06/05/19 Keith Brown

Century of Lies
Keith Brown
Katal Center

This week on Century of Lies, we continue our conversation with Keith
Brown, MPH, Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center
for Health, Equity, and Justice; plus, we hear from Matt Simon, New
England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project, about
legislative progress in New Hampshire and Vermont.

Audio file



JUNE 5, 2019

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

DOUG MCVAY: Hello, and welcome to Century of Lies. I'm your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

This week, part two of my conversation with Keith Brown, Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

But first: The state of Illinois is at the time of this recording on the verge of becoming the eleventh state in the US to legalize the adult social use of marijuana, and the tenth state to also legally regulate sale of marijuana. Illinois House Bill 1438 was finally passed on May 31 and sent to the governor’s desk.

Governor Pritzker has indicated he plans to sign the bill. Assuming he actually does, then people in Illinois will be able to purchase marijuana from licensed sellers as of January First 2020. The state already has medical cannabis dispensaries, those will be the sole legal sellers until the state licenses retail establishments, which will probably later that year.

The Illinois legalization plan has a strong equity component, which is great, as long as it’s rolled out fairly and it actually helps affected communities as intended. So there’s a need for oversight.

There’s also room for improvement. The plan does not allow for home cultivation, other than very limited amounts and only by people who are registered medical cannabis patients. Still, progress in Illinois.

It’s a different story up in the northeastern US. The New Hampshire legislature has been considering legalization this session. House Bill 481 passed the state House and moved to the Senate, where it stalled. To find out more, I spoke recently with Matt Simon from the Marijuana Policy Project, he’s their New England Political Director. We started off by talking about New Hampshire.

MATT SIMON: Well, it's certainly been a tough climb. We've got Governor Chris Sununu, who made it clear early on that he is completely opposed to any form of legalization. So, we have more than two thirds support from the general population and trying to translate that into legislation was quite an uphill climb but we did get it through the House, through two House committees and then it passed the House, went to the Senate.

And in the Senate, we hit a roadblock. Our opponents flew in prohibitionists from all over the country and they dominated the public hearing, and it really put things on ice for a while. So the Senate's just voted to re-refer the bill, which means that it will essentially be on pause until later this year. It will give them some more time to go over the details and then they'll take action in January.

DOUG MCVAY: So it’s postponed, but it’s still alive.

MATT SIMON: Exactly. Down but not out, and, you know, the sense of inevitability is still very strong here. New Hampshire's an island of prohibition now, with all three neighboring states and Canada to the north having legalized for adult use, and we're the Live Free Or Die State.

So it just seems insane to most people that prohibition will continue for yet another year, but, at the same time, the writing appears to be on the wall and it's a matter of time before we overcome those institutional hurdles, I think.

DOUG MCVAY: You’re MPP’s New England Political Director, so a quick question if I could about Vermont. That state's unique because it's the only legal state that has not opted to legalize commerce. Well, DC hasn’t either yet, but it’s not a state, it’s a colony, but back to Vermont. Is there any chance that Vermont might be looking at regulating actual commerce, or is it planning to stay with just legal adult possession and cultivation?

MATT SIMON: I think we're certainly moving in the right direction in Vermont as well. There was a bill to regulate and tax the market, and it passed the Senate 23 to 5 this year, so, a clear veto override proof majority.

The House is tougher in Vermont. We did finally get the bill through the a House committee for the first time this year, and it was being considered by two of the money committees, Ways and Means and Appropriations, which were looking at it, and time ran out on the session last week.

So the word from the House Majority Leader is that we're absolutely going to pass this in January. There's still some question about whether Governor Phil Scott will sign it or not, he's - he went along with the limited home cultivation only legalization, but he's not supported a taxed and regulated market just yet.

There are signs he may evolve and do that. If he doesn't, the Legislature - the Senate would certainly override, and the House would have a pretty good chance, I think.

Really, a lot of our opponents in Vermont became not so much opponents anymore after legalization passed. You know, it becomes a situation of, oh, it's legal now, why in the hell wouldn't we want to regulate it a little bit? You know, there's been a lot of gray market activity that's caught people's attention, so I think that will push things in the direction of having regulated stores sooner than later.

