07/01/20 Sheila P Vakharia

Century of Lies
Sheila Vakharia
Drug War Facts

"Stimulants and Harm Reduction webinar. This week we hear portions of “Tweaking our Harm Reduction: A stimulants Webinar.” Participants included:
Dr. Sheila P Vakharia, Deputy Director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance; Christine Rodriguez, a consultant in drug user health and harm reduction who recently founded Higher Ground Harm Reduction, which is focused at the intersection of harm reduction and climate change/systems disruption; Mindy Vincent, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker specializing in mental health and addiction treatment and the founder and Executive Director of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition; and Brandie Wilson, the moderator, who is the Executive Director of the Chicago Recovery Alliance."

Audio file


JULY 1, 2020


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.

On June 29th, the Chicago Recovery Alliance hosted a webinar entitled "Tweaking Our Harm Reduction: A Stimulants Webinar."

Well, first we're going to hear an introduction and opening presentation from one of the participants. Christine Rodriguez. She's a consultant in drug user health and harm reduction who recently founded Higher Ground Harm Reduction, which is focused at the intersection of harm reduction and climate change and systems disruption. Before this, she developed a harm reduction-focused statewide capacity building initiative in Maryland.

CHRISTINE RODRIGUEZ: My name's Christine, some of my more recent stimulant related work, this year founded a small project to work on the intersection of harm reduction and climate emergency, and other sort of systems disruption. And two months after that COVID-19 hit the United States, which I completely did not anticipate before maybe, you know, January

But as part of that, I did some work on a toolkit related to COVID for harm reductionists. As a part of that, there's a piece that is specific to stimulant use. I'm going to pop the link to that in the chat box for you. And I just wanted to talk through some of these points, um, as sort of the structure of our conversation. Um, so a lot of the things that are included here, this is by no means exhaustive. If you see tips and tricks that are missing, I would love to hear from folks, I know there's extensive experience in our community.

Uh, so as a non exhaustive guide here, I'm speaking to some harm reduction considerations, particularly in the time of COVID. Um, the first thing that we wanted to raise is something that Sheila ended on talking about, right, are these drug shortages and bad cuts there that we're seeing across the country.

COVID-19, I think we weren't sure how to anticipate if and how the drug market would be disrupted, and because of all the different sort of routes and our country being so big, we've seen that, that has impacted the country in varying ways, right? So, whereas before COVID hit, we certainly saw as Monte put in the chat box, um, you know, fentanyl in the methamphetamine, particularly on the west coast, um, you know, creating a risk of opioid overdose among folks that are just not expecting to experience that are not necessarily thinking that they need Narcan for themselves.

We're also seeing the drug market disrupted different ways across the country. Anecdotally in Iowa, methamphetamine is, is essentially nonexistent anymore. Um, folks can't find it and the price of crack has skyrocketed in response. Um, we also heard in North Carolina that the fentanyl that's being sold is essentially white powder and to folks who are not, um, uh, opioid experienced, uh, looks a lot like the cocaine, right. And so really needing to expand like Sheila was talking about our conceptions of, um, how people use drugs, how stimulant use is related to opioid use, um, what overdose prevention education looks like and for whom we're giving that education.

So these are things that we really want to be talking to our participants about. They're our best source of information, our fastest source of information on how the supplies are getting disrupted, um, what might be happening out there and, um, respond accordingly.

You know, it's, it's hard when you're, um, when you're poor, when you're marginalized, the idea of stocking up on your preferred drug. Um, and if that's, um, a privilege that you have, it'd be great if you can, um, plan for those sorts of disruptions by stocking up, of course, starting low, going slow classic advice. Um, particularly when we're not sure what things are being cut with in the kind of disruption that is so widespread, that COVID is caused it's pretty unprecedented in our time, um, which leads us to overdose, right?

And over amping, um, Sheila raised this drug checking for fentanyl is going to be really important in this time and checking our stimulants, right. Or there was some great work done by harm reductionists out on the West coast. You can check basically anything for fentanyl, fentanyl test strips. Um, and I know Brandie has a lot of experience around drug checking.

