11/27/19 Richard Van Wickler

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Richard Van Wickler
Law Enforcement Action Partnership

Richard Van Wickler past Chairman of Law Enforcement Action Partnership, Lindy Clapp of Harm Reduction Service, Kristian Karas of DanceSafe, Sera Davidow of W. Massachussets Recovery & Author of Unbroken Brain Maia Szalavitz

Audio file



NOVEMBER 27, 2019

DEAN BECKER: Hi, my friends. I am Dean Becker the Reverend Most High, and this is Cultural Baggage. We have got another great show lined up for you with some great interviews I conducted while in St. Louis at the Drug Policy Alliance’s Reform ’19; the world’s largest drug reform conference.
It is still Day 1 on a Wednesday here in St. Louis, Missouri. I have seen a lot of my old friends along the way including the group I like to call by their first name which was Law Enforcement against Prohibition, they are now known as Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP). I am speaking with the former Chairman of the Board with LEAP, Mr. Richard Van Wickler. He is still running his jail and speaking at colleges. He has stepped down as chairman but he still speaks for LEAP. Am I right?
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: I am indeed. Dean, thank you so much for having me back on your show and thank you to your listeners and especially for the work that you do in this very important cause. Since we last talked a couple of years ago one of the big reforms that have happened in corrections is medication assisted treatment. Probably better than half of the people who we get who are incarcerated have what is known as O.U.D.s or S.U.D.s (Substance Use Disorder or Opioid Use Disorder).
Traditionally what corrections did was put people in a cell and the suffered and detoxed that way.
DEAN BECKER: And sometimes died.
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: Well it was a very difficult process and fortunately I didn’t have anybody die from detox but it was an awful thing to watch.
DEAN BECKER: Not saying that you did. You are more –
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: It is an awful thing to watch so Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) is really relative because what we are learning about addiction is that long term heroin and fentanyl use do change the brain and it is a medical condition. What courts are ruling across the country right now is that for a jail to not provide MAT would rise to a level of failure to provide adequate medical care and that is a pretty significant turn of events in our country which is a very good thing. I am very proud to say that in Cheshire County, New Hampshire we are among the first to employ a MAT in our jail for our offenders which had the full support of the Commissioners in our delegation. There is a county out in New Hampshire right now whose commissioners are refusing to provide MAT and the bottom line is it is because the public is unaware of addiction, and they are unaware of how MAT can help. This is a new thing and we need to educate the public about how important it is so that when they elect people who vote in favor of providing MAT, it is seen with a positive point of view rather than a negative one.
DEAN BECKER: When I indicated that some people die undergoing withdrawal I did not mean you or your facility. I am just saying that I read the papers and it does happen. It is those who probably have less knowledge and awareness of that potential problem, or who could care less because they believe that drug addicts have got to suffer if they are ever going to learn. What is your thought there?
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: Unfortunately that is true. There are a lot of people that think that if you are suffering then you got what you deserved. You made a decision and this is the result of that decision so you deserve it. My point of view is that is not okay. If criminal justice were a job that is one thing but the three prongs of criminal justice which are police, courts, and corrections or arrest, conviction, and punishment really should have attached to that the academics of professionalism. We are America, and we are Americans. We should give a damn about suffering and we should not want people to suffer. We should have compassion, empathy, and understanding and not fall victim to our personal bias or our confirmation bias. This is a difficult thing for me since I run a small jail. I am not the L.A. County jail, or Chicago, or Dade County – I am a small jail and I have to have 84 employees view this the way that I view it and that is difficult; but they do. I set and enforce limits and say that this is the way that we are going to do this or you have to work somewhere else and I imagine that is a significant challenge in our larger jails in this country.
DEAN BECKER: Folks, we have been speaking with my long-term friend, associate and ally in ending this stupid drug war, Mr. Richard Van Wickler. Do you have any closing thoughts, Richard?
