07/02/17 Sarah Merrigan

This week we speak with Sarah Merrigan, who's an organizer and drug policy reform activist in Nebraska; Energy Secretary Rick Perry compares state marijuana legalization with state climate control legislation; and the United Nations issues World Drug Report 2017.

Century of Lies
Sunday, July 2, 2017
Sarah Merrigan
Download: Audio icon col070217.mp3



JULY 2, 2017


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

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century Of Lies. Century Of Lies is 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.

Sarah Merrigan is a drug policy reform activist in Omaha, Nebraska. I'm from Iowa, and I won't hold her being from Nebraska against her. She's worked with Students for Sensible Drug Policy, been working in the state of Nebraska, working federally, working internationally, she's a brilliant activist, and it is my pleasure to finally have her on the show. Sarah, how are you doing?

SARAH MERRIGAN: I'm good, thank you, Doug, how are you?

DOUG MCVAY: I am terrific. It is a beautiful day. Now, you did a lot of work in the legislature this year, there was stuff on Naloxone, on overdose, and I haven't caught up with you about how all that came out. So, could you tell me something about the work you're doing out in Nebraska, and how things went this session?

SARAH MERRIGAN: Yeah, absolutely. So, really the biggest piece of legislation this session was a medical amnesty bill, that was really an expansion of a law that was passed in 2014, that was -- that provided medical amnesty for minors in alcohol related emergencies. And basically right after that passed, it passed pretty unanimously, partially because it -- partially I would like to think because the senators recognized that it was just good policy, but unfortunately partially because it was introduced following the death of a college freshman who was pledging a fraternity, and so it was very personal and very, very real.

And pretty much right after that passed, I was still in school at the time with my SSDP chapter, and we met with the senator who had introduced the bill, and, you know, thanked him, and said, this is really great, but we're ready to talk to you about how we can expand this, and what else needs to be done. And he was very responsive, actually, and told us that that was kind of his plan, was to expand it, so that anyone witnessing an overdose could call 911 and, you know, as long as they were actually in good faith and stayed and waited until the police were there, they would receive amnesty.

And that really didn't get a lot of -- it was introduced in 2015, and got some media attention, then wasn't made a priority bill, and so it didn't make it through all the way, and then this year it really kind of slid through under the radar. There wasn't, again, much discussion about it, and, you know, I would like to think that that's because our senators recognized that it's good policy to not -- that it's literally life saving. So that was very exciting.

We did have medical marijuana fail for -- again, this session, and so that was a disappointing attempt, and an interesting contrast, you know, what we can get done and what we can't get done. But we do -- we have naloxone available over the counter, which is great, but I think our, sort of the next thing we're pushing for is to get a standing order so that third parties can do the distribution, because right now, places like the Nebraska AIDS Project and other organizations really can't do the distribution themselves, which is unfortunate, but we are moving in the right direction.

And there -- I've talked to a couple of people who are running for office in the unicameral, and at least one current senator, about the next steps to take and what needs to be done. But yeah, I think there are things happening. It's a slow process, and I think part of that has to do with the fact that we, you know, knock on wood, really aren't seeing overdose deaths at the same levels, the same numbers, as a lot of other, east coast specifically or in Canada, anywhere they're -- where they're really seeing it more.

I follow the news pretty closely, and there's been no mention of, like, fentanyl, in heroin or anything like that in Nebraska yet, and so there the message we've really been trying to push is that we want to get this standing order for naloxone out there and get third party distribution started before it becomes a problem, and sort of, you know, prevention.

DOUG MCVAY: I wonder how much of the fentanyl is in -- is actually coming through the coasts, shipping containers coming in from places -- through, well, China, and overseas, as opposed to the heroin that's still coming up through from Mexico, I mean, I-35 corridor straight up to Des Moines and then over on Interstate 80 to Omaha, yeah, I know my maps.

So, you know, that's, I mean, it's possible that you're -- it's just because the, that area's being serviced in a different way. Who knows. I'm curious, I mean, I know the stereotypes that people have about the midwest, I hear them occasionally, and, of course we know people like that, because there are backward people all over. I tend to think that it's actually a little -- we're a little more sensible and cool than people on either coast will give us credit for. But, now, how -- what kind of reaction did you have talking about harm reduction in Nebraska? I mean, did you use the -- did you use that phrase? I mean, what kind of response were you getting from people?

SARAH MERRIGAN: So, one thing I guess to note first of all is Nebraska -- so we have a unicameral, which means, for anyone who doesn't know this, it's -- we only have a one-house legislature, we don't have, like a senate and a house, we just have the one body, so there are only 49 senators. And I don't remember the number off the top of my head, but a good chunk of them are -- fall within the millennial age category. And so we have one of the youngest legislatures in the country.

