02/15/15 Doug McVay

Doug McVay's conversation with Kathleen Kane-Willis, director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy

Century of Lies
Sunday, February 15, 2015
Doug McVay
Drug War Facts
Download: Audio icon COL021515.mp3



FEBRUARY 15, 2015


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

DOUG MCVAY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org. Century of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network, which comes to you through the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network and is supported by the generosity of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy and of listeners like you. Follow me on Twitter, where I'm @DrugPolicyFacts and @DougMcVay. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, be sure to 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.

Now, on with the show.

You know, I love doing radio. It's been my dream since I was a little kid, so this really is a dream come true. Doing this show also helps me keep in touch with friends. I've been involved in drug policy reform since I started a chapter or NORML at the University of Iowa in 1983 so I have a lot of friends in drug policy. What's really cool is that my friends, some of them are heroes, they're truly amazing wonderful people who I respect and admire, and who inspire me really beyond words though I guess that since words are my stock in trade these days I'll have to try.

Well, earlier this week I had the good fortune to interview one of those friends, a real hero, Kathie Kane-Willis. Kathie is the director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy at Roosevelt University. We had a good, long conversation, here's just a small portion of it.

KATHIE KANE-WILLIS: Sometimes when we talk about these things we create, in, and even recovery, and, or maybe even especially recovery and 12-step recovery, creates a false paradigm of clean and sober versus not. And when you look at that and you unpack that a little bit, it's not really, because it's – okeh, coffee's okeh, right? Tobacco use is okeh, you know, so it's not abstinence from all drugs. And what I think of recovery, and I think this is really important, is being able to live a fully engaged life. If you're engaged in substance use where you can't fully engage with your life and your, and it's affecting your ability and your home, your work, your – then that's, that can be a problem, right?

I mean, I'm not going to say there's no such thing as problematic substance use. But somebody could still be using substances and in recovery, leading their fully actualized life, that is recovery to me. It's not what they're putting in their bodies, it's behaviors that they're engaged in. You know, how engaged are they in, in society, in their work, in their family, in their – you know? In healthy endeavors, and being a full participant. The problem that we see with people with substance use disorders who are in recovery is that the collateral consequences of their criminal convictions makes it nearly impossible for them to engage in a fully realized life. Right?

So they can't recover because there are structural barriers for them to get employment and housing, you know? Their families may say, hey, you know, maybe you were a cocaine use or heroin user or meth user, and now you're not using any of those substances, but you use marijuana to relax but, you know, your family doesn't believe that you're quote unquote in recovery then, even though you're not problematically using it. Right? The criminalization of drug use and the criminalization of people who use drugs interferes with them getting, being fully actualized people and being in the kind of, and I'm going to use air quotes, recovery, that I am engaged in, which is, you know, leading a fully actualized life.

And you know, it's like we are talking out of two sides of our mouths: get better, but here's all these barriers towards you getting better. And we're going to isolate you further, and that's going to make you better. And like, you see that dialogue going on in tough love, with people, with parents who are told basically kick your kid out of the house, don't give them any money. We know – we know what homelessness and substance use disorder looks like together, and it doesn't look better than substance use disorder and being housed looks. Housing is actually really protective. Family, staying engaged with your family helps people get better. So, some of this tough love stuff is so destructive towards people who want to make changes and be better but they don't know how.

And so I think there's a lot of these simplistic ideas, and I keep going back to that, I don't know why, but, I guess it's just the theme of today. You know, just stop using. Well that's – you know what, most people who have serious substance use disorders are, you know, problematic use of harder drugs, also have underlying mental health condition, right? Like, what's driving that? People who are living in situations that are kind of dire, you know? They don't have enough – money is an issue, housing is an issue. I mean, how do we help those people, how do we create a system that actually cares for people?

And I – when we think about this, if it were any other kind of medical condition, we would never sort of engage in this sort of black and white behavior. You know? If we're talking about someone who's diabetic, and if they're able to make two thirds of the behavioral changes that we need them to make, usually we're like, great job! You're eating better, I mean I'd like you to get your exercise up but you know what? You started walking, good for you. We don't do that with substances, we don't do that, we don't applaud those positive changes. We see it as a whole cloth, abstinence or nothing, and I think that most of what recovery looks like is much more what I'm talking about, which is in this sort of gray area of – not gray area because it is recovery, but it's not black or white, you know?

