03/20/16 Doug McVay

Century of Lies

This week we feature interviews with Betty Aldworth, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, and Vanessa Caldwell, a member of the New Zealand delegation at the annual meeting of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna and co-chair of New Zealand's National Committee of Addiction Treatment.

Audio file


MARCH 20, 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.

VANESSA CALDWELL: Okeh, so, I'm Doctor Vanessa Caldwell. I'm chair of the New Zealand National Committee for Addiction Treatment, and national manager of Matua Ra?i, which is the addictions workforce development.

DOUG MCVAY: Ms. Caldwell, I'm speaking to you, you're there in Vienna at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs annual meeting. Your country presented at the very beginning of the session. Tell our listeners about New Zealand and about some of the legislation that you folks have there, and are working on.

VANESSA CALDWELL: On the legislation, so one of the things that we have been working on over the last couple of years, which has just been tabled in Parliament in December last year, and has passed its first reading while we were here actually in the UN, back in New Zealand it was passed its first reading, is the substance addiction, compulsory assessment, and treatment bill, which replaces, is set to replace the old alcoholism and drug addiction act from 1966. This is an act which is a civil compulsion, so people were outside the criminal court, it's a health and safety approach to address, and as a last resort, for people who are experiencing the severe effects of addiction. It gives them an opportunity to stabilize their health, have a proper assessment and treatment plan, and obviously, we have set it so that it's not just about stabilization but also about giving people an opportunity for, to engage in treatment voluntarily, hopefully.

DOUG MCVAY: This session there are a lot of divergent views. We're on our way to the UN General Assembly Special Session on drugs next month, and of course, some of us have been pushing for the conventions to be renegotiated, or at least reconsidered. Pushing for several years on this. A lot of nations, there are some nations out there pushing back against -- the Russians, the ASEAN nations, some of the African nations. How has -- I mean, New Zealand, relative to a lot of the rest of the world, New Zealand is actually fairly progressive. Relative to a lot of the world, actually. The United States is fairly progressive relative to some parts of the world, and that ain't saying a lot, I'm sorry to say. But, how do you think, how has your country's drug policy been, how have your drug policies been received by the other delegates there?

VANESSA CALDWELL: We presented our updated national drug policy in the Commission last year, and it was really well received, in the sense that we updated -- I would consider us reformist in terms of our wanting significant change from the current conventions, particularly around, we've strongly advocated for removal of the death penalty, irrespective of any crime, let alone for serious crime. And certainly interested in having conversations about decriminalization, that's in line with the current UNODC rhetoric and some guidelines, but we still have a long way to go to actually work out what might be a good approach to that.

We did try, as you may be aware, we passed an act a couple of years ago around trying to address the issue around the new psychoactive substances. That's an ongoing issue for most countries around the world. How to actually continue to keep up with the multitude, I mean, I think in the course of me talking to you now, there's probably at least one or two new substances come onto the market, just in that time of that conversation. So, how you continue to keep adding them to the, you know, not only testing them, etc., to get them on the controlled list. So we have tried a different approach to that, which is to actually -- effectively it's a ban on new psychoactive substances, but it puts the reliance, it opens the option for people to have regulated sales of psychoactive substances if they have been shown to have low risk of harm. But the onus is on the manufacturers to actually demonstrate that it's from an evidence base, not out government, so we've shifted the cost of doing that to them.

And so far, we haven't had anybody meet that threshold, so consequently we haven't had any that have been on the market. That's not to say there isn't still a black market, but, so, we are trying some new things. We, but I have to say, that conversation is ongoing in terms of how we might shift particularly regulated cannabis markets, and I know some states in the US have, you know, already shifted ahead, much further ahead than us in that. So we're watching with interest to see what happens there, particularly in relation to the economic impact of those, and how -- because that's often the argument used around not decriminalizing, so yeah, really interested to see what happens there.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, you -- are you going to be able to be at the UNGASS, the UN in New York this next month?

VANESSA CALDWELL: Yes, absolutely, yes. We've got a -- obviously we have quite a small delegation compared to most other countries, but we're no less passionate or dedicated to the cause, so we'll be there, yes.

DOUG MCVAY: Terrific. Now, tell us something about yourself. You've got got -- you're a psychologist, you've got a background in the treatment field, and in psychology.

