12/21/14 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

Doug McVay Reports: Botticelli and Lynch nominations are returned to the president, new data from the Monitoring The Future Survey shows teen use rates dropping, and an interview with Steph Sherer of Americans for Safe Access.

Audio file


DECEMBER 21, 2014


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.

Find us on the web at drug truth dot net, where you can find past programs and you can subscribe to our podcasts. You can follow me on twitter, where I'm at drug policy facts, and also at doug mcvay. The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, be sure to give its page a Like. You can find Drug War Facts on facebook as well, please give it a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power.

Now, on with the show.

First, this: The 113th session of the US Senate has ended. They failed to take up the nominations of Loretta Lynch to be US Attorney General, and that of Michael Botticelli to be Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, before doing so. These nominations along with many others have been returned to the President under Senate rules, and will have to be resubmitted to the next session of Congress in January in order to be considered again. The Senate will then be in Republican hands. The new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to be Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa. Grassley, as we've discussed before, is an old-school drug warrior and unreconstructed prohibitionist.

Botticelli's nomination had no visible opposition. The Committee approved him on a voice vote and sent the nomination to the full Senate. The Senate simply failed to bring his nomination to the floor for a confirmation vote. Lynch on the other hand was actively opposed by some of the Republicans on Judiciary, and no vote had yet been taken in committee before adjournment. Presumably the President will resubmit the nominations in January however I've seen no word yet from the White House regarding either of them.

Botticelli will probably be confirmed if he's renominated. On the other hand, Grassley and his fellow Republicans would probably prefer more of a drug-war zealot, especially with the possibility that California, and maybe some other states, will have marijuana legalization measures on the ballot in 2016. ONDCP was conspicuously uninvolved in the 2014 contests in Oregon, DC, and Alaska. While Botticelli is officially against marijuana legalization, he may have decided that his agency's limited resources could be better used elsewhere. Perhaps the Republicans would prefer a drug czar who sees opposing marijuana legalization efforts as the number one priority, above things like better access to treatment, overdose prevention, and the like. One thing that is certain is that we will know more about that next year.

Moving on to other news:

It's mid-December, so it's time for the Monitoring The Future project to report on the results of its survey on substance use by 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. These data were made public on Tuesday the 16th. The good news is that rates of substance use are dropping or holding steady across the board. The decline in the rates of marijuana use is particularly significant, since of course four states and the District of Columbia have legalized adult use of marijuana. The percent of young people who view marijuana as dangerous has actually declined, which has been thought of as an indicator that use might increase, so researchers are unsure of what's going on. The percent of young people who disapprove of marijuana use on the other hand has increased, however. Perhaps now that marijuana is being legalized, the glamor is wearing off. That is to say, young people are becoming aware that marijuana is not really that big a deal.

Well, rather than have me speculate, let's hear about those results from the study's lead researcher, Professor Lloyd Johnston, and his colleague Professor Richard Miech:

PROFESSOR LLOYD JOHNSTON: The study began in 1975, so we're now covering 40 years of drug use among American young people. There's been a lot of change in that time. The proportion of kids who are drinking, and more importantly who are binge drinking, that is, having five or more drinks in a row, both of those have seen declining proportions over quite a long time, so we're now at the lowest levels of drinking and binge drinking that we've seen in the history of the study.

PROFESSOR RICHARD MIECH: We're constantly trying to find what are the new drugs that are emerging. In Monitoring the Future, we show, for the first time in a national study, that e-cigarette use has actually surpassed regular cigarette use. Among eighth and tenth graders, e-cigarette use is more than twice as common as regular cigarette use. There's been a long term decline in regular cigarette use, it's declined substantially. Cigarette smoking prevalence today is at near-historic lows.

An e-cigarette is a battery powered device. The user puts in a chemical substance which includes nicotine, and that nicotine substance is turned into a vapor which the user then inhales into his or her lungs. Part of the reason that e-cigarettes are so popular among youth is that they have a very low perceived health risk. The public health community is very concerned about e-cigarette use, particularly among youth, because for many youth it is their initiation into nicotine use, which is an addictive drug.

PROFESSOR LLOYD JOHNSTON: We've seen for the last five or six years an increase in marijuana use among teens. This year, that leveled off, in fact there was a little lowering of the rates, uh, and we're not exactly sure why, given all the attention that marijuana is now receiving. About the only thing that went up really was the e-cigarettes this year, an unusual year in that respect, usually there's more things going up than going down, but, this year mostly it's either steady or decline.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, let's hear a little more about these results from the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow.