DOUG MCVAY: Oh exactly, no it's – yeah. Easy answers, you know, easy answers are so tempting, you know, we must do something, oh look here's a thing, let's do that. Not worry about whether it works or not but it was a thing, we can be seen to be doing something, and that's, uh, you know, politically that's, politically that is often all that's necessary, is that someone be seen as doing something, or, or not seen as doing something else. And yet, uh, you know actually making – nobody ever bothers to check and see if it works, and to see if it's going on, and if it doesn't, well, you know, life's not fair.

KATHIE KANE-WILLIS: Exactly. I think, you know, and when I think about the people that I come into contact with in these different areas, I mean, I think you can't – they want the health-based, they do, but they don't – they're so unfamiliar with it, and if somebody got there before me, you have to undo that policing part, right? You have to – you know, with their kids, you have to say, no wait, there is actually, you know, there's evidence-based strategies, there's, there's, there's things that we can do that don't, that aren't being a cop in your own house. It doesn't have to be, you know, recovery doesn't have to be some kind of horrible painful process.

You know, Doug, right now, one of the things that I'm dealing with is, I've had hepatitis C for 26 years and I'm doing treatment right now. One of the things that I had to do while in, while in treatment is, you know, abstain completely from alcohol. Which is not a big deal, but it's sort of different than – it puts your mind in a different kind of place, like you cannot have this thing, you know, you are not allowed to have this thing, alcohol. And so going through that, even though I never was a terribly big alcohol user, but not being allowed to have it, is, it sets up a different paradigm that choosing not to do it. And I think it's an interesting experience.

I still use tobacco. I had pretty much nearly quit but I knew that when I was going to go through this hepatitis C treatment, my husband, who has quit tobacco, said, you know what, maybe you don't want to be so harsh on the cigarettes right now. And I mean, he told me that, and where did he learn that from? Me. You know, I forgot that part. Do you know what I mean? Like, sometimes, to support yourself through this, maybe you need a little more of that to deal short term with this. And that's okeh, and that we can deal with these things in stages, right? Like it's not like everything has to be dealt with at once.

But I think that people feel that way, and I think they feel that way in policy, I think they feel that way personally: Oh my god there's a substance use disorder, we've got to eradicate it, fix it right now it's got to be fixed. Well, you know the problem on the policy level, on the personal level, it didn't just happen in the last 24 hours so it isn't going to get fixed in the next 24. It's a long haul proposition, so how do we improve things, even, even incrementally? You know, what are our opportunities to do that?

And knowing that it's going to be a long process and that sometimes we get like really quick leaps, and you know, naloxone is all cool and harm reduction is an okeh word to say, and, you know, and the ONDCP is saying, you know, methadone is good, and, you know, I mean, like, those are big, big changes. And, you know, Washington state and Oregon and Colorado and Alaska and DC are, have legalized marijuana. Those things are, are great to have to keep you going, you know?

But for the – for folks who live in places where they don't have an initiative process, or the process is kind of slow, and I mean, if we're thinking about this as a real long term thing, which I do think it is, then, you know, we have to be ready, and this is of course a cliché, it's a marathon, and it's a, probably more like a relay race too, right? We have to think about who are we going to pass the baton to as well. And that, that slow and steady might win the race in the end, and that, that we have to just be very careful about not assuming that every change that we make, just because we make a change is a good change.

That – in Illinois we're dealing with that now, because we don't have a place for civil offenses in our code, we have to create a regulatory offense for decriminalizing marijuana. Right now, the bills that are out there make it a petty offense, but it's still a criminal offense, right? So we don't want – we want to make sure that that – so do we support that bill, how do we do? You know, what do we do with that, like sometimes it isn't necessarily better. We have to be very careful of these things.

Or we watch them, we see them unfold, maybe we, we influence the process and keep talking about how decriminalization, if not done correctly, if it's made into a petty offense it's still a criminal offense, how it's going to impact people, how there could be net-widening and we go and we fix it the next year but just to be aware of those things, and not to be so simple minded – and I don't mean this, I don't mean it to be rude, but to not to be so simplistic as to say, well it says decrim so therefore it's good, yay! You know? Because I think the devil is always in the details. Always.

DOUG MCVAY: I don't think you're being harsh at all when you say that because I, I believe that that is one of the problems we ran into many years ago. I mean, we can blame Keith, we can do all kinds of stuff, but back in – by the late 70s, several states had decriminalized and Carter was saying good things, and so I think some of the momentum, uh, had sort of diminished, like, we won! Oh well, we're good, everything's on a glide path, and it's all, everything's going to be fine. Ha. It's like, no, it's not.

