09/16/16 Matt Elrod

Matt Elrod of Victoria BC re death of activist Jay Bergstrom, legal heroin and legal cannabis + Donnie Varnell of Fayetteville LEAD project & Jag Davies of DPA re DEA prohibition of Kratom

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Friday, September 16, 2016
Matt Elrod



SEPTEMBER 16, 2016


DEAN BECKER: Broadcasting on the Drug Truth Network, this is Cultural Baggage.

DR. G. ALAN ROBISON: It is not only inhumane, it is really fundamentally un-American.

CROWD: No more! Drug war! No More! Drug War! No More! Drug War!

DEAN BECKER: My name is Dean Becker. I don't condone or encourage the use of any drugs, legal or illegal. I report the unvarnished truth about the pharmaceutical, banking, prison, and judicial nightmare that feeds on eternal drug war.

Welcome to this edition of Cultural Baggage, I'm Dean Becker, your host. Let's get started.

Canada is seeming close to changing much of their perspective insofar as marijuana and even insofar as heroin. Also learned about the passing of a great friend, fellow activist, and here to talk about all of those subjects is Mister Matt Elrod. Hey Matt, how you doing?

MATT ELROD: I'm good, thanks, Dean.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. Let's start with the passing of our friend, Jay Bergstrom.

MATT ELROD: He passed away a week ago today, and I also understand that he'd had heart surgery several years before, and so they're assuming he had a heart attack. I don't know if they're going to do an autopsy to confirm that, but that's the assumption.

DEAN BECKER: You and I aren't getting any younger. We've been doing this well over a decade for me, and probably two decades for you. And, there's new blood, if you will, lots more activists getting involved, but it is because of the work that was done by good folks like Jay Bergstrom to educate and to share that information. Am I right?

MATT ELROD: I agree, and I'd like to think that we sort of laid the groundwork for the sea change we're now seeing, with respect to public opinion and finally changes in legislation, and the passing of initiatives and so forth. I mean, when I began 20 years ago, things were a lot more conservative, you know, there were drug policy reformers saying we shouldn't even use the word legalize because it would scare people.


MATT ELROD: And of course now, our Prime Minister in Canada is saying just that. You know, we at the Media Awareness Project, and Jay was one of our editors, he was vetting and correcting and moderating news items that came into the media awareness project, and archiving them in our system. And in fact, he was the last volunteer editor we had. I'm now all alone in that capacity. And so I'm going to miss him dearly just for that.

And, but not only that, you know, he got a letter published on September 3rd in a Canadian paper. He'd spent some time on the east coast of Canada, and a very poignant letter in which he talks about the morals of a cannabis grower, and how he would not be welcomed at the pearly gates if he hadn't destroyed his moldy cannabis that he was growing in northern California. So he was a good soul, and to the very last was writing letters to the editor and working as a volunteer for MAP.

DEAN BECKER: You know, I found the Drug Policy Forum of Texas, and they pointed me to MAPInc, and then I became a letter writer. At one time I think I was the second leading letter to the editor writing in the world behind Mister Sharpe. Jay and the MAPInc were very instrumental in the Drug Truth Network, in the writing of my book, and in my focus, my efforts, my willingness, and if I dare say, my courage to just keep doing this stuff.

MATT ELROD: Yeah. I mean, I remember when I had got my first letter to the editor published, and my then wife, now ex-wife, caught wind of it. She was horrified. She thought, that's it, you're never going to have a proper job, you know, and we're going to have surveillance on the house. You know, it took a certain amount of courage to write a letter to the editor, to put down on the record that you disagreed with the drug laws in the mid-90s.

DEAN BECKER: Let's talk about some of these changes that are occurring, and I think are now law. Let's first talk about the new heroin perspective. What's going on up there in Canada?

MATT ELROD: Well, you know, almost 10 years ago, we tried a heroin maintenance trial in Vancouver. This has been done in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Germany, and of course in Britain they had prescription heroin. And so we tried a trial in Vancouver, Vancouver being the progressive west coast. And, they also I think enrolled about 50 patients in Montreal.