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: We are here at the Drug Policy Alliance conference which we do every couple of years. You and I were talking earlier off-record about how we always learn something from this and we bring that home with us and we reflect on what we learned and we try to make a difference in our community. So the challenge should be that every citizen go out and learn something and convey that which they learn to somebody else. Ask them to challenge their confirmation bias and get over this nonsense and show compassion. Let’s be who we truly are as Americans.
DEAN BECKER: Who we’ve been pretending to be all the while.
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: That’s right. Thank you, Dean.
DEAN BECKER: Thank you, Richard. Last I recall there were 170,000 members and supporters worldwide in support of LEAP. Has that number grown?
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: It has grown significantly. As you may or may not be aware when I was the board chair I was a very strong advocate and it was an unpopular thing to advocate that we change our name and that we broaden our speaking points. There was a time in 2007 when a police officer would say that marijuana should be legalized it was accompanied with shock and awe. That is not the care anymore. You can pretty much pull any police officer aside and tell them that marijuana should be legalized and they would chuckle and agree with you because it should be.
The other part is that we do fantastic work. Law Enforcement Action Partnership does fantastic work and what we need in order to do that work is money. We need supporters and people who are on the front lines of the drug war to come onboard and help us fight this. My view was that we either change as an organization or die. What we have done is increased our membership surpassing 67% new members which is beyond what we projected. Our revenues are significantly beyond what we projected because we are actively recruiting federal prosecutors, federal law enforcement officers, and law enforcement officers that are still on the job. If you will remember Dean, I was one of the only people who was still on the job and a member of LEAP.
DEAN BECKER: The guy in Canada –
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: David Brasser in Canada was on the job so he and I made two in two different countries. So I am still the only guy in this country at that time. Right now we can’t say that. We have got a lot of people on the payroll who are exercising their first amendment right on this issue and that is because we have broadened our talking points. We are making a difference and that is why we had to make that change and I am glad that we did.
DEAN BECKER: Okay, folks, if you want to learn more about Law Enforcement Action Partnership, please go to www.leap.cc. Thank you, Richard.
RICHARD VAN WICKLER: Thank you and thank you to your listeners.
FEMALE VOICE: My name is Lindy Clapp, I actually have a medical degree but I am not practicing medicine now because I didn’t feel like that was really reaching the people in the proper way. I work as the Linkage to Care Coordinator for Choice Health Network in Knoxville, TN., which is a part of our harm reduction program that offers one of the first four needle exchange programs that started in Tennessee in 2018.
DEAN BECKER: Needle exchange. Most folks know what that is but what does it accomplish?
LINDY CLAPP: Our particular program not only provides clean syringes to people and offers them the opportunity to dispose of their used syringes, we also offer testing for HIV, and Hepatitis C. We also offer referrals if anyone asks for it for anybody who has any healthcare needs including pregnant women. We connect people with HIV to care as quickly as possible and try to refer people with Hepatitis C to places in the area where they can get help whether they are insured or uninsured. That is a big problem right now because in the state of Tennessee the laws are still very prohibitive for people who are still using drugs. Any state-insured people must have some level of sobriety that is monitored for six months. Providers are less willing to offer uninsured people Hepatitis C treatment.
DEAN BECKER: Your work also coincides with helping pregnant women because often times if they are using drugs they can get themselves in to some terrible situations. Would you talk about that work, please?
LINDY CLAPP: Sure. Before I started this work in 2015, I worked for a different non-profit organization in Knoxville and at that time there was a law in east Tennessee that pregnant women who were using drugs could be convicted of a crime. That law actually doesn’t still exist but there is still a very high level of fear among women who are using drugs as evidenced by the people we see at the needle exchange about seeking help or prenatal care and we have more than one person right now who is still very reticent to seek care because she is afraid of the backlash or what may happen.
DEAN BECKER: Being at this conference is uplifting and it also reminds us just how scary and out of control a lot of things still remain. Do you have any closing thoughts or a website for our listeners?
LINDY CLAPP: You can go to www.choicehealthnetwork.org, or www.positivelyliving.org. Both of those are the same organization. At this point in time I think that legalization or decriminalization of drugs is the best way to make substance use a health issue rather than a criminal issue and it is vital that we do that if we want a healthier society.