VANESSA CALDWELL: That's correct. So, I have a background as a psychologist, and I've worked in the addiction treatment sector for over 25 year, mostly as a service manager, both in intensive residential services and in community-based services. And my interest in particular around policy and the drivers of -- I have a strong belief that, you know, policy is integral to -- good policy actually drives potentially the resource allocation to treatment and whatever interventions are going to be implemented. So, hence, you know, my increasing interest in policy areas.

DOUG MCVAY: This has been one of the, I mean, we have an ongoing debate here in the US in general on drug policy, there's been a lot of growing concern about prescription drugs, about opiate use especially, on the one hand, on the one hand there are a lot of people who are concerned that the issue of pain and pain management is being shoved to the side because of these concerns, and there are other people who just feel that opiates are being overprescribed. Any -- this is out of left field, I realize, sorry about that, but any suggestions on how we could be looking for a balanced approach? Like I say, it's a little out of left field, but frankly we could use all the help we can get.

VANESSA CALDWELL: You know, I think that's one of the interesting dialogues that are occurring across all of the countries represented here, is how can we get a good balance around having access, ready access, to opiate medication for pain, for palliative care, and for management of drug dependence, of course, as well, without actually impacting too negatively on the community at large. And, over 75 percent of the world's population have inadequate or almost no access to appropriate pain medication. That's an enormous amount, for various reasons. One of the big reasons is that policymakers -- well, one is around workforce training, so people, health practitioners across the world are not confident and have concerns about prescribing for pain. But also, the fear of the addiction potential.

So we've got a lot of work, I think, from, and one of the things that I do in terms of heading up workforce development is about appropriate and evidence based training for health professionals to actually do some mythbusting, really, around appropriate prescribing levels, what we've now called recovery focused prescribing. So, that is prescribing on the basis that you're not going to be on something for long term. That is around having a planned approach to the treatment and being with appropriate withdrawal as well. That actually goes for all prescription medications, particularly psychiatric medications as well. So, we're trying to do some work around training in that, and yeah, very happy to share some of our learnings in that. I have to say, probably one of the key areas to it is the health workforce, and actually cutting across the perceptions they have around appropriate prescribing.

So, the drugs are there, it's not an access issue, the drugs are available, it's that the prescribers -- it's not happening. Of course, you do have, and we have seen an increase in Oxycontin-type of addictions as well, so it is about getting that balance. And there are a couple of countries that have actually got some interesting web-based prescribing procedures to try and minimize the amount of potential for people to cross-prescribe and be over-prescribed their medication consequently.

DOUG MCVAY: Wow. Could you -- I, this is, I want to find out more about New Zealand and yet at the same time you have the addiction specialty, and as I say, we've been talking so much in this country about heroin and opiates that I really just -- could I just get you to talk for another second, with your addictions hat on, and that is, about the difficulty -- stigma, of criminalization, as a barrier. And, I mean, is there really any way to get past that other than decriminalizing? The, as far as -- stigma is often cited as a barrier to people coming forward and getting to treatment when they are in need of that.


DOUG MCVAY: A lot of us argue that criminalization of their drug use is one of the biggest stigmas you could have, being, labeling yourself a criminal and facing possible jail time or worse as a result. So, is there any way to get past all that, to get beyond that stigma, aside from decriminalizing possession and use?

VANESSA CALDWELL: You know, that's a good question, and I think, you know, there are so many layers to the stigmatization of drug use itself, and people have, who experience problematic use, and it's not -- it's a nut we haven't cracked yet, but we are in talks about how to, you know, some kind of campaigns, and it's a tricky area. I guess one of the things I would say is that we're really aware that, like I imagine in the US, how with certain populations who are already marginalized, have similarly to New Zealand, our indigenous population, who are often in the illicit market, are much more likely to be arrested, imprisoned, have harsher sentences, and I expect you've got similar stats that tell a similar story.

So already you've got a significant part of the population who are at a disadvantage, and then are further stigmatized because with a drug conviction, you -- we can't travel to the US, for one. You're limited in your job opportunities. You know, so it does impact hugely on someone's life course, particularly if they're arrested when they're young, which is quite often the case. So in that respect, I do think that decriminalizing and having a different approach to that -- now in practice, in New Zealand, although the law is still there, in practice we do have diversion schemes, and other approaches, which hopefully, particularly for the younger population, you know, do contribute towards, you know, so -- it's almost like the policies, and I think this often happens, the legislation is a little bit behind the actual practice. And until that becomes normative, then, you know, then there's actually a call for the legislation to catch up.

