11/19/17 Sarah Merrigan

On this edition of Century of Lies, we discuss stigma, language, mental health, harm reduction, and drug policy reform with Sarah Merrigan, one of the hosts of the This Week In Drugs podcast.

Century of Lies
Sunday, November 19, 2017
Sarah Merrigan
This Week In Drugs
Download: Audio icon col111917.mp3



NOVEMBER 19, 2017


DEAN BECKER: The failure of drug war is glaringly obvious to judges, cops, wardens, prosecutors, and millions more now calling 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.

The last few weeks, we've been talking about language, and we've been talking about people, and the gap that has been narrowing, that's finally being bridged, between people on the one side who are advocates for drug policy reform, and people on the other side who are advocates for people who use drugs, the harm reductionists. The policy people, the harm reductionists.

For the longest time, there was a gap. As I say, it's been bridged over the past few, and one result of that has been a much more conscious appreciation of the language that those of us on the policy side use.

For many years, we referred to people as addicts, as convicts, as drug users, as injection drug users, as junkies. We used those words without thinking of what we're saying. We used them in part because that's the language that many people hear in the public. That's the language that the prohibitionists used, so after all, it's easy to just appropriate their language, you'll know what we're talking about. And it's so much quicker. Shorthand.

The problem is, we're using the language of the prohibitionists. We're using the language of the people who stigmatize, who other, who basically have created the problems that we see. It's not only the laws that create the problems. It's also our attitudes toward people.

If every time someone went to a grocery store and bought a bottle of wine, or bought a six pack of beer, as they were walking out, someone saw that and then scoffed and mocked them as a drunk, that would be horrible. People would more often take to hiding their purchases. They would certainly get a terrible attitude, these judgmental people, how do they know?

Well, at the same time, how do you know? Yes, this person over there uses opioids. Why are you calling them an addict? Why are you calling them a junkie. They're a person. People first language is important, because that's what this is really all about. Why we got into this, why drug policy reformers get into this. It's not so that we can use drugs more easily or more legally. That's not a terrible thing to think, obviously, but at the same time, the laws never stopped people. Certainly never stopped me from doing things, like smoke marijuana.

Our attitudes towards those people and the way we refer to them, the mocking kind of language that we use, doesn't stop people from doing things. It stops people from telling you about it. It stops people from being open, from being honest, it makes people hide. Stigma does not stop people from doing things. It drives them into the shadows, and it makes it more difficult to reach them, and if we can't reach people, then we lose them.

Things like HIV, transmission of HIV through injection drug use, transmission of hepatitis C, overdoses that happen in private, the reason people are using in private is because of the stigma that they feel. You know, the reality is that this is a drug using society. Tobacco, alcohol, marijuana, opioids, prescription drugs, over the counter medications. The question is really whether their drug use is legal or illegal. Language. It matters.

And especially in the policy reform field. For many years, we went through talking about people as if they were others, as if drug users were some other population that noble us, we're trying to help. Oh, we'll save these people over there. This isn't about those people over there. It's about us. It's about public health and public safety, and the value of individuals as people. And if we're going to use negative stigmatizing language, then we're just missing the whole point of what we're supposed to be doing.

I've personally been growing in my awareness of all this lately. I'm still on the way. I'm still getting there. And I think it's important that we think about these things. So today, we're going to talk about stigma, and we're going to talk about language, and what it all means.

My friend Sarah Merrigan is an activist who came out of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. She's one of the people behind the This Week In Drugs podcast. She's been someone who's helped me to think through all this. I ran into her at the Drug Policy Alliance's international drug policy reform conference in Atlanta back in October. We had the chance to sit down and have a conversation. So, let's give a listen.

For a long time, there was a sort of a divide between the policy folks and the service providers, the harm reduction and the drug policy.


DOUG MCVAY: It seemed like they were two separate communities. We're all the same, I mean, we're all doing the same stuff and we're supportive, but it was a big difference.


