03/13/16 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

This week we interview Tyler Williams, Outreach Coordinator for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and Sanho Tree, Director of the Drug Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Audio file


MARCH 13, 2016


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

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Tyler Williams is our guest right now, he was last on our show a little more than a year ago, when he was a student at the University of Connecticut, working at the radio station, doing organizing work with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and now a little more than a year later, Tyler is the Outreach Coordinator for the Heartland Midwest and Mountain Regions for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. SSDP is one of the best organizations out there because it's really helping youth to find their voices and to speak out, which is really what it's all about. That's, you know, we do this drug policy thing in order for our youth to live better lives, and that's what SSDP is trying to make sure happens.

Anyway. You started out in Connecticut, you're out in Colorado now, Tyler joins me on the line, well on Skype. How the heck you doing, buddy?

TYLER WILLIAMS: I'm good, thanks for having me back. It's really awesome to be here a year out from our last conversation.

DOUG MCVAY: Indeed. Now, tell folks a little bit about SSDP, and some of the work that you're -- and basically, tell us about what you're doing.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Sure. Yeah, so, you said it right, I am the Regional Outreach Coordinator for the Midwest, Mountain, and Heartland Regions, so think the upper half of our country and then none of the coastlines. That's pretty much me. I've got about 19 states that I oversee. And I work as an adviser for students who are doing basically what I was doing a year ago, you know, running and managing their own chapters on the ground. And, every chapter's a little bit different.

One of the things that I love about SSDP and what's made me a long, you know, a life-long member of SSDP for sure, is the amount of autonomy that we give to our chapters, and because each chapter gets to choose how they want to work and what they want to work on, my interactions with them are, you know, they are vastly different depending on what their priorities are, but that can be anywhere from hour-long conversations of advice and advising them on how to do campaign work, it can be as simple as connecting them with the right people who are local to, you know, do some networking and have some cool events and stuff like that. But basically I maintain a very consistent conversation and relationship with our chapter leaders, and just help them be the best that they can be, with the level of engagement that they choose.

DOUG MCVAY: You see, and that's the kind of thing that's really, that's the kind of work that's really helped SSDP grow. I mean, you have really grown a lot in the last several years. How many members, how many chapters and that do you have with the organization now?

TYLER WILLIAMS: So, we've got about 4,000 members spread out over about 300 chapters. And that number fluctuates as most student organizations do, but that's right around our target number right now. And we're only seeing growth, pretty much.

DOUG MCVAY: Wow. How many states are you in?

TYLER WILLIAMS: We're in 46 states including DC, if I counted right. We have a massive spreadsheet, so I might be plus or minus one there, but, yeah.

DOUG MCVAY: Wow. Wow. And of course, SSDP is also international, it's -- you know, Canada way back in the day, and the UK, and -- how many countries are you in now?

TYLER WILLIAMS: I'm really happy to say that we're in 12 different countries. And that's due in no small part to my coworker Jake, who is running our international program. It's something we're incredibly proud about, and I know we're going to kind of go into that in more depth later in the show, so I'm very happy to talk more about that.

DOUG MCVAY: Oh, absolutely. Now, okeh, tell us about some of the work that you've been doing this last year, as a catch-up. The, you know, and especially if you've got any chapters who've been doing some good projects, I mean, it's always good to big up the chapters. I mean, they deserve credit, and usually outside of their school newspaper nobody hears about them, you know?

TYLER WILLIAMS: Sure. So, I know we're going to go more indepth probably about the UN Special Session on drug policy, so that's something we've been activating around a lot, and right now we actually have, I think somewhere close to a dozen different SSDPers from across the globe are at the CND in Vienna, they're all, you know, traveling tonight. We've been working on that. But as far as, you know, domestic stuff, we are running our highly successful campus campaigns. We did these in a few states last year, and this year we're targeting Florida, Nevada, Arizona, and Massachusetts as places where we're connecting students with ballot initiatives and doing get out the vote efforts, and education around the issues.

And then, a really big project is, we're updating all of our campaign materials, and one of the things that we're focusing on, now that we have a larger staff, we're really, really focusing in on how do we provide better resources to our students. So we're turning all of our campaign materials into toolkits, so they're step by step, they break down the processes, and they make it really easy to follow. And then also, you know, there's room there for good conversation between chapter leaders and staff about how to apply these toolkits in real life. But that's really, you know, that's a big part of what we're doing on the national side.