And they've also found that when you're doing this with methamphetamine in particular, that the residue that you use, you're going to want to dilute it more than you would with another drug, maybe like a little half a cup instead of the couple teaspoons that you would use. Otherwise it tends to pop a false positive. And of course, if it pops a false positive, you know, there are worse outcomes.

Maybe you're a little safer with your drug than you otherwise would be because you think fentanyl is present, but it turns out fentanyl wasn't can always do more. You can't put less in your body once it's in there. Right. Um, so drug checking for fentanyl, we got a really great tip around checking your drugs for actual stimulants. So the same company that sells fentanyl test strips sells cocaine, test strips, um, and a number of others.

So if you want to check to see if your cocaine is actually cocaine, then that it's really handy tool. Um, we were told, um, by, um, a lovely man Patrick out in Salt Lake City with One Voice Recovery, um, about the, the utility of being able to test your meth with bleach, right, to make sure that if you want meth, that it is meth and you can put a tiny little shard in, in your bleach household bleach. Um, and it should start spinning around and going off like fireworks. Right.

Um, all of these strategies, I know Mindy can share a lot more about from a programmatic angle, um, we're to want to keep Naloxone handy. Right? Always, um, we just never know who we're with. What's in our drugs, what's in other folks, drugs. I just, we can't beat that drum, I think, hard enough.

Naloxone is all over my house, it's in my purse. Um, I have buttons that let people know that Naloxone is in my purse. Um, so anything we can do to stay prepared, particularly if our peers use drugs, if we use drugs ourselves, um, to prevent that overdose. Um, so over amping, um, a little more complicated, there's not the miracle drug Naloxone for over amping. We wish we had for almost everything in our, um, in our health system.

But we're gonna really want to remember, like some of the basics around staying healthy, keeping our immune system healthy, like staying hydrated, making sure we're eating food, doing our best to get some sleep, um, you know, breathing exercises, sometimes exercising. Um, if you have access to a shower sometimes getting that warm or that cool shower, whatever feels best, um, and really just, um, engaging and sort of, you know, this, uh, a lot of the ideas that we talk about around mindfulness and, um, and centering and those sorts of things.

And while it may be hard to think about in the moment, um, that's some of the planning that can go into, um, your setting, right. Drug set and setting before you use, if there are any things that you can put in place just in case, um, you do end up over amping or someone that you're with does, um, we put a little note in here around hygiene and cleanliness that's because of COVID, right?

So just another reminder to folks, to like wash your hands as much as, um, well possible or you see fit, right. Um, ideally you're washing your hands for at least 20 seconds before you're preparing your own drugs. Um, if you can't prepare your own drugs, um, you know, ideally the person who is washing their hands before and after, especially before, um, you know, especially in this time of just, um, incredible numbers of overdose, it's complicated, giving the advice to social distance, to physical distance from each other, while we know that drug use is, um, not just social, but sometimes by necessity you're with other folks. Right?

And if it's a concern that one of you has been covered exposed, if there's any way to at least stay maybe six feet apart, if you have masks that you can wear, um, these things can be incredibly important.

DOUG McVAY: That was Christine Rodriguez. She's a consultant in drug, user health and harm reduction who recently founded higher ground harm reduction. She was speaking recently in a webinar entitled "Tweaking Our Harm Reduction: A Stimulants Webinar" that was hosted by the Chicago recovery Alliance.

You're listening to Century of Lies. I'm your host, Doug McVay.

You know ever since college, I've been a social justice progressive. My interests and understandings have evolved and expanded, I appreciate nuance more, but those progressive values haven't changed really. Though, that was always focused on systems and on other people, my own behavior, I didn't really give it much thought wasn't that long ago that I started to understand that I do have issues that need to be dealt with, okay, heck there's no need to sugar coat it. I was a jerk, I am a jerk. Now I'm trying to be better, but it took me a long time to even start looking critically at myself.

And when I finally did, I didn't like what I saw. And that was back in 2012, 2013, like a year or two before I started hosting this show. I hope I've made some progress. Not real sure about that. And I'm not the one who gets to judge it. I do know that it's a continuing process. It's not some course that has a certificate. At the end. I got involved in drug policy reform as a marijuana legalized you're back in the 1980s, our movement reeked of toxic masculinity back then. And it still does.