It’s time to play Name That Drug By its Side Effects. Shortened attention span, hyper activity, obesity, diabetes, diagnostic diseases, kidney failure, heart disease, hypoglycemia, tooth decay, and death. Times Up! For the answer look in every bag of Halloween candy and in damned near every product we buy: Sugar.
FEMALE VOICE: My name is Kristin Karas, I am the Director of Operations at DanceSafe. DanceSafe is a 501(C) (3) Public Health non-profit that promotes health and safety within the electronic music and night life communities. We are a chapter based organization comprised of volunteers. We currently have 26 chapters in North America with 25 of those 26 being U.S. based and one based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. At events you can see DanceSafe providing a number of services coupled with educational literature and peer-to-peer education along with water and information about heat stroke, safer sex tools and information about consent; earplugs and information about hearing damage; and factual unbiased drug education coupled with drug checking when allowed.
DEAN BECKER: This is something that is stymied and objected to. It is called in to question at times in some communities despite the attempt and hope to save lives and create a better medical situation for the community. Tell us about some of those objections and what you have done in regards to those objections, please?
KRISTIN KARAS: Absolutely. I think that some of the objections are policy based. First and foremost something that often comes up in our line of work and if referenced is what is referred to colloquy as “The Rave Act”, which was passed in the early 2000s and it was an expansion of the 80s crack laws cut down on events where the selling of substances was taking place. Since then we have supported the Amend the Rave Act Campaign that was originally founded by Dee Dee Goldsmith who has since stepped down and passed off Amend the Rave Act to us so that is something that we seek to spread awareness about. In addition to that another policy piece that is a barrier to the implementation of DanceSafe’s services. In certain states drug checking kits are considered to be paraphernalia we have begun to get involved in trying to make changes in these states because it does at times interfere at times with our ability to sell drug checking kits at events as well as provide drug checking services due to concerns of event producers. We are happy to announce that we have just received a $15,000 grant from the Drug Policy Alliance to expand our Test Kit Program, which is centered on drug checking to include this advocacy initiative and building out a toolkit that the community will be able to use at a grassroots level for organizing. Beyond that I think that something that we continuously see as a barrier as does the rest of the harm reduction community is stigma. The behaviors that our community are engaging in are terribly stigmatized and that inherently creates a barrier to the provision of our services. There is a misconception that harm reduction is drug promotion which is not true. At DanceSafe we neither condone nor condemn drug use, however, we recognize that people will choose to consume substances regardless of prohibitionist policies in place and is in fact better for us to be grounding ourselves in health and human rights.
DEAN BECKER: Kristin I want to thank you for extoling on the ramifications, perceptions, the means and the goings on with all of this because it is very complex in its own way and it is also very simple in that it wants to save lives. Looking at The Guardian and The Observer out of the U.K. and I am see that they are beginning to recognize it. Their kids that are dying of MDMA (Ecstasy) at these raves and it doesn’t have to happen.
KRISTIN KARAS: In the United States it is common and there are headlines that are depicting situations in which there are MDMA overdoses which are actually misnomers because in many cases it is actually heat stroke that has been the result. In the U.K. there is this proliferation of high-dose pressed pills to circumvent drug laws so that is actually true.
DEAN BECKER: Kristin I do appreciate your thoughts. Once again we have been speaking with Kristin Karas, she is with DanceSafe based in Denver, Colorado. Kristin do you have any closing thoughts for the parents and the kids out there with regard to what they should know and maybe what they can do?
KRISTIN KARAS: Absolutely. I think for all of the parents out there the thing I would encourage you to do is to begin educating yourself. At the end of the day you can’t control what someone else is doing with their body and it is much better to be talking about these things in the open because in so many circumstances the stigma that is perpetuated and keeps people from speaking is what ultimately contributes to them getting in riskier situations in the first place.
I would share a similar message with all the kids out there. I understand that a lot of the drug education you have had is likely from untrustworthy sources or someone that you just don’t have trust in. I would recommend you look up DanceSafe and start your education there. You can reach out to us on social media if you have any additional questions about your choice in health behaviors.

