10/28/18 Gretchen Burns Bergman

Century of Lies
Gretchen Burns Bergman
A New Path

This week on Century of Lies: A New PATH's director and co-founder Gretchen Burns Bergman addresses the UN's Commission on Narcotic Drugs in Vienna, and Members of Parliament in the UK debate drug policy, decriminalization, and harm reduction.

Audio file



OCTOBER 28, 2018

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, we’re going to look at drug policy in the United Kingdom, and efforts within Parliament to make reforms, including decriminalization and expansion of harm reduction. But first:

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs held another set of intersessional meetings from October 22 through 25 in Vienna, Austria. In essence, these meetings are in preparation for the Sixty-Second Session of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, which will be held in March 2019.

The October intersessional meetings covered law enforcement and supply reduction related measures, alternative development and crop control strategies, and cross-cutting issues including new psychoactive substances.

A lot of the discussion was around law enforcement though it was disappointingly limited. There were plenty of statistics on seizures, arrests, production, et cetera. There was much handwringing about how law enforcement efforts are at best shoveling against the tide, with production on the increase, new psychoactive drugs on the increase, drug purity increasing, drug prices dropping – basically a laundry list of the failures of law enforcement strategies.

Those lists of failures are then followed by assurances from several nations, such as Russia, China, and unfortunately these days the United States, that if we just keep doing the same things that have consistently failed for the past several decades then magically things will come out differently. But I digress.

For the past decade now, nongovernmental organizations have been making inroads at the United Nations. We're inside the meetings of the Commission on Narcotic Drugs, and NGO representatives even get invited to officially address the Commission.

On the afternoon of October 24, the Commission heard from Gretchen Burns Bergman, director and co-founder of an organization called A New PATH. A New PATH is a US-based nonprofit organization working to reduce the stigma associated with addiction through education and compassionate support. PATH by the way stands for Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing. Here's Gretchen Burns Bergman.

GRETCHEN BURNS BERGMAN: The opioid overdose crisis is a global epidemic. In the United States today, one person dies every ten minutes from an overdose. Seventy-two thousand people lost their lives to accidental overdose in the US in 2017, which was up from 64,000 in 2016.

The number of first-time heroin users has increased dramatically, many switching from prescription pain medications, and the sharpest increase of death is from fentanyl.

There's nothing more tragic than young lives being lost unnecessarily, before they've had the chance to reach their full potential. The grief experienced by parents and family members is heightened by a sense of frustration and rage, that this loss could have been prevented.

Unfortunately, many still don't talk about overdose because of shame and stigma. I'm Gretchen Burns Bergman, executive director and co-founder of A New PATH, Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing, and lead organizer for our international Moms Unite to End the War on Drugs campaign, now in 33 states and six countries.

We work to end the stigmatization and criminalization of people who use drugs and people who struggle with substance use disorders.

I'm also the mother of two sons who have struggled for decades with heroin addiction. They are survivors or a punitive criminal justice system. My older son is a survivor of accidental overdose. I'm lucky that both of my sons found their way to long term recovery, but they've lost far too many friends to overdose, and I know far too many mothers who've lost a beloved child.

We must stop wasting resources by employing failed drug war tactics to address what is essentially a public health epidemic. PATH promotes therapeutic rather than punitive drug policies. Moms are suggesting a better way to save lives, and we propose five policies to potentially solve the opioid overdose crisis.

First, the government must provide adequate funding to address the epidemic. To this day, despite numerous commissions to discuss the crisis, needed funds haven't been allocated.

Second, we need to have a healthcare system of treatment on demand. The US is behind other countries like Portugal in achieving this despite the obvious need.

Third, we promote and advise therapeutic services, not criminalization and mass incarceration.

Fourth, medication assisted treatment has been proven to be effective in treating addictive illness, so these services should be provided in the community as well as behind bars.

And fifth, community based harm reduction services must be made widely available. These include syringe exchanges, safe consumption spaces, and most importantly naloxone distribution.

Since 2014, PATH has been conducting community based parent to parent and peer to peer overdose prevention training and naloxone distribution in San Diego County, under a standing order with a local physician. Three hundred and seventy-one overdoses have been reversed, and we've trained over two thousand people through our program.

Naloxone is a safe and effective medicine that quickly reverses an opioid overdose. It's the right and responsibility of everyone who takes opioids, and their family members and friends, to have naloxone readily available.

