05/29/19 Keith Brown

This week on Century of Lies, part one of our conversation with Keith Brown, MPH, Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

Program: 
Century of Lies
Date: 
Wednesday, May 29, 2019
Guest: 
Keith Brown
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CENTURY OF LIES

MAY 29, 2019

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. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

This week, my guest is Keith Brown. Keith is the Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

I’ve got so many questions I want to ask you. You’ve done work in the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, you were project director of an initiative in Albany, and of course LEAD is something we've talked about quite a lot on this show. It's, where I live here in the Portland, Oregon, area, there are LEAD programs operating in Portland, they're trying to do something out here where I live in Clackamas County.

But, the reason I asked you on is this article you wrote recently at Filter Magazine, FilterMag.org: Three Recent Stories Illustrate The Media's Ongoing Drug War Propaganda. Tell me about your story.

KEITH BROWN: Well, as you said, you know, this has been going on during the whole duration of what we call the war on drugs, and when we, historically, or even currently, think about where those fronts are, I guess if we use the war analogy and build it out, we think of law enforcement and in many cases where you would think of the military, especially in our geopolitical involvement in the war on drugs.

But, there's a lot of other actors that I think we don't pay attention to enough. I think the media is one of those - is a primary one, which was really the focus of this piece I wrote. And, you know, we also need to think more about what's the role of elected officials, we obviously know what that looks like.

But then, also, what is the role of the nonprofit industrial complex in the war on drugs? And what is the role of the child welfare system, and all these other actors there?

And so, that's sort of a discussion for another time, but when we specifically think about the media, I wrote this piece because I think I have really sort of had enough of a specific cycle of these stories. Several of them were centered around this myth of law enforcement, overdosing on fentanyl when they respond to overdose scenes, or when they're doing traffic stops, or other things.

And then, this phenomenon happened when this story hit New York state, and then really went national, about marijuana that was seized that field tested positive for fentanyl. And I sort of knew, or at least suspected, how this story was going to play out, and so for me it was very difficult because as soon as this story hit, people were blowing up my phone and my email and sharing it with me on facebook and twitter, all the different platforms, saying, you know, what's the deal with this, Keith? Is this true?

And, you know, that was half of the responses, and the other half was people being really glib, saying, see, this is happening and you've been telling us this isn't, you know, this isn't really true, and I had to sort of bide my time. I did something that's very difficult for me, which was nothing for a little while, and waited until the responses actually started to come in, once this stuff played out.

Usually what happens is, when something occurs like that, this is not news to you, but, something gets seized and it field tests positive for fentanyl, and it's going to proceed in certain ways. That has to go to the lab for confirmatory testing.

And what then happened was, my email and my text messages started coming in again, and they were from people who I know in various capacities, sources if you will, that were saying to me, hey, FYI, the lab results came back and this weed tested negative for fentanyl.

So, I immediately said, well, I have to start telling people this and we have to figure out a way of communicating this, because there's not a chance that the media is going to come out and correct this, or retract it, or otherwise do anything about it.

And, sure enough, I have yet to see a single story from any news outlets, really, I think besides maybe the article that I wrote, that actually says that the follow up on this said that yeah, in fact, it tested negative for fentanyl.

And then, you know, the same thing keeps happening with these law enforcement contact stories. It's the same story every time, an officer develops symptoms and has to either be Narcaned or just barely gets themselves to the hospital, all these stories, and then, when the blood work comes back on the officer, you know, typically the department or the sheriff's department where it happens says, you know, well we can't release that information, which we know it showed that there was no fentanyl likely in the officer's blood.

But also that, in many cases, the actual drugs that they sent for confirmatory testing turned out testing negative for fentanyl and other analogs. So, this was the thing for me that was the impetus of this article. We have to hold the media accountable to, you know, for their role in perpetuating myths about drugs, stigma around people who use drugs, pro-law enforcement angles on these things, because it's - they are an arm of the war on drugs that we need to reckon with.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, of course, in your article you also point out this is not new, I mean, I'm talking about the 1980s when I introduced you, and, you know, it obviously went on well before then, I mean, there's not a marijuana activist in the country, or practically in the world, who couldn't tell you about the Hearst newspapers and the, the propaganda campaign that was waged by Harry Anslinger.

