01/01/20 Phil Smith

Century of Lies
Phil Smith
Stop the Drug War

This week on Century of Lies we speak with Hawaii ophthalmologist and medical cannabis advocate Dr. Clifton Otto, plus an April 2016 interview with journalist and drug policy reformer Phil Smith.

Audio file



JANUARY 1, 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 – 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 www.drugwarfacts.org.

On this show we have a new interview and an old interview. So while I am finishing up editing that new interview let’s listen to this old one from April 19, 2016 outside of United Nation’s headquarters in New York City speaking with my good friend Phil Smith from DRCNET.

DOUG MCVAY: I am talking with Phil Smith, one of the best reporters I know and he’s the writer for Drug War Chronicle, a brilliant journalist and a good friend. Hi, Phil.


DOUG MCVAY: We are here in New York at the UNGASS 2016, and I have to ask you the obligatory question about the UNGASS which is what do you think is going to come out of this in terms of the drug policy debate and how do you see this impacting it and where do we go from there?

PHIL SMITH: I don’t see a whole lot coming out of UNGASS because as you said (WE SETTLED) with the CND last month. However what we do see is the increased presence of civil society and we’re also starting to see a handful of countries standing up to denounce the status quo which is new; the increasing role of civil society is new and these are both good things. It is the U.N., and it is so slow and we have to deal with really retrograde countries as well such as Russia, China, Indonesia, Singapore, Iran and places like that. I don’t expect much to come out of this except that we advance the conversation a little bit and look down the road towards 2019 and beyond. I also want to say that I think to a large degree the international drug conventions are irrelevant; they are toothless. All they can do if you violate them is wag their finger at you and tell you that you are a bad country. Before the bogeyman was the United States, the drug treaties had the United States behind them but that seems to be changing in the last few years, especially under Obama. The Obama Administration seems to be taking a much more relaxed role towards what other countries are doing so that is a good thing. Will we have that under our next President whoever that is? We’ll see. I don’t hold out a lot of hope for the UNGASS, I understand it is the international process but God it is slow! I don’t see any reason for countries to wait for the treaties to change to go ahead and change their own laws.

DOUG MCVAY: In fact that is what’s happening. Canada, Uruguay, and even in the United States at least within the states, that is exactly what’s happening. Let’s switch topics because we are doing the UNGASS to death and you do so much more. I was just down in Baltimore where I talked to the legendary Billy Murphy who among other things was the attorney for the family of Freddie Gray. Today is April 19th, this is the one year anniversary of the uprising in Baltimore and a week before that was the one year anniversary of the murder of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police. The city was torn apart and this is where the Black Lives Matter movement began because of Ferguson and the murder of Michael Brown and it has gathered steam over time. Eric Garner here in this city of New York and I wish that the list weren’t so long but it just keeps going. One of the things that I asked Billy about as well as a few others including Neill Franklin was how do you think the Black Lives Matter movement has influenced the drug policy debate?

PHIL SMITH: Many people in drug policy think more broadly about how we’ve pit drug policy within the larger criminal justice context and the larger conversation about race in this country. The war on drugs is an integral part of our criminal justice dilemma, problem, crisis – whatever you want to call it here – and I think it serves drug reformers to really pay attention to what the black community is saying and not just about the drug stuff but more broadly because it is all wrapped together.

DOUG MCVAY: You stopped yourself from saying class because of course if we talk about class we get accused of engaging in class war which is when people who are being oppressed complain about being oppressed.

PHIL SMITH: Well there is only one class that gets to fight the class war and we know which one that is.

DOUG MCVAY: Yes. They are the ones on top. Three years from now it will be the sustainable development goals as well as another UN meeting but enough with the UN. What kind of stuff are you working on these days that you can talk about that are about to hit the press?