Parents are often the first first responder, and every moment counts in saving a precious life. With our Ask Mom How to Save a Life campaign, mothers across the nation are promoting greater awareness about our power to prevent overdose deaths with naloxone.

They're training parents to administer it, encouraging physicians to prescribe it, and pharmacies to carry it.

Many of the moms leading this campaign have children who struggle with substance use disorders, and who were repeatedly incarcerated, or who have died from preventable drug overdoses.

Anyone who has a loved one who struggles with addictive illness, or who is prescribed narcotic pain medicine, should have naloxone easily accessible.

The most dangerous time for an accidental overdose is when a person is on a waiting list for treatment, or when they are released from jail, prison, or rehab, because of lower tolerance.

Too many people have had their lives cut short unnecessarily and families have had to deal with unbearable pain. Having greater access to naloxone is a positive, proactive step towards ending the opioid overdose epidemic.

Adopting strategies that help to reduce the harms associated with drug use and substance use disorders will save lives and heal families.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Gretchen Burns Bergman, director and co-founder of A New PATH, Parents for Addiction Treatment and Healing. She was addressing the Commission on Narcotic Drugs intersessional meeting on October 24.

Once again, those CND meetings are only webcast live. They do not keep any video or audio archive -- UNODC.org, follow the links to the Commission on Narcotic Drugs. You'll see what I mean. It's frustrating. This is the twenty-first century.

Now, I don’t have the travel budget to get to Vienna to be there in person so instead, with the help of very strong coffee and a stable wifi connection, I stay up and record as much as I can, and I bring you the good bits on my show. We'll have more from the Commission on Narcotic Drugs intersessional meetings next week.

You’re listening to Century of Lies. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

Now to the UK. There was a debate on drug policy in the House of Commons on October 23. That debate was arranged by Ronnie Cowan, a Member of Parliament from the Scottish National Party representing the constituency of Inverclyde.

It was a non-legislative policy debate, that is, it was a debate on the underlying policies with a view toward crafting legislation. It was not a debate on a particular piece of legislation. We’re going to listen now to a portion of that debate. Here’s the opening statement from Ronnie Cowan, MP.

RONNIE COWAN, MP: The UK drugs policy is not just a combination of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016, and a host of schedules and classifications.

There's a range of laws which we've developed over years and have been put in place or guided by our perceived knowledge and our current attitude. We put them in place because we thought it was the right thing to do, and it is my belief that we got it wrong.

Outwith the drugs law, we have laws that regulate the production, distribution, marketing and consumption of alcohol. And alcohol is the interesting case because it is not included in the 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. Alcohol remains socially acceptable.

It is consumed openly at christenings, naming ceremonies, weddings, civil partnerships and even funerals, at hatches, matches and dispatches, society finds a place for alcohol. But it wasn't always this way.

Prohibition and abstinence were once very strong movements. In the 1920s, some states in the USA made alcohol illegal, and something strange happened. It didn't stop people drinking alcohol. What it did was it delivered the production, distribution, and consumers into the hands of criminals who recognized a money-spinning venture when they saw one.

The production became more potent -- the product became more potent, because that meant distributing smaller quantities while maintaining profit margins, and criminal gangs used extreme violence to protect their territory from rival gangs or gangsters.

The levels of violence spiraled, and more and more people were criminalized by using alcohol. According to the academic and historian Michael Lerner: As the trade in the illegal alcohol became more lucrative, the quality of alcohol on the black market declined. On average, 1,000 Americans died every year during Prohibition because of the effects of drinking tainted liquor.

When prohibition ended, levels of crime dropped dramatically and people’s health improved. They continued to drink alcohol, but the product was quality controlled and monitored, and nobody had to use violence to protect their market.

Alcohol continues to this day to damage people’s lives and ruins people's health, but it is legalized, regulated, and increasingly people can find educational support, because they have no fear of being criminalized.

Maybe in an ideal world, everybody would be so happy and content, so free of stress and anxiety, so confident and self-assured, there would be no requirement for alcohol, or indeed any recreational drugs. But we are not there, and we never have been.

Throughout history, for a variety of reasons, people have taken drugs. A hundred years ago, you could buy cocaine, heroin or morphine at pharmacies and department stores. During the first world war, Harrods sold kits with syringes and tubes of cocaine and heroin for the boys on the frontline.