And it was wildly successful. It did exactly what it's done elsewhere. Addicts who had tried and failed, I don't like the word addicts, but shall we say "consumers" who had tried and failed at other treatment modalities -- methadone, abstinence, and so forth -- were asked to enroll in this trial program, where they would be given prescription pharmaceutical grade heroin. And, as a maintenance dose, and so it worked as expected. Their involvement in criminal activity went way down, their health improved, many of them found housing and employment, and, you know, getting off the hamster wheel of having to raise money by hook or by crook to pay gangs for adulterated heroin on the street.

And, you know, as I've heard some heroin users say, it's not the heroin, it's the lifestyle. And so by allowing these people to use prescription heroin, they radically improved their health. And, it was good for them and it was good for society as a whole. Subsequently, a Conservative government was elected in Canada, and they were very anti harm reduction. They went so far so to remove harm reduction from the official drug policy of Canada. And we were sort of in the dark ages there for a while. With the election of Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party, they're a little more open minded about harm reduction, and last week I guess it was they announced that they would allow doctors to prescribe heroin to their patients, not in a trial, but in what's called a Special Access Program.

I guess it remains to be seen how receptive doctors will be to that. But, I think what really brought it on was the advent of Fentanyl. You know, Insite, North America's first, and I think we only have two supervised injection sites in North America, both in Vancouver. Insite, the first injection site, began testing the drugs that their patients were bringing in and determined that some 80 percent of them are adulterated with Fentanyl. And this has resulted in, you know, tens and hundreds of fatal overdoses. And I guess, as in America, they're discovering that a heroin user, or an opiate user, is not what most people think of. They're sometimes middle class, they're sometimes Caucasian, and of course that raises alarms, you know, it's one thing if the poor and people of color are dying, but when upper class and middle class white people start dying, then people take notice. Sadly.


MATT ELROD: And so it's created a sense of urgency, and I guess they're realizing that pharmaceutical heroin is a lot better than adulterated street heroin that's cut with Fentanyl.

DEAN BECKER: We're speaking with Mister Matt Elrod of MAPInc up in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. Now, Matt, the other thing that's getting a lot of attention down here is the changeover to legalized marijuana, and yet you have good folks like Marc and Jodie Emery setting themselves to be busted to make sure that it's really legalized. Am I right?

MATT ELROD: Yes, I understand that one of their dispensaries was raided this morning in Toronto. The last I heard they had some 8 or 9 shops that they've opened. They've rather boldly said that they're going to drop the medical pretense and sell to anyone of majority age, you know, regardless of their motivations for using cannabis. And, their intent I think is to, rather than wait for the regulations, is to establish how they think it should be done. And, very bold. But, they, as always, Marc is putting his own liberty on the line to make this point.

DEAN BECKER: It seems to me that when changes are going to be put in play, that they keep the prohibitionists on the panel that's going to make those changes. That's true in Canada as well, isn't it?

MATT ELROD: Yes, and, you know, a task force was announced to hash out, if you will, the details of cannabis legalization in Canada, with the intent to introduce a bill next spring, and simultaneous with the announcement of the task force was a discussion paper, and the discussion paper had some rather creepy language in it. I don't think it was written by the task force, probably by a bureaucrat, but it talked about not wanting to normalize cannabis, and it invited Canadians to provide feedback to a questionnaire, and I understand they've had over 30,000 responses, about 500 of them from organizations and the rest from individuals, a small minority opposed to legalization, but most in favor. And the discussion paper asked Canadians to weigh in on issues such as should there be THC limits, should there be advertising restrictions, what should be the minimum age of purchase and possession, and so forth.

And the task force also has been holding a number of closed door meetings with experts, so-called experts that they've invited to consult with them. Notably absent from those invitations was an invite for the Emorys, and Dana Larsen, and some of the other more prominent drug policy or cannabis policy activists in Canada. But they did invite Kirk Tousaw, who is a lawyer who's represented many of the landmark cases in Canada for -- that have advanced cannabis law reform. Rielle Capler, and some other friends of the cannabis policy reform movement. So that's a good thing.