DOUG MCVAY: It feels like that over the last couple of -- over the last few years, and certainly last DPA, and this one, that that bridge -- that gap has been bridged. That bridge has been gapped? That gap has been bridged. That, you know, and I think that has helped a lot. It's, it's things like, it's things like language, and, well, and stigma, and I'll shut -- yeah. Talk to me about this, because this is, you say all this stuff well and this is what we were talking about.

SARAH MERRIGAN: Thank you. Yeah, I guess --

DOUG MCVAY: Talk into your mic.

SARAH MERRIGAN: It's very interesting to me, that sort of the -- I mean, I guess a little bit of background. I personally have struggled with mental health issues for over half my life at this point. I'll be 25 in two days, so, you know, since I was very, very young, I've been dealing with a number of mental health issues, primarily PTSD and ADHD.

And, I've been involved with the drug policy world, you know, I mentioned I went to -- this is my third reform conference, so I attended one in 2013, and that was about when I started getting involved, and really started to notice the fears around, you know, quote unquote "big pharma," and some of the stigma that comes along with prescription medications, and things like anti-psychotics, or benzodiazepines, antidepressants, and things like that.

And it really, more recently, since I've been taking a little bit better care of myself and my own mental health, it's something that's stuck out more and more, because there -- I guess, what I come -- the perspective that I'm coming from when I'm thinking about drug policy is that, I want to say Carl Hart is who I heard this from, that, you know, drugs themselves are not inherently good or bad. It is the context in which they are used.

And it's very strange to me that a lot of people at conferences like these, you know, have that perspective when we're talking about illicit drugs and things like marijuana, but then as soon as you mention pharmaceutical drugs, they become inherently bad, in a lot of people's eyes, and that's -- that's a very large issue for me, personally.

I feel pretty strongly that both mental health issues and problematic substance use issues, which I've struggled with myself, both stem from trauma, and I think our movement could be doing a much, much better job of acknowledging that, and really -- you know, it's an individual's choice to decide whether or not they feel comfortable speaking about their mental health and their personal struggles, but I think, if someone is in a position to do so, and, you know, without having to fear the consequences, whatever that may be, I think it's really doing a disservice to everyone else by, and really perpetuating the stigma, by not talking about those things and continuing to view it in this sort of abstract way.

DOUG MCVAY: I mean, it's -- it's simple, sometimes it's simple things, we were just -- as I, as a self criticism, I was doing an interview not long ago and during it, I referred to "drug addicts." What I should have said was people with a -- people who have a drug addiction, because that's, it is in a sense dehumanizing. People are people, that's the point, it's not they're -- these, you know, it's not an ex-convict, this is a person who has a conviction.


DOUG MCVAY: This is, I mean, it sounds like a minor thing, but if you're that person, that kind of sucks, having a label thrown at you. You're not a person anymore, you're a thing, and there's the, in policy, there was this, I mean, oh what can we do for them, these people, they have a -- I know very few --

SARAH MERRIGAN: We are those people.

DOUG MCVAY: I know very few people in drug policy with the exception of -- I know of a very few. I do know of a few people in drug policy who do not use any drugs. I have a very good friend, a close friend and one of my mentors whose only drug is an occasional glass of wine or a beer, and that's it [sic: also coffee, and aspirin if needed]. But, yeah.


DOUG MCVAY: You know, and that's, and I'm not just saying the legal ones, either, and this is a, you know, that's just the reality.


DOUG MCVAY: And yet, we had this pretense that it was a separate thing. We're doing it for these people, for those people, we're, no, we're the establishment, and that's just, you know, it's not real. And that's -- I mean, it's hypocrisy, and it's tough to get -- I think we're trying to climb down from that, from that hypocrisy, but do you, what do you think?