But I think you're right to pivot it to what the chapters are doing. And a couple of things I'd really like to highlight from the past year, so people might be familiar with the 920 Day. It was the Psilocybin Day of Action. There was a 920 Coalition, including some psychedelic folks. We had 20 different chapters across North America -- Mexico, the United States of America, and Canada -- doing days of action, hosting speakers, live streaming speakers. It was awesome. We even had a conversation between the American University chapter in DC and one of the Canadian 920 Days, they did a live skype together.

And then we also work a lot on advocacy. So, I know of three states -- Illinois, Colorado, and Kentucky, where we have chapter leaders who are working to activate around the Sentencing Reform Act, which is in the Senate right now. And it would reduce a lot of the mandatory minimum sentences that are currently inflating our incarcerated population.

And then, again, you know, looking abroad, I'm sure you've probably talked a lot about Ireland and its, you know, really interesting drug policy reform that it's seeing. Our Irish chapters are by no means playing a small role in that. They are very active, they're hitting the news, they are testifying and, you know, providing resources for their government. Our California chapters are doing a lot of harm reduction stuff, working on, you know, party drugs and basically how to keep people safe regardless of what they choose to put into their bodies. College of Charleston has expanded their medical amnesty policy, which they put into place years ago. And we've got two states that I personally work in, Ohio and Michigan, both engaged in statewide campaigns for medical amnesty, 911 Good Samaritan policies. That's just a really broad overview, I mean, we've got over 300 chapters doing their own thing, so if any of them are listening and I forgot you, I am sorry, it will be, we release an annual report every year that people can go check out and see a much indepth dive into the work that our students are doing.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, and, let's face it, you're going to be, in just a short month you're also going to have a chance for all those chapters, or at least a lot of them and a lot of activists from around the country, gathering together in DC for your annual conference. It's going to be the, is it, 15th, 16th, and 17th?

TYLER WILLIAMS: That's correct.

DOUG MCVAY: Okeh. In DC, so what's the theme, what kind of, any special stuff that's going to be happening that you want to, that people should know about? What's -- yeah. I don't know if I'll be able to make it for more than just the very last day, but I'm going to try to be there on the Sunday for sure.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Sure. So, as far as I know, we haven't chosen like a theme, like you might think some people like to theme their parties and stuff. But I know we'll be talking a lot about international drug policy because we are going to do, I mentioned this a couple of times, the UN Special Session stuff. So, there's going to be a lot of talk about UNGASS and what that means for us, and how students can engage. But we do have some notable speakers and topics aside from that. A couple of things that I'm really excited about, we're looking at a panel about how to engage with ballot initiatives, and I think this is really important because, you know, the movement's made a lot of great strides in marijuana reform, but there are still states that have a ways to go, and I think that a lot of the places where we have chapters are going to start seeing ballot initiatives. So we're going to put some effort into, you know, kind of guiding students on how to effectively engage with those campaigns.

We'll also be hosting, we're really redoubling our efforts on inclusivity and, you know, working on making our group and the drug policy reform movement as diverse as possible. So we're excited about, we have a whole committee dedicated to this concept that our board members and staffers work on. We call it DARE, and we've got a DARE speaker, you know, but it's not the DARE that you think of, this is Diversity And Recruitment in Education, all that sort of stuff.

And then, something else that's really interesting, and I think speaks to some issues that we've seen in journalism around drugs and drug policy, is ethical drug consumption. And this is based around some of the criticisms, I don't know if you saw, you know, the United Kingdom released an ad campaign about how cocaine users are deforesting and destroying lives and stuff, and so that begs the question of what does it mean to ethically consume drugs? So we'll have a panel on how, what models can be put into place for ethical drug manufacture and consumption, and if we're talking about a post-prohibition world, and we're really talking about students who are dreaming of these radical ideals of the future, we need to talk about what happens if we win, and we end prohibition, how do we make sure that we're doing so ethically. So that's something I'm really interested in.

DOUG MCVAY: That sounds like it's going to be great. I -- wow, that sounds like it's going to be great. Of course people can find out more about it, about the conference and especially if they're interested in registering and attending, at your website, which is at SSDP.org.

