01/18/15 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

Doug McVay: New data from the CDC on drug overdose deaths, and a conversation with UConn SSDP chapter president Tyler Williams.

Audio file


JANUARY 18, 2015


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. 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. Drug War Facts on facebook too, please give it a like and share it with friends.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, on with the show.

First this news: The federal Centers for Disease Control has released new data on opiate overdose deaths in the US. According to the CDC, in 2013, a total of 43,982 deaths in the United States were attributed to drug poisoning, including 16,235 deaths, or 37 percent of the total, involving opioid analgesics. This is a slight increase from the previous year when there were a total of 41,502 overdose deaths attributed to drug overdose, of which prescription analgesics accounted for 16,007. Deaths attributed to heroin overdose on the other hand rose sharply, from 5,925 in 2012 to 8,257 in 2013.

Though the number of deaths each year attributed to drug overdose continues to rise, the increase has slowed down. According to the CDC, quote: “From 1999 to 2013, the drug poisoning death rate more than doubled from 6.1 to 13.8 per 100,000 population, and the rate for drug poisoning deaths involving opioid analgesics nearly quadrupled from 1.4 to 5.1 per 100,000. For both drug poisoning and drug poisoning involving opioid analgesics, the death rate increased at a faster pace from 1999 to 2006 than from 2006 to 2013.” End quote.

The full report can be downloaded from C D C dot gov. Links to that report as well as data from it can also be found on my website at Drug War Facts dot org.

Now, I should mention, when I say deaths attributed to drug overdose, and deaths attributed to heroin overdose, the reason I say that is because oftentimes there are other drugs involved: tranquilizers and anti-depressants for example, even alcohol in combination is a huge contributor to deaths which otherwise get attributed to so-called prescription drug, analgesic, or heroin overdose.

That all leads us to our next story. The National Institute on Drug Abuse sponsors an annual National Drug Facts Week. This year it's being held from January 26th through February 1st. It's an event directed toward young people, as NIDA puts it, quote:
“National Drug Facts Week (NDFW) is a national health observance for teens to promote local events that use NIDA science to shatter the myths about drugs.”
End quote.

To find out more about national drug facts week, go online and point your browser toward teens dot drugabuse dot gov. And to find some actual facts – direct quotes, full citations, and links back to the original, impeccable sources, the kind of uncomfortable facts that the government really prefers you not pay attention to – you can go to my website at drug war facts dot org. And keep listening to the Drug Truth Network. This program, Century of Lies, and our sister show, Cultural Baggage, come to you once a week with news, information, and commentary on drug policies and the war on drugs.

Are you part of a community, college, or public radio station? Are you looking for content? These programs are also available for rebroadcast without fees. We also produce a daily three-minute news item, that's seven short pieces of quality audio every week, all of which are available for nonprofit use for free. Check us out at the website drug truth dot net.

And now. Students for Sensible Drug Policy is an organization familiar with most of our listeners. I have the honor of being a former board member and a current member of their advisory board. SSDP chapters around the country are making a huge difference in advancing the drug policy debate. I recently had the opportunity to interview one of their chapter leaders, Tyler Williams from the University of Connecticut. Here's part of that conversation:

DOUG MCVAY: Tyler Williams is a student at the University of Connecticut, where he heads up that campus's chapter of students for sensible drug policy. Tyler, welcome to the show.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Hey, thanks for having me, Doug.

DOUG MCVAY: Uh, now, tell me, tell us something about yourself.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yes, so, I'm a Connecticut native, my family's been here for a couple hundred years, uh, so, University of Connecticut's kind of in my blood. I'm a history major, I'm a senior, this is my, coming into my eighth semester and I'll be graduating in May. I actually interestingly enough started out as a computer science and engineering major, and I did that for two and a half years, and I will say is that, being part of SSDP kind of helped me find my real calling, which is like, public policy and advocacy and activism.

So, in my junior year, uh, halfway through my junior year, I switched majors to history, because history was going to let me, allow me to do that sort of work more easily than computer science and engineering was.

DOUG MCVAY: Wow, and you're actually looking at graduating in a four year period.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, I managed, luckily enough, when I was taking my engineering courses I was also minoring in women's, gender, and sexuality studies, so I had been taking a liberal arts coursework on the side of my engineering coursework, which fulfilled a lot of the requirements and when I switched to history, I was lucky enough that I only actually needed history courses, none of the gen eds or anything, it was like, I was eight classes away from graduation. I actually could have done it early if I had, you know, crammed my schedule a little more but I gave myself some breathing room.