And that's exactly what's happened with the compulsory legislation, which we've only just had, so -- although I have to say that we have been making calls for that to change for thirty years, and it's only just happened, so it's a long game.

DOUG MCVAY: Very much, very much so. I started doing this stuff back in the Reagan era, when people gave you funny looks for just using, oh my gosh, harm reduction was taboo, the very concept. I know that you've got a lot of meetings to do, and Ms. Caldwell, I'm so grateful to you for your time, this is wonderful. So, this, the public session of this is about to wrap up. What do you think we're going to be -- I mean, they've already, before the meeting's even started, there was a draft of a document toward the UNGASS. What do you think is going to come out of this weekend, and what do you think we'll be -- what's the debate going to be like when we, next month in New York when all this, when this session starts?

VANESSA CALDWELL: Well, you're right about there being a document, although the transparency around what's in it has been a little bit contentious, and it's not available really. Mind you, that's in part because it's a working document. However, there's a little bit of despondency because many of us who have been coming here to the Commission for, you know, a number of years, have been working hard towards some of the things that we've been talking about, having a new convention, which actually does talk about harm reduction approaches, it doesn't have to use those words of course, but those principles, from a health based approach rather than a justice/criminal based approach to drug reform. And of course removing the death penalty.

Now, almost none of those are actually mentioned in the outcomes document at the moment, so there is some disquiet about that, and consequently we are tasked while we're here, all the delegates here are tasked with having to come up with an outcomes document by the end of Tuesday, next Tuesday, which will then go to the UNGASS. So it's not necessarily that it would be debated, although I can't see how that might be, given the state of play at the moment. Of course, as you may be aware, the UN operates on a whole of consensus basis, which means that everyone has to agree to what's in there, otherwise it's taken out.

And, as you're well aware, there are many countries -- I think it's about, for example, just using the death penalty as an example, I think there are still about 33 jurisdictions who actively execute people for drug offenses alone. And, you know, in some states the rates of those, in fact I was at a session yesterday and Iran have executed over 600 people just last year for drug offenses alone. So, you know, the stakes are pretty high for a lot of people around the world, and those are only the reported ones, of course. We don't know about the others, so, you know, it's something that we really need to change, and really support countries to think about things differently.

DOUG MCVAY: Any closing thoughts?

VANESSA CALDWELL: I just appreciate your interest, and it's been lovely to talk with you.

DOUG MCVAY: Vanessa, the pleasure is mine, I thank you so much. Speaking with Vanessa Caldwell, she is currently co-chair of the National Committee of Addiction Treatment in New Zealand, and is a psychologist, and addictions specialist, currently she's at the Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna. Vanessa, thank you so very much for your time, and good luck with the rest of your stay there.

VANESSA CALDWELL: Kia ora and thank you so much.

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

Betty Aldworth, the Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. You have been in Vienna for the past few days attending the Commission on Narcotic Drugs annual meeting. SSDP has been a leader in the civil society segment, the nongovernmental organizations, really since civil society started to get a voice at the CND, back in 2008. Now, you've made a lot of progress, and I just want to say congratulations. Can you tell us a little bit about the CND, and I know that you're pressed for time, so I also want to find out about this Alternative Youth UNGASS Consultation that you folks released.

BETTY ALDWORTH: Sure. So, this year's Commission on Narcotic Drugs is specifically focusing on, among other things, you know, the regular set of resolutions and whatnot, preparations for UNGASS. And the, in that context, civil society has been performing a variety of consultations, regional consultations as well as impacted group consultations, to represent the civil society voice in a meaningful way at the UNGASS deliberations. And so, there are many, many opportunities for civil society to raise their voices to the delegates and member states, and these consultations were one of them. We also held an informal stakeholder consultation in New York a handful of months ago, and when I say we, I mean civil society broadly.