NORA VOLKOW: The Monitoring the Future this year is giving us some very good news because what it's showing is that the prevalence of illicit drug use among teenagers is actually going down, across a wide variety of illicit substances. But it's also very good news, because it's also showing us decreases in the patterns of licit drug use, and that is tobacco and alcohol. What the new Monitoring the Future is telling us is that the rate of marijuana use has not increased among eighth, tenth, or twelfth graders. It seems to have been stabilized as it relates to all of the indicators, that is, lifetime exposure to regular use.

We're seeing, interestingly, that the number of teens that perceive the use of marijuana as dangerous, whether it be occasional or regular, is going down, and that is quite significant, and we've seen this pretty significant change over the past five years, less and less kids are viewing the use of marijuana as harmful. What is interesting is that at the same time, we're seeing some very quite high levels and consistent of the disapproval of the use of marijuana. Also, an area where we're seeing very good news and we've actually have started to see that in the past two years, a significant decrease, particularly most dramatic as it relates to the abuse of pain medications.

So, over the past five years we've seen almost a fifty percent decrease in the rates of abuse of pain medications that contain opioids, which are actually highly addictive drugs that also are dangerous because of the risk of overdoses. What it's important to recognize is that we cannot become complacent, and also identify that these indicators going in the right direction reflect the fact that prevention works.

DOUG MCVAY: You know, it must have really hurt Nora Volkow to have to admit that marijuana legalization has not led to an increase in use by youth. I sympathize with her, I do, I remember when I was a little kid and I found out that Batman was not a real person. I'm sure this must have hit her at least as hard, and she is technically a grown-up which may make having one's delusions shattered even tougher.

Well, from data we turn to activism. Steph Sherer is the executive director of Americans for Safe Access. She's a tireless advocate and an exceptional activist, and it is an honor to finally have her on the show. Steph, I've known you for, well, quite a while, but for the benefit of our listeners, could you tell about why you got involved in medical marijuana activism?

STEPH SHERER: Of course, and thanks for having me on the show, Doug. I am a medical cannabis patient. I had a severe neck injury in 2000, and about a year and a half into treating that injury, I started having problems with my kidneys, and it turned out that my body cannot metabolize ibuprophen. And, the medical condition that I had required me to take large doses of anti-inflammatories just to be able to move every day. And, you know, I was treating my neck and ended up dealing with kidney failure, and luckily I was in southern California at the time, this was in 2001, and my doctor closed the door behind him one day and asked me if I smoked pot. And, I looked at him hard and asked him if maybe I was his youngest patient, because I thought he was trying to get marijuana from me.

But it turned out that he actually knew a little, a little bit about medical cannabis, and, uh, that led me down to really my first big experience with cannabis. And, shortly after becoming a patient I found that finding it wasn't as easy as I'd hoped, and I learned about a handful of brave people in the bay area that were distributing medical cannabis to patients. And I moved up there, shortly after visiting them. So, once I moved up to the bay area I learned a little bit more, that these, uh, dispensaries were not legal under federal law, and that, uh, was really why I founded Americans for Safe Access, when I realized that there were people, you know, willing to commit civil disobediences every day, risking their freedom to bring people like me medicine. I vowed that I would help create a movement to protect the work that they were doing and spread safe and legal access across the country.

DOUG MCVAY: And we're grateful to you for it. Sorry, I hit the mute on my, on my, uh, mic so that no background noise would interrupt and then I started talking and nothing was happening. That part will be edited. And we're grateful to you for the work that you're doing, Americans for Safe Access is a terrific organization, I've always supported your work. Now, you had some great successes this year, particularly in the new federal budget. Could you tell us something about that?

STEPH SHERER: Yeah, I mean, it's pretty exciting, actually. The first goal that we had at Americans for Safe Access was to end federal raids and prosecutions, and, you know, eleven years ago, we introduced an amendment to the appropriations budget for the Department of Justice that would prohibit them from spending funds and interfering with state laws. And this year, we passed that bill, eleven years later. And, basically, what this bill does is, it actually prohibits the Department of Justice from spending any funds to interfere with medical marijuana programs, and, you know, the language around implementation, uh, you know has really come from some of the case law. Actually, in WAMM v DEA, the district judge specifically pointed out that the activity of the DEA was actually undermining state law.