DOUG MCVAY: Right on. I mean, on the one hand, I understand, you know, the - with regulation and all that, the traditional market can feel threatened, on the other hand, people who don't have the wherewithal for whatever reason to be able to grow at home -


DOUG MCVAY: - they're stuck, you know, they're stuck continuing to support an illegal market otherwise, and that's not really tenable.

MATT SIMON: Absolutely. And now they can drive, depending on where they live in Vermont, Massachusetts borders Vermont and there are stores a short drive from southern Vermont, so, that adds to the sense of inevitability, knowing that people from all over the northeast are driving to the now, I think it's twenty stores that are open in Massachusetts, and there will probably be a hundred plus this time next year.

So, why have the money go to the illicit market, or to Massachusetts, when it could be going to businesses in New Hampshire, in Vermont, and Rhode Island, and Connecticut, and be creating jobs and having the money stay in state?

DOUG MCVAY: Any closing thoughts for the listeners? And of course please give us your website and social media.

MATT SIMON: Oh, sure. Well, the MPP, Marijuana Policy Project Facebook and Twitter accounts are very active, and the website's MPP.org. It's really easy to sign up for emails for the states that you're interested in following.

We're trying to be as active as we can in as many state legislatures as we can, and hopefully get some good news from some states and continue this great momentum we have, trying to turn public opinion into real change.

DOUG MCVAY: That was my interview with Matt Simon, New England Political Director for the Marijuana Policy Project. We were talking about progress in New Hampshire and Vermont.

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

My guest last week was Keith Brown, MPH, Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. Here’s more of our conversation.

Talk to me about some of the work you're doing in Connecticut, I know that in New York a lot of work around bail reform and around Rockefeller, it's the tenth anniversary, I guess?

KEITH BROWN, MPH: Yeah, ten years.

DOUG MCVAY: Actually, forget about Connecticut, first let's talk about, I mean, I know so little - the one thing I know about Connecticut is it's like the biggest - one of the biggest suburbs of New York, I think it's - they even made it its own state or something.

But, I don't know enough about it, really. I know that you're doing some work there, Ren's from there and all that.


DOUG MCVAY: Now, let's talk about New York for a minute just because, I know the marijuana stuff has really taken a lot of the headlines and a lot of the interest, but you folks have been working on a lot - there's a lot more going on in New York than just marijuana, right?

KEITH BROWN, MPH: Yeah, I mean, we've had a package of criminal justice reforms pass this year. They won't be implemented until next year, but they're unprecedented. They're some of the most transformative laws that have happened anywhere.

And so, you know, that goes from bail reform, where, I've just been at a couple of recent meetings because a lot of my work puts me in contact - I work with law enforcement quite a bit, and it's this interesting thing where on one hand I work with them on trying to develop things like pre-arrest diversion that, you know, that they like in many cases, even if they - even if it takes them a while to learn that they like it.

And then on the other hand, you know, we're doing work like bail, speedy trial, discovery, where they're not - you know, they're not all that happy, and multiple times over the past few weeks I've had law enforcement say to me, you know, they're specifically referring to some of the pre-trial reforms like bail, where they're saying, you know, what's the point anymore, we're going to have to - everyone's going to get a desk appearance ticket. There's no point in arresting people for half of this stuff anymore or something.

And there's like a moment of silence, and I have to look over at them and say, like, are you expecting me to be on your side here? You're telling me that you're not going to be able to arrest people for what amounts to, like, minor stuff anymore, and I think that's a great thing. We've been steadily decarcerating in this country, and in New York state, for a while now, and crime is actually still down. It's been going down.

We know that you can decarcerate and also, you know, advance public safety. When you ask about New York, I mean, we had Rockefeller reform ten years ago, which was a big deal, but steadily since then, many groups like ours have been trying to do things like close Riker's and reform cash bail.

The whole idea of bail, you know, in and of itself, is this process where, when you look at somewhere like the jails in non - you know, downstate New York, so upstate and the rest of New York, the jails are full of folks who are there on misdemeanor stuff, and a lot of people are there because they've been accused, and it's just because they haven't been able to make bail that they're there.