And now, while we still have some time left, for the -- you know, I've been talking about this UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, coming up in April, for quite a while now. I think it has the potential to be a real game changing event, and SSDP -- the organization's been involved in this process for 7, 8, about 8 years now. In 2008 in Vancouver, I traveled up with Kris Krane to a meeting of the Vienna Nongovernmental Organizing Committee, we were looking at -- that's when, shortly after that we went to Vienna for the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. Now of course you've got colleagues who are flying over there now. It's going to be a three day meeting. There's a webcast, if you want to stay up from about 1 o'clock in the morning on you can catch it live, but that's prelude to the big event, which happens right after the SSDP conference. Right? You folks are actually getting -- taking a bus up to the UNGASS in New York. Tell me about what you've got going on there.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, so you're right to say it is right after, and that's by no coincidence. We did plan this as we do, the organizers that we are. So, here's what's going to happen. On the morning of the 18th, so that's that Sunday, I believe [note: April 18th is a Monday], SSDP students, alumni, and allies are going to board buses from the conference in Arlington and head up to New York City to participate in a day of outside actions surrounding UNGASS. We're first going to join the Caravan For Peace for a rally at Foley Square. Then we're going to head to the UN headquarters for a press conference and a demonstration with a whole bunch of guest speakers. From there, we're all going to head to Washington Square Park, you know, permit allowing, for SSDP's youth art installation and demonstration.

Our overall goal is going to be to provide a platform for youth to amplify their voice around international drug policy and the UNGASS. Since, while these policies are often created with youth in mind, rarely are youth given the chance to speak their thoughts. The three-hour demonstration is going to include visual artwork created by SSDP students and impacted youth in New York City; performance art; interactive art pieces; and soapbox style speeches by youth in attendance. We'll also be ending around 7pm and dispersing from there, and the artwork that's created by all these students and young people is going to then be featured in the Open Society Foundation's art pop-up for the duration of the week, when the UNGASS is actually happening.

DOUG MCVAY: That sounds terrific, that's going to be -- that's a lot of stuff, that is going --


DOUG MCVAY: It's -- ah, there's so much going on in April, it's madness, it's madness. But this UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, and this too will be webcast, although these, because it's at the General Assembly, will be available afterward online. You know, I've got to encourage everyone out there to give a listen to these things if you can. And as the General Assembly meetings will be available through the UN website, check those out, if you can't when they're live check them out later. Tyler, it's really good to be talking to you, man, and I'm glad you're doing well with SSDP. Now, do you have any closing thoughts for the listeners? And say once again a website and any social media where they can find out more of the work that SSDP is doing.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, I mean, keep -- like you said, keep your eyes on UNGASS. This is a really pivotal moment, and it's something that's very important. These sorts of processes move slowly, so when there's flashpoints like this, that's the time to engage, so that you don't miss it. If you do want to engage, and you're a student or know some students that aren't already involved in a chapter, we make it really easy for you. There's a quick google form application, it's like five or six questions. We respond within 24 hours. You can get that at our website, it's SSDP.org/chapters/start, and that's a really easy link to find from the home page, too, if you can't make all the slashes. So, yeah, I guess I encourage people to really engage politically, and especially on this international level. And if you're a student or a young person, like, this is the moment and you should seize it.

DOUG MCVAY: Excellent. Again, speaking with Tyler Williams, outreach coordinator at Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Tyler, thank you so much.

TYLER WILLIAMS: Yeah, thank you, Doug.

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.

DANA BEAL: No dead time allowed here! My name is Dana Beal, and I'm one of the founders of the marijuana movement.

DOUG MCVAY: I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

One of my good friends, and one of the good friends of the show, is Sanho Tree. He's a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, director of their Drug Policy Project, which works to end the domestic and international war on drugs and replace it with policies that promote public health and safety as well as economic alternatives to the prohibition drug economy. You can read the rest of his bio at IPS-DC.org. And for now, you can hear Sanho Tree on the line with me now. Sanho, how the heck you doing, buddy?

SANHO TREE: Pretty good, Doug, how are you?