So while it is still pretty conservative, there's a -- an interesting dynamic there, as far as the age thing goes. And, it's been interesting, the reception really varies, but we -- there, one senator in particular, Sarah Howard, lost her sister to an overdose, and so she's been very, very receptive. She was a sponsor of the medical marijuana legislation, has been great about helping push some things like that.

But, it's a good question, and I'm not sure that the term -- I know that I have probably used the phrase harm reduction when talking to legislators, but I'm not sure if it's ever like been used on the capital floor during debate or anything like that. I think it's more -- it's -- I'm not really sure, I guess, you know, maybe it has something to do with "Nebraska Nice," quote motto that we supposedly have, that it doesn't make any sense for people to -- for people to die simply because their friends were afraid of calling 911.

But, yeah, the response really varies. I think using the phrase harm reduction, a lot of people won't really even know what you're talking about, right off the bat, and so it's something that has to -- to really be explained. So it's maybe not a controversial term, in and of itself, but people are not necessarily that aware of what it actually means.

DOUG MCVAY: I find that kind of heartening. Back in the old days, late '80s, when syringe exchange was just starting out, and we were getting people from the UK talking about these new ideas, new approaches, with things like, they called risk minimization. Harm reduction is kind of an American version, because risk minimization is too many syllables for us to say. Ah, it is.

But, you know, harm reduction is similar, you know, reducing, you're minimizing the risk, reducing the harm. It was, for a long time, Reagan into Bush, even under Clinton, and the next Bush, it was a taboo phrase. Harm reduction, you weren't going to get your grant funded, you weren't going to get your research supported, we just -- we don't want to talk about harm reduction, and it's like, but, you know, what in the world is the alternative to reducing harm? Right?

I mean, it's -- it should be a no-brainer, that's why I'm -- I mean, I'm glad to hear that they weren't angry at the idea of, or, like, actually resist -- reacting against the idea of reducing harm. There are still people like that, you know, it's, and that's -- I'm just, thank god you don't have to deal with them. That's --

SARAH MERRIGAN: I mean, I think, like I said, we're really not seeing the overdose crisis at the same extent most other states are. You know, there's -- it's kind of been going around my newsfeeds, but last week there was a city councilman in Ohio, I don't remember the city exactly, but, he had made a comment that they should just stop responding to overdoses. I think it was Middletown, Ohio, and, you know, if someone, they wanted to start tracking people's overdoses and if someone overdosed like a third time, they wouldn't send an ambulance or naloxone, or anything for them, and it was supposed to be sort of a scared straight thing.

And I think, I don't want to say that attitude doesn't exist in Nebraska, because I absolutely think that it does, I just -- I think we're at a point, you know, I said this medical amnesty bill kind of flew under the radar, and I think people aren't -- I think the people who might have those attitudes aren't really paying attention yet, which, in our case, is good, and lucky, and hopefully we can keep getting legislation through before they start fighting us, but, I wouldn't feel a hundred percent truthful if I said that I don't think that attitude exists here, because I'm sure that it does.

DOUG MCVAY: You're listening to 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. I'm speaking with Sarah Merrigan, an organizer and drug policy reform activist based in Omaha, Nebraska.

So, Sarah, you've got a podcast, you and Tyler and a few -- tell me about This Week In Drugs.

SARAH MERRIGAN: Yeah, so, I actually joined the team after their first season. This Week In Drugs launched in the summer of 2015, so we're coming up on two years very soon, we just had our 100th episode a couple of weeks ago, which was exciting. It's entirely SSDP alumni, myself, Sam Tracy, Tyler Williams, and Rachelle Yeung. Yeah, we're in our fourth season right now, and it's basically been the same format the last four seasons.

We've changed things up a little bit this last time around, but we typically do -- we start off with a news segment, where Sam and Rachelle will go over some -- the week's biggest stories and headlines, and then kind of forecast a couple of events that might be of interest to our listeners, and then this season we're doing, alternating each week, Tyler does either a history segment, with a lot of listener submitted questions. I think the one he did this last week was about, like, the first law banning any drug.

And so it's pretty interesting, and then he also every other week will do -- we used to do what we called 'drug of the month' segments, and now we've decided to use some of Students for Sensible Drug Policy's peer education modules. They have a program called Just Say Know, K-N-O-W, that's based on more evidence-based and factual and honest information about drugs. And so we sort of pick -- he, Tyler, picks one drug each, or every other week, and then we'll sort of condense it down into something that's -- that fits within the podcast.