In this country we have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and yet that's not how it operates. In most cases, it literally has to do with your ability to afford bail. You can get accused of a crime, and as long as there's enough suspicion that you did it, or any suspicion that you did it, or in many cases no suspicion that you did it, you're going to jail. And that's it, because you can't afford bail.

Everybody's familiar with the story of Kalief Browder, but, you know, that's a case of somebody who spent months and months on Riker's Island because he was accused of stealing a backpack, and they kept pushing his court dates off and all sorts of stuff [sic: Kalief Browder ended up spending three years in New York City's Riker's Island jail without having gone to trial, two of them in solitary].

He was horribly traumatized, he came out and ended his life after the time he spent in there. And it was all just because - and by the way, it was dismissed. So, you know, all this time, people are spending in these horribly traumatic environments, and the general public is like, well, you did something wrong and that's why you're there. No. You were accused of doing something and that's why you're there.

And so for me, this package of stuff that we just did in New York is remarkable. And then discovery is another one, you know, it has transformed the rules about district attorneys having to disclose all of the information that they have that they're going to be used to prosecute you. Because in many cases, up until this reform, they weren't required to hand it over until right before you go into court.

And so what that means is, you know, maybe if you have a - if you're able to pay for an attorney, that attorney might go into that court and say, listen, we just got this information, we're not prepared for this, and let's get another court date, and you might be out on bail already.

But if you have a public defender and that public defender's office, you know, that public defender has a hundred other clients, they're not - you know, they're going in front of there and they're going to ask for a plea, or whatever is going to happen.

So anyway, that's a really long way of saying, you know, we've had a lot of transformative things happen in New York state, and we're pushing for more. On the harm reduction side, we're pushing for syringe decriminalization, to get that stuff out of the criminal code.

We're pushing for overdose prevention centers, we're pushing for statewide expansion of medication treatment in all jail and corrections, because right now it's up to the county jails, which means it's run by sheriffs. It's up to each sheriff to determine whether they want to do that in their jail or not.

And then what happens is, even if you're a sheriff who wants to do that, if somebody's getting transferred from your facility to a state facility you have to taper them, and get them off of whatever they're on before they go into corrections, so, a lot of them are, you know, a lot of sheriffs have actually been speaking out against that practice because they don't like it.

They're saying, you know, the person's stabilized in their facility, why should you have to take them off of medications that they're doing well on before they have to go into corrections?

And so, and then the other thing we're working on in New York state right, and this is one that Katal, my organization is working really hard on right now, is the Less Is More parole revocation and reform bill, and what that would do is take people on parole supervision, and it would reform the way technical violations are being dealt with within that scope.

So right now, the way it works is, there's conditions of your parole, very few of which are related to whatever the thing was that you were originally convicted of. They are things like curfew, not absconding, not using drugs, not using alcohol, not associating with other known, you know, people also on parole.

And so what happens right now is that those conditions are put on people and they make it very difficult for people to live their lives, and what it ultimately ends up doing is driving mass incarceration because a lot of people are violated on what amounts to nonsense.

You know, curfew for someone who's on parole, you know, what happens if you have a job and you're trying to have a life and then you have a curfew, right? Or what happens if you have a drink, or if you - if New York State legalizes, well, it doesn't really even matter, even if we don't legalize cannabis, you know, like, what does it matter that you smoked weed, if your original charge was, I don't know, burglary or something, right?

What does the fact that you're smoking weed have anything to do with that, and why are we going to send you back to jail for that, when we know the thing that's going to have the most impact on public safety is you being in your community with your supports, with your families, having a job, you know, having a place to live, and when we violate people, it disrupts all of that stuff.

And for people who are using drugs, and if you're doing so problematically, getting care in the criminal justice system is not anywhere close to ideal or even possible, so, the idea that you would violate someone for a health issue like that seems really absurd to me, and so we're trying to change all that.

That would be, for me, you know, if we could get those things passed in New York state, in addition to the package of things that have already happened, bail, speedy trial, discovery, I feel like we would really be leading the nation in criminal justice reform in meaningful ways.

