02/19/20 Rajani Gudlavalletti

The city of Baltimore is one of the US cities discussing how to set up supervised consumption facilities and overdose prevention sites. On today's Century we hear from Christa Daring, Executive Director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project USA; Rajani Gudlavalletti, Community Organizing Manager with the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition; and Liz Bement, a resident of Baltimore whose son died of an overdose in 2019.

Century of Lies
Wednesday, February 19, 2020
Rajani Gudlavalletti
Rajani Gudlavalletti
Download: Audio icon COL021920.mp3




FEBRUARY 19, 2020

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

DOUG MCVAY: Hello and welcome to Century of Lies. I am your host, Doug McVay, Editor of www.drugwarfacts.org.

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs held a meeting on February 17th. It was the first intersessional meeting of its 63rd Session. I was hoping to bring you some audio from that meeting but unfortunately the UN Office in Vienna hosed the webcast. Hopefully the CND and UN Vienna will get their stuff together in time for the big meeting that takes place at the beginning of March. If and when they do, you will hear some of that audio on this show.

Today we are going to hear some exciting news about harm reduction in the United States. The city of Baltimore is considering whether and how to set up legal supervised consumption facilities. The Baltimore City Council’s Health Committee held an informational hearing on February 12th about overdose prevention and harm reduction. We are going to hear some of that audio today. Let’s start with the first person that testified at that hearing. Liz Bement is a resident of Baltimore.

LIZ BEMENT: Good afternoon, Councilmembers. My name is Liz Bement and I live in Upper Fells Point. I am here to talk about a tragedy that happened in our family and the reason why I support the overdose prevention sites and other harm reduction measures. My 27 year old son, Alex Bement, died on May 4th 2019, of an accidental overdose. The cause of death was fentanyl toxicity. Alex was bright, driven, personable, and kind. He was an all-American athlete and was very loved by his family and many friends. He was a standout student and a lacrosse player at Loyola Blakefield and then he went on to study at the University of Pennsylvania and played on their Division 1 lacrosse team. Like many teens, he experimented with drugs but by his second year at Penn that experimentation turned in to a full blown addiction to opioids. When we realized what was going on we sent him to a 28-day rehab facility named Father Martin’s Ashley and followed that up with six months in a sober living house. At that time in our naiveté, we thought that was the end of it and he was cured but with opioid addiction it is not that simple. It is a chronic relapsing brain disease with genetic components. It is complex and extraordinarily hard to overcome. However, over the next nine years he did really well despite several periodic relapses.

He lived in Aspen, Colorado where he coached the Aspen High School Lacrosse team; he taught Telemark skiing; and he was a white water rafting guide. He went to St. Paul, Minnesota where he attended the University of St. Thomas where he got straight A’s while helping the lacrosse team win the championship. That year he was named Defensive Player of the Year, and First Team All American. Most recently he lived in Washington, D.C., where he had a terrific job, a loving and accomplished girlfriend, and was a finisher in an Ironman triathlon eight months before he died. He was happy, thriving, and engaged in life. However, last May he had a relapse after two and a half years in recovery and it cost him his life.

We are clearly doing things the wrong way. All across the U.S. an outrageous number of people are dying due to fentanyl laced drugs and we are just sitting back and watching this epidemic like never before unfold and we are turning our backs to it. Why? Because of stigma. While our backs are turned this disease is killing our families, our neighbors, our friends, students, teachers, and our children. It is killing those all around us and everyone in this country is just carrying on, business as usual. In 2018, 68,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. alone which equates to 186 deaths a day. 186 deaths a day.

My son Alex had an illness. His illness did not make him a person to be feared, it made him vulnerable and in need of appropriate support. Addiction can happen in any family and if it were your family member, you would want them to have the empathy and understanding they deserve with a place that will treat them with compassion and meet them where they are; a place that will offer the best chance for them to stay alive so they can seek recovery. I can attest to the fact that dead people do not recover.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Liz Bement, a resident of Baltimore whose son died from an overdose in 2019. She testified before the Baltimore City Council’s Health Committee on February 12th.

Now let’s hear from Rajani Gudlavalletti, she is a Community Organizing Manager with the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition.