DOUG MCVAY: Very well done. Now, what, what was it that made you decide to get into drug policy reform?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, so, I think my story is pretty typical for a lot of other people in my situation, coming into a public university. I started off as just kind of a drug user in high school, just – as a cannabis user, nothing else, I didn't drink alcohol, I didn't use other drugs. But it was one of those things that, you know, growing up in a small town you just kind of fall into. And I realized, and felt like there wasn't a lot of harm being done to myself or my friends, and it made me kind of question the idea of like, why is marijuana illegal?

So, I had a few friends at the University of Connecticut who had already been a part of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and they brought me into the meeting. When I first came, and when I tell this story I tell it like kind of a, kind of like one of those romantic comedies where the couple gets together under sort of false pretenses. So I came in as kind of this, this guy from high school who wanted to, you know, smoke weed with his friends, and talk about legalizing it someday.

But I got there, and the first meeting opened up with a question to the group, and that was, why should we legalize heroin? And this kind of blew my mind, at the age of 18, you know, coming from a small town and never really running into a lot of drugs besides cannabis and alcohol and tobacco and all of that. And when I heard the students talk, like really eloquently, about the dangers of models of prohibition and the dangerous nature of prohibition as opposed to, you know, what heroin is as a substance, and people had a lot of really compelling statistics and evidence and like talking points about why prohibition is bad. And then we moved onto issues of like systemic racism.

That was kind of like a gotcha moment for me where my head spun a little bit, and, I didn't contribute to the conversation because I was overwhelmed and kind of unprepared for that level of eloquence and the higher level of critical thinking, and I was like, this is a really interesting place. So I stuck around. I, I think I have a perfect attendance record for SSDP meetings at the University of Connecticut, I don't think I've missed one. And so after, you know, about a year, I got pretty heavily involved, and, you know, I was just captured by, I think, the righteousness of it all.

I mean, you know when you watch those horror movies and you watch, like, the little kid who's seen the ghost, and he has all these really great compelling points about how there must be a ghost or a murderer or something else, and all the parents are oblivious, and they're just talking past them, talking at him, they're never listening to him.

I feel like for a very long time the drug policy reform movement was that little kid, where we were all saying Hey, look, we're damaging these communities, people are still being hurt, drug usage hasn't gone down, everything is dangerous and nothing is getting better and in fact it's getting worse. And like all these policies are bad and no one was listening to us. And finally, that little kid, who is the drug policy reform movement, I think is getting a little bit louder and people are paying attention.

So, you know, and so again, back to the, there's like two movie analogies going on here, but back to the romantic comedy thing is, even though I came with these pretenses of wanting to kind of like, get to know other stoners, what I found it is that Students for Sensible Drug Policy was a community of people who are concerned about drug use in our communities, and are concerned about doing good for our society and our country as a whole, and I came to really fall in love with those people and that kind of ideology and that sort of activism that they did.

DOUG MCVAY: That's um, that's, that's great, that's great. You, you definitely saw that the emperor wears no clothes.


DOUG MCVAY: And you're right, there rest, uh, a lot of the public is, a lot of the public is finally, is finally noticing that too. Well, not just noticing it, they're saying it, that's the important part. Now, are you involved in the student government over there at all at U Conn?

TYLER WILLIAMS: No I'm not. I do work with them pretty closely. We have a pretty robust funding system at the University of Connecticut, which is handled by our student government. A lot of our SSDP chapter members are in student government, and right before my time, so the year before I came to U Conn, uh, Students for Sensible Drug Policy here staged somewhat of a take-over of the government, we were sixty percent of the student government for a whole year or two, actually, which was kind of cool. And, one of our former members, and the former chairman of the board for SSDP National, Sam Tracy, wrote a manual for other organizers, other student activists, on how to take ove your student government. But personally, I'm not involved.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on, right on. But you do, of course you'd have to work closely with them, so it's ...

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, I get money from them, so I know them pretty well.

DOUG MCVAY: Now you also do some work at the campus radio station as I understand. Do you do a news or public affairs program, or, do you do music, what do you do?

