01/08/20 Ronald Anderson

Century of Lies
Ronald Anderson
New York's Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids

The state of New York's Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction, and Overdose Prevention has been holding a series of hearings around the state to hear from stakeholders on strategies for reducing overdoses, improving individual and community health, and addressing the consequences of drug use. On this week's show, we hear testimony from Ronald Anderson with the Katal Center, Cortney Lovell with Our Wellness Collective, Keith Brown with the Katal Center, and Dionna King with the Drug Policy Alliance. Plus, New York City's Public Advocate Jumaane Williams spoke at a rally on Tuesday Jan 7th to show support for bail reform.

Audio file



JANUARY 8, 2020

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

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

The State of New York’s Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction, and Overdose Prevention has been holding a series of public hearings and public meetings around the state to hear from stakeholders on strategies for reducing overdoses, improving individual and community health, and addressing the consequences of drug use.

On today’s show we are going to hear from some of those witnesses but first, the State of New York has finally eliminated cash bail. Major bail reform legislation was approved in 2019 and only just went in to effect at the beginning of 2020. Opponents failed to stop bail reform from being approved so now they are trying to overturn it but supporters are working hard to keep reforms in place. On Tuesday, January 7th, New York City’s Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams organized a rally to urge public support for bail reform. Here is New York City Public Advocate, Jumaane Williams. Audio is courtesy of CBS New York.

JUMAANE WILLIAMS: I can think of no clear example of why these reforms were so critical than the fact that just a block behind us, Harvey Weinstein arrived for his trial today under his own power while Akeem Browder is here because his brother Khalif couldn’t afford to go home. Only about 10 – 12% of people in New York City jails have been convicted and sentenced; the rest are kept there not because they are dangerous but because they are poor. Today we are at the courthouse to ensure that the new laws are being observed and followed in the courtroom and it is important to verify that the laws are being acted in good faith because people are spreading myths and misinformation about these reforms after the fact in order to try and claw back the progress that is made.

I have been sorely disappointed to see lawmakers in the highest parts of this state and in this city and attorneys and Das speaking as if they don’t understand what bail is for and what bail was not for. I want to caution everyone now who is trying to claw back these wins that there are many people decades later apologizing for the crime bill; apologizing for three strikes and you’re out; apologizing for the abuses of stop, question, and frisk. They have the courage of hindsight. They have the courage of looking back and saying that they were wrong. We have the ability to show leadership and vision right now. These calls often happen in times of fear, in times where people are feeling fearful. We make these knee jerk and rash decisions in a response often times pandering to the fears that people have. Some of those fears are built in real things and some of them are just a feeling.

What I am asking people to do is have the courage of leadership. No one here wants people to be hurt, no one here wants people to be violent and I will say that the people who did the most work on bail reforms live in the communities where the people are going to come back home from.

CROWD: That’s right.

JUMAANE WILLIAMS: They don’t want their families in danger. How dare you continue to risk the brown and black bodies of people simply to cater to people who are afraid? This is a time of leadership and a time of unity and to see people using the fear of anti-Semitism to deal with bail reform is disgusting. Anti-Semitism needs to be addressed as it has been on the rise for the past year or two and it is horrible. Bail reform has been around for six days. Where is the correlation? If you want to have a discussion about remand let’s have that discussion. That has nothing to do with bail reform. The fact that people keep talking about bail reform and remand together is proving the point that all of these people are making in the first place and that is that judges were abusing bail to hold black and brown people in jail.

DOUG MCVAY: That audio again was courtesy of CBS New York. You just heard Jumaane Williams who is Public Advocate for the City of New York speaking at a rally on Tuesday, January 7th. He and many others were there to support bail reforms that have just gone in to effect in the State of New York.