And then we've got things up every week with a roundtable discussion, featuring a different guest. I think we've had a couple repeats, but we have lots of different people on to talk about all sorts of issues. We try to cover both licit and illicit drugs. This last week we had on Jamie Bridge from the International Drug Policy Consortium to talk about Support Don't Punish, a global day of action. The week before that, we had Kat Humphries, the program manager at the Harm Reduction Action Center, come on to talk about Denver's push for supervised injection facilities.

And so we really just try to keep things interesting, but, and also provide our listeners with a way to stay aware of what's going on around them, and then ways to hopefully, you know, get involved with things, because we typically end -- we end our podcast with what we call a call to action. We have our guests ask our listeners to do one thing, because we really feel like having the knowledge is great, and it's very important, but it means a lot more to actually do something with it. And so that's sort of the biggest goal of our podcast, I guess, is to get people informed and motivate them to help be part of the change.

DOUG MCVAY: Well, that was an interview with Sarah Merrigan. She's a drug policy reform activist and organizer in Nebraska.

Now you may have heard that recently Energy Secretary Rick Perry expressed his support for states' rights in the context of legal marijuana, mentioning that though he opposed legalization of marijuana, he understood and supported the right of the state of Colorado to legalize. He did say that during a White House press briefing in late June.

The context however is rather important. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has no impact at all, no influence on criminal justice policy, he has nothing to do with drug control policy. He has a lot to do with environmental policy, and with energy policy, coal, things like that. Here's the question, and answer.

VOICES: Can I ask a question about Yucca Mountain please? A Yucca Mountain please? Right over here.

ENERGY SECRETARY RICK PERRY: One last question. Oh, I've been so bad to this side, you're it, you're the last question. Yes

REPORTER: Thank you. Mr. Secretary, thank you. You mentioned federalism, the power of governors. Recently, as you know, the Trump administration has scrapped the Clean Power Plan, which was hampering many states. Now you’ve got governors, who you just said have a certain authority -- you’ve got governors that are saying, we’re going to go ahead and institute the Clean Power Plan in our states anyway regardless of what the EPA says. Doesn’t that put those states at a tremendous economic disadvantage? And what would be your message, sir, to those governors?

SECRETARY PERRY: I think governors and their citizens need to be given that right to make those decisions. I said many times that I thought that Colorado was wrong in allowing for the use of marijuana, which they’ve decided to do. But that’s their call. I will defend that right robustly. But that ought to be their call. If they want to put -- I mean, Jerry Brown, we were together at the -- in China, at Beijing for the clean energy ministerial. We saw each other, shook hands, walked -- as we were going by. Jerry has decided he wants his state to be involved with the Paris agreement, however that works, which is fine. That’s his call. Texas will still be there to take any businesses that would like to relocate.

And that’s the beauty of all of this: Allow America to be competitive. Allow Americans to pick and choose where they want to live, under what types of governments, and we’ll figure it out.

DOUG MCVAY: Context. It's everything.

On the international front, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime released its annual World Drug Report recently. Here's Doctor Thomas Pietschmann, a UN research officer, speaking at the news conference.

THOMAS PIETSCHMANN: One slide I want to show is what we know about global drug use. We speak about 200, slightly more than 250 million people have taken drugs in the last year. We see there was a small increase over the last couple of years, but if you take it as a percentage of the population, 15 to 64, it is 5.3 percent, so it, basically it's around 5 percent, it has been stable over the last decade, so not much big of a change. Around five percent of people 15 to 64 have taken a drug.

What is of course far more of a problem for use concern are the problem drug users, and here is big, close to thirty million people have taken a drug equivalent to open six percent of the global population.

Issues of concern to us are the issue of injecting drug use. From injecting drug use, you have people who get hepatitis C, over half the people who inject drugs have hepatitis C. And a small proportion HIV AIDS.

Next perhaps important issue I want to show because it's very few slides, on the production side, what are the trends, when you see, in green, you see coca cultivation, you see coca cultivation globally declined until 2013, this was the good news. The bad news since 2013 has been increasing. So we see an upward trend in -- on the coca side.

On the opium side, which used to be about the same amount of area under cultivation as coca, it increased in recent years, even so at the last few years it has been kind of leveling off, but, though increasing in 2016 as compared to a year earlier.

When it comes to production, slightly different because yields are different, in particularly yields in Afghanistan have been different from year to year, so we have been fluctuating opium production. In 2016, an increase more than 40 percent on the year earlier. But overall you see it has been rather stable.

On the cocaine side, the clear side was a clear downward trend from 2006, 2007 onwards, until 2013, from 2013 increase to 2015. So that's the bad news.

And, about trafficking, we have here, at the global level, cocaine trafficking, cocaine trafficking going from the Andean countries, basically to North America, first of all, Mexico and then the United States, as well as going to west and central Europe, very often Spain, Portugal, Netherlands, and Belgium being points of entry into Europe.