TYLER WILLIAMS: I do both. So, I actually run an SSDP radio show, we're on, we're 91.7 FM WHUS Storrs, and Thursdays at 10:30 we have SSDP Radio, where I talk about the local goings on of our chapter, I talk about drug policy as a whole, I do interviews much like what we're doing now, and I like to reach out to other, to other students on campus who are doing cool, activist-y stuff. I hope to make it, like, a pretty good news program for drug policy and related issues.

I also do music, so, we have a cool program called New Spins, where we actually get all the new releases, they're sent to our Music Director Trevor, and he curates them down to like a database, and then weekdays from 1-5 pm we only play new music, and so I'm a DJ there for two hours on Wednesdays. But really my big passion is SSDP Radio, and I've been doing that for about two years.

DOUG MCVAY: Excellent, uh, that's excellent. Now, let's talk a bit about your chapter for a moment. What's your membership like?

TYLER WILLIAMS: So, right now, I was actually just looking over our roster for some paperwork stuff with the student government. We have about 76 registered members on paper. I would say that our meetings are generally between 30 and 45 students on an average week. On our big meetings, when we have, you know, when we have food or when we have a big speaker or for kick-off events, we can fill a room to about 75 or 100 people. We have a good, active, working core membership of like 20 to 25 people who are always doing stuff. And if I really needed to pull a large community together, I would call the SSDP community around U Conn roughly 100 people. So, you know, 20 highly active people, 50 or 60 people come to meetings, 100 as our extended network, is usually how I characterize it.

DOUG MCVAY: That's a tremendous network. Now, what kind of outreach do you do to recruit new members?

TYLER WILLIAMS: We do a lot of things. I find that one of the most effective ways of getting new members is to actually be doing something, because when you're working on a project, I feel a lot, a lot of people are more comfortable asking to help out than they are on start, than they are to start their own project. So, I make sure that everything that I'm doing on campus with SSDP is, one, well documented: I write everything down, I take pictures, I post facebook stuff. I'm really loud about it. People know my voice and they know my face because I'm a loudmouth, and I'm around a lot.

But, I think it really helps to show that like, we're doing this, that our chapter is doing stuff. So we're at the capitol a lot, we lobby, we host educational events for knowing your rights, we do harm reduction events, uh, we also work with other students groups, attend protests, we've recently, were involved with the Black Student Association and another group called Sankofa, we went with them to some of the Ferguson solidarity protests, a protest against mass incarceration, and again, so, our outreach is mainly through our actions.

However, other things we do to help do outreach is of course we have our involvement fairs every semester, where we table for five hours and we talk to new students who are looking to get involved. The radio station is a great resource, because we have, we have PSAs that play regularly that tell people when and where our meetings are. We have an entire public relations committee, that's headed up by our chairperson Zoe Mandese, she's really great, and she does a bunch of awesome flyers and she has a whole team of people who go out all across campus, they divide it up and they post up flyers, they write on the whiteboards before and after classes so people see us, and I'd say she, she, she runs our facebook page for the most part and it's a really solid facebook presence.

DOUG MCVAY: Well that's terrific. Uh, in fact I was going to ask you about, uh, working in coalition with other student organizations, you obviously do. Uh, and that's, uh, that's, uh, just smart, it's just smart organizing. There's a lot of, there's a lot of things in common, and uh, that, you know, people may have a primary focus, one thing or another, but there are some, uh, there are – well let's face it, if you're involved in social justice, then drug policy should be a natural, uh, should be a natural fit.


DOUG MCVAY: And vice versa. Uh, so, what are the, uh, what are some of the most important drug policy related issues for people on your campus? For students, especially.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yes. So, we're fortunate enough that our school, our state has a medical amnesty “good samaritan” policy here, and we have for some time, but unfortunately not a lot of people know about it, so that's one of the biggest issues right now is education. And so to recap, those medical amnesty policies, for people who might not know what they are, is, if there's a person who is, uh, overdosing or having a bad medical, having a medical emergency due to some sort of substance and there's people around them, if the people around the person who's having a bad time call the authorities to get help, it's taken as a favorable factor in the follow-up report.

So, if say there's uh, like a party with a bunch of people who are underage and they're drinking alcohol and someone gets alcohol poisoning, if the people at that party call the police or call, uh, call for EMS to help that person, generally the rule in the state and at the university is that they won't be, they won't be punished or pursued for having alcohol underage, but rather they'll be seen as having made a good choice and a responsible choice for ensuring the safety of others. So one of the biggest things here at U Conn is making sure people are educated about that, so it's harm reduction.