You are listening to Century of Lies. I am your host, Doug McVay. Now let’s stay in New York, shall we? The New York State Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction, and Overdose Prevention has been holding a series of public hearings and public meetings around the state to hear from stakeholders on strategies for reducing overdoses, improving individual and community health, and addressing the consequences of drug use. The most recent of these public hearings was in Albany, New York. We are going to hear from some of the witnesses. First up, let’s hear from Ronald Anderson, he is a person with lived experience and a leader at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

RONALD ANDERSON: My name is Ron, I am 57 years old and I have been in Albany for 17 years and have five kids here. I was 15 when I started using drugs and my first arrest was in 1979. I went upstate the first time in 1981 and after that I had two more prison gigs and 41 arrests, most of which was drug related and my being on opioids. Knowing that I wouldn’t be treated for opioids I was going in to prison under mental health to get some type of drug to help fight this withdrawal. Because my tolerance level dropped I would overdose when I would come back home but thankfully I had friends who were always there to take me to the hospital or bring me (UNINTELLIGIBLE). My drug use has always been due to depression, loss of hope, and homelessness. It has never been because I am a bad person but in my experience every time I try to get help I was either refused or offered help where I didn’t need it. All of this just kept me using and using even more which then made everything else worse; it was a vicious cycle – hustle, cop, use – hustle, cop, and use. That was it. I lost even more hope when I wasn’t given the proper help but repeatedly sent back to prison. I was in treatment and because I had a dirty urine test the parole officer came in to treatment to put the cuffs on me and take me back to prison.

I want to be clear that treating me or anyone like me as a criminal has never worked and it will never work. I watched a lot of movies and one of my favorite movies is called Fury and it says that the war will end soon but before it does a lot more people have to die. Change that. Prevent overdose – please change that today. This morning a friend of mine drove me here and along the way we dropped my kids off at the bus stop to go to school and they said, “get ‘em, dad”. I joined Katal and they told me that I could make a difference and I asked them how and told them I was useless. They told me that I was not useless and to stop thinking like that. We have got to take it to where the people are who can make the changes, and that’s you. I am just asking that you please help us by giving us that chance and meeting us where we are. They keep telling me that I need this, I need that. I wasn’t ready. When I became ready instead of looking for a handout Katal gave me a hand up. So I am asking you to help us to continue that fight so that people don’t have to suffer like I did. You can’t ease my pain and suffering by making me suffer more sending my back to prison. You can’t change that.

I love being in my children’s life but I can’t if I am violated and not for a new crime; not because I did somebody else wrong but because I used, because I have a sickness, because you refuse to help me. Lock him up, he is an animal! No more! No more death. You can prevent that with health and harm reduction. Invest in that. Healthcare – you can help us and we need that help. Thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Ronald Anderson, a leader at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice testifying at a public hearing of New York State’s Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction, and Overdose Prevention.

Let’s hear now from Courtney Lovell, Co-founder of Our Wellness Collective.

CORTNEY LOVELL: Good morning. As a child I suffered abuse and had repeated early adverse childhood experiences that went largely unaddressed. By seven years old, I suffered with such intense night terrors and sleep walking I needed to be sedated at night. My mother and stepfather did the best they could with what they had; as a convenience store worker and a farmer, they didn’t have much.

I tried to hide the pain throughout most of my life. After all of my attempts failed to fix the broken pieces inside of myself it would only make sense that I eventually found the one form of disassociation that actually worked to numb my emotional pain. I became addicted to opiates by the age of 16, and an intravenous drug user by the age of 17. By the age of 18 I was racking up an extensive criminal record. No school intervened, no therapy saved me, attempts at treatment failed, and at 19 with my mother at home dying from a terminal cancer I gave up. I had no hope. I had no more fight left in me and I felt completely alone with nowhere to go. I felt the world would be better off without me in it so I drove to a back road not far from here and decided to end my life by overdose but for some reason I am one of the few who got to wake back up.

After some grueling time detoxing without any medication or compassion in jail I was afforded treatment court, long term residential, outpatient treatment with endless forms of cognitive therapy, and eventually even recovery supports. I was able to get my criminal record sealed as a youthful offender so my felony charges disappeared completely. I was able to go back to school and get a good job as an addiction counselor. I was able to gain security clearance with the Department of Defense and work on a contract to help build the first ever substance abuse prevention program for our soldiers. I volunteered most of my free time, I got married, and I started my own family. I bought a house. I pay taxes. I began to vote, and I was asked by our governor to sit on his Opioid Task Force and travel the state. I was invited to the White House twice. I started my own business. I became an author. I became an intricate and valuable member of my community and our society.

