05/08/19 Alexis Pleus

Cultural Baggage Radio Show
Alexis Pleus
Truth Pharm, Inc.

Alexis Pleus Exec Dir of Truth Pharm Inc., Joey Mogul of Chicago Torture Justice Memorial & Ali of All Of Us Or None

Audio file


MAY 8, 2019


DEAN BECKER: I am the Reverend Dean Becker, keeper of the moral high ground in the drug war for the world, and this is Cultural Baggage.

Hi folks, this is Cultural Baggage and I am Dean Becker, the Reverend Most High. I've got one show left from my travel to St. Louis to attend the Drug Policy Alliance conference, some really great stuff. Let's get to it.

ALEXIS PLEUS: My name is Alexis Pleus, and I'm the founder and executive director of Truth Pharm, which is Pharm, and we're an organization that raises awareness, reduces the stigma, educates, the public, and advocates for policy change.

DEAN BECKER: You guys are based in Binghamton, New York. How long have you been in existence?

ALEXIS PLEUS: For just four years, four -- in February of this year we turned four years old.

DEAN BECKER: Now, we were just finishing up the Drug Policy Alliance funders, or fundees, conference here in St. Louis. Yours was among the last of the presentations, seemed to touch a lot of people, talked about the situation that we've created for ourselves, where the fear is creating more death and disease and destruction than the drugs that we fear in the first place.

ALEXIS PLEUS: Yeah, I would absolutely agree with that statement. Our organization, I think partly because it was founded by me, who's a mom who's lost my son to an overdose, families tend to gravitate towards us more than anyone else, and it is really, you know all about parents' fear, and a lot of times they think the only solution is to get their kids to stop using drugs. And we really work to educate families on how we can reduce harms in the meantime.

It's really the biggest part of our work, is helping families understand substance use to begin with, helping them understand that not everybody who uses hard drugs is even addicted, which is, you know, it's really an awakening for a lot of families who have never themselves used drugs, so they don't understand it.

DEAN BECKER: They have the TV, the movie version of it.

ALEXIS PLEUS: Yes. Yes, that's it, absolutely true. So we, you know, we do a family educational program, and we even explain to families there are different types of drug use. Right?

So, there's recreational, there's exploratory, you could become physically dependent and still not addicted, or you can be addicted, or you can have problematic use, you know, and like understanding that there's different ways to address those different types of uses, and we don't have to be alarmist, and we can address it in a harm reduction way, even within our families. So that's -- that is what we teach.

DEAN BECKER: Truth, honesty, it is the ability to have an open discussion, to realize the possible pitfalls, and to prevent them from occurring best you can.

ALEXIS PLEUS: Right. Right. And, I mean, it gives me chills even because, you know, families have told us this has changed the dynamics of their family, and we know far too many family members who the last thing that they said to their loved one was, I don't want to see you again until you're sober. And then they never see them again because they're dead.

And, imagine, you know, for me, thank god, the last time I saw my son, I got to hug him and say I love you, and I don't have that regret hanging over my head and I can't imagine the families who go through that.

And so, with death being a distinct possibility, with what is available on the streets right now, the more regrets we can reduce, and eliminate, the better, and actually in a lot of cases help families make sure they're part of the process of making sure their kid doesn't even die.

There's families who never knew that that was even a possibility. I didn't even know, I didn't know that naloxone existed until after I lost my son, and so, giving families tools that they can use to make sure that death doesn't even happen is a big part, yeah.

DEAN BECKER: A few seconds ago, you brought up the fact that we have this current situation, which is, I think, deadlier than ever before. We have, the iron law of prohibition has brought forward fentanyl, carfentanyl, quasi-heroin, if you will, take a gram, turn it into a kilo of heroin, and sadly they don't mix it up too well sometimes, and certain batches of those pseudo-heroin bags are deadlier than others, and nobody knows which is which.

ALEXIS PLEUS: That's right. Yeah, that is absolutely right, and so, another tool that we've employed in our organization, just recently we got a small grant to bring Tino Fuentes, if you're familiar with him, he's become a drug testing expert, former person who sold drugs, and we brought him to our community to teach us all how to test drugs.

And we have test strips now that we can give out to people who use drugs, and we can give them to families and imagine, again, how this is changing the dynamic in families, that if a family is aware that their loved one is using heroin, they can say, hey by the way maybe you should test your drugs, and give them the tool that they can use to find out if there's fentanyl in it before they use it.