And I guess you could even go back further, right, because you've got Doctor Hamilton Wright, I think was his name, the, the Opium Commissioner who helped to start the, the panic about opioids in the beginning of the nineteenth - sorry, beginning of the twentieth century in, in the US.

But, people would rather hear you talk about this. Tell me about the history of this - this has gone on for a long time.

KEITH BROWN: Yeah, since the beginning of our drug laws. You don't get these policies, and you don't get these laws and major enforcement efforts, without the narrative being driven to the general public to generate support for it.

So, when you look at, like you said, I mean, from the beginning of these laws, back to opium and Chinese laborers out west, and then you can literally draw a line through all of these narratives.

And then you talk about black men working as porters and cocaine, and, you know, cannabis with jazz musicians, and crack with superpredators. Here's a prime example. Let's talk about crack babies for a second.

I mean, you and I have been around long enough, and I've been doing this work long enough, to remember that the narrative around crack was that we were going to have a generation of people that were going to be lost, and that they were not going to amount to anything, and that they were going to be system-involved and on welfare, and in jails and prisons, and also using drugs themselves.

It was, you know, incredibly misogynistic in how it impacted women who use drugs, and you saw all this footage on TV of babies that were these little skinny things in incubators, and it was all untrue.

And yet, if you ask rooms full of people, I've just been doing a series of trainings and I asked people about what they know about crack babies and everybody says the same thing if you're old enough to remember, this is what crack babies are, this is what the situation is with them.

And then I say, has anyone seen a story about crack babies or any of the research on those people now? And nobody has. Nobody has.

Everybody saw it, everybody knows what the term means and what it's referring to, and nobody knows that the research actually shows that if you adjust for poverty, those people that were born, right, to mothers who were using crack had no worse outcomes when compared with people in a similar socioeconomic bracket.

Again, adjusting for poverty, which says, literally the issue is poverty, not drug use. And yet we're still driving this narrative that it must have - in some way have to do with drugs.

So, this is - you have to know the history on this, and you also, to be really blunt about it, once you become aware of how things are being communicated, you can sort of see the future on this already, and I can tell you, the future in terms of whatever kinder, gentler war on drugs we're having right now, doesn't look good and it's happening right now around fentanyl.

The narrative around fentanyl is, we're creating the boogeyman around fentanyl like we did with crack cocaine, and we're carving it out of this separate thing from other opioids. Fentanyl is showing up in the vast majority of heroin supply in this country, I mean, the last I've heard it's hard to find a bag of heroin anywhere, especially in the east coast, that doesn't have fentanyl in it. And that's just from what I know from people that, you know, people that I talk to.

And so, when you now are doing this thing by saying, it's dangerous to law enforcement, a couple of grains will kill you, you know, the media portrays this is as, show a vial of carfentanyl and say, this is enough to kill everybody in Cleveland or something. It's like, we have to understand what's happening here.

What's happening here is, law enforcement and the media are driving a narrative around fentanyl. They're trying to now schedule it in some places, and increase penalties on it, and we know where this is leading. It's going to be crack versus powder cocaine all over again, and it's going to be selectively enforced, and it's going to disproportionately impact people living in poverty and communities of color.

And when you can see it happening, and it's happening in real time, that was really one of the reasons that spurred my writing of this piece. And one of the things I want to do next is write the follow up piece, which is, what are they setting up here? What is happening here? What do we need to be aware of, because it's going on as we speak.

DOUG MCVAY: This is an interview with Keith Brown, Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Social Justice. We’ll hear more in a moment. You’re listening to Century of Lies, I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org. Npw let’s get back to that interview.

For myself, I'm just - what can I be doing? I've got this radio show, goes out every week, I do some other radio work. I talk about drug policy reform and the war on drugs. Right? And, now, on the one hand, there is a real concern about fentanyl, as you were saying, it's in the heroin supply through the east coast and quite a bit of the rest of the country.