So, today, actually as of Wednesday, patients and their providers don't have to live in fear of the federal government showing up at their homes or kicking in the front door of their access centers. We're already working with attorneys across the country to try to get charges dropped, get people out of jail, and so it's, it's significant for the individuals that are still in that crossfire. And for everyone else, it means that the federal government has finally recognized that there's a battle going on and they've called a ceasefire.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. We still have a, obviously a long way to go, I mean, it's in schedule, it's still in schedule one, etc. But, uh, yeah, it's a, it is a very significant victory, it's a remarkable milestone, it's a remarkable accomplishment. Now, of course, this Congress has just ended. We have another session starting up in just a few weeks. Both houses of Congress will be controlled by the Republicans, now. What are ASA's priorities as we head into this 114th Congress, and, well, let's face it, the final two years of the Obama administration?

STEPH SHERER: Well, we have a lot of plans. The issue of medical cannabis is a bipartisan issue. We were, you know, we were able to pass the appropriations amendment through a Republican majority, uh, majority led Congress, and so, you know, we're really looking at, at the next two years of passing comprehensive legislation and ending this conflict between state and federal law once and for all.

We have our conference in, at the end of March, March 27th through the 31st, we're calling on folks to come out here and join us for a lobby day. You know, this will be our third annual conference. Last year we had 300 patients come to DC and we set up over 500 meetings with elected officials, with their member of Congress and their senators, and I think, you know, we can see that made a huge difference.

We're also going to be looking at things we can do within the administration without Congress, there are still some, some misinformation that's being put out by the federal government about medical cannabis, and we're going to be working on some projects to clean some of that up. And, we have 34 states this year that are going to be implementing some kind of medical cannabis law, and so we're going to be, you know, very busy across the country trying to make those programs work for patients.

DOUG MCVAY: You definitely have your work cut out for you, my gosh. Uh, now, shifting gears for a minute, on a more sombre note. Drug policy work is incredibly rewarding, it's one of the best jobs I've ever had. One of the drawbacks unfortunately is that the longer, longer you're in the business, the more friends you end up losing. The point of medical cannabis advocacy is that you're standing up for patients, some of these folks, some of them are suffering with potentially terminal diseases. I mean, if they're able to receive adequate amounts of the right medical cannabis, they're living with those diseases and not just dying from them.

It's important to say that, you know, but it doesn't change the fact, the longer we're in this business the more of our friends we end up burying. And we just lost, we've lost, we've both lost some good friends over the years, and earlier this year, one of those friends, Jim Greig, from here in my home state of Oregon, passed away. Now you wrote just an incredibly moving eulogy for him, and I apologize if this is too hard for you, but could you, could you speak to my listeners and tell them about our friend and this loss, that all of us have suffered?

STEPH SHERER: Yeah, it is, it is a tough one. I have to say, when – one of the first people I wanted to talk to, when I found out that the president had signed the appropriations bill, was Jim, and I actually texted his sister instead, and just said, you know, I really – Jim was the person I called any time, uh, we had a victory, you know. He was someone that really understood the complexities of this work, that when you're working with policy and regulations that you don't always get everything you want, and you have to try multiple strategies to get it done. And, uh, yeah. It was, it was really hard, celebrating without Jim. Jim did a lot to help us get to this point and to pass federal law, and, uh, you know I've been thinking a lot about a lot of our friends that we've lost over the years over the last few days.

You know, this work is so taxing, there's never a day that you wake up, where there isn't, you know, a million things to do, and that means for a lot of us, we don't really get time to sit back and reflect and see all the work that we've done, and, you know, with a victory this size, changing federal law, you know, whether I've had time or not, you know, I've – I've enjoyed thinking about my friends who aren't here to celebrate and what an impact they had on this work and continue to have, you know, will always have on millions of lives.

DOUG MCVAY: Thank you. Uh, yeah. It's – I couldn't make to his service but a few days ago, I was roped into writing a, writing a story about, well, a brief thing about Jim and another medical cannabis activist out there, Jim Klahr, who passed away very recently, while he was, basically while he was waiting on a transplant list. He was one of those folks who was unable to use medical cannabis for about a decade because doing so would have gotten him thrown off of the waiting list for an organ donation.

STEPH SHERER: Yeah, I got, I was lucky enough to get to spend some time with Jim at the Patients Out of Time conference. Both Jims, actually, I got to see, uh, Jim at the conference and I drove out to see Jim Greig in his home. Oregon lost two really amazing advocates this year, it's, and it's very hard, and I think that what – over the years, doing this work, you know, you lose a lot of people, and I think, you know, finding ways to honor these people really, you know – it's not only good for, you know, yourself, but also there's a lot of lessons to be learned from these advocates. So thanks for continuing to write about them and keeping their stories alive, they're two very inspiring people.