We're also in the process right now of, Connecticut's medical marijuana law has just kind of gotten off the ground. We won it in 2012, and the regulations went into effect last year, uh, and the industry's just now starting, the first dispensaries opened up in September, and there's a lot of problems with it. The list of qualifying conditions is extremely restrictive, which means that the amount of patients we have in Connecticut is extremely limited and the industry is flailing right now. They're just – their prices are too high because their overhead is too high and they don't have a big enough customer base. Another issue on campus specifically is that the law was written to exclude university campuses from medical marijuana laws. So there are a lot of students on campus who could benefit from using medical marijuana and like could be potential patients but because they live on campus, they can't use their medicine. That's a really big issue and something we're working on. So we're working on trying to expand the list of qualifying conditions and also expand the areas in which medical marijuana can be used in Connecticut. Those are kind of our big focuses on like a policy level.

DOUG MCVAY: So now, uh, do you do much outreach to the broader community there in Storrs, or do you stay focused on students?

TYLER WILLIAMS: We try to outreach to the community, that's something that I would say we're lacking in as of right now, but it's definitely on our list of things to do more of. We started last year doing an annual event called the Freedom Rally. We modeled it after URI's SSDP's Hempfest, they've run that like every year and they've been doing it a very long time. Basically it's a really great concert and festival where local bands come and they perform for the students and the community members, and they invite vendors from all over the place to come and sell their wares.

And so we started our own version of that called the U Conn Freedom Rally, where we have local bands come and we ask local vendors to come as well. So we're hoping that that sort of event attracts more community members to come and work with us. We're also working on reaching out to more community organizers, and one of the things about collaborating with the other student groups on campus is that – I think that's something other student groups here do better than we do, is they work with outside community members. Because we're lucky to have like a very large national network of other SSDP chapters, but other organizations here at U Conn don't have that support network so they rely more heavily on the community to get their word out. So, working with them has opened up doors to meet with organizers in Hartford and Willamantic, which is really great.

DOUG MCVAY: That terrific. It sounds like you are doing, you're doing some great work. Now, what are the kinds of, uh, out there in that broader community, and generally in Connecticut – of course there's the medical marijuana program which you just mentioned. What other sorts of issues are uh, are major concerns there?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah. So, Connecticut has a really bad problem with opiate abuse. That's something that's been rising in the state and is actually being addressed by the legislature right now. And locally, there's, in Willamantic, there's a place called the Windham – actually I suppose it's in Windham, the Windham Harm Reduction Coalition is a place for people who are addicted to different opiates, typically heroin, that's probably the most prevalent to my knowledge in this area and in this state.

So people who are addicted to heroin can go there for clean needle exchanges, and for health care and very often just safe spaces to be, because a lot of those people don't have steady homes. It's also a place where sex workers from the area can go and find help for, like, STD testing, they can get safe sex equipment. So it's a really great harm reduction overall, issue. But I know statewide, heroin abuse has been a really big problem, and it's only getting worse. There's a lot of opiate, we're actually bringing in an opiate addiction specialist sometime this semester to come talk to us about it, and what the specialist has been seeing in recent times in Connecticut.

DOUG MCVAY: Oh indeed, and it's a huge, uh, it's, it's a tricky issue. Pain management is a, you know, is difficult. There's a chance that we have actually over-prescribed opiate analgesics, at the same time there's still a lot of people out there who suffer with persistent chronic pain conditions, and so, you know, how to deal with those people. Now, uh, actually, going back to your medical marijuana program in Connecticut, does the state, is chronic pain included in the list of conditions or is Connecticut one that left that one off.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, we left that off, that's one of the biggest issues. And I think, from what I heard, and I wish I had the actual source for this, but I was talking with someone from the industry who said, and this was kind of offhand so it might be off, but that chronic pain in like California is about 70 percent of their, of their patient base, so it's really limiting to people in Connecticut.

Right now, we're working with Connecticut for Safe Access, they're a branch of Americans for Safe Access, and a few other local advocates – Hemp CT, Civic Trust Public Lobbying company, we're working to expand that list of conditions, And on the expansion it's going to be a lot of arthritis. And I know that very often, the chronic pain, the people who are suffering from chronic pain have arthritis. There's two different types of arthritis on our list that we're targeting, and that's, ideally that's going to take care of some of this issue for lack of access for patients.