We've gotten a little bit better, but my gosh, we have a long way to go. So here's the thing. I was a high profile drug policy reformer for a long time, I was big in the eighties. I was part of that toxic environment. I contributed to it. I am sorry. Of course apologies aren't enough. I have a lot of work left to do. Actions, not words.

I'm not a movement leader anymore, but I do have some degree of notoriety. I have a social media presence and I have a platform I want to do better, be better, and to be a good ally, and to do that I need to listen and to learn. It's a process. It's a journey and friends, however long you've been listening to century of lies with me as host. You've been on that journey along with me. In fact, we're still on that journey. So buckle up listener and let's get this show back on the road.

And by the show, of course, I mean, Century of Lies, 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.

We're going back to that recent webinar entitled "Tweaking Our Harm Reduction: A Stimulants Webinar." The participants included Dr. Sheila Vakharia, deputy director of the Department of Research and Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance; Christine Rodriguez, a consultant in drug, user health and harm reduction who recently founded Higher Ground Harm Reduction; Mindy Vincent, a licensed clinical social worker, specializing in mental health and addiction treatment, who's also the founder and executive director of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition; and Brandie Wilson, the moderator, who's the executive director of the Chicago Recovery Alliance.

And we're also going to stay with the topic of toxic masculinity. It's a problem in society. No group is really immune, not the marijuana legalization movement nor the drug policy reform movement, nor the harm reduction movement. There was a Q and A at the end of the webinar, the question and the discussion were sparked by some recent news within the harm reduction community. You'll get the gist of it. I'm not taking time out of the show to go over the details cause you don't need them to follow along. You can find out all that on Twitter, go to my feed. I'm @DougMcVay. So here's that Q and A.

BRANDIE WILSON: I think Kiefer has a really important question, a comment, a conversation starter about, um, he would love to hear more about ways programs, which haven't historically served, sex workers, including stimulant using sex workers can step up in this movement - moment, moment of reckoning around sexual violence, exploitation, abandonment of sex workers by the majority of the harm reduction movement.

I have a whole lot of anger wrapped up in that currently. Um, the silence is goddamn deafening, um, and I currently am not engaged in sex work, but as someone that has had a pretty substantial history with it, I can not figure out how to compartmentalize what is not being said and what is not being done by cis male leaders in our movement.

Why are we the ones speaking where women, the ones, why are sex workers, the ones, why aren't programs, leaders, and why aren't, why don't we have to come up with the framework? Why do we have to say, if you don't call yourselves out, we're calling you out. Like, I mean, that, wasn't the rant that he asked for. Um, but it is so indicative of like the lack of value women trans and sex workers have in this goddamn movement. And if you are allies and you say you are allies, where are you? Where have you been it's days? And there have been lists for years. And these are your friends too, where are you? Why are we here by our goddamn selves? Um, anyway, uh, so

CHRISTINE RODRIGUEZ: Right. Yeah. That's right. Yeah,

BRANDIE WILSON: Someone else should probably ...

CHRISTINE RODRIGUEZ: I mean, I would, I would say that like some of it needs to start with acknowledging that there are far more sex workers in our movement than are out. Um, and far more people with sex work experience then feel comfortable sharing because of this because of knowing how vulnerable that makes you, um, to harassment and abuse and assault.

And I, you know, I think seriously, a responsibility to people engaged in sex work, um, which includes, you know, education, you know, not just, I feel like it's the same way that, um, you know, we reach out to people who sell, which are not necessarily different from people who use, but, um, we've reached out to people who sell to engage in harm reduction. Um, we have to talk about how to be a good client. Um, we have to talk about what it means to be, um, a responsible client, um, of sex workers to be a responsible man in particular, um, to women broadly.

And these things shouldn't be acceptable behavior to come into a drop in center, um, to come into a harm reduction space. There, there should be some, um, some codes of some kind of conduct, um, because it's, it's unacceptable and it's heartbreaking. And it, um, and it's been going on for so long. And I don't, I don't see it stopping. I just see a sort of baited breath hoping that it passes, um, and hoping that it stops with Devin Reaves and that it doesn't spread to others and that others are not impacted. And hopefully this will just blow over, um, the silence, uh, Brandie, um, I've, I am beyond disappointed.