If we can add the marijuana bill that we were all - that we're all still trying to do a last minute push for, which has a very, very clear social justice component to it, and restorative justice component to it, I mean, I'm a proud, lifelong New Yorker, it would just make me even more proud to say, like, hey, we're leading the nation in this stuff.

And we're proving that you don't need to - that the way to advance public safety is not by locking a lot of people up, it's by investing in people and keeping them in their communities and providing them with the support they need and divesting from mass incarceration, investing in healthcare, in housing, in education, in families, you know, in all the things that we know actually keeps communities safe.

We're getting there, and so to your question about Connecticut, you know, we're trying to advance a lot of the same things in Connecticut. We have an organizer - we have two organizers on the ground there that are doing work with directly impacted people around all of these issues.

We're doing the same work, we're up at the capitol, we're doing, for people who might be listening that live in Connecticut, you can get in touch with me. We have monthly Healthy and Just Connecticut meetings, and we have a monthly phone call around criminal justice efforts in Connecticut.

We have a day coming up, May 29, we're going to be at the capitol doing a bunch of work there. We also have a bunch of things coming up in New York. We have an event in June at the capitol specific to our Less Is More bill, so, you know, if people are listening from New York or Connecticut and you want to get involved, you can email me or go to our website and sign up, because, we need directly impacted people and allies to really be coming out about this stuff.

The other thing I just wanted to - a thing I'm really proud of with our Less Is More bill is that people on the inside drove that process and helped write that bill. So, you know, for us, it's one thing when somebody with policy knowledge or policy experience is the one crafting certain legislation, I think that's - I think that can get you some of the way, but when you have directly impacted people saying, you know, this is what we think is fair. This is what we think is reasonable.

That's where I think you can really enact the greatest change, because people are the experts in their own lives. They know what they need to be healthy, they know what they need to be safe, and we need to trust that. And that's why I'm really - that's why, like I said, I'm really proud of the way that our organization centers the experiences of directly impacted people, as opposed to some type of top down approach.

You know, you've worked with Lorenzo [Jones], right, so you know Lorenzo was one of the main organizers around getting - eliminating or reducing the crack and powder cocaine sentencing disparities in Connecticut, and Connecticut led the way in that. It was one of the pioneers in getting those sentences much more in line, and it was because directly impacted people organized around that and started showing up and making noise, and you know, demanding change.

So, for me, I think that's at the heart of everything we talked about. It's at the heart of reducing or eliminating stigma, it's around the heart of actual change, it's around the heart of sensible policies, and it's at the heart of divesting from the things that we know don't work and investing in the things that do work.

And, you know, the other thing I'll just say about the role of law enforcement, that ties back to one of the previous questions, is, you know, not to totally let law enforcement off the hook in a lot of ways, but, if we really back up a little bit and really take a forensic analysis of what's happened in this country, we gutted the social safety nets that used to exist for people in communities and in neighborhoods, and what we did is we then looked to law enforcement and demanded that law enforcement fix, you know, complex issues like mental health, substance use, and poverty.

There were never any other tools besides arrest with which to do that, and so, you know, this is a structural failure, in many ways, that, you know, if you talk to most law enforcement personnel, to your point where, you know, you look at their faces as they're dealing with this guy who's experiencing homelessness, I mean, you can just see it, where they're like, what are we doing here?

What am I, you know, what am I going to do to fix this situation? I can't give this guy housing. Right? And so, if you can really take a bigger, you know, more kind of higher up view of this stuff, you start to be able to, like, acknowledge that there's a mutual frustration with the way we're dealing with a lot of this stuff.

Now, we may disagree about how to get out of that, and, you know, I also talk to cops who will say, like, well, you know the problem is we started getting soft on crime and this is where we got. And, you know, that's not, in my opinion or that's not what the evidence shows, that the answer is to get out of these issues or to try to address these issues.

But, that's the lens with which they look through things, and so unless we can create pathways for change and ways to take - to go toward that, we're going to be stuck right where we are, and that's why with something like pre-arrest diversion, I would say, you know, I can't make a blanket statement that LEAD is good. I can't make that statement.