The same society who would not even look that 16, 17, 18, 19 year old version of me in the eyes because I was just another no-good criminal drug addict who wasn’t worth it. The same society who only valued me when I was finally able to stop using substances. The same society who tells people just like me every single day that they do not deserve medical care, sterile supplies to inject with, safe spaces to not overdose in, or a welcoming spot within it. No – they say that I must first do away with the only means that ever quelled that crippling pain trusting perfect strangers to not victimize me further and endured all of this physiological and psychologically painful phases of a brain recalibrating to the sudden loss of its only ability to produce dopamine. Then if and when we can somehow make our way through it; that same society calls us criminals. It bars us from education, housing, and jobs with records and gets us cold stares and cruel whispers of wasted taxpayer dollars. As one of far too few people who have managed to army crawl through the impossible sludge of hatred, judgement, shame, ridicule, laws, red tape, and meek moral arguments while many, many more have died around me. Today I am one of those taxpayers and those are my dollars. I have the right to tell you the best way to help me and all of those other versions of me with my money. I will keep it simple; why is New York trying to cut funding to children’s mental health services? It is morally incomprehensible to be cutting children’s mental health services at this time. We need to be increasing funding to children’s mental health services so that we can intervene before these issues develop in to Substance Use Disorder and suicide. We need to provide medical care and harm reduction services to the versions of me that are out there right now still actively using and care for them. We need to look them in their eyes and tell them they are worth our acknowledgement right now, not at some elusive point they may never reach – but right now. Change laws, fight whatever lawsuits you need to, and open overdose prevention sites. There is plenty of peer reviewed research that shows these sites cut down on crime, prevent 100% of overdose deaths, and increase languages to treatment. The only moral argument that matters in this discussion is the one that says I have a moral issue with letting people die a preventable death while we have evidence based solutions to prevent them. Thank you.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Cortney Lovell, co-founder of Our Wellness Collective testifying before a public hearing of New York State’s Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction and Overdose Prevention.

You are listening to Century of Lies. I am your host, Doug McVay. Let’s hear now from Keith Brown, Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

KEITH BROWN: Hi. I am Keith Brown, Director of Health and Harm Reduction with the Katal Center for Health, Equity and Justice. Thank you for having me. You have my testimony in front of you so I am just hoping to expound on some of these points a little bit.

I first want to say that we have to be really deliberate about talking differently about what we are in right now. I have heard the term opioid epidemic brought up several times, opioid crisis brought up a few times. We are not in an opioid crisis. We are in a crisis of what the CDC has called deaths of despair. Opioid deaths and other drug fatalities are the symptom, not the disease. I want to be really clear about this because this is really important about how we address this moving forward because we can’t keep playing a whack a mole game with substances when that’s not actually the issue. Yes, opioids have been contributing to overdose deaths but most overdose deaths are actually poly-substance use related. People are dying of cocaine overdoses, methamphetamine overdoses, alcohol, and our drug supply is poisoned by benzodiazepines and fentanyl. We have to be really clear that this is a crisis of inadequate housing and income inequality. They say these are deaths of despair. This is a crisis of healthcare and people do have adequate healthcare and I say this because when we call this an opioid crisis or epidemic it leaves certain people out of the equation. I am sure you are going to hear about racial equity with these two strong black women who are going to tell you exactly what is up after this, but we are leaving people out of this conversation and the narrative has been that white folks in the suburbs are dying and now we have to do something about this. We need to be really clear that these are the chickens coming home to roost from the drug war that has been largely impacting black and brown people and poor people since it was started. It is now that white kids from the suburbs started dying that folks say a different approach is needed. We should have done it then, we have to do it now otherwise there is going to be another round of substances that people are dying from and we will be ill equipped to handle it. We have to invest in the things that we know work right now. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that data shows most people who actually start their use on a prescription opioids were not actually prescribed to them. This is really clear. To say that we have to crack down on prescription opioids at this point in the crisis is ridiculous. That ship sailed. What is happening though is that people with intractable chronic pain are being forced to taper or cut off from their medications and they are turning to the illicit market that we know is poisoned with fentanyl and they are dying of overdoses because they can’t get their pain managed. Some of these folks are even committing suicide from pain so we can’t leave them out of the equation either.