BRANDIE WILSON: The other thing for me about the silence is historically a lot of these folks on these lists are white men in power. So y'all are letting a black man who is a young leader, take all the heat. Um, accountability looks like you stepping up and having faith in the community to let you grow and to apologize for potential harms. You've done. Like that's why we're here. Um, and so, maybe also consider your whiteness in all of your goddamn silence.

MINDY VINCENT: Well, here in Utah, we're so far away from everyone, I feel like, but, um, you know, I didn't know about like things that were happening elsewhere until it started coming up. And I do know though, as a female period in the world, like, I know what it's like to, you know, always, like, and I dare to use the word always, be inappropriately touched, hit on, harassed all the time.

I felt for me, like, one thing I that I have to do, like, I dismiss that behavior all the time because I'm just so used to it. I'm so used to it that I'm just like pfft, you know, cause it's just not, we're saying something every single time it happens. Right. And you know, so me as a female, I am willing to say something more often and continue to do that until I say it every single time that it's inappropriate, you know, so that people don't ever, so the men don't ever get the idea that they get to treat any of us, however they want any ever, ever, you know.

And it's funny, when I was teaching at the University of Utah, I was actually, I quit the University of Utah over this because I said that as a female in arenas of leadership in public administration, that I always have less credibility than any man.

And, uh, someone found that offensive and I don't care, um, because they have, I guarantee there's no man, including Devin Reaves, who's ever been in a meeting, embedded dressed as babe or sweetheart. I promise no one ever cut him off when he was talking over and over and over again, you know, and said, listen, babe, you know, I know you think what you're doing is this and this and that.

CHRISTINE RODRIGUEZ: Hey thanks kiddo.

MINDY VINCENT: Right. And it's like, Oh, and that's just infuriating in itself. You know? So I know I'm willing to step up and say more often and take up that space that like we've been told all of our lives to not take up because we're too much for too loud or too this, for to that. Right. And then as someone who, who runs a harm reduction organization, we do, I am a substance abuse treatment provider, like, I'm a substance abuse provider.

And that is where we serve people who are using drugs in that entire spectrum and everywhere it intersects. And that includes with our sex workers. And we hope to get the swap chapters started here. And when all this happened, I mean, most people on her probably know who Damon Harris is, Damon Harris. He's, he's been with me since day two and he's more of a feminist than I could ever be.

So I'm incredibly blessed to have this ally man at my organization. And as a friend who fights with me on all fronts, but he's so good at listening. And he's so good at leading and listening and saying, come on, let's go talk to the people we need to talk to and ask what they need for support. How do we stand be the best allies that we can be, you know?

And I think that's what everybody needs to do. We all need to, you know, just like with the Black Lives Matter Movement, you know, as a white person, I get to ask, well, how do I get to be the very most ally in the world? You know, how do I get to help? Because that's what I need to do because that's the privilege that I have. Now I’ll start going off. Sorry.

SHEILA VAKHARIA, PHD: And I think one of the things that we have to that I'm constantly reminded of is that we're more of a microcosm as a movement of the larger societal problems than we'd like to admit. And I think that there is this kind of exceptionalism that comes when you're part of a movement that has an issue or a cluster of issues or certain areas that you feel like are the, you know, the, the factors that brought you together, but that, that made you so, so aware that marginalization was a thing and that, that marginalized identity brings you all together.

And I think that in us being a microcosm of the larger world, a lot of the men in our space forget that women have always been aware and queer folks and folks with a variety of, of, of kind of nexus areas of marginalization and intersections is that we have always been aware that we don't live single issue lives.

So I think the unidimensionality of drug user identity for a lot of men is their spoiled identity or is their marginalized identity. And, you know, they've, they've done a lot of development and work around that as an issue for where their rights have been violated and where they need to move forward.

Those of us who've come in already aware that we did not live single issue lives, brought all of those with us and our spaces weren't ready for that because, um, because we have people who still, for some, for many privileged folks who live on these different, nexuses like, um, you know, that was the one issue that they did the most work in development around.