SARAH MERRIGAN: I, a lot of the points that you made about intentional language, really, you know, person first language, and then really just being aware of, I mean, like you mentioned, it's things that, it doesn't sound like that big of an issue, but if you are that person, it can be very stigmatizing, and one of the things that I've noticed over the past few days, really, and longer than that, within the drug policy movement, but being at this conference and going to sessions, people still -- people seem to have a basic understanding of person first language, when we're talking about people who use drugs, you know, we still hear, every now and then, people talking about heroin users or things like that, but generally --

DOUG MCVAY: Or saying drug addicts instead of --

SARAH MERRIGAN: Sure. But I think generally, it's starting to become a fairly universally accepted talking point, at least within the drug policy reform movement, that person first language is the way to do things. But there is still, I think, a disconnect in not stigmatizing mental health issues using words like crazy and insane, and, all sorts of, you know, people saying that I'm depressed, or the weather's so bipolar today, or things like that, that really, you know, society has sort of ingrained all that in us, but for people who have those diagnoses, it's incredibly stigmatizing.

And one, I think crazy is probably the most common one that, particularly, I've heard this week and this weekend.

DOUG MCVAY: When the reality is, what we mean is, wrong.


DOUG MCVAY: These are wrong, these are messed up, these are ineffective, these are foolish, but that's, and those are perfectly fine words, those are perfectly fine adjectives.


DOUG MCVAY: There's no, you know, that's --

SARAH MERRIGAN: And I mean, particularly with my generation, but for everyone now, you know, we have -- you've got a smart phone, you have the internet, and a dictionary, and a thesaurus, at your fingertips. There's really not an excuse for continuing to perpetuate this stigma with those terms, because, you know, I very much recognize that people generally speaking are not using those terms in -- with the intention of offending or stigmatizing people, it's just something that people don't think about if it's not impacting their day to day life.

And, that's really I guess why I've been trying to be more vocal about it. And I mean, I'm in a position where I can be. You know, I have the podcast but I'm not necessarily associated with any other organization, I don't really have to answer to a big boss, I don't have to worry about repercussions necessarily on a job that I have right now, and I'm comfortable speaking about the mental health issues that I've had.

I mentioned, you know, my, a history with problematic substance use, and that was prescription stimulants, Ritalin and Aderall for about a year and a half, maybe, when I was nineteen. Between 18 and 20. And it was a very formative experience, I mean, coming into drug policy kind of after having my own issues, and recognizing that they're very, very directly tied to a lot of the trauma that I experienced as a child and as a teenager.

I think, for me, I didn't see a lot of other people speaking out about it, and I wanted to, because it was really -- it just felt strange to be at conferences like this, or to be at other events, with sort of the drug policy community, which has always felt like home to me since I got involved, but then to sort of be at these conferences and still encounter stigma, because I'm taking antidepressants, or, and not trying, you know, MDMA therapy, which is 100 percent illegal in Nebraska, where I live, and it's just something that I think we should be paying a lot more attention to, as far as, you know, like I mentioned, I think these issues all stem from trauma, and pretend -- talking about it in these kind of abstract terms.

DOUG MCVAY: You're listening to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay. This is a conversation with Sarah Merrigan, a drug policy reform activist and one of the hosts of the This Week In Drugs podcast. I spoke to Sarah at the Drug Policy Alliance's International Reform Conference, which was held in Atlanta, Georgia, in mid-October. Let's get back to that conversation.

I was mentioning before the, that I, there used to be this basically a split between the policy and the service delivery, and I'm wondering if some of the increased awareness of the need for more sensitivity is coming from the fact that that split is lessening, that the gap is being bridged, because with the service delivery folks, there is an absolute, I mean, they get it. They have to, that's their job, that stigmatizing your clients is the wrong way to do business, and the -- you know, so, language and understanding that it's a person first and it's a, you know, that it's a person, that people are people first, and they're not a thing.

They're not a convict, they're a person with a conviction, and I'm wondering if possibly some of the -- I'm wondering if the harm reduction, if getting more of the harm reductionists and the service delivery folks involved on the, with, you know interacting with the policy folks, is helping that along. I mean, it's the -- like I say, there was that divide, it was like, oh these people. It's like, no, us. It's about us. It's not just a -- yeah. It's about us and how we want to be treated.


DOUG MCVAY: I mean --

SARAH MERRIGAN: I had -- that makes a lot of sense. I hadn't necessarily thought about it in that way, but I think, yeah, I mean, once you get anyone with lived experience in a room with sort of the policy wonks and the people who maybe have less lived experience, there's a lot to take away on both sides, and I would like to think that that's helping.