Queen Victoria recommended wine laced with cocaine, Vin Mariani. Anthony Eden was prescribed purple hearts throughout the Suez crisis. They lived under what was termed the British system, which was a light-touch approach to drug consumption, one of tolerance and treatment.?

Things were changing during the 1960s. In 1961 the UN Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs was passed. It was not popular in the UK, because we could see here that the British system was working.

In 1961, that convention, driven by prejudice, became the only UN convention ever to use the word “evil”. Torture, apartheid and nuclear war do not warrant the term “evil”, according to the UN. Genocide is referred to as “an odious scourge” or “barbarous acts”.

The term “evil” is reserved for drugs, drugs that had previously been available in many different guises in high street pharmacies. The stigmatizing of users went up a gear. And in 1971, through the Misuse of Drugs Act, criminalization became the name of the game. The results have been years of violence, tensions, organised crime, and a monumental increase in addiction.

KELVIN HOPKINS, MP: Would the Member yield?

RONNIE COWAN, MP: Certainly.

KELVIN HOPKINS, MP: I congratulate the Honorable Member on this absolutely first-class speech he's making at the moment. Could he say, you know, roughly, what proportion of the prison population are now -- people in prison are there because of the drugs trade? What are the costs to the criminal justice system, and what is the total social cost of drugs? I hope he will cover these things in his speech.


RONNIE COWAN, MP: I didn't know there was a quiz. We all know, everyone -- I have a prison in my constituency, I was talking to its governor two or three weeks ago, that the majority of the people in that prison are there in some way, shape or form related to the consumption of drugs, or the selling of drugs, or the drugs market and the violence around it.

We also know that there number of drugs within our prisons are more available, particularly synthetic drugs, available in our prisons than are available out on the streets.

So at ONS, they began collating consistent data on drug deaths in England and Wales from 1993, and figures showed an increase in drug misuse mortality rates among both men and women since 1996.

UK opioid-related deaths rose between 2012 and 2015, increasing by 58 percent in England, 23 percent in Wales, 21 percent in Scotland, and 47 percent in Northern Ireland. UK Focal Point on Drugs estimates that the number of problem drug users is 300,000 in England, 60,000 in Scotland and 30,000 in Wales. Those statistics are the result of the current drugs policy, and behind those statistics are lives in ruins.

I can fully understand why people exposed to the cruelty inflicted on their loved ones by the current drugs policy would want to lash out for retribution. If somebody provided one of my loved ones with a pill at a music festival, and that pill killed them, my initial reaction would be to hunt them down like a dog and have them strung up. I would be wrong.

At the next festival, another person would be selling the same drugs to more people, and another tragedy would unfold. The understanding of this is exemplified by the members of Anyone’s Child. These are people who have been directly affected by the loss of, or damage caused to, a close friend or family member.

And they understand that vengeance wouldn't bring back their loved one or undo the damage done. They understand that unless we change our current drug policy and how we enforce it, more innocent people will die.

It is their desire that their experience of loss does not fall on anyone else’s family member or friend. And I would ask the Minister if she's prepared to sit down to meet and talk to members of Anyone’s Child? Nothing.

GRAHAME MORRIS, MP: Will the Honorable Member give way?

RONNIE COWAN, MP: Certainly.

MADELEINE MOON, MP: Grahame Morris.

GRAHAME MORRIS, MP: I'm grateful, and I would like to congratulate the Honorable Member for Inverclyde on initiating the debate, on making some really powerful points in his speech.

He and I both attended a recent ?meeting of the drugs, alcohol and justice all-party parliamentary group, on drug-related deaths, where we heard Rudi Fortson, QC, explain how policies could be readily implemented to reduce drug related deaths, drug and alcohol-related deaths.

And would he agree with me at this point that it would be a good thing for Ministers to meet with Rudi Fortson, QC, and hear what policies could be applied instantly that would make a big difference?


RONNIE COWAN, MP: Thank you very much. It's always really good for me when I hear that people like Rudi Fortson, a QC, a person who has lived his life through the law, is ,looking at the current situation and thinking, “We have to change this.”

This backs up everything I believe, but he comes from a much more qualified in that term than I do. I wonder if the Government are actually engaging with people of his caliber.