The task force itself, they appointed Anne McLellan as the chair, and she is a former Justice Minister and Minister of Health under the former Liberal government, and no friend of cannabis law reform. She had been put in charge of our medical marijuana program, and basically seemed to sabotage it. She didn't approve of it, I think she did what she could to slow it down, and that resulted in Kirk having to go to court many times to have those laws struck down as unconstitutional.

So, the cannabis policy reform community is very suspicious of Anne McLellan. The good news is that the vice chair of the task force is a doctor named Mark Ware, who is very knowledgeable about cannabis, and uses it, and prescribes it, and so forth. And Susan Boyd, who is a sociologist out of U Vic, and she's also rather enlightened. She wrote, or co-wrote a book a few years ago on how the media have exaggerated the dangers of grow ops. And so, you know, very unsightful, understands what's going on, understands reefer madness. And so it's not all bad. It's kind of a mixed bag, in terms of the task force members, and also in terms of who they're talking to.

They had a meeting in Vancouver, and Dana Larsen and Jodie Emery were among the protesters out front, protesting that they hadn't been invited, for one thing, and also protesting that arrests continue, and the government has a sort of business as usual policy until they introduce the new legislation.

One attendee of that meeting, one person who was invited, was Pamela McColl. She's Kevin Sabet's Canadian counterpart, Smart Approaches to Marijuana. And reports are that she gave a tirade or two in the morning, and that Anne McLellan the chair was not impressed with the tirades. She obviously was arguing against any legalization at all. And then she neglected to show up in the afternoon, after the lunch break. So, I guess that's kind of good. Bad news that they invited her in the first place, good news that they got a taste of what she's like, and they've heard the best that can be mustered against cannabis law reform.

DEAN BECKER: Folks, we've been speaking with Mister Matt Elrod of MAPInc, and my computer guru, and a good friend of the Drug Truth Network. Matt, any closing thoughts, website you want to point folks towards?

MATT ELROD: Well, your listeners could check out DrugSense.org, and MAPINC.org, which is our news archive, where Jay has contributed so much work. We're looking for volunteers who want to help edit, if any of your listeners are interested in that.

DEAN BECKER: Please visit MAPINC.org.

It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Euphoria, drowsiness, nausea, confusion, constipation, sedation, unconsciousness, coma, tolerance, addiction, respiratory arrest, and death. Time's up! This drug, 80 times stronger than morphine and heroin, is available via schedule two prescription: Fentanyl. For major pain.

DONNIE VARNELL: I'm Donnie Varnell, I'm the policing coordinator and the LEAD Program coordinator for the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition. I'm a recently retired supervisor from the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, and the work I believe we're speaking about today is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program, or LEAD, which is a pre-booking program designed to give officers the opportunity and the option to instead of arresting and processing a person they have contact with on the street, instead of going that route, take that person to a case manager and put them into a comprehensive service program, which is, it has been shown of course in every state to be more successful in treating any substance abuse disorder than incarceration.

DEAN BECKER: This effort in Fayetteville is the first LEAD program in the American south. But this follows on the heels of success in cities like Seattle and others around the country. Am I correct?

DONNIE VARNELL: That's correct. Seattle started their program, and I guess now five years ago. Their program was started because of a continuing rift between the police and the local community. There was just a big disproportionate number of arrests of African Americans compared to the population they were serving. And out of those issues and discussions and lawsuits, they tried to come up with a better way to approach the subject of low level drug offenses or drug use.

And the LEAD Program was invented, and the success that we're talking about is three-fold. First, it allows officers to patrol their neighborhoods, instead of tying up their time, hour upon hour, in court and processing people for low-level drug offenses, which are really just addiction driven, and the petty crime that comes along with that. So instead of doing that, they were able to take a person to get services, and go back on patrol, and have that resource available for emergency situations.