DOUG MCVAY: I am terrific. It's so good to hear from you. Welcome back! You were just doing some drug policy work down in the southern hemisphere as I recall, right? Australia?

SANHO TREE: The antipodes, as they call them, or as the Brits call them, anyway. But Australia and New Zealand, yes.

DOUG MCVAY: So, now, what's happening there? I know that New Zealand had some terrific laws that they were looking at. Things didn't quite work out. Australia was one of the first locations of supervised injection sites. So, what's going -- that was years ago, what's going on now?

SANHO TREE: So, the new psychoactive substances bill in New Zealand got stalled, you know, it got halted for a while, based on -- the opposition used basically puppies to stop it. Animal testing. So pictures of puppies. And, you know, the irony of that of course is that, if you don't use animal testing, then you'll use your children to test these drugs. But nonetheless they are back on track, and they should be starting soon. The minister for, the Deputy Minister for Health, Peter Dunne, a member of Parliament, is just a terrific, terrific guy. He'll be at the UN meeting in New York, the UNGASS, among others. So they've got a strong delegation. New Zealand is a wonderful country, and historically it's able to punch above its weight. It's not beholden to other nations, it's not part of regional blocs or security arrangements, and they can act independently very often. And for such a small population, they have a great deal of influence. And it's also just a lovely, lovely place and culture. It's kind of like the Denmark of the southern hemisphere, to me.

DOUG MCVAY: So, Sanho, let's -- we talked about New Zealand, now let's talk about Oz, the wonderful land of Oz. How did things go there?

SANHO TREE: Really well, and quite interesting. I just, I arrived there when they allowed the cultivation of medical marijuana. There was a huge media storm, my host, Dr. Alex Wodak, a longtime drug reformer, he's been doing this for decades, you know, he's been involved in so many aspects of harm reduction. Anyway, he vowed to break the law and to do pill testing at music festivals and raves and things. Because they've had a series of deaths from kids who thought they were taking one drug when in fact it was something else, and quite adulterated. And, you know, these are unnecessary deaths. And a few opportunistic politicians vowed to block him and have him arrested, and possibly even charge him with manslaughter if anyone died. This is -- and they've been so beaten up in the media over that stupidity. Alex was gracious enough to host me at his home in Sydney, and I spent several days with him, and his phone would not stop ringing. It was awesome.

So the idea of pill testing, he wants to more than just the simple reagent testing, you know, the chemicals change color, it tells you what the substance is or isn't. But actually to get a mass spectrometer, trying to raise like fifty thousand dollars to do, so they can actually tell you exactly what's in these compounds and what the adulterants are. So it's a much more sophisticated level of testing. And I think they've gotten a lot of popular support, because the alternative, look, the alternative of these few remaining prohibitionists is that, they're basically setting up a randomized death penalty. You know? Someone else's kids, or even their own, possibly, will die, will continue to die, playing Russian Roulette with these unknown substances.

So, that's the way to look at it. It's a randomized death penalty, basically. As if more deaths will somehow send a message to other people not to take these substances, when all these deaths so far obviously haven't worked. The message isn't getting through. So it's just a cynical ploy, in my opinion, to rack up more deaths in the drug war. As though it's going to make some kind of political point, or educational point. What they're really trying to score is political points with the rightwing base. But, nonetheless, there's a lot of reform happening in Australia. They have the various states, so I testified at the, to a Parliamentary committee in the Victorian parliament, where Melbourne is, and they've been given the brief to basically re-examine the whole state drug law system. So they're undertaking a long term project to rethink this stuff. And one of the members of Parliament I met with, Fiona Patten, is just wonderful. Look her up on Twitter, she's a great follow. She's also the leader of the Australian Sex Party, which does all kinds of really good work, but it's also crossed over into drug policy reform as well.

So, there's lots going on, and in Sydney, you know, I visited, they call it the Medical Supervised Injection Center, where it's been in operation for almost 15 years now. They're approaching one million injections, with zero overdose fatalities. That is the same at other safe injection sites around the world, basically zero overdose fatalities. When you compare with the previous alternative, which was, you know, forcing people onto the street, and shooting up unsupervised. I looked at a map of the deaths around King's Cross in Sydney, where this place is located, and it looks like the map had chicken pox, there were so many red dots of people, showing exactly where they had died, and their bodies were found. So no one needs to die from this stuff.