Last week, Canada joined nine states in the USA and Washington DC, to legalize recreational cannabis. They've taken a different approach in various states regarding the age limits. Some Canadian provinces will allow people to grow their own, limiting them to four plants. Other provinces do not allow home growing.

We should be looking to those parts of the world to gather evidence and decide if their approach is beneficial, and if we should follow suit. Canada has the same problems we have, but like Portugal and Uruguay and others, they have taken a different approach to providing a solution. And it's not “drugs for everybody”; it's “regulate the marketplace, take away controls from the criminals”.

In the UK, parents of children that fear their children might be dabbling in drugs, or even developing a habit, are extremely reluctant to engage with support groups that could divert their child from the path they are on.

The parents are reluctant because they do not want to place their child on the police radar. They fear they could be arrested, get a criminal record or even be sent to prison. Early intervention can be the key to avoiding drug-related harm, and we should not be putting obstacles in the way of those that could be affected.

We must encourage users to engage without fear of prosecution and free up valuable police time and resources to fight crime. Can the Minister tell me if the UK Government is engaged with other countries to access their research, which could assist us in becoming better informed and help us to take an evidence-based approach to legislation?

And we need to listen to those affected, that can see a need for change but are not in a position to effect it.

Prior to this debate, the Westminster digital engagement team put out an appeal on social media, advertising this debate and asking the people of this country, “What do you think?”

Their response with they've furnished me with are, they're engaged with 20,000 people, and the majority of people came back saying, “Legalize cannabis.” Some called for drugs to be regulated and taxed. A few commented and said they had lost loved ones as a result of the current policy. Some commenters called for drug addiction to be seen as a health issue, rather than a criminal one.

Lots of commentators called for the UK to take the same approach as Portugal. That is the people of this country talking.

The problematic users, the kids on estates recruited to county lines, the medical professionals, the support workers, and the law enforcers should be listened to.

Peter Bleksley was a young cop during the Brixton riots. ?He went on to become one of the Met’s most celebrated undercover agents. He was a founding member of SO10, Scotland Yard’s dedicated covert policing unit. He said:

“I look back now and think, well, are there less drugs and guns on the streets because of what my colleagues and I did? And of course the answer is an emphatic, NO. We could wallpaper my bedroom with commendation certificates—they sit in the loft gathering dust. What a waste of time.”

MARY GLINDON, MP: Will the Honorable Gentleman give way?

RONNIE COWAN, MP: Certainly.


MARY GLINDON, MP: I congratulate him on this debate, and does he agree that the fact that the UK Government spent an estimated 1.6 billion on drug law enforcement in 2014-15, and drug treatment's been cut by 14 percent in the past couple of years, and does he agree that that's a false economy, especially as Public Health England estimates that for every pound spent on drug treatment, there's a four pound social return?


RONNIE COWAN, MP: Absolutely. I absolutely agree. If we could see the results from the money being spent on the criminal justice system, I would back off and say, “Well, it is working”, but it clearly isn't. And take that figure further down, every one pound spent on early intervention saves seven pounds in the criminal justice system further down the line. So even, as I've said, if you don't give a damn about these people, it makes good financial sense to step in anyway and get early intervention.

Peter's not alone. A host of personal testimony has been gathered by UK LEAP, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. I will offer four more examples from these experts.

“In Afghanistan I fought on one ‘front-line’ of the so-called ‘war on drugs’ and in Hackney I live side-by-side with the other and it’s obviously failing at either end. If real generals pursued an active war like generations of politicians have pursued this farce they’d be court-martialed and sent to prison.” That's from Patrick Hennessey, a British Army officer in the Grenadier Guards serving in Afghanistan

“Far from making communities safer, current drug laws have the unintended consequence of placing barriers between the police and often vulnerable individuals.” Paul Whitehouse, chief constable.

“The drug problem will continue and escalate if governments fail to recognise that the only way forward is to move towards nuanced regulatory models, thus removing the profit from criminals, and the motivation for their involvement.” Graham Seaby, former detective superintendent, international and organised crime branch, New Scotland Yard.

“The single greatest crime reduction measure the world could take would be to regulate the supply of cannabis, cocaine and heroin.” Francis Wilkinson, chief constable.