But I think there's still, you know, like we were saying, there's generally an acceptance now around person first language, when it comes to people who use drugs, but I think we're still -- we still haven't gotten there with that -- with the language around mental health, and I think it's very interesting to be in a place where people are more comfortable talking about their histories of problematic drug use than they are talking about their mental health issues.

And the fact that people feel like -- I already mentioned this, but the fact that people can come here and still feel stigmatized within their own community, because of some of the language that's being thrown around casually, and again, not intentionally, and these people using those words in negative ways are not trying to be malicious in any way, but it's really just a topic that we don't cover enough, and I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that a lot of people aren't talking about it enough, in this kind of, you know, us and them divide that you were talking about.

And when we -- if and when drug policy reformers talk about their mental health issues, or mental health issues in general, it's often done from sort of this abstract once removed perspective, and talking about, you know, trauma can lead to mental health issues, which leads to problematic substance use, but no one ever wants to -- I won't say no one. Very few people want to stand up and sort of own that, that that is their experience.

And I've been lucky enough that, you know, since I've been speaking out, I've had a number of just fantastic people within the movement reach out to me and say thank you, and acknowledge that they, too, are struggling with this, and that's what's really been motivating me to speak out more about it, is just the -- like anything else, sort of the reassurance that it's not just you who's noticing this problem, and that there is a community of people within this movement who feel the same way, and have experienced the same thing.

I think -- I really don't know what the answer is, but there needs to be -- we need to be making, in the same way that we make an effort to use intentional language, there needs to be an intentional effort to make this space more inclusive for people who struggle with mental health issues, whether it's some of the -- and I hate that this spectrum even exists, but sort of the things that people consider tamer mental health issues, like anxiety or depression, versus the ones that are still incredibly stigmatized, like schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder, and things like that, you know?

All of these people have very valuable perspectives to bring to drug policy, and when we casually throw around terms like crazy and insane, and all of that, it, you know, and like everything else, it may not offend all people who struggle with mental health issues, but it does offend some, and I think, you know, there are a lot of people who say, well, free speech, and I can say whatever I want, and yeah, you absolutely can, but if you're aware that the language you're using is offensive to someone, and is making them feel further stigmatized, I guess it's a question of why wouldn't you want to change your language?

DOUG MCVAY: Indeed. No, it's -- we understand that trauma is a driver for drug use, and especially problematic drug use, and, as I say, we've got a -- it was years ago, years ago, fifteen, probably about 17 years ago, maybe 2000 or 2001, one of the Drug Policy -- I think it was 2000, a Drug Policy, I think, and I believe it was still the Drug Policy -- the Lindesmith Center Drug Policy Foundation, the hybrid because they were in the process of the takeover.

And, it was a big, big, amazing thrill, because as a plenary speaker, or maybe it was a luncheon speaker, they were going to have someone who was actually a drug user, who'd be up to speak. I know, and it was presenting as this, it's amazing, for the first time we're going to have someone, it's like, well, no, for the first time we're going to have somebody who admits to being a person who uses, and it's not simply drugs, because, drugs? What they meant was illegal drugs, and not just illegal drugs, but hard drugs, and really what they meant was the person was an injection drug user.

So, that -- sorry, was a person who uses injection drugs. Person who uses injection drugs. I'm, we're talking about stigma --

SARAH MERRIGAN: Person who injects drugs.

DOUG MCVAY: We're talking about language and I'm using the wrong flipping language.

SARAH MERRIGAN: But that's a -- I think that's a big part of it, you know, you, we've talked about this earlier. It's, it is, it's something that takes a lot of effort. It's intentional language, and it's not something that comes naturally, even to people like myself who struggle with mental health issues, and the fact that you can catch yourself and recognize things like that is the first step, just like anything else.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, thank you, hopefully I can improve. But, so they were having, they had a person who used injection drugs, and that was to be the thing, and on the one hand, okeh, that, I mean, that was a big thing, because no one who has acknowledged themselves as a person who injects drugs was, had necessarily done one of those. That was pretty major.