DOUG MCVAY: Yeah. I – I think about the times when I've thought, oh I can't go out, I've got the sniffles, or, oh, I don't think I can get there, I don't really, I can't really even, I'd have to look around to scrounge change for a bus, and people who've – yeah. It's, you just – anyway. Perspective.

Okeh, let's get back to something on a happier note here. You've been working on medical cannabis issues for well over, well, 10-15 years now. You have an exceptionally good name, an exceptionally good reputation among patients and among other advocates, and in this business that's not all that easy. You could have cashed in on all of that years ago. You could have gone into private business, you could have opened your own dispensary, you probably would have started, could have started your own product lines, and you haven't. You haven't. You do the work that you're doing, that is something – you've never sold out, and that's something that I admire and I respect deeply about you. This is a subject that I'm very interested in myself, and I think that listeners would be too. Could you speak for a few minutes about some of the differences and the similarities between being an advocate and being in the business?

STEPH SHERER: Yeah, I mean, I think that, you know, I want to start by saying that I don't think that people that are in the business side of this are sell-outs. I think that people, somebody needs to make this medicine and sell it to patients, and there are a lot of, you know, really amazing people doing that work. But I, as far as me, you know, I made a commitment to change federal law, and I'm not, I'm close, and I got one piece of that done, but, you know, this is the work that we have to do.

And I think as far as, you know – back when I started Americans for Safe Access, there were eleven dispensaries in the entire country, and they were all in the bay area of California. And at the time, you know, there wasn't much difference honestly between advocates and the sort of business side of things. We were all – there was a political agenda, you know, the people that were running the dispensaries were political activists who were very aware of the fact that they were committing federal civil disobediences every day, and willing to make that sacrifice to move this issue forward.

And, you know, as, as the advocacy part was successful, you know, as patients advocates we were able to bring the message to our city elected officials and state officials, that it wasn't enough just to exempt us from arrest or prosecution, that we actually – we weren't dying, we were sticking around and we needed a safe place to get our medicine on a regular basis, by bringing that message to, uh, to our cities and to the state of California, we – a side effect if you will of our work was the creation of an industry. And, you know I would say, for the most part, industry and patients have been, you know, we agree about 99 percent of the time, and that is within the medical cannabis industry.

And, and we've, you know, we've found ways to work with one another. It saddens me a little, at the immaturity of the industry sometimes, that they don't appreciate or help fund the government relations work that we do at ASA, that allows them to exist, and that can be a little frustrating. But something that I'm actually very worried about, uh, is the industry around 502 in Washington state, around the recreational markets, because as advocates and as, you know, working with the industry in the past, we were on the same page. We wanted to create a, you know, a more, legislation that allowed patients to get access, but something that's starting to unfold in the city of Seattle and across Washington is that people who run 502 stores are actively lobbying the city of Seattle and the state government to shut down medical marijuana because they want us to pay their taxes, and they want, they don't want dispensaries to make funds.

And so I think, you know, I'm starting to see more of a gap than ever before between advocacy and business. And, you know, I think it's – it's another player in the room and I think that we're able to be successful, even, even with that stakeholder voice, but it's definitely new and it's, it's, uh, a little frightening, but we know capitalism, you know, would add an interesting, an interesting set of new challenges as well as benefits for patients, and we're actively navigating that right now.

DOUG MCVAY: Thank you again. That again was Steph Sherer, executive director of Americans for Safe Access, we spoke last week via Skype. And that's it for today. I'm Doug McVay and this was Century of Lies. Thank you for listening.

Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of Drug War Facts dot org. 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're 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. A few of the stations out there that carry Century Of Lies include WERU 89.9 FM in Blue Hill, Maine; WPRR 1680 am 95.3 fm in Grand Rapids, Michigan; WIEC 102.7 FM in Eau Claire, WI; WGOT-LP 94.7 FM in Gainesville, Florida; KRFP 90.3 FM in Moscow, Idaho; Valley Free Radio WXOJ-LP 103.3 FM in Northampton, Massachusetts, KOWA-LP 106.5 FM in Olympia, Washington, and Free Radio Santa Cruz 101.3 fm in Santa Cruz California.

You can find a recording of this show and past shows at the website drug truth dot net, where you can 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, you can find Drug War Facts on facebook as well, please give it a like and share it with friends. Spread the word. 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!