Two, the savings are almost mind-boggling, when you talking about the savings. To keep a person in jail in North Carolina, it costs at least $70 just to sit in your jail cell, every day, where comprehensive treatment costs between about $17 and $25 a day. So, just the savings for a municipality are so impressive.

And of course, the biggest thing is the treatment for the person that is suffering from the substance abuse disorders. It allows them to get the assistance that they need, and it helps guide them through that program. They're not left on their own accord to find their own help, and they are 60 percent less likely to be re-arrested if they're in that program as not.

Now, in law enforcement, and in state and local government, we know that about 80 percent of the people that are arrested on low level drug offenses will be re-arrested. That's the nature of that cycle. And if we say about 70 percent of all our crime is substance based, you know, even breaking and entering, thefts, low level drug offenses. If we can break that cycle, and help those people get to a better place, find a better place in their progression, then it cuts down on all that crime, all that cost to the community, but it really helps those individuals one at a time find a better place to be in.

DEAN BECKER: Well, again, folks, we're speaking with Mister Donnie Varnell. He's the harm reduction policing coordinator for Fayetteville's Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program. Now, Donnie, I want to start something like this in my community. The savings of, well, cash and lives and futures, it just cannot be ignored. How would one go about starting a LEAD Program in my city, or anywhere in America?

DONNIE VARNELL: Well, I mean, some services that are available, like the North Carolina Harm Reduction, we would be glad to speak with anybody at any time, you know, in a very one to one or in a group setting. Seattle's program, Santa Fe's program, have been very progressive in helping, getting the word out, and doing training, to answer those questions that always come out.

But the buy-in has to come from, one, the police department, because it starts at that level, it at the one on one contact between a police officer and a citizen, that very often ends in arrest for some sort of low level petty crime. That's where it starts. It's important that law enforcement has a buy-in, and we have found that the law enforcement agencies we speak to all understand the problem, and they have all, all really embraced this program, because it doesn't take any options away from police officers. It doesn't say you can't do traditional law enforcement and arrest someone if you think that's necessary. But it does give you that option of putting someone into treatment, which is, you know, so helpful, and kind of, and obviously has a better statistical ending.

Also, the district attorney's office, who has the final say on any subject in the program. They have to be at the table. And if you start with those two entities, and your harm reduction guide through the program, that's how we started. And then you have to find your service providers, and in North Carolina -- I know it's a little bit different across the nation -- in North Carolina, we have a hub, you know, we have, like, a medical provider that is able to reach out and touch all the different services. And again, drug treatment is such a weird phrase, because a lot of people don't, they don't need drug treatment, they need housing. They need job placement. They need food, to help them get out of whatever situation they're in.

So, law enforcement has to buy-in, district attorney's office, and then you have that transition into the services, and for us, it helped to have a hub. And then, after that, it's just a matter of doing, you know, memorandums of understanding and documents of policy and stuff, but, the commitment to do it and the understanding of the program is really the -- is the two really first steps.

DEAN BECKER: Well, Donnie, I wish you great success there in Fayetteville. And, here's hoping that others listening around the country can institute such an effort to let law enforcement assist in this diversion. Donnie, is there a website you might want to share?

DONNIE VARNELL: The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition www.nchrc.org.

DEAN BECKER: Alto a la guerra contra las drogas.

So, I'm going through the Huffington Post, I see this story posted, "Why Kratom Is Getting Banned And How We Can Stop The Drug War Madness." It's written by the director of communication strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance, Mister Jag Davies, and we have the author with us now. What is Kratom?

JAG DAVIES: Kratom is a tree, and its leaves, the kratom leaves, are, have been used in southeast Asia as a traditional folk remedy for hundreds or thousands of years. It's a pretty mild substance. In smaller doses it has a mild stimulant effect, maybe akin to drinking a cup of green tea, and in larger doses it has a bit more of a sedative effect. But it's a relatively mild substance, you know, and it's, you know, the withdrawal symptoms associated with it are very weak compared to something like heroin or amphetamines. And people in Asia traditionally use kratom as a way to wean themselves off of opiates, and it's become particularly here the past few years among people who are struggling with opiate addiction.