And I think we ran into the same thing, when I left – when I walked away briefly from policy work to go into business I fell victim to it myself. I thought, oh wow, we're on a glide path toward being done, this thing is sorted. Time for me to, you know, try and get into a different field, there's going to be no need for this Drug War Facts thing in a few years. Ha! Oh god was I wrong, whoa, buddy was I wrong.

KATHIE KANE-WILLIS: Well, I, you know, I've been pleased by the progress that we make because, that we have made, but I don't think that this is going to be finished in my lifetime, and I hope that I'm wrong, but I prefer to be cautious in that because, you know, whenever we gain something there's always, there can be a pushback, right?

And so, I think right now we're in a policy window, lots of things are going to happen, but I think, you know, there's going to be a period of, then the pendulum will swing again. And there needs to be people who are always going to be bringing up these issues, because, the war on drugs has lasted so very long, it's still going on, and even though maybe it's being somewhat defanged a little bit, and I say that a little bit because I do, I want us to, I want us to applaud the wins that we have had. I think that's important to say, you know, things have changed, right?

They have, they are improving, and that is important, but at the same time, much of the work still lays in front of us, and it will be in front of us, and it will be in front of my daughter's generation, and it's probably not – and it's, I hope that we get to a more sane and rational place, and I think we're moving in that direction, but we need to stay that course. And so, I think it's going to take a lot of time, because when you talk to people who are not in the movement, who are just regular people who are impacted by substance use disorder, addiction, whatever it is, you know, drugs in some way when it touches them, their reaction, they don't know anything else, their reaction is, you know, to get very loud. And so – loud on the side of more criminalization.

DOUG MCVAY: You're listening to Century of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. This is an interview I conducted with Kathie Kane-Willis, the director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

KATHIE KANE-WILLIS: It's, it was hard, I started doing drug trending around heroin and, you know, talking about this rising white presence to flip the paradigm. I did it to say, to change the way we looked at people who used drugs. Like, it's not – people who use heroin are not all African-American males that lived in cities. You know? I was trying to do that to change the paradigm to say look. Look at this. Because race plays into it so much. But I think that, and I didn't mean to create a drug scare, but I think I did. I mean, I think there's a lot of drug scare going on around heroin.

The thing that, when we were doing that work, was to press on policy issues that were important, we did get a lot of those passed because of this change in demographics. The problem is, is that, you know what? We shouldn't have had to have a change in demographics of, you know, these young white users, to address syringe exchange, naloxone distribution, opiate replacement therapy or substitution therapy and medication assisted treatment. It shouldn't have mattered what color the people were, but, but it does, apparently, and that's a real problem, too.

And I worry about the impact that that work – negative impact that that work had. And dealing with the media, you know, I try to not so much focus on it, but you know I get called a lot about that, you know, about the new face of heroin, that, I get a ton of calls about that. And I really try to really focus on, you know, what the solutions are, you know? And the solutions are the same no matter what demographic group is using, right? But it's – I feel some regret about that, even though it was an opportunity to make change, public health change. Right? So even I – you know what I mean? I feel, I feel that, because, I don't want people to enhance penalties because they're scared of heroin.

DOUG MCVAY: Kathie, for what it's worth, I share your, uh, I share your sense of guilt and responsibility. Way back, way back in the – I'm so old – way back in the late 80s when I was working at NORML, one of the recurring refrains, and it wasn't just NORML it was other places, but – earlier, out in Oregon, but especially at NORML we were talking a lot about, you know, that legalizing marijuana would let us focus – let law enforcement focus on more important things.

We could, you know, wasting resources on pot when there are all these other things, you've got crack, you've got heroin, we should be, you know, putting our resources into these things. I wasn't making clear enough and strong enough the idea that we needed to have substitution treatment and these other – in fact when I was at NORML we weren't supposed to talk about that kind of stuff, so the very basic, you know, let's us free to focus on these more dangerous things.

And that, you know that line, that argument continues to be used, and I still see it, I still see, you know, well-intentioned reformers who are marijuana legalizers basically demonizing other drugs and dismissing people who have used other drugs because, you know, because marijuana's okeh but this other stuff's awful. And it's like, uh, no one should be put in jail for using a substance, period. And it's, you know, it's not a personal failing, it's not a, it's not, it should not – yeah. You shouldn't condemn someone because their drug of choice is different than yours, and I don't care whether it's alcohol or marijuana or, or whatever. Or my favorite, coffee.