At least, so there's an awareness and they can practice some harm reduction techniques.

DEAN BECKER: No, that's sound advice. Yesterday, the gentleman, the rap artist, I can't remember his name, but he was talking about that here in St. Louis, there ain't nothing but fentanyl, that there's no heroin left. We always thought heroin was deadly but turns out it's a lot safer than fentanyl.

ALEXIS PLEUS: Right, that is true, and in our community we believe that's the same thing, what we've tested so far, all heroin in our community has fentanyl. What's interesting in our community is the community who uses drugs doesn't seem to be aware of that.

They actually think that sometimes they're getting fentanyl, and they'll even relate it that way to us, so, like, I get messages from people who use drugs all the time, which is wonderful because they feel safe communicating with me, but they'll say, I just wanted to let you know what I used last night, I'm pretty sure had fentanyl in it, which is sad to think that they don't recognize that pretty much everything that they're using has fentanyl in it.
So part of using the fentanyl test strips is really to raise awareness in the using community that hey, by the way, actually, all of it has fentanyl in it, so that maybe they will practice safer use, and be more aware of that.

And now we're also starting to see it in cocaine, meth, and crack in our community as well, and those people certainly are not expecting fentanyl to show up in their drugs.

So they don't even have Narcan or naloxone on hand because they don't think of themselves as opioid users.

DEAN BECKER: Alexis, you know, your presentation today here at the Drug Policy Alliance gathering struck a lot of people. It hit a lot of nerves, touched a lot of hearts, I think. Maybe I'm old and fatigued, but I cried, because I saw, oh, god, the mass burial, or fake burial, whatever, I forget your term you were using, but all of these parents and relatives with the quasi-headstones of their loved ones, blocking the doors of public officials, trying to make a damn.

I don't know how else to say it. Tell us about those events.

ALEXIS PLEUS: So, thank you, that it was moving for you. So, we developed a memorial block for overdose awareness, and we have gatherings of artists and family members to come together first to paint tombstones for the loved ones who've been submitted to be memorialized.

We always make it clear to family members, if they're not capable of doing that emotionally, we do that for them. But, we have a tombstone for every single loved one whose been submitted by their family members to be memorialized.

And then on the day of our event, we have a mock cemetery, and it's painful, but it's beautiful somehow. I mean, like, to even describe the things that I've seen at it and the pictures that we have from it, it's difficult to describe it without crying.

But, like family members gathering around a tombstone, even little children gathering around a tombstone for their mother or father, embracing that tombstone and having their picture taken, is just heartbreaking and yet endearing somehow, that they, families tell us that they finally feel like their loved one was actually honored and memorialized in a beautiful and compassionate way.

So we have them, the mock cemetery, and then we have speakers talk, and we really are working at that point to elevate the issues that a lot of times families are not aware of. So, how the criminal justice system has negatively impacted our loved ones, and we have people doing the research behind the scenes for us, so, when we did our walk and we memorialized 89 loved ones, we were able to tell people that 29 of those loved ones had been incarcerated within six months of their deaths.

And so we can give those statistics at that walk to elevate that issue and make families aware that, you know, jailing our loved ones and the criminal justice system is not helping us.

And it's an eye opener for people, and we can do it in a compassionate, loving way of just elevating those issues gently, but really bringing them to the forefront.

After we do the speakers part, this past year, I'll pause and tell you something we did this past year, which was maybe the most moving thing we've done yet.

Leading up to the walk, because we do overdose reversal trainings right at the walk, leading up to the walk there was a lot of like community buzz, like, people complaining about Narcan being distributed, and I asked some people who I knew had been revived with Narcan, I said, if I called you up front, would you be willing to come up?

And they told me they would, and so, I was still afraid, like, what if I do this at the walk and they won't come up, because hundreds of people attend this thing. But I said, if anyone here has been revived with Narcan, if you would be willing to come up front, so that we could celebrate the fact that you're still alive.

And, it was so incredibly moving, it was about twenty people who came up front, and they, as they came up, people just came up front and hugged them, and embraced them, and celebrated and clapped and it was just moving and incredible.

So then, we do that part, and then we have all the family members, I call it a live performance art piece, because we have the family members, a part of this moving, emotional art display, so the family members carry their tombstones, we march to our governmental plaza.