The police are well briefed on this now, they're supporters for the most part. Occasionally you get a few rogue cops who try to rough people up, but by and large they see it as a very positive thing, and -- oh, in New Zealand as well, I met with the head of the New Zealand, the president of the New Zealand Police Association, Greg O'Connor, who is just a terrific guy, he's a 40 year veteran of the force, and about to step down, but he's coming out very strongly for drug reform, and he says, look, if we're going to do this, no half measures. Don't just decriminalize, you have to regulate and legalize as well. Which is a good, sensible law and order policing approach. And he's also a chair of the international, one of these big international police organizations as well. So, you know, great for New Zealand. If there's a President Trump, I'm seeking political asylum there.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, I'm glad to have you back over here in the US. You'll be coming back to New York in April, and in just a couple of days you've got the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which is meeting in Vienna. Nongovernmental organizations, civil society groups, folks like us, have been working on this, on these, towards this UNGASS in April, the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs, for years now. The Commission on Narcotic Drugs is going to hold its three-day hearing. Can you just tell folks about what you're going to be doing when you're over in Vienna.

SANHO TREE: Well, actually, I haven't been in the past few years, but the years prior, and this one they're going to have a session on preparing for the UNGASS. There's lots of, you know, side events and meetings, and trying to buttonhole people and see if you can get some influence, or at least plant some ideas. But I think it's useful for a lot of these delegations to hear what's going on in other parts of the world, and to hear that there's pushback from civil society. It's not the same old same old anymore. Civil society has mobilized in ways that, you know, I haven't seen in a long, long time in drug policy. I was at a consultation in New York last month for the UNGASS, where civil society representatives from around the world made their voices heard, and very forcefully, too. In fact, we outnumbered the prohibitionists, the drug warriors, by a huge margin.

And so, I think the tide is turning in that sense. But, you know, ultimately though it's the bureaucrats and the diplomats who need to act on this stuff. And then you're talking about domestic politics, and all that other stuff. But on the other hand, things are changing. But it's not going to be a revolutionary change through the UNGASS process, but the evolutionary change has to start somewhere. And very often, I think drug policy tends to evolve under punctuated equilibrium, that is to say, you get long periods of basically steady state status quo, and then something triggers major change, and it kind of ratchets up that way. So, I think what happened in 2012, in terms of legalization of cannabis, Colorado and Washington and now other states and DC, and other countries, there's a lot of political space that's opened up, which is very important.

DOUG MCVAY: In fact, that political space, there are headlines in the, at least on the movement blogs, talking about the State Department may let -- the administration may decide to let the State Department push for decriminalization. Actually if you read the report it simply says that their interpretation of the conventions now is that we have to be flexible and have the flexibility to allow all kinds of things. So flexible that we can legalize in a place like Uruguay, or behead people in a place like Saudi Arabia. What do you think about the State Department's announcement of flexibility?

SANHO TREE: Yeah, you know, these treaties are kind of like the bible printed on sheets of rubber, you can stretch them in many different ways and come up with many different interpretations if you have the political will to do that. And so I think people are reading it differently now, and looking for those loopholes. And if you don't have the votes to bring in a whole new system, and to ratify it, which I just don't see the votes for that right now, then flexibility may be the best you can get in the short term. Although it, you know, I think flexibility ought to be a ceiling rather than a floor, that is to say that states should be allowed to expand their interpretations, not to behave even more ruthlessly in terms of beheadings and that sort of thing.

I think the other protections afforded by other international treaties and principles and norms ought to be respected. But you will always have some of these reactionary governments around the world who really think that it's still the 1980s, and they can get away with this kind of stuff. But they're paying a price internationally, just horror and disgust at these kinds of executions. Indonesia suspended their executions for a while, probably because of economic pressures. So, I think international public opinion does play an important role in these things.

DOUG MCVAY: Again, we've been speaking with Sanho Tree. He is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, and director of the Drug Policy Project there. You can find out about them by going to IPS-DC.org. You can follow him @SanhoTree on Twitter. Sanho, I cannot thank you enough, my friend, for all your time.

SANHO TREE: My pleasure.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, that's it for today. Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to Century Of Lies, a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, please give it a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power. 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.