RAJANI GUDLAVELLETTI: I love the energy and excitement about Drop-In Centers. I would love to continue to talk about that. In keeping with that line and keeping the excitement going, thinking and dreaming about what these Drop-In Centers are and what they can be. In the organizing work that we do at Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition we focus on public education and awareness, and gathering our resources together. My background is in facilitation around racial justice and racial justice organizing. In my five minutes I could talk about a lot of things but I think it is extremely important to acknowledge in name that we cannot continue to have this conversation about the opioid “crisis”, and I use quotes very intentionally. Without acknowledging that the racist war on drugs has existed for decades and has been designed to specifically target black people. When we looked at the data that was shared previously from the Health Department that shows the rates of overdoses we see that people 45 – 65, particularly black men make up at least half. So when we look at the war on drugs and how long it has existed, and how long it has targeted black men who have either used, didn’t use, or sold drugs for a variety of reasons are targeted just for being black men in Baltimore City. This is all connected. These overdose rates are so high in men who have been targeted, incarcerated, experiencing drug use, experiencing overdose for decades. They have built a tolerance around using drugs at a time when the potency of those drugs was not as high as it is now. Maybe some of those folks were incarcerated for some period of time with limited to no resources and then when they were released began using again for a variety of reasons. I wanted to bring that up because of the connections our systems and BHSB and the health department were making and really isolate the fact that we are talking about a lot of people who have been targeted by the overdose crisis and the war on drugs for so long. A lot of the work that we do at Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition along with our harm reduction partners and community partners is talking about this, illuminating this and really listening to our community members when we are doing outreach and dialogue about the rising overdose rates. Over the past two summers we have talked to thousands of folks. We put together outdoor educational opportunities in the summer and have conversations with folks about harm reduction options and what is available now. The majority of the people we talked with in these corner organizing efforts – which are usually done in partnership with churches and high overdose areas – are done literally in the middle of police cars and young men selling or dealing and they are usually black men. We are doing street outreach, tabling with our partners who were highlighted, Be More Power is a network of folks who do overdose response and they are people who identified as peers, people with lived experience in those neighborhoods. We go out and talk to people and we also provide something that we call a Demonstration Overdose Prevention Site. It is not an actual operating space but it is a tent where we talk to people about it being a model that exists with regard to the overdose prevention sites, different ideas, decriminalization of drugs, and these policies that exist around the world. We ask them what they think about it and we use these opportunities to talk to people out in the community about here is something you can have right now – naloxone, fentanyl testing kits, pictures of things that exist that we could have to reduce overdose rates. Every time we have these conversations in communities, one of the first things the people say is that it sounds really white. Overdose prevention sites sound very white as does opioid crisis. I am really excited to say that in City Council chambers right now because I didn’t think I would. It is such a foreign concept among people we are working that are most at risk of overdose as we saw from that data. To think about these concepts that exist around the world that have been proven to reduce overdose rates and to save lives. People think that City Council doesn’t care and this city doesn’t care about us. We have been dying for decades and we have been targeted for decades. You are not going to give us access to these things. I am going to continue to go to that row house, that Drop-in Center – those people care about me and I can keep getting my sandwiches there. I like you and you are being nice to me but I don’t trust that these programs and these ideas are going to be implemented here. That is what people tell us and these are people who are most at risk of overdose. These are people who have lost family and loved ones and who have witnessed overdose and these are the people who are providing naloxone and saving lives. They hope that we can have programs that will expand access to Drop-in Centers but they worry that their government doesn’t trust them and that is because of the war on drugs.

In this conversation about the opioid epidemic or whatever language you want to use it is my hope that we talk about what we can actually promise our communities who have been so devastated by the war on drugs for so long. What can we take the risk to support?

I know I am out of time as I got a little sidetracked and did not get to actually describe overdose prevention sites but that is where I was headed. I am happy to talk about that? Okay.

Overdose prevention sites are spaces that can be in a brick and mortar building on its own, it can be its own facility, and it can be a wing of an existing space like healthcare for the homeless or a Drop-in Center, or something else. There are over 150 of these spaces legally operating around the world and there are none yet legally operating in the U.S. They have existed for 30 years with the first one being in Switzerland. They are mostly in Canada, Europe, and Australia. What are they is probably the question.

Imagine a place like what Harriet was describing as a Drop-in center with three different stations and people who are experiencing homelessness, trading or selling sex, or using drugs can come in. When they come in the door somebody at the front desk greets them and they go on to Station 1 where they can then get access to syringes, naloxone, condoms, water, etc. Station 2, where they are provided a safe space to use their drugs where they can have someone next to them in the event that they overdose and can administer naloxone, oxygen, or some other lifesaving measure. This is space that is a bit more private in either a booth or a room where people can use pre-obtained drugs of any kind under supervision. There would be staff there and I advocate for people who are considered peer outreach workers but it could also be nurses, doctors, etc. After I have used and I feel okay, that staff member would then take me to Station 3, which is a relaxed area where I could get access to resources, coffee or have a conversation with someone who can give me more information about detox, housing, or other things I might need. When I feel better I can go to work or go take care of my children without feeling vulnerable to harassment or overdose. It brings people inside. I wanted to walk through that because it is really hard for us to imagine what this would look like. This is what it would be.