I have been working with people who use drugs for my entire career and I have lost people close to me, and I have family members who have struggled with addiction. I started my career working with HIV patients and saw how racial disparities and other disparities impacted that population of folks and I am tired of this. The answer is actually staring us right in the face. You cannot treat substance use as a health issue under the spectrum of criminalization and prohibition. You cannot do it. We have to decriminalize use and possession of all substances and we need to divest from law enforcement, incarceration, and all of those other tools. We can invest in health, we can invest in housing, and we can invest in things that we know work because regardless of the fact that there are people who believe increased penalties and increased enforcement work; it does not lead to reduction in drug use, drug related deaths, or crime. It doesn’t actually work. We have just been led to believe that it does work. I would challenge New Yorker’s to be the New Yorker’s that we have a reputation for being and we need to bootstrap each other and protect our family, friends, and community members. We need to be the ones showing the rest of the country that we can do this thing different.

In the meantime, here are the things I would really encourage you to do. Decriminalize possession of syringes now. Right now. Put significant investments in to harm reduction programs at the same level you are doing with treatment. Period. Fund the AIDS Institute as that is where the Office of Drug User Health is located. Those folks have been experiencing cuts and need money. There needs to be a separate line for naloxone funding so those state agencies don’t have to take it out of their budget. We need authorized overdose prevention centers ten years ago, not this year, not last year. Ten years ago. It is ridiculous that we do not have them. We need low threshold medication treatment in all settings including corrections facilities. The fact that that bill didn’t pass last year is really just unconscionable. We need the less is more approach and reform our parole system now. Now. Locking people up for a parole violation for substance use is not appropriate. Decriminalize sex work now and repeal the walking while Trans ban for our Trans brothers and sisters, no more solitary confinement (UNINTELLIGIBLE) solitary this year and do not yield an inch on bail reform, please. Thank you so much.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Keith Brown, Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. He was testifying before New York States’ Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction, and Overdose Prevention. Now let’s hear from Dionna King, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance.

DIONNA KING: Good afternoon. My name is Dionna King, and I am the New York State Policy Manager with the Drug Policy Alliance. I have had the pleasure of attending multiple public hearings convened by this task force and have learned from those working to end the current overdose crisis and prevent needless drug related deaths. Policy proposals that were once considered political (UNINTELLIGIBLE) are now the center of discourse as policy makers and legislative leaders continue to see the value of harm reduction. Overdose prevention sites, syringe exchanges, or low or no threshold medication maintenance, and supportive housing are all effective interventions and if New York State commits to a sustained investment in developing a harm reduction infrastructure lives can be saved. I have also witnessed multiple service providers and physicians discuss the impact of stigma and stress and the urgent need to change the narrative regarding drug use and addiction and it is vital. I want to plainly state that we cannot erode stigma, and cannot fully commit to harm reduction if we continue to criminalize and incarcerate people who use drugs. I implore the members of this task force to put forth the policy agenda that make the case for removing drug use from the purview of the criminal legal system and instead center on other avenues for engaging with people who use drugs in a way that reinforces their humanity and their individual needs. Drug arrests across the state fell precipitously following the Rockefeller Drug Law Reforms, however, New Yorker’s can still be arrested for felony and misdemeanor drug offenses. In 2018, there were over 20,000 felony drug arrests in New York with the majority of those arrests for meager quantities of controlled substances or low level sales while 20,000 is a dramatic decline considering New York’s role in mass incarceration. The current overdose crisis should force law makers to reckon with the impact of criminalization on access to healthcare, housing, employment, and other social determents to health that have an effect on Substance Use Disorder. The social environment in which people engage in substance use impacts their overall health and influences drug users’ risky behaviors. Incarceration in and of itself negatively impacts an individual’s health and for those experiencing opioid dependency the cycle of release and reentry contributes to an increase in morbidity and mortality rates.