Yet, there were a variety of other issues and, you know, cause we are a transphobic movement. We are a heterosexist movement. We are, you know, there, there are so many other ways that, um, that we've become very like that. There are a lot of people in power who are still very unidimensional analysis of our issues.

I think this all brings that to light because, um, the other thing is too, and like this kind of goes into like kind of a larger critique. I think, of, of drug use, like, recovery kind of framings as well, is that, you know, those of us who don't even who pushed back against the 12 steps, I mean this idea of a rock bottom is very clear. And for a lot of folks, the rock bottom that was in their narrative was engaging in sex work or trading sex or selling sex.

And for a lot of people that narrative has spilled over into how they look at people who, who sell sex or trade sex, um, in our movement as seeing them as some people who it's a function of their survival, right? Like, you know, where do we, where do we add nuance to acknowledge that there are people in our spaces who engage in survival sex work and who, who do not identify with that as being a salient identity, you know, sex workers being a salient identity, but there are folks in our movement for whom being a sex worker is an identity.

And it has nothing to do with hitting rock bottom. It has to do with bodily autonomy, a choice that of a career or a way to make money that is flexible to their parenting responsibilities, to their disabilities, to their ability, to, to engage in meaningful work, to support themselves and their loved ones.

I think that we also have to kind of tie that in there somewhere and I still haven't fleshed out what that's about, but I do think there is this idea that that selling or trading sex has been framed as like a rock bottom indicator that we also just don't have space in our broader narrative to see sex work as work.

CHRISTINE RODRIGUEZ: It makes really clear to me that we need to develop some kind of internal accountability, healing, justice processes. Um, because we, like, in addition to all of that, Sheila, are also a movement of folks who are particularly averse to calling the police. And so when we are not, um, socialized to call authority, we're kind of, you know, quite the opposite. Um, then what what's available for us in place of formal authority, when we need some reckoning to occur, when we need someone to be held accountable for harm.

And those structures haven't been built up in parallel with our sort of the police mentality. Um, and I don't think police are the answer. Um, but something, something community-based needs to exist. And men have to be a part of that. That can't be just us, you know, talking to ourselves about it. Um, they have to buy into it and participate and hold each other accountable.

MINDY VINCENT: And it can't just be “I'm sorry.” Now, you know what I mean? Like the #MeToo movement started a couple years ago. So at very least, a couple years ago, people should've known that behavior was appropriate.

You can't take back damage that you've done to somebody. This is what I tell my kids all the time. Like you have to pay attention forward because going back and saying, I'm sorry, sometimes it's just not going to be good enough. You know? And you can't come back and say, I'm sorry, the, you know, I sexually assaulted you or I'm sorry that I harassed you and belittled you and treated you that way. And I'm taking accountability. That's that isn't enough

I guess if you didn't know that that behavior was inappropriate, you should have paid attention two years ago while you were posting all over Facebook and sharing all these things where it's about everybody else's defects, you know, because it's not okay to harm people in such a way. Like we all make mistakes and I don't think human beings should have the famous mistakes for the rest of their lives. Right?

However, there's mistakes. And then there's like a f***** up person, right? People don't get to just come forward and say, I'm taking accountability will ever be cheers and says, okay, good for you because you want some of the damage you've done. Can't be healed in the first place. Cause I'm sorry. It doesn't cut it.

CHRISTINE RODRIGUEZ: Yeah, it absolutely has to be centered survivor centered, right. Because accountability is whatever a survivor says. Accountability can be for a given offense. And I just, miss me with you all join book clubs and read about masculinity and that's accountability. That's, that's just not, if a survivor says it's not, um, that might be some good prevention for folks, learning is incredibly important and evolving is important and I believe it happens. Um, but, but we need to be able to define accountability for ourselves, for other folks.

DOUG McVAY: That was from a panel entitled, "Tweaking Our Harm Reduction: A Stimulants Webinar" that was hosted recently by the Chicago Recovery Alliance. Participants included Dr. Sheila Vakharia, Christine Rodriguez, Mindy Vincent, and Brandie Wilson.

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 of drugtruth.net. You can follow me on Twitter, I'm @Doug McVay and of course also @drugpolicyfacts.

We'll be back in a week with 30 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.