When we get there, the family members put their tombstone against this wall in front of our governmental plaza, and then they lay down as if they're laying in a coffin. And we have chalk artists come around the trace their bodies. We have our elected officials give roses to the families, because we feel that that's symbolic for them to confess that they have had a hand in our loved ones' passing.

And then we write down the names of the loved ones, their dates and their ages when they passed, and then we allow the family members to write things about their loved ones inside of the tracings.

So the message is, these aren't empty souls that we're losing. These are people who mattered to us. We use high grade chalk that lasts a couple weeks so it's a memorial and an awareness that lasts for a couple weeks in our downtown.

And it's just -- it's just so moving. Families have told us that it's like the most healing thing that they've had. Yeah, it's just, it's beautiful.

DEAN BECKER: I have to agree with you, Alexis, it was moving in this room to hear much of that similar thought. And I guess what I would like to, you know, suggest, is that every city should have a Truth Pharm, that they should have an organization similar to yours, that their loved ones should be remembered and recognized for having been --

ALEXIS PLEUS: Well, they're really, you know, you were, you keep saying, I've heard you say several times at this conference, like, they're victims, they're casualties of prohibition. They are casualties of a war that shouldn't exist. It's fake, right? Like, this whole idea that we're going to make people stop using drugs is fake, it's always been fake.

And for me, you know, I didn't know that until I lost my son. And so, memorializing and honoring these casualties of this fake war, this war that shouldn't exist, also raises awareness in people that never knew that this was a bad thing, like, you know, I would have thought ten years ago that we should have a war on drugs. You know? Like, I wouldn't have known.

And so now, now we're raising awareness about these human casualties, people we are literally losing, only because we have this war that's unnecessary. It's useless. Prohibition is not healthy, and it's killing, it's killing our kids.

DEAN BECKER: Alexis, a couple of things I have to address then, first off, thank you for, you heard me.

ALEXIS PLEUS: I did hear you.

DEAN BECKER: I feel many times I'm at these conferences and everyone's working on wonderful ideas and tactics and, but very segmented, very compartmentalized, if you will, and I know they're wonderful -- good things can come from that. I hope it does.

But I feel that we are short circuiting ourselves when we do not combine under the umbrella that prohibition is stupid and evil, empowers terrorist cartels and gangs, and it's creating this situation I'm addressing to you, Mister Senator or City Councilman, and, that there is no legitimacy to prohibition, it's a vacuous concept.

Anyway, I'm preaching again. Alexis, I thank you for your time. Would you please share maybe a quick closing thought and a website or two for the listener?

ALEXIS PLEUS: Sure. I would love that. So, our website is www.TruthPharm.org. And you can find us on all social media, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and a closing thought, I mean, I just, I agree with you, like, every time that you spoke up, I was thankful for your words and saying prohibition is really what is causing this problem, and it, you know, it killed my kid, and it's killing hundreds of thousands of kids. And we need to end the war on drugs.

DEAN BECKER: It's time to play Name That Drug By Its Side Effects! Works directly on the brain by interfering with neurotransmitters and dopamine levels, because of drug prohibition this product is made with over the counter cold medicine, matchbook covers, hydrochloric acid, drain cleaner, battery acid, lye, lantern fuel, and antifreeze. Time's up! The answer: Tina, chalk, go-fast, zip, Crystie, crank, speed, methamphetamine hydrochloride.

I'm just old enough to remember when you could stop into any Texas truck stop and ask the guy behind the counter for a little aluminum wrapped packet of Preludin pills, ten for a dollar. Kept the truck drivers awake.

JOEY MOGUL: Hi, my name's Joey Mogul. I'm a partner at the People's Law Office, and I'm a founder of a group known as Chicago Torture Justice Memorials. I'm both a lawyer and an activist who works on police misconduct and police violence cases, and addressing the harms and drama -- trauma of the criminal legal system.

DEAN BECKER: Well, there's certainly harms, trauma, and drama involved in this drug war and its implementation, ramifications, around this country. And, I understand you're here at the Drug Policy Alliance, you're going to be speaking to us about reparations, and I have some vague concepts and some, you know, probably wrongheaded ideas, so, can you give me a summary of what you're going to present and let me know better what you mean through reparation.

JOEY MOGUL: Well, sure. I've been involved for the last 21 years working on a set of cases known as the Burge Torture Cases, or the Chicago Police Torture Cases, from Chicago.