I can tell you that in Albany, New York, it's good, because it's advancing actual change and it's working the - almost entirely the way we expected it to. We're trying to look right now at what the racial disparities look like in diversion and some other things, but it's working as intended.

It's using a harm reduction approach. The police are now making almost as many referrals to the harm reduction program without a diversion as they are with a diversion, which is exactly what I want to see and what many of us want to see.

So, you know, it sets the stage for us getting methadone and buprenorphine in our county jail. Right? It sets the stage for us to look at, you know, homelessness in a different way. It just sets the stage to start looking at things differently, and if we can do that, then, you know, I feel like we're farther down the road here.

DOUG MCVAY: You’re listening to Century of Lies, I’m your host Doug McVay, and this is an interview with Keith Brown, MPH, Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice.

Solutions instead of - oh, that reminds me, thank for - it's the frustration that I have, that I frequently, when I talk to people about LEAD, that they either remember that it's a pre-arrest program or they say pre-booking, and it's the - that's not a minor distinction, that's the whole point is trying to get people away from arresting and then dealing with it, and -

KEITH BROWN, MPH: You are absolutely right. Yep, you're absolutely right, and, you know, pre-arrest is a very important distinction, because by doing - I mean, let me just talk about the Albany program for a second, right?

The way it works, in sum, is an officer calls in a harm reduction case manager, who does a warm hand-off, responds to the scene, as long as it's safe and appropriate to do so, and it's pre-arrest, and the only thing that person is required to do to have that charge not get filed is meet with the case manager and complete an assessment. That's it.

Now, if you think about what that really means in comparison to what a pre-booking program would look like, or a post-arrest, you know, pre-appearance, or whatever, the farther down the line you get from just a direct hand-off and get out of the way, it complicates things.

It involves judges, it involves district attorneys, it involves other - it involves other hands, you know, where the thing can go south. And what I want to see happen and the programs that I'm interested in building are programs where frankly it's the next level, where law enforcement's just saying, okeh, look, for the vast majority of use and possession, like, let's just call a harm reductionist. That's it.

Let's just call the harm reductionist and say, and if the person says I don't want to talk to anybody, then just let them go. Just be done with it. Just say, all right, maybe next time. Here's the number, you know, maybe you'll be ready to talk to them at some point or whatever. And that's it.

But, at, you know, on our way to that, we can do pre-arrest, low threshold, harm reduction diversion. And what that looks like in operation is very different than pre-booking, using an abstinence focused treatment model, you know, where you have to achieve X, Y, Z in order to be successful in the program.

I mean, the more strings you put on these things, the more people you're going to select out of it. And drug court? Listen, I mean, drug court at the time that it was implemented, you know, was a progressive measure. Right? It was something that was different than people going to jail, and so, that's fine.

But, frankly, like, if I had my way, you know, what amounts to, I don't know, like, what works in those models, you know, we need to have a real talk about whether those are still reform measures or not.

You know, is drug court even necessary in its current format? Or can we now look at the drug court model for things like felonies, you know, much more serious felony offenses, and can we take the misdemeanors and low level possession felonies out of that altogether and put it into either just harm reduction referral or pre-arrest diversion?

That for me feels like we're getting closer to what we're looking for, but if we're still doing this thing where, you know, if the cop likes you you get diverted, if the cop doesn't like you you're going to drug court, well we're not really doing much here. You know? We're still self-selecting this stuff.

Like I said, if I had my way, drug court would be up the chain for the more serious things, and we would just be more and more steadily keeping more and more people out of the criminal justice system, until ideally we don't need it.

DOUG MCVAY: That was my interview with Keith Brown, he's the Director of Health and Harm Reduction at the Katal Center for Health, Equity, and Justice. Remember to find out more about Katal Center and the work they're doing, find them on the web at WWW.KatalCenter.org, that's KatalCenter.org

And that's it for this week. I want to thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies. We're a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network, on the web at DrugTruth.net. I’m your host Doug McVay, editor of DrugWarFacts.org.

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