But, you know, the approach should be drug safety testing, the approach should be supervised consumption facilities, and in fact you could have the drug safety testing going on at those facilities. That would, you know, that would save lives.

So, how can I reach a balance of communicating the facts and giving, you know, I mean, I think I'm trying for it by giving people an idea of what they can do. You know, not just focusing on the dangers but also focusing on the kind of positive, and, you know, sort of intelligent reforms that could actually address this. What can media do generally?

KEITH BROWN: I think media should be talking about real solutions. I think this is one of the areas where people get fatigued, and I'm seeing it now in practice, where the narrative around how bad the overdose crisis is, right, and it's being told in all of these angles, and people know. People are aware that we're in the midst of something here, people, you know, if you go in a room full of people, especially younger folks, and say, who knows somebody who has died of an overdose, nearly the entire room will raise their hands.

So the impact of this is felt. That said, you know, you still have people in the media describing this as an opioid crisis, and it's not an opioid crisis, we're in an overdose crisis. The opioids are one factor there, fentanyl's one factor there, prescription opioids is one factor there, but, you know, we need to be talking about benzos, and we need to be talking about gabapentin, we need to be talking about chronic pain patients who are being force tapered and cut off and sent into the illicit market.

It's those folks are overdosing, and those folks are committing suicide. You know, stimulants have never gone away, they're in - they're still here, they've never gone away, people are having adverse impacts from stimulants that are leading to drug related deaths.

So, I think number one, we need to frame this as what it is, and it is really a crisis of what CDC is calling "deaths of despair," which you can tie back to social and economic decline in most places, and the fact that you can't work a minimum wage job and afford a one-bedroom apartment in all or almost all, you know, major cities and urban areas in this country.

That's the narrative. That's what we should be talking about. But, back to your point about the specifics around the drug war stuff. We can be talking about solutions, and we can be really amplifying solutions.

You know, when we look at things like what happened in France in the Nineties when they had the HIV and overdose crisis, they made buprenorphine available to anybody who wanted it. That was it. It was a very clear, very rational, commonsense, health based approach to what was a health based issue.

They didn't try to arrest their way out of the issue, right, they didn't try to coerce people into anything. They just said, we have a tool available, we know it can help based on the research, and we're just going to make it available.

And now, I get, you know, France has a different healthcare infrastructure than we do, with socialized healthcare, and all of that is real, but that still doesn't preclude the US from doing very simple things, like, we could have removed the X Waiver requirement for buprenorphine years ago. As soon as we realized that it was one of the best tools we had around people with opioid use disorder, it should have been thing one. Remove the X Waiver, remove the prescriber limits on that, get rid of them altogether.

We should have immediately decriminalized possession of buprenorphine at the street level, right off the bat. We should have done that without even thinking about it. We should have created places like safer consumption spaces and drop-in sites immediately, knowing the intersections of the overdose crisis with the rise in homelessness in many places. We should have seen that link coming a long time ago.

So, you know, solutions. We should really be amplifying criminal justice reform. If people are still entering the criminal justice system, then we should be using harm reduction based mitigation responses to that, like instituting robust medication therapy programs in those facilities using all three, you know, methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone in facilities. We know that stuff works.

So, I think, it's a long answer to your question of what should the media be doing, but I think the media should really stop talking about what the scope of the problem is, without the context of what tools do we have available? What does the research show works?

And that's how we need to start framing interventions like decriminalization, safer consumption spaces, ideas that for some people are, you know, might seem different or might seem radical. It think we have to frame those not as radical ideas, but actually very pragmatic approaches to the issues we have in front of us.

You know, if you're having an issue in a community around public consumption of drugs, the answer to that is to provide people who have no place to use those substances with a place to do so.