And a lot of them have been using it as essentially a maintenance therapy of sorts, to help them cut back or quit their use of opiates or other substances. So, and, you know, it's relatively obscure, but now that the DEA is coming out and banning it, it's very interesting to see just what a big reaction that it's getting and how many people out there were benefiting from this plant that we didn't even really know about.

DEAN BECKER: It occurs to me that this is just another example, like in Bolivia, people chew the coca leaf all day long, every person I met in Bolivia chewed coca, a very mild stimulant, caused no problems that I am aware of. And I would assume that much the same can be said about this kratom. Am I right?

JAG DAVIES: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, there's no such thing as a completely safe substance, but there's a long history of human use there, which, you know, means it's much safer than many of the other substances that are floating around out there. You know, it's just absurd to be criminalizing it now and putting more people who are suffering from addiction under the thumb of the criminal justice system.

I mean, the interesting thing about this is it really, it points to how dominant the abstinence only ideology still is, where, you know, it's like, if someone is using it to help cut back on more dangerous substance use, then that should be considered a step in the right direction. Under the abstinence only logic, you know, you just have to prohibit everything.

DEAN BECKER: Recently, I've gotten several posts, or inquiries, I guess they'd be, on Facebook, people that wanted to ship me some of this kratom from, you know, Indonesia or elsewhere, months before the DEA came out with this idea to latch onto another drug to prohibit and lock people up for. Are there deaths associated with it? Does it, is it addicting? What do you think?

JAG DAVIES: It, you know, it can be dependence forming, like, you know, just about any psychoactive substance. But on the scale, it's relatively, it's relatively low, and the DEA in their, in scheduling it, they cited that something like 14 people had died over the past few years, that was, in ways that were related to kratom, but if you actually go back and look at those deaths, there were a lot of other substances involved, and there is no proof that it was directly the result of kratom. So, there's never, no one has ever overdosed and died just from consuming kratom. It's a plant matter, and, I mean, it's a bit like marijuana in that way, you know, it's pretty much impossible to overdose on it, although of course, you know, there needs to be some regulation of it. I mean, you know, the DEA is right that, you know, there aren't enough regulations around it, there should be, you know, quality control, and age restrictions, probably, and marketing restrictions, like, you know, we do with other legal substances.

But, yeah, this is totally abdicating responsibility for regulation by prohibiting it. Now it will be impossible to control the quality of it. So, I mean, we know what works when it comes to legal regulation. We have decades of evidence showing us that.

DEAN BECKER: Once again, we've been speaking with Mister Jag Davies. He's director of communication strategy at the Drug Policy Alliance. The article I'm talking about here on the Huffington Post is titled Why Kratom's Getting Banned And How We Can Stop This Drug War Madness. Which brings me to my final question for you, Mister Davies, and that is, what can we do to help stop this madness?

JAG DAVIES: Great question. Well, in the short term, it's unlikely that the DEA will reverse its decision, but we're fighting the good fight, and you can visit the action page on the Drug Policy Alliance's website and pressure, you know, help us pressure Congress to step down on the, you know, step up and challenge the DEA on this. But you know, I mean, in the long term, I think what this really shows is the need for a broader, more comprehensive rethinking of our entire drug classification system, and how we make decisions about drug classifications. I mean, ultimately, you know, responsibility for decisions involving scientific research and medical practice should be taken away from the DEA, and we should put a health or science agency in charge of those decisions.

DEAN BECKER: Again, we've been speaking with Mister Jag Davies of the Drug Policy Alliance. Their website DrugPolicy.org.

And please, do everything you can to help end the madness of this drug war, and as always I remind you, because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please be careful.

To the Drug Truth Network listeners around the world, this is Dean Becker for Cultural Baggage and the unvarnished truth. Cultural Baggage is a production of the Pacifica Radio Network, archives are permanently stored at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. And we are all still tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.