Portugal’s model of drug decriminalization is touted as a global model of success. Portugal’s shift toward drug decriminalization effectively curbed the transmission of HIV and removing criminal penalties for drug possession was a component of a plan to emphasize low or no threshold treatment access and robust harm reduction infrastructure. New York State has taken steps towards providing alternative to incarceration and the drug treatment service that is allocated through judicial diversion programs but the state has failed to fully divest from criminalization and to what end? Judicial diversion, jail based treatment, or other course of forms of treatment did not have to be the sole driver connecting people to healthcare systems. In 2001, Portugal seized criminalizing drug use and the results have been dramatic. The number of people voluntarily entering treatment has increased significantly. Our overdose deaths, HIV infections, and problematic drug use and incarceration for drug related offenses have plummeted. Drug decriminalization has had a remarkable impact on overdose death rates. In 1999, Portugal recorded 369 drug overdose deaths and by 2015 that number had fallen to 54. Subjecting individuals who experience Substance Use Disorder or use drugs no problematically to incarceration or contact with the criminal legal systems does nothing to mitigate the harms of problematic substance use. Law enforcement interventions exacerbate the overdose epidemic. People who are subjected to law enforcement interactions could be rendered vulnerable to conditions that weaken their civil liberties and the social economic connections that create stability and recovery to (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Materially incarceration and judicial diversion programs isolate individuals from harm reduction and treatment resources and reduce the risk associated with drug use such as disease transmission. The threat of law enforcement diminishes the effectiveness of strong public health laws such as Good Samaritan Law and syringe decriminalization. It is for these reasons that the Drug Policy Alliance, the United Nations, and the World Health Organization support the repeal of laws that criminalize drug use and possession of drugs for personal use. Additionally, the U.N (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Strategy firmly declared that drug decriminalization is necessary and we are to fully protect people who use drugs from social and legal environments that fail to protect people against discrimination.

I want to conclude by naming some of the things that have been brought up as I have been making my rounds through these hearings. I have heard drug courts brought up a number of times as a solution and I want to be really clear that we can’t replace criminalization with drug courts – it is the same thing. Drug courts perceive judges acting as treatment providers making decisions for people’s health. We are seeing people taken off of their Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT), we are seeing people getting longer sentences then they would have had initially had they just taken whatever case that was presented to them and having to stay in a drug court setting longer than their original case would have allowed. We are seeing people in family court being made to be abstinent only to not be given any harm reduction resources and to have their kids used as collateral when they are trying to get their lives back together to try and recover from Substance Use Disorder and we can’t expand this system we are trying to get out of the opioid crisis. I have also heard a course of treatment of 72-hour holds being brought up as a solution but we can’t take away people’s civil liberties as a response to the drug crisis. New York City Department of Health has put forward a pilot program called Relay where they have peers acting as first responders in a hospital setting and I have a number of recommendations that I have made here but I want to stress the fact that we need to decriminalize all drugs now and that is the way that we get out of this overdose crisis. Thank you for your time.

DOUG MCVAY: That was Dionna King, Policy Manager at the Drug Policy Alliance testifying before New York State’s Joint Senate Task Force on Opioids, Addiction, and Overdose Prevention. That is it for this week. I want to thank you for joining us.

You have been listening to Century of Lies we will be back in a week with 30 more minutes of news and information about drug policy reform and the failed war on drugs. For the Drug Truth Network this is Doug McVay saying so long.

For the Drug Truth Network this is Doug McVay asking you to examine our policy of drug prohibition, the Century of Lies. Drug Truth Network programs are archived at the James A. Baker, III Institute for Public Policy.