In the over 150 spaces that exist around the world, millions of injections have occurred in these places and no one has died from an overdose. If that is not enough to prove to us that we need these, I don’t know what is. Maryland State Legislature is considering a bill for the fifth year in a row to legally authorize overdose prevention sites in the state of Maryland with no fiscal note from what I understand.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Rajani Gudlavelletti, Community Organizing Manager with the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition. She was testifying before the Baltimore City Council’s Health Committee about overdose prevention, harm reduction, and the need for supervised consumption facilities. We will have more in a moment. You are listening to Century of Lies, I am your host Doug McVay.

Baltimore, Maryland is one of the many cities in the United States that are engaged at the highest levels in discussing how to set up legally authorized supervised consumption facilities. People may not think of Charm City as being all that progressive but it is worth remembering that the former Mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, kicked off a national debate on drug policy reform back in the 1980s. He didn’t actually call for legalization back then and he was quite clear about that. All he said was that we had to start talking about alternatives to the drug war and alternatives to criminalization. Mayor Schmoke gave a keynote address at the Drug Policy Foundation’s Conference in 1988. I was working for National NORML at the time so I was lucky enough to attend that conference. Fortunately for you, dear listener, that speech was recorded by CSPAN. Here is Baltimore’s then Mayor, Kurt Schmoke.

KURT SCHMOKE: Since April when I first suggested a national debate on our current drug policy I haven’t had too many opportunities as they say, to preach to the choir. This is a welcome and somewhat unfamiliar turn of events for me. However, since April I have had the pleasure to meet and talk with many of the participants in this conference and I want to thank Arnold Trebeck and all of the members of the Drug Policy Foundation for the help and support that you have given me and the cause of reforming national and international drug policies. Your books, articles, lectures, and participation in the workshop that was held in Baltimore were instrumental to helping me to prepare for last month’s congressional hearing. Changes in policy, particularly on an issue as emotional as drugs do not come about without some sort of analytical groundwork that is being done by the participants in this conference and as one who considers himself a spokesman for your thoughts and research, I want to congratulate you for the work that you are doing and for giving substance to the debate on the decriminalization of drugs. Since I already know that the choir can sing, I didn’t bring my standard decriminalization stump speech. Instead I would like to talk briefly about the congressional hearings and what needs to be done now that those hearings are over. Let me begin by mentioning what led me to participate and call for hearings in the first place.

As it has been stated in the press, part of my interest arose while I was a prosecutor for the States Attorney for Baltimore City. Time and again I was confronted with tragedies as a result of the random and senseless violence of this black market in drugs. That violence was attributable in large part to the fact that we have chosen to make criminals out of millions of people who have a disease. As a prosecutor and a citizen, it seemed to me that we were and still are paying too high a price for a policy that is both self-defeating and medically wrong. Crime and what it is doing to our city was not my only concern for recommending a change in the strategy in this so called war on drugs. I am also very concerned about the spread of AIDS. I was appointed last January to the U.S. Conference of Mayors Committee on AIDS and it was at a small meeting of that committee along with a nationally known foundation that I first raised the issue of studying the decriminalization of drugs as a part of our strategy to combat AIDS. I looked at our situation in Baltimore and intravenous drug users are the second largest, and fastest growing risk group for the HIV infection. It is estimated that 15 – 30% of I.V. drug users in Baltimore City are infected with AIDS, and half of our new AIDS cases are now attributable to the use of dirty I.V. drug needles. These statistics mean that AIDS is by far the most serious communicable disease in the United States; and our drug policy of zero tolerance is only making matters worse. As an example, at the hearings in September I listened to Mayor Koch who has called decriminalization among other things a “terrible idea”, but in listening to him it was very interesting as he told the Committee about the proposal in his city for a very limited experimental needle exchange program, a program which by its very nature requires the limited decriminalization of drug paraphernalia such as the hypodermic needles. What Mayor Koch said at the meeting was that all of his public health advisors said that this would be an effective program and should be implemented while the law enforcement advisors counselled against it. He said he was criticized about that program for even the limited attempt to slow the spread of AIDS. As always, the opponents of decriminalization told Mayor Koch that his program “sent the wrong message”, while AIDS has a message of its own and that message is that thousands of people are going to die, including non-drug using sex partners and children of addicts unless we develop a parallel public policy dealing with AIDS and drugs.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Kurt Schmoke who was then the Mayor of Baltimore, Maryland from a portion of a speech he gave at the Drug Policy Foundation’s 2nd Annual International Conference on Drug Policy Reform back in October of 1988. Apologies for the sound quality, but again that was from 1988. That audio came to use courtesy of C-SPAN.