Neil Woods, 14 years an undercover drugs cop, would say exactly the same things. Ron Hogg and Arfon Jones, both police and crime commissioners, say that drugs must be a health issue, not a criminal justice one.

Every time we lock up a criminal gang or announce to the media that we have seized a large quantity of drugs with a street value of so many millions, what they don't say is that that supply has been disrupted for an hour or so, before another gang will step into their shoes and maintain the distribution.

Often those takeovers involve a spate of violence, and they are always maintained by violence and the threat of violence. The fact is that after 30 years of locking people up, a bag of cocaine that cost ten pounds in 1980 will cost you ten pounds today for the same weight. But because cocaine is so plentiful, it is purer in the UK today than it has ever been.

The damage being inflicted on people and communities will ?continue to increase if all we do is crack down on the criminal fraternity and those ensnared in problematic drug use. We can lock people up for longer, it does not improve their situation one iota. In fact, it makes it worse.

Will the Minister meet and listen to members of the Law Enforcement Against Prohibition?

In July of 2017, the UK Government published its drug strategy and announced that they would appoint a recovery champion, a recovery champion whose role was defined as someone who would “be responsible for driving and supporting collaboration between local authorities, public employment services, housing providers and criminal justice partners, ensuring that these critical public services are able to contribute fully towards securing effective outcomes for individuals suffering drug dependence.”

Fifteen months later, there is still nobody in the role, so nobody is coordinating those aspects of the support and recovery program. I find myself wondering if there is a UK Government harm reduction recovery program. Minister, when will you appoint a recovery champion?

As legislators, we do have a choice. We can change the law. In doing so, we can address the harm that drugs do. Before that, we have to take a constructive approach to our drugs policy.

We need to accept the fact that 90 percent of people who use recreational drugs do not live chaotic lives. We must acknowledge that of the 10 percent of users who become problematic users, the majority have suffered physical, psychological or sexual abuse. We must acknowledge that problematic use is higher in areas of social deprivation. We must accept responsibility for trying to find solutions and acknowledge our failures.

We need to help people with problematic drug use through harm reduction, treatment and wraparound support. Criminalizing users doesn't deal with the underlying issues that lead to drug use; it only makes things worse.

We should have a network of safe drug consumption rooms throughout the UK. They have proved to be a success in Switzerland, Canada, Spain and a growing number of other countries. We must be prepared to learn from other countries’ experiences. The emergency services should carry naloxone and be trained in its use.

Will the Minister reconsider the legalization of safe drug consumption rooms and ensure that naloxone is provided for members of the emergency services?

Most importantly, UK drugs policy should be a health issue, not a criminal justice one. Or, we can continue to criminalize users, drive them into the hands of unscrupulous dealers, while ignoring the atmosphere of fear that they live in. All we do is marginalize them, stigmatize them, and ostracize them.

CRISPIN BLUNT, MP: I beg pardon.

MADELEINE MOON, MP: Crispin Blunt.

CRISPIN BLUNT, MP: Since he's just moved on from the subject of drug consumption rooms, but did he note that after his last debate on drug consumption rooms, that the International Narcotics Control Board then produced a report on this, effectively endorsing drug consumption rooms. And that coming from the body that is responsible for the international enforcement of the relevant drugs conventions, which I know he and I both think are outdated and frankly dangerous in what they delivery in terms of global consequences around drugs policy. And if even they are in that place, hopefully our Government will be able to take some notice.


RONNIE COWAN, MP: I did, indeed, I noticed a couple of things after that debate. We had that debate in this House, and the Minister at that debate denied the fact that Canada had kept its drug consumption rooms open because they are effective. She made a statement that the Supreme ?Court had ordered them to stay open.

On the back of that, the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy, wrote to myself and the Minister a five-page letter detailing how the DCRs are working effectively in Canada and why they have been kept open. They described her statement as factually and legally incorrect.

In closing, we have lost the war on drugs. Our own drugs policy saw to that. We need to change our mindset and we need to ensure that we are in a position to win the peace. And finally, Mrs. Moon, when I say that everybody -- when we see a problematic drug user, we are watching a person drowning. Please, throw them a lifebelt, do not push their heads further under the water.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Ronnie Cowan, Member of Parliament from the Scottish National Party representing the constituency of Inverclyde, opening a House of Commons debate on drug policy on October 23.

For now, that's it. 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 are 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.