It's kind of sad, because there are any number of folks who are, I mean, the Europeans had been organizing drug users' unions for a long time, but, and as I say, but I looked, when they said that, I looked around, it was like, okeh, most of the people here drink alcohol, most of the people here smoke marijuana, some of the people here use narcotics, and all of them -- and everyone is hypocritical about it, and with a very -- with a small handful of exceptions, I was one of the few people who was open about the fact that I smoke marijuana, I was notorious for it, I came out of NORML for heaven's sake. I was one of those people.

And that was a, and it just struck me as just, it -- yeah. That was when the hypocrisy hit me, I think, this kind of thing, but it's taken -- yeah. I don't know. Having people who were, who acknowledge that they use drugs, and have used injection drugs, has helped I think in guiding the discussion, and that's why I think it's tremendous that you are willing to speak up, because there are lots of people who have -- lots of people who have mental health issues and they're dealing with them. Some people are on medication, others, I mean, I have terrible anxiety, and occasional bits of depression, and I mostly just use marijuana and meditation, and it doesn't work that well, but, it's not that bad. It's not that extreme.


DOUG MCVAY: You know? But other folks, it's -- for other people these things are crippling, and it's serious, and it's, you know, like I say, it takes somebody -- it takes people speaking up, and thank you for that.

SARAH MERRIGAN: Thank you. Yeah, I think the only other thing I really have to add is, like you said, the anxiety for some people can be crippling. And one thing I noticed first at a harm reduction conference a few months ago, is that there really, you know, these conferences are incredibly overwhelming, even for people who don't struggle with mental health issues, but particularly so for people who do.

Maybe -- whether that's ADHD, or anxiety, this is, you know, as someone with ADHD, there's a lot of stimuli around, and becoming overstimulated is very, very easy. And there aren't a lot of, you know, unless you have a hotel room that's nearby, or somewhere like that, there aren't a lot of spaces where you could go and kind of decompress and have that, that quiet time to regroup that's really necessary for some people.

And that's something that I would really like to see. You know, we're kind of -- we're sitting in front of this safe shape modeled after, like, a safe -- supervised consumption site, and I think having even just some sort of a tent like that, for people to be able to go into and decompress, and to have that space, is something that I would love to see at conferences in the future.

DOUG MCVAY: So, maybe Zendo should set up a space for people who are simply overwhelmed, and all the people, too. I mean, it's a large crowd of people, that can be just -- that can become overwhelming.


DOUG MCVAY: I mean, it's -- when I go to Hempfest I stay in a backstage, I walk along the paths, and if, when the crowds get too big, I do my best to get out of them. It's just too many people, it's just -- and it, you know, fifteen hundred or so people packed into the hotel, yeah, you're right, that's -- I hadn't thought of that.

SARAH MERRIGAN: Exactly, I mean, and that's the thing, is it's not something that, unless it's something that you are specifically struggling with yourself, or that, you know, someone close to you is struggling with and talks to you about, it's not something that you're going to think about, because it's not really impacting your day to day life. And that's not intended to be a jab at anyone, or, you know, really, to be said in a negative way, just that's the reality of the situation.

You know, we are the most aware and the most likely to take action on things that impact us on a daily basis, and that are near to us, and, yeah, I mean, that's why talking about it has been so important.

DOUG MCVAY: Tell us how people can find This Week In Drugs online.

SARAH MERRIGAN: Yes. This Week In Drugs, we are on iTunes, we also have a website, ThisWeekInDrugs.org. And we are on Twitter and Facebook, all with the same name, This Week In Drugs. And, yeah, we put out a round table discussion once a week, and we also do the biggest news and headlines in drug policy once a week. So, I would love for people to tune in.

DOUG MCVAY: Sarah Merrigan, thank you.

SARAH MERRIGAN: Thank you, Doug.

DOUG MCVAY: And that's it for this week. Thank you for joining us. You've been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. IÔÇÖm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org, and I want to thank my guest, Sarah Merrigan.

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power. Follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty more 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.