So, throughout the course of these various consultations and opportunities to raise the civil society voice, there are of course, just as in the General Assembly and the Commission itself, some disagreements about how effectively various voices are represented. So, in the interest of ensuring that the youth reform voice was represented very strongly, we wanted to provide some sort of opportunity for our allies and others in the global youth drug policy reform movement to have formal input. So we conducted a survey amongst youth reformers in particular, and asked them what their highest priorities were. What were they most concerned about? And from that consultation, from that survey, and conversations with Youth Rise, YODA, SSDP UK, and Canadian SSDP, we were able to create the alternative youth UNGASS consultation, which is available online on our website, or you can visit any of our social media, facebook, twitter, instagram, and whatever else, to find that consultation and read about what's most important to young people when it comes to drug policy.

DOUG MCVAY: Indeed. I've just been, I downloaded a copy, I've been sharing it to a couple of my own pages. Looking through, you know, acknowledge and invest in harm reduction services, conduct an evaluation of international drug policies, call for evidence-based age appropriate education. I mean, this is -- how do I say this? So noncontroversial, how could any -- it's amazing --

BETTY ALDWORTH: How could anyone argue against this? Well, I don't know, but they do.

DOUG MCVAY: I listened to the meetings, and I heard a couple of the countries who were doing exactly that, and the arguments sound -- fell as flat in that forum as they usually do. You also call for decriminalization of drug use and associated penalties for the possession of drugs, stopping short of outright legalization, but you're calling for an end to stigma. Can you talk a little bit about that?

BETTY ALDWORTH: Sure. I mean, let's be very clear about this, SSDP supports the regulation of all drugs, according to their harms, and that we shouldn't wonder about whether or not that's the case for SSDP. This is a document that is, that represents a broad variety of views, and also is intended to offer realistic possibilities for reform in the immediate future. So we're not, you know, we aren't saying that the UN -- we aren't asking the United Nations to support regulation of all drugs according to their harms this year, that would be ridiculous. What we are saying is that it is most important that, when they're deciding these policies that impact young people, they are meaningfully including the voices of young people and really ensuring that those voices are heard and represented in the policy design. And that we are specifically looking not just at the impacts of drug use on young people but the holistic impacts of all things related to drugs. So the drugs themselves and their use, the impacts of drug markets on communities, and the impacts of drug policies.

And what we find is that in implementation of those drug policies, we are very frequently breaching the human rights of young people, and of all people, but in particular of young people, which is our primary concern. So, we want to really push those two pieces of the conversation forward here.

DOUG MCVAY: Excellent. And I, in drug policy reform generally, we have consensus about legalizing marijuana, but when we start talking about other drugs, we even have some reformers who have endorsed cracking down on some of the different hard drugs, and it's foolish, and I think that it's great that you have gotten youth consensus on the need to decriminalize. I mean, I just -- once again, kudos, just congratulations on a job really well done. Now this is a step towards the UNGASS, which comes up in April. Your conference will be right before the UNGASS, you're taking a bus up to New York after the conference with a bunch of students to be active. Could you just tell us about -- I know you've got to get going, but could you give us just a few seconds about the UNGASS?

BETTY ALDWORTH: Sure. So, we are hosting SSDP 2016 in Arlington immediately before. So, April 15th through 17th. It's going to include a lot of content related to international drug policy issues as well as of course those drug policy issues that specifically impact youth. We'll be releasing the full agenda for that very shortly here. It's hands down the single most inspirational drug policy conference that most people will attend in their entire lives, and you can really get a sense of what the future looks like when you come to one of our conferences, so I encourage anyone to feel free to join us. Registration is open to anyone.

And then we will bus and caravan from DC to New York, where we will be joining the Global Exchange -- the Global Exchange Caravan will be coming with us from DC to New York, and we will be working with Global Exchange and the Caravan, and Anyone's Child, which is a network of parents and others who have been impacted particularly by opioid overdose, and many many others in New York for demonstrations on Monday, April 18th. On that Monday afternoon, SSDP will be hosting an art exhibit, including installed art and performance art, exploring the ways that drug policy impacts young people and students through various media. And we're very much looking forward to creating an interactive space where people are able to explore drug policy, not through papers and documentation and studies and whatnot, but through a more artistic expression.

DOUG MCVAY: It sounds terrific. And again of course, people can find out about the conference and about all these activities at your website, which is SSDP.org. Betty Aldworth, the Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, again we've been speaking to. You're doing such incredible work, it is an absolute honor to have you on the show, and I am so glad that you are one of the people representing reform out there to the world's leaders. We can't lose.

And 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.