But what we have been seeing over the last few years has been a growing importance of new areas, in areas such as near and middle east, in southeast Asia, they're from low levels, but the problem is increasing there.

When it come to the opiates trafficking -- this one -- what we see here has been production, particularly in Afghanistan, and export from Afghanistan via the Balkan route, towards Europe. Balkan route means Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, west and central Europe. A second route has been through northern Afghan -- from northern Afghanistan to central Asia and the Russian Federation. And the third route is from Afghanistan to Pakistan, pass through Iran to Africa, and from Africa onwards to Europe, it's called the southern route.

Then we have the second largest producer is Myanmar, exports mainly to China, southeast Asia, and also to Australia. And we have production in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, and to a lesser extent in Colombia, exporting to the United States.

So there's three different markets, and they have been operating distinctly, so we don't see much of a difference here or changes in recent years. Within the Balkan route, we see you have one difference, and this is the so-called Caucasus route, so trafficking of Afghan opiates to Iran, from Iran to the Caucasus countries, from there to Ukraine, from the Ukraine to Romania, and onwards to the classical Balkan route, this is kind of a new element which wasn't there a few years ago.

On terms of -- a big problem of course the synthetic drugs, massive increases in methamphetamine, but also increases in amphetamine, methamphetamine in southeast Asia, but also important in North America. Amphetamine, a big importance in -- so growing importance in the near and middle east. This is for particularly Captagon, which is often produced in or around Syria, and then exported to neighboring countries but also used for the fighters within Syria.

We have a problem of the NPS, of the new psychoactive substances, ever more substances come onto the market. We have almost 740 substances since 2009 on the market. For comparison, under international control, we have around 250 substances. So far more substances new on the market than we actually have controlled, and this poses a big problem in many countries.

In terms of cannabis, I want to show you just one or two slides. Yeah. This is a slide of cannabis in the United States. What we have seen here on the last couple of years has been a clear increase in cannabis use, and equivalences increased -- sorry -- annual prevalence, past month prevalence, annual prevalence increased, past month prevalence has increased even stronger. But even more problematic has been the daily or near daily use, so the real problematic cannabis use. This is really massively increasing, any parallel you find, the risk perceptions of cannabis have -- are declining. So cannabis is perceived far far less risky than it used to be in the past, which goes in hand with the larger consumption.

The bad news is particularly the older generation's affected, so, 26 and older are using more cannabis. To less extent, the 18 to 25 years old. The good news is, so far the use, the 12 to 17 years old, cannabis use has been not increasing. But of course we know this can easily change, so there's no automatism that because it has been low so far, it couldn't increase, there is still a potential for it to increase as well, given changes in government legislation in the United States.

Last one was just, we looked at in this report, not only to the trends in the drug markets as such, but also to the links, drug links to organized crime, drugs links with licit financial markets, drugs linked with corruption, drugs linked with terrorism, and one of the interesting elements in here have been a link of more production being linked also to more terrorist activities. We see this in Afghanistan, we have seen an increase in Afghan area under opium poppy cultivation, and an increase in the people killed by insurgency, particularly the Taliban.

So it doesn't go systematically, the killings particularly increased in recent years, but the critical increase was over more, far more extended period of time. We see on the other hand, in Peru, we have seen, first an increase then a decline in area under cultivation of coca cultivation, and we saw the terrorist attacks in Peru, mostly the Shining Path, first an increase and then a decline, and particularly the decline in the area of cultivation has been strong in Alto Huallaga, which is also the area where the terrorists were operating, the insurgency group. And there we saw the strongest declines, so we see a very strong correlation over here.

Finally, we have the issue of Colombia. In Colombia, we've seen a decline in the area under cultivation, and decline in the terrorist, in the insurgency attacks, and thus in the victims from insurgent groups. This trend has changed in recent years. In recent years we see an increase in the area under cultivation and an ongoing decline in insurgency attacks and violations, which is linked to the peace process of the government, with the FARC. So we have more area under cultivation but ongoing declines in the terrorist attacks.

DOUG MCVAY: Again that was Doctor Thomas Pietschmann, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, speaking about the World Drug Report, which was released at the end of June.

And well, that's it for this week. 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. The executive producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are also available via podcast, the URLs to subscribe are on the network home page at DrugTruth.net.

The Drug Truth Network is on Facebook, please give its page a like. Drug War Facts is on Facebook too, give its page a like and share it with friends. Remember: Knowledge is power. Follow me on Twitter, I'm @DougMcVay and of course also @DrugPolicyFacts.

We'll be back next week with thirty more minutes of news and information about the drug war and this century of lies. 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.