They involved the torture of over 120 black men and women on Chicago's South Side from 1972 to 1991. These confessions were tortured out of individuals and those confessions were then used to secure their convictions, their imprisonment, and in the case of eleven, their death sentences.

For twenty years, there was struggles to expose this racist pattern and practice of torture, all the torturers were white, all the individuals who were affected were black and in some cases Latinx.

The struggle was to expose these racist practices and then to work to free those who were incarcerated, and over time, to try to get a modicum of justice, which included, after twenty years, the passage of reparations legislation in Chicago City Council, providing a series of redress for the torture survivors, their family members, and the affected black and Latinx communities.

Specifically, individuals received financial compensation for the torture they endured. So there were 57 individuals who were still living who got one hundred thousand dollars. There was an official apology issued for the torture by the city of Chicago, as this happened under John Burge's command, and he was a Chicago police officer, and the detectives under his command, so it was the city's jurisdiction.

As part of the reparations legislation, there's been a creation of a school curriculum that's taught to all Chicago public school students in eighth and tenth grades about the Chicago Burge Torture Cases, and about racist police violence and what can be done about it.

Individuals who received reparations are also entitled to free enrollment in city colleges, and that not only includes those who were tortured, but their family members as well as their grandchildren, recognizing the long legacy of harm.

There's now been a creation of, and this is part of the legislation as well, a Chicago Torture Justice Center that provides mental health and wellness services to not only the Burge torture survivors and their family members but to all police violence victims.

And then finally, we're still in the process of creating a memorial to enshrine this racist history as well as the struggle of their survivors, family members, and others seeking justice, and to the city of Chicago.

DEAN BECKER: I see this, a memorial seems so appropriate, kind of recognition of some of the dying throes of Jim Crow here in America, the way it's been waged, I guess, and I understand that there are those that have been wrongfully imprisoned, some life sentences that have, many it seemed to be getting released, paroled, these days, getting recompense from the state for the years behind bars.

Is that a type of reparations, would you agree? And I guess my essential question boils down to, this is a drug policy group. Are we to be delving into the possibility of reparations for the blacks and Latinos that have been busted over the years, the tens of millions?

JOEY MOGUL: Well, I think that reparations requires us to sit back and think about all of the harm that incurred from this racist war on drugs. And I don't think that's solely confined to just arrests, convictions, and incarceration, although that is well included.

I think we also have to look at all of the women of color who were drug tested when giving birth, who may have lost their children, or who were put into foster care, or had their children put into foster care because of their use of drugs.

I think we also just have to look at how people were thrown out of schools, they couldn't get financial loans, they couldn't live in public housing.

So, I think when we think about reparations, I do believe there should be reparations for the racist war on drugs, but I think we really have to sit back first and think about all of the myriad ways of who was harmed, how were they harmed.

I think we then have to really think about how do we get those people who were harmed into -- into the space, because, you know, it was their lives who were affected, so they should be able to have some say as to what reparations looks like.

DEAN BECKER: Do you want to provide some closing thoughts, maybe a website?

JOEY MOGUL: Well, if you want to learn more about the struggle, which was truly a generational -- intergenerational, multiracial, and grassroots struggle for reparations in the Burge torture cases, check out www.ChicagoTorture.org.

DEAN BECKER: [music]
Building the prisons nationwide,
More drug war.

WILLARD "ALI" BIRTS: Okeh, my name is Willard “Ali” Birts, I work for All Of Us Or None as project of Legal Services for Prisoners with Children. We're located in the bay area in Oakland, California, and we do a lot of legal advocacy, you know, restoring rights, reuniting families, and a lot of community legal advice to these people that are formerly incarcerated and those that are still inside.

We provide them with legal pamphlets, laws and brochures, to inform them of their rights and new laws that just came into effect and may affect them when they can get time taken off and get resentenced and maybe get out and be reunited with their families a lot quicker.

DEAN BECKER: This is so necessary. We have this draconian policy in these United States where drug users are basically unconditionally exterminable, hardly worth keeping alive. That's changing, it's beginning to change around the country, politicians are beginning to speak in that regard.

But there's still a long way to go, isn't there?

WILLARD "ALI" BIRTS: Yes, there is. You know, if somebody like me, that's been impacted by the war on drugs, you know, small time dealer of marijuana, where I received seven years one time for fourteen grams of weed and now you're trying to legalize it and sell it to people like me, you know what I mean? What if I wanted to get an occupational license, you know what I mean, to sell marijuana, I would be barred from that due to these convictions.