Like, I enjoy beer. Right? I'm a beer drinker. Well, I have a place to live, which means I can consume that substance in a way that doesn't put me in contact with law enforcement, whereas if I'm - if I'm homeless or I'm living in a shelter or an SRO or supportive living environment that doesn't allow me to legally consume a product on premises, then I then have to go to the street to do that, which then means I'm going to be in contact with law enforcement.

So, I think we - if we start framing these things as reasonable, pragmatic approaches, it could change a lot about the way we do this.

The last thing I'll say about that is, the media is very - the mainstream media, I would say, is very, very caught up on doing this both sides-ism thing, and while I think I understand the motivation for it, which is to be able to portray different voices or all voices here, I've got to tell you, for some things, we might not need to be doing that.

I mean, I think when you look at something like vaccinations, or something, where it's like you go out of your way to find somebody who's going to be the fringe, or the opposing viewpoint, sometimes that comes across - you know, it mainstreams ideas that frankly are just not rooted in any type of reality.

When you walk that through with the overdose crisis, or with the war on drugs, sometimes that voice is law enforcement, or the DA, or somebody else, where you might talk to ten people and nine of those people say, like, yeah, we think this idea sounds good, it makes sense, or they might be public health professionals and say, yeah, we've looked at the research, we've done this, we visited other programs, this makes perfect sense.

And then they talk to, you know, the DA, or the chief of police, and they say I don't like the idea, I think it's just encouraging drug use, and then now that's the narrative that goes out, not all of the data, not all of the reason it makes pragmatic sense, and all that stuff.

The other thing, and I know I said that was the last thing, but the real thing that the media needs to stop doing is listening to law enforcement as experts on drugs. And, this is one where - this isn't me saying this, this is feedback I've gotten from reporters and other people that I've worked with.

They've told me, this is a blind spot. When the police do a press release on something like, you know, an officer overdoses on fentanyl at a scene, or marijuana is laced with fentanyl, or whatever, they take that press release and they run it. They don't talk to toxicologists, they don't talk to drug policy people, they don't talk to health department people, they don't talk to behavioral health professionals, they don't talk to addiction medicine docs.

They just take the story and because it comes from law enforcement, they take that immediately to mean that that's a trusted, expert voice, and they just roll with it. And so that's how the narrative gets out there.

DOUG MCVAY: It's incredibly frustrating. I mean, law enforcement shouldn't even be considered experts on criminal justice and law enforcement, for crying out loud, they're certainly not good - not knowledgeable about drugs or drug use.

I hear you about the beer thing, too, because it's, you know, on my way to the marijuana shop which is just a block away, I walk through the parking lot and out back of the, there's a little convenience store that mostly sells beer, and there are a couple of folks who hang in that parking lot.

And they're not - they're not people who are unhoused, they're people who live along one of the, possibly in a mobile home, possibly in sheltered housing that's in the neighborhood but they're not allowed to have beer on premises, and bars don't really, you know, they charge too much, so pick up a few from the six pack store and hang out in the parking lot.

It's, you know, it's - and in our state of Oregon, we're not allowed to - we're not allowed to use marijuana in public, and we're working to get consumption spaces, legal consumption spaces, but if you have your own home you're fine.

I'm sorry, if you own your own home, you're fine. If you're a renter, like I am, then there will probably be a provision in the lease saying no marijuana use, no marijuana production, no marijuana growing, no anything regarding weed. It, which we did, we had to sign that to get here.

And, yeah, it's - you'll eventually, in New York, you'll eventually get that too, but - probably. Probably.

KEITH BROWN: Oh, I'm certain of it. Well, you know, here, we - even the bill that was proposed, the governor tried to pull the home grow provision out of it, so ....

DOUG MCVAY: Which again, is a great thing if you can take advantage of it. But it does, it has that, you know - I'm not allowed to, it's a - it's an evictable offense, so ....

KEITH BROWN: Yeah.

DOUG MCVAY: Now, I - I hope you have another couple of minutes because I want to ask you a few more things, and one of them is about, how can we - how can we counteract these negative media images?