FEMALE VOICE: My name is Sera Davidow and I work with the Western Mass Recovery Learning Community. We are a community of people who have all struggled ourselves. We have psychiatric diagnoses, we have lived without homes, we have had problems with substances, and an array of challenges that have interrupted our lives and that we have learned from. So we developed our community around the idea that those struggles bring wisdom we can use to support one another as well as ourselves to get our power back and move on with our lives in the way that works for us.

DEAN BECKER: Some people point back to Ronald Reagan and his idea of doing away with treatment being available for citizens and leaning more towards jails and prison. In the years since jailing and imprisoning people just doesn’t help a person with any mental problems, does it?

SERA DAVIDOW: No. I think that a lot of people end up struggling with problems with drugs, hearing voices, wanting to die and array of things because they lose their power and they lose control. Things like imprisoning people takes that power away even more and adds trauma which is not what helps people change their lives for the better.

DEAN BECKER: The drama and the trauma of modern life seems to be forcing people to present themselves more perhaps than in years past when the economy was better. What are your thoughts?

SERA DAVIDOW: I think that we are in a really fast paced society and the more it speeds up and the fewer resources there are available people get desperate and they do get exposed. If you have a lot of resources you can be eccentric, you can be different. If a person doesn’t have a lot of resources then they are the person that we don’t want to see; we want to shuffle them off somewhere. The more that our society spins and gets chaotic; the more people can’t fit in anymore which leads to more people wanting to see them shuffled off somewhere so that they can feel “safe”.

DEAN BECKER: If your art is so poor you might be considered dangerous. It is crazy.

SERA DAVIDOW: This idea that we can stop bad things from happening and that we can identify who is and is not dangerous is an enormous myth because who gets to decide who is dangerous and what is considered violence is being decided by those who are in power.

We are in a society where more and more people in the general community are saying tell me I am going to be okay and that my family is going to be safe. Meanwhile, those in power are trying to create these illusions that they are doing things and those things are often harming people more. People in general don’t know that or they don’t want to know that. I don’t know how they could not know that things are getting worse if they really think about it. It is easier just to allow people who are responsible for the society to say that they are making it better and go on with our lives.

DEAN BECKER: Yes. We will wrap it up on that note. We are here at the Drug Policy Alliance Reform ’19 Conference in St. Louis, Mo., and you touched on it a bit but can you please give us the connection of your organization and this event?

SERA DAVIDOW: Sure. Our roots are more in the world of emotional distress which is where our original funding has come from, we have since expanded. What people don’t always understand is that the people who end up in psychiatric hospitals, hearing voices, contemplating killing themselves are often the same people who also end up homeless, have problems with substances, and find themselves incarcerated because so much of all of those things have their roots in environments that are full of systemic oppression where there is not enough resources to go around, where people’s basic needs are not being met and people are experiencing trauma. So if they look at things like the adverse childhood experience and study all of the different research that is out there, it actually says that there aren’t these different boxes. The people with problems with substances over here and then the people with psychiatric diagnoses over here…all these different boxes that we create with our systems. Those are all fake; we are all the same people. The way that we can all make some sort of relative change in society perhaps is to come together and recognize that we are the same people and come from a harm reduction approach so that we can all try to figure out how to get our voices back.

DEAN BECKER: Okay. In closing, I am sure there is a website where folks can learn more about the work that you do.

SERA DAVIDOW: Sure. The Western Mass Recovery Learning Community can be found at www.westernmassrlc.org.

FEMALE VOICE: I am Maia Szalavitz, I am a journalist and author most recently of Unbroken Brain, which looks at addiction as a learning disorder.