And I remember in San Francisco, they had a lady working at a San Francisco crime lab that was using drugs and stealing, and they had to overturn all the convictions and anything that had her signature or name on it, you know, so what do you do about the people that were illegally convicted due to the crookedness and the police department, you know, not monitoring their own staff and what they were doing?

And it affected these people, you know, not just the people they locked up. They might have been the sole supporter of their family, and they got taken away and locked up. How do you give them reparations or straighten out that wrong, for something that they didn't do?

DEAN BECKER: Look, Ali, I come from Houston, Texas, we had a similar situation where the crime lab was found to be suspect, to be falsifying records, and thousands upon thousands of cases were reviewed and so forth. We just had a situation where the cops busted in a house with an illegally obtained warrant, they had an informant that didn't exist.

These ramifications, these -- unveiling of the failures, of the futility of the drug war, continue to happen around the country, and I guess the point I'm trying to get to is that the failure, the futility of the drug war, is recognized, but it's overlooked, it's pretend to be fixed, and then reimplemented and put back in action.

But it's never accomplished any of its stated goals, it remains very, oh, ineffective.

WILLARD "ALI" BIRTS: Right. I remember another incident in a small town in Texas [Tulia, TX] where a guy was an undercover agent and he was trying to build his resume and he was lying and said that these people sold him drugs, and I know that Texas has some real strict laws out there, and they were forced to take deals, even though they were innocent, and it was exposed.

I remember seeing this on Sixty Minutes some years ago, and they overturned it. This guy lied on them, so, you know, how do you -- how do we expect law enforcement agencies to investigate themselves?

DEAN BECKER: You know, Ali, you're absolutely right. I was very much involved, I was marching on behalf of the forty black folks, basically, that were busted by the word of this lawman, Tom Coleman, was his name.

And eventually they figured out that all the cocaine was from an identical batch, and it was planted by Mister Tom Coleman, so he would get the rewards, which are given to law enforcement, whether contract or, you know, permanent officers.

But, that isn't a singular example, it happens all around this country, maybe not forty at a time, but it happens every day of the week. Your closing thoughts there, Ali.

WILLARD "ALI" BIRTS: Like I said, they need to held more accountable, law enforcement, prosecutors, you know, they need to follow the law, the Constitution and the rules of the court, and nobody's exempt from being punished when they break the law.

And some of these officials and these officers that's been elected by people, they're put in there, they're misrepresenting that, and they're giving it a bad image, you know, that's why some people don't feel that they can go to these town hall meetings, or talk to the local law enforcement, because they feel they're not going to do anything to correct a wrong that they're doing within themselves.

They can always look at other people out in community and judge them, and put them away, you know what I mean, and punish them for crimes, but we all need to be held accountable, like I say.

DEAN BECKER: I want to prolong this another minute, just to point out one fact that has been on my mind a lot, that we have this situation where millions upon millions of people are afraid to talk to law enforcement about crimes they may witness in their neighborhood because they don't want to risk the possibility of themselves being investigated, of them or their children being arrested on some nebulous drug charge.

This is a major constrictor of rights and justice here in America, just this quote "belief" in drug war. Again, your closing thoughts, Ali.

WILLARD "ALI" BIRTS: I think that really has something to do with that, you know, we do need law enforcement to protect those that can't protect themselves, like women, the elderly, or handicapped people, somebody that has some type of disability. We need them, but we have crooked law enforcement that steal drugs out of the evidence locker, they figure they might not -- they're putting their life on the line every day, and they're not receiving enough pay, and they end up becoming criminals themselves.

So, you know, you have stuff like that, people will say, who do I go to? Can I talk -- who can I trust? So we've got to figure out a way where there's a safe place and a right way for people to expose these bad people, and they'd be held accountable.

DEAN BECKER: Yeah. Ali, please share your website.

WILLARD "ALI" BIRTS: It's Legal Services for Prisoners with Children https://www.prisonerswithchildren.org/.

DEAN BECKER: Well, that's it, all we can crowd in. I want to say once again that the drug war is evil, and needs your attention. It needs all of us to stand up and speak up and call it what it is, a fabrication, a lie, and again I remind you, because of prohibition you don't know what's in that bag. Please, be careful.

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