KEITH BROWN: Yeah. I think - there was just a recent story published in, I think, Louise Beale Vincent from the National Users Union [sic: Urban Survivors Union] did it, if I'm not mistaken, but, it had to do with how people with privilege need to start coming out as drug users.

Right? That people need to be - you know, the way to reduce stigma on people who use certain drugs is for people to have a much different conversation about drug use. And so, one of the things I've started including in trainings I do is that, when I introduce myself, I will say that I'm a person who uses drugs.

And for the room, sometimes that's a - sometimes that's a, hmm, whoa, immediately people go to, well, what does he mean? And everybody sort of then says, well, I wonder what drug he uses? Oh, he seems like a coke guy, or he seems like - you know, it's like, I think that naturally starts to get people kind of thinking.

But then, when you talk about, you know, our drug laws, and how we don't criminalize substances based on pharmacology, we do it because of who uses them, why, how, right politics, power, control, white supremacy, race, class, gender, you know, patriarchy, like, all of that stuff is tied up in there.

When you start to tease out with people that caffeine is a drug, and alcohol is a drug, and - right? - prescription drugs are drugs, that we start to talk about psychoactive substances and how, as a country, we love drugs. We - like, the US, we love drugs. What we don't love is people who use drugs. And that's not - and that's to say that it's people who use specific drugs, and that's how we've gotten this far.

That's why when you go to certain other countries, and some of their public health interventions are just normalized, and they don't even use the term harm reduction in some places, they just call it health. Just health programs, you know, it's like, well, the issue of using drugs is also a health issue, and so we just tie it into our health infrastructure.

It's like, that's where we need to get to. We need to destigmatize drug use. We need to start having a real conversation about substances, and what does that mean, and the fact that the - that if you take it at its root definition of drugs that, or substances that can alter your mood or consciousness, we're, you know, most of us are on drugs all the time, whether it be caffeine or nicotine or alcohol or Xanax or, you know, not even getting into, right, people - things that we all, that a lot of people use that are not legal, or quasi-legal.

I mean, you're in a state where cannabis is legal. I'm in a state where cannabis is decriminalized, which means that, for somebody like me, who's white, and has privilege, it's been decriminalized since 1971 or something, basically, in New York state.

But it also means that black and brown communities have been disproportionately impacted during the same time period, because walk all that through, stop and frisk and all that stuff.

So, to - the answer to your question is, like, we have to have a real conversation about drugs as a culture, if we're to destigmatize drug use and then go down the line and destigmatize, you know, drugs that are currently illegal, because I believe that stuff changes all the time.

I mean, there was a time in our history when alcohol was an illegal drug. So, I think having those conversations with people, doing a bit of history with people so that they can do a little more critical thinking around it, and then normalizing people's experiences around drug use, is going to hopefully get us there, but it's going to be a lot of work.

And so, you know, the media has a lot to do with that. Even our cultural norms have a lot to do with that. I think, you know, when you have people saying things like Is it wine o'clock yet, or Is it beer thirty?

Or, you know, I've even - people have sort of been like, ah, this week has been whatever, like, I can't wait to take a Xanax and have a glass of wine. It's like, when you can actually have a conversation with people and be like, you know, how different is that really than someone who uses a substance that's illegal to do basically the same thing?

You're telling me you're self-medicating yourself. Now, you might not be self-medicating trauma, but you're self-medicating, you know, a crappy week, or stress, or whatever you're doing. As human beings, we are biologically designed to seek pleasure and avoid pain. That's, you know, that's basically what we do. And so if we can have a real conversation about that, I think we can start disentangling the stigma related to all of that.

DOUG MCVAY: That was my interview with Keith Brown, he's the Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. Remember to find out more about Katal Center and the work they're doing, find them on the web at WWW.KatalCenter.org, that's KatalCenter.org

And that's it for this week. I want to thank you for joining us. You have 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. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs, including this show, Century of Lies, as well as the flagship show of the Drug Truth Network, Cultural Baggage, and of course our daily 420 Drug War News segments, are all available by podcast. The URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

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We'll be back in a week with thirty more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. 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.