DEAN BECKER: Your writings appear in many editorials and correspondence giving focus in newspapers and other periodicals around the country bringing focus to bear on the futility of this damned drug war. Am I right?

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Yes, you are correct. For the past 30 years I have been trying to get people to understand that addiction is a medical problem. It is not something that you can stop by punishment because it is defined as compulsive use that continues despite negative consequences. If punishment were going to fix it, the condition by its very nature would not exist in the first place.

DEAN BECKER: Well it certainly would have done its job by now you would think.

MAIA SZALAVITZ: Look at the people who are the most oppressed by the drug war. They should be the most drug-free and having no problems whatsoever but no, because oppression does not help anybody.

DEAN BECKER: Right. We keep getting ugly results and situations that should make us wake up and realize that this is not working. One of the most recent things that grabbed my attention is a situation that happened just south of Arizona in Mexico where a three-car caravan was ambushed and burned by a cartel who thought they were part of another cartel. Three mothers and six children –

MAIA SZALAVITZ: One of the kids actually lived. There was a baby that was in one of the vehicles for approximately six hours. I was just reading about this and it is just so awful, and Trump goes on about how we just need war, more soldiers, more fight. No. We have been doing that for the last 100 years. You cannot stop this by force. The way to stop drug problems is to treat people like human beings and recognize that all human beings like to alter their consciousness. We do so in various ways and to say that one way is good not a drug, i.e., caffeine, alcohol and your way is bad i.e., marijuana, heroin, and cocaine is a drug. This just creates a black market and one of the features of a black market is that it cannot use the legal system to deal with disputes so you end up encouraging this horrific violence. We haven’t seen a shootout by alcohol dealers probably since the end of prohibition, and that is not a coincidence.

DEAN BECKER: The evidence is there so why are we having such a difficulty in recognizing it and changing our ways?
MAIA SZALAVITZ: I think there is an important thing to keep in mind which is that drug policies really are not about drugs. They are about keeping down particular groups of people and until we understand that it doesn’t matter how many rational arguments we make about reducing violence and spending, or that you would have more people able to function and all kinds of wonderful things. Until we get at the fact that these laws were made for racist reasons and they continue to be enforced in a racist manner because people have this idea in their heads that the FDA or somebody sat down and said that alcohol and tobacco should be legal because they are safer than sugar, marijuana, cocaine, and heroin and that never happened. It was not a scientific weighing of the facts. It was a series of racist moral panics or often anti-immigrant panics as well. Once we get that, we have to look at the drug war differently and realize that one of the ways that we are going to change this is by recognizing that it works perfectly for what they are trying to do; it doesn’t work perfectly to deal with drugs and addiction. If we want to deal with drugs and addiction we have to let the public know about the history of the laws and the fact that even though you think our laws are made rationally all of the time, sometimes they are made for really stupid reasons and then exploited by politicians who want power. If we want to actually help people with addiction I think we are in a situation where because this current thing is framed as white, we may actually be able to improve policy because when we see drug users as us and not them, suddenly harm reduction becomes a nice thing. Suddenly harm reduction becomes a phrase that you can say in public rather than something if you want to get your grant. As this happens and the rhetoric softens where we realize that we cannot jail our way out of this we have to understand why we were trying that in the first place and recognize that it has failed. We now need to use the evidence that we have for what works and move the money that way so that we can teach people the real truth about drugs and addiction.
DEAN BECKER: Again, Maia Svalavitz. I am sure there are a thousand places that you could reference but where might folks go if they want to learn more about your work?
MAIA SZALAVITZ: I do have a website that someone happily keeps updated with my articles and you can find that at: www.maiasz.com, and that usually has all of my stuff.
DEAN BECKER: And I urge you to visit www.drugtruth.net. Again, I remind you that because of prohibition you don’t know what is in that bag. Please be careful.

Cultural Baggage is a production of the Pacifica Radio Network, archives are currently stored at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy, and we are all still tap dancing on the edge of an abyss.