DOUG MCVAY: Well that's terrific. And of course, the uh, there's, there's some overlap there because when you've got the availability of medical cannabis as an adjunctive therapy, people, uh, people will take the medical cannabis, they'll be able to taper down their opioids. It's uh, you know, it makes the pain easier to deal with.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, it's really a win-win scenario, and like, hopefully something that's a lot better for public health. I know I read recently that a lot of the states that had legalized medical marijuana after a few years saw their opioid abuse go drastically down, and I'm hoping that if we can expand this list of conditions, and continue to work on it because it's going to be a long process I think. As long as that process keeps making progress, I'm hoping we can see those sorts of rates of addiction go down, rates of abuse go down as well.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. And it's one of, again it's one of those things. If you're suffering from a persistent chronic pain condition, and the last research I looked at said that about 19 percent of the American population, adult population, is suffering from a persistent chronic pain condition. That's a lot of folks, that's a lot of people, and that's, uh, yeah. What are you, uh, after graduation, you uh, this is a thing you must be thinking about quite a bit now, do you, uh, what are your plans? Do you plan to remain involved in drug policy reform, are you going to stay in school, get a job with one of these new medical marijuana dispensaries opening up? What are your thoughts?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, so, you pretty much hit on all the plans except for staying in school. I'm, I'd like to leave academia for a while. I've put a lot of consideration into it and I think I'm, I'm done in a university setting for this time of my life. I really want to move on and go do something else, and get out on my own. Ideally, I mean, I can't tell you how much of a dream it would be for me to work for a drug policy reform organization. I'd love to work for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, I'd love to be working at, you know, LEAP, DPA, the Marijuana Policy Project, I've been – you know. I know a lot of folks in the community and it looks like – I'd love to move to DC and see what I can do down there.

So, but I do have a backup. Over the summer I worked as a canvasser for the Fund for the Public Interest. You might know them better as part of the PIRG system, the Public Interest Research Groups. They're all part of the public interest network and they do a lot of, uh, they do, they do advocacy work on a variety of issues, primarily environmental and consumer protection. So I did fundraising and canvassing for them over the summer, and I've actually got a job offer as a, as a campaign director in Denver, starting next September. And while I enjoy the organization and I've really loved my time with them, it's issues that aren't as dear to me, so I'd love to see what I can do to break my way into a similar position or doing something like that for drug policy as opposed to environmental policy.

DOUG MCVAY: Oh right on. You know, it's a – you've got to follow your passion. That's, I mean, that's, that's the – the one lesson, that, if I've learned anything in life, you have to follow your passion. It's, uh – yeah.

TYLER WILLIAMS: And we are in a unique position here in Connecticut, that the medical marijuana industry is kind of budding, uh, and –

DOUG MCVAY: Oh Tyler, you didn't just say that.

TYLER WILLIAMS: That was so not intended, I think I'm just actually really kind of like inundated with all of the pot puns, in like every journalist – like all journalists love pot puns when they talk about it, so when I talk about it, I just instinctively go there. That was not intentional. But it's a nascent industry, and I'm hoping that, you know, I'm hoping the work that I do in the coming months and you know in the rest of my life can help kind of like bolster that field in Connecticut, and it wouldn't be far off the mark to say that I'd love to be working for, you know, one of those places so that I can understand, from the industry perspective as opposed to the public policy perspective, what those sorts of places need to serve the patients of Connecticut.

So that's certainly an option for after graduation. But again, I really am looking at public policy and that's kind of where my passion, uh, passion is. And I'd like to highlight too the work of the National Cannabis Industry Association. And I think they're doing really great things, and like I know one of their biggest, kind of like driving principles, is making sure that the cannabis industry is an industry with a conscience. And I really love that, that's been something that like, like that's a really great thing and I think that's a really cool place where both public policy and industry kind of meet and come together.

And again, you know, we have this kind of unique position I think as drug policy reformers and like new entrepreneurs, that we, because we're getting in so ground floor we can shape the industry the way we'd like to see it. And if we want to see it as a socially conscious industry in America, now's the time to do it and that's something I'd like to be part of.

DOUG MCVAY: 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. We are heard on 420 Radio dot org on Mondays at 11 am and 11 pm, and Saturdays at 4 am, all times are pacific. We are heard on time4hemp dot com on Wednesdays between 1 and 2pm pacific along with our sister program Cultural Baggage. And we're on The Detour Talk Network at The Detour dot US on Tuesdays at 8:30pm. A few of the stations out there carrying 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.

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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!