KATHIE KANE-WILLIS: Exactly. That's – and I mean, and I think we've seen that tension, you know, because, am I going to say that, do I believe that marijuana's safer than alcohol? Absolutely, I do believe that. But it is a complicated thing when you demonize other drugs. Because, you know, is heroin such a dangerous drug? Illegal, illicit heroin is, right? But, you know, heroin assisted treatment is not dangerous. You know? And so, part of what we're, what we need to be thinking about, I think, is – and I think Carl Hart's done a good job of talking about this is, you know, not all use is misuse.

And the mythology around, you know, heroin use, or any hard drug use, the sort of idea: You try it once, you're hooked, that that's not really how that works either. And that, you know, it is the illegality of the substance that makes it so hard to make it safe. You know? I know there's a rise in prescription pill, you know, overdose deaths, and, but that, to me, is related to mixing and combinations of drugs that, that if people were more educated about could manage better.

So, I mean, you know, most prescription drug overdoses are not from an opiate, it's opiates in combination with other things. Most heroin overdoses are actually not heroin, but heroin in combination with other things, like alcohol, benzodiazepines, things like that. But when we see this we think it's the prescription opioids, or we think it's the – but it's really the combination of these substances that can create a lethal combina – you know, a lethal concoction. And so, the thing that gets noticed is the most noticeable thing, right? The thing that we're talking about, and it's sort of like confirmation bias, like: Oh, I'm looking for it, I found it, okeh there it is.

And, but, it's way more nuanced than that. I mean, getting people to understand, for example, why – like the idea of rushing dope spots, and I'm talking about heroin. And, this is, like, oh, say there's a number of overdoses from somebody who's distributing heroin, right, like a marked bag. People hear on the street and then they go and they seek it out. People who don't use drugs, or have never used heroin, don't understand this. They think, they think because they don't understand it that, that these drug dependent people are suicidal. What they're doing is they're looking for the best buy that they can find, knowing that this must be some pretty high-potency stuff, that they can use less to get the same effect.

But see because people don't understand what – that they're making a rational choice, actually, to get a cheaper product because the purity is higher, it makes it cheaper. All they see is, why would someone rush a dope spot where someone OD'd? They don't understand because they don't understand how people are thinking about this, and what, how, how when people are dependent on opioids the withdrawal syndrome, and how they're trying to avoid that, and how they're trying to maximize their money for the amount of – you know, to get the best buy that they can. And so what they see is something that looks so illogical but actually is really quite logical.

You know, and it's because these things are so mystified, they're filled with mystery to people, because they don't understand them. They have no experience. And so, people who don't know what drug users are like, or people who use drugs are like, are really ill-equipped to make policy decisions about people who use drugs.

DOUG MCVAY: No but you're right, it's that, it's the idea of, like I say, in economics – there's an old joke about economics that the real world is a rarely used scenario. And I think that's, that's so true, and for a lot of people too in policy, it's just, you know, this is, we'll do this and this, it will be great. Yeah. Now in the real world that's never going to work, but gosh in theory that sounds great. Ah, I suppose we get that in drug policy.

That was part of an interview I had with Kathie Kane-Willis. Kathie works at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and she is the director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy.

This week: The Senate finally approved the nomination of Michael Botticelli to be the next drug czar. This should end all the speculation – well, my speculation – about why the Judiciary Committee dragged its heels for so long. It should, but it's not. I'm still curious, and I wonder whether there will be any lingering effect on policy. The Judiciary Committee after all is led by Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa and a zealous drug warrior. I think that Grassley and his fellow drug war hawks were disappointed in Botticelli's soft approach to drug control and they wanted to send a message.

And that's all the time we have this week. You are listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network. We come to you once a week with news, information, and commentary on the drug war. Century Of Lies is heard on 420Radio.org on Mondays at 11 am and 11 pm, and Saturdays at 4 am, all times are pacific. We are heard on time4hemp.com on Wednesdays between 1 and 2pm pacific along with our sister program Cultural Baggage. And we're on The Detour Talk Network at thedetour.us on Tuesdays at 8:30pm.

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Recordings of this show and past shows can be found at the website DrugTruth.net. While you're there check out our other programs and subscribe to our podcasts. Follow me on Twitter, where I'm @DrugPolicyFacts and @DougMcVay. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, be sure to 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.

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

The war on drugs is built on a foundation of lies. Those lies crumble when exposed to the light of the truth.

DEAN BECKER: For the Drug Truth Network, this is Dean Becker 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 Policy Studies.