You are listening to Century of Lies, I am your host, Doug McVay. Now let’s get back to that hearing before the Baltimore City Council’s Health Committee on February 12th. Here is Christa Daring, Executive Director of Sex Worker’s Outreach Project U.S.A.

CHRISTA DARING: I have had a really had time trying to figure out what to say today and how much of myself I should share and how vulnerable to allow myself to be. This is deeply personal to me. My name is Christa Daring, I was born in Baltimore City and raised in the 14th District, and I currently reside in the 3rd District. I am the Executive Director of Sex Worker’s Outreach Project U.S.A., and a graduate of the Baltimore School for the Arts.

I moved to Washington State in 2005 to acquire my bachelor’s degree and to intentionally remove myself from a pattern of addiction and a social circle of overdose. My history of opioid dependency is painfully typical. As a youth athlete my injury was inevitable but the over-prescription of opioids was not. However, I am not here to cast judgement on the ways in which individuals develop Substance Use Disorders. Substance Use Disorders are increasingly prevalent in our communities across the country and the gateway is sometimes over-prescription, but as prevalent is a system of injustice and negligence that leaves the vast majorities of our country undertreated for both physical and existential pain. The opioid crisis was only labeled as such when people who look like me became the victims. Substance Use Disorders and overdose have long ravaged Baltimore and while it is necessary that we are having this conversation and addressing it now – we owe a great apology to the majority of Baltimore City, whose suffering has long been ignored in this crisis.

I have been sober from opioids for 15 years. I had the opportunity to leave Baltimore and to change my context. When I moved to the Pacific Northwest, opioids did not have the hold there that they do now. However, within two years of moving there one of my closest friends overdosed twice on heroin and on his second overdose he died, several weeks before his baby was born. I can barely answer the phone anymore. Every time a call comes in, especially when I recognize the number, I seize up with anxiety. Since the age of 16 answering the phone requires that I briefly pause and accept mentally that someone I know might be dead. These are preventable calls and preventable deaths. There are too many stories for me to individually recount including those of people I loved, people I have only known peripherally but people I have lost – that we have all lost. These losses in my own history make it a likely trajectory that I would enter harm reduction and first responder medicine. I have intervened in opioid overdoses more times than I can count, and I have administered naloxone approximately six times. I have not lost a single patient and I am just a community member.

How many people could overdose prevention sites save? In 2017, Baltimore City saw 761 drug and alcohol related intoxication deaths and 692 of those were opioid related. That year, Baltimore had 343 murders so we had twice as many opioid deaths as we had murders. In 2011, the Lancet found that fatal overdoses dropped 30% in a single Vancouver, Canada neighborhood served by an overdose prevention site. What if we could reduce our overall murder rate by 30% just by opening a new community center? I am in favor of more community centers in addition to overdose prevention sites. What reasonable argument could there be against that? Overdose prevention sites are part of a mosaic of care and as someone who provides direct support to those experiencing addiction and other struggles, meeting people where they are at is essential to assisting in a road to recovery. The stigma of addiction and use continues to push folks out of reach of treatment and resources. Baltimore City must commit to investing in patient centered and patient led care around Substance Use Disorders and addiction. Overdose prevention sites are one crucial step in that continuum of care.

One April 5, 2019, a friend of many of us in this room, Brittany Fleming, died of an overdose. Her overdose and Substance Use Disorder was compounded by the violence of white supremacy, trans-phobia, police harassment and the criminalization of sex workers. We failed Brittany just as we have failed too many. This is our opportunity to honor those that we have lost and help build a better future for others. I ask the City Council, the State of Maryland, and citizens of Baltimore to join me in supporting overdose prevention sites. For many of our residents the time to do this has already run out.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Christa Daring, Executive Director of the Sex Worker’s Outreach Project U.S.A., testifying before the Health Committee of the Baltimore City Council on February 12th. That is all the time we have this week. I want to thank you for joining us.

You have been listening to Century of Lies, we are a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. You can find us on the web at: www.drugtruth.net. I have been your host, Doug McVay, Editor of www.drugwarfacts.org.

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You can follow me on Twitter: @DougMcVay, and @drugpolicyfacts. We will be back in a week with 30 more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. This is Doug McVay saying 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 are archived at the James A. Baker, III Institute for Public Policy.