell students. So, you know, part of the process for general starting a chapter and having a chapter is getting recognized by your school as what's called -- usually it's called a registered student organization, or something like that. Right? And, every now and then, you know, most schools require that you get a faculty adviser to sign a piece of paper. Every now and then you get a faculty adviser who says, eh, like, I'm not so sure about this drug thing, guys, maybe let's rethink this.

And, you know, I always tell students, I'm like, look, like, it's understandable, people maybe, you know, are a little hesitant to sign on to these things, but at our core as an organization, you know, we use the drug war as a focal point, but really the work we do is exactly that. We do civics education. We teach young people how to get engaged in the civic process, how to engage politically, and we give them the skills to do that. And we focus on the drug war because that is a primary, you know, they are the primary, one of the primary affected populations of drug policy, and so it's really easy just to say hey, look, like, here's all these political skills. Let's apply it to all of these things that are effecting your life right now. And that's a really easy thing to -- I shouldn't say it's easy, but, like, that is a logical step for people to make.

DOUG MCVAY: So, let's see, we're getting up close to the end of the show, and again, folks, I'm speaking with Tyler Williams with the Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Their national conference -- international conference, correct myself there.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yes, that's the one.

DOUG MCVAY: Is March 24th, 25th, and 26th in Portland, Oregon. And, Tyler, what kind of -- give me some closing thoughts for the listeners.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, totally. So, Doug, I know you know I also do a podcast of my own, it's called This Week In Drugs. I usually don't do a lot of content for it but I've recently started doing history segments, because my degree's in history, and our two co-hosts have a busier schedule this season, so I'm kind of picking up a little bit of the slack. And so, this last week I did a history segment on the Controlled Substances Act, in its original inception, in 1969 and 1970.

And so I read through a lot of primary sources, of the testimony delivered before Congress about the bill, which forever shaped contemporary drug policy, on a global scale. Right? And, you know, one of the things that really got to me was, there weren't a heck of a lot of new arguments on either side. You know, so this was over 40 years ago, and we had people saying the same things. Right? But it just steamrolled right through Congress, it, I mean, you know, there was a fight, but not much of one. It was pretty much taken for granted, and so actually most of the testimony is for people who opposed it, because the people who were for it didn't need to testify, it was going to pass, and it did.

And, you know, in many cases actually a lot of senators and representatives testified to make it stronger. They said, you know, they're like, I like where you're going, but we could do more. We could, you know, we could be harsher. And those were the amendments that passed, right?

And so, what really struck me about all of this, reading these arguments that, you know, word for word are things I've heard my friends say, right, about why we ought to end the war on drugs, is that we're living in a totally different time, and I think that this is demonstrated by what we saw with the DEA trying to schedule Kratom, you know, and the huge public pushback and the way that they stepped away from it, for a time.

You know, I think that if the Controlled Substances Act was up for a vote today, in its original inception, I think that the drug policy reform movement has done a good enough job building power, you know, that if the political landscape looked the same, and this bill was being voted on, I think that it might not pass, or it might get severely watered down in amendments that are pro-reform.

And so, my closing thought here is that, the work that we do as a community in the drug policy reform movement, and particularly the power building work, where we get our folks into decision making positions, and we develop public opinion changing resources, I think those two things are phenomenally important, because it has really shifted what is politically possible in the US, and by extension globally, for drug policy.

So, if you're working in drug policy reform, or if you're thinking about working in drug policy reform, I really hope you keep doing it, and I really hope you go for it, and I hope that primarily you focus on things that build power and get us into places where we can put up real, genuine resistance. And that's something that we're working to teach our students, and teach the young people we work with, because that's, I think, one of the most effective, you know, models for change in this arena.

DOUG MCVAY: Again, folks, we've been speaking with Tyler Williams, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, one of the best organizations working on these issues. And, Tyler, thank you so much for your time. Good luck with everything.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, thanks for having me on, Doug, it's always a pleasure.

DOUG MCVAY: All right. Cheers.

At the time of this recording, it's important to note that J. Beauregard Sessions III is still the Attorney General of the United States of America. Hopefully this situation can be corrected in a very short time.

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.

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!

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.