PHIL SMITH: It’s a year when we are probably going to see five or six states legalize it, maybe four or five at this point. You watch these states with a legislative process and it looks so promising and then at the end there is some subcommittee chair that screws it up. I am afraid that is going to happen in Vermont this year, we’ll see as it’s not dead yet. Of course the continuing progress of marijuana legalization is something that I write about frequently in addition to the opioid/heroin “crisis” with a large number of people dying from drug overdoses and what we are going to do about it. One of the other things I have been writing about is some of the nasty, regressive responses to it that we are seeing such as prosecutors wanting to charge people with murder if they sold the heroin that someone died from. In some states we are seeing attempts to stiffen drug penalties again for certain classes of drugs which is totally a move in the wrong direction. On the other hand we are seeing an increased acceptance of harm reduction whether you are talking about the rapid spread of Naloxone which is the opioid overdose reversal drug throughout the states. We are even advancing on some of the more controversial harm reduction issues such as safe injection sites. One of the stories that I am going to be writing about soon is about a safe injection site that is going to be opening in Seattle without anybody’s permission, so we will see how that goes. They are not going to wait for permission, they are just going to go ahead and do it and take it from there. That is very exciting! I know there is another safe injection site in San Francisco that is operating but no one wants to talk about it so that’s all I can say about that.

I am also no longer just writing for the Drug War Chronicle, I am also writing for www.alternet.org. I am the Drug Reporter Editor and that gives me the opportunity to write some fun stuff; not just serious policy stuff. It is actually the fun stuff that gets much more widely read than the serious policy stuff. It seems like people really want to know what makes their pot turn purple and why Blue Dream is so popular. As someone who is interested in the broad issues of drugs and culture I am enjoying myself doing the Alter.net stuff. I still get to do the politics but I get to do some more fun stuff, too, and I get to write about psychedelics a bunch more than I would with the Drug War Chronicle because there is not much happening in terms of policy but there is a lot going on in terms of medicine and it is seeming like a psychedelic renaissance these days. In fact we are sitting here today in Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza waiting for a demonstration to mark the 71st anniversary of Albert Hoffman’s bicycle ride where he tripped his brains out on LSD.

DOUG MCVAY: That’s right. We can’t forget April 19th, Bicycle Day. I haven’t seen them arrive yet but at the other end of the plaza there is a café between them and us but that’s okay. It’s quieter over here which is why we are doing the interview. I have always said that there has to be a cultural shift before you get the policy shift. In California there were buyers’ clubs, there was Prop. P, which was trying to make it and there was an unofficial network in D.C. for years I even helped out once in a while myself in getting cannabis to AIDS patients. I hope that we see more of that. What are your thoughts?

PHIL SMITH: If you look at the places where legalization has taken place it didn’t happen by accident. It happened because there was cultural acceptance already and I think that the fact that it is now legal in Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, and D.C. is going to diffuse that cultural acceptance more broadly in the country as a whole and I think that is going to accelerate marijuana legalization; and hopefully not just marijuana but a more broadly advanced drug policy conversation.

DOUG MCVAY: Tell the listeners where they can find your work and any social media information and any closing thoughts you may have.

PHIL SMITH: You can read me in the Drug War Chronicle at www.stopthedrugwar.org, or www.alternet.org/drugs where I am the drug reporter and editor. There is lots of good content there as well.

Doug, I have been doing this stuff for 15 years and it has really changed. When I first started doing this I had to hunt for stories; there was basically no drug media except High Times and that was about it. It is definitely not that way anymore. It is crazy how much marijuana alone is out there and even with other drugs as well. The conversation has really advanced in 15 years. We are not in Utopia, but we are heading in the right direction.

DOUG MCVAY: Excellent. Phil Smith, thank you so much. That was our interview with Phil Smith, he is a writer and journalist who does a lot of great work. Of course you are most familiar with him because of his work for Drug Reform Coordination Network, or DRCNET at www.stopthedrugwar.org.

You are listening to Century of Lies, I am your host, Doug McVay. Now that I have those edits done let’s hear this new interview. I am doing this story for a magazine and I was interviewing this guy and it was really fun. Once I got the interview done for the magazine I had some time left and he was kind enough to give me some extra time and so we went ahead and recorded an additional interview. With no further ado here is Dr. Clifton Otto, an ophthalmologist working in Hawaii and an activist/advocate for medical marijuana patients.

Dr. Otto, are you active politically at all? Cannabis, medical marijuana whatever we are calling it is a political issue. As you were saying, the scheduling is one of the big concerns. What do you do out there in Hawaii aside from medicine?

DR. OTTO: I have been trying to work with our state legislature for about the past seven years when I started to get in on this because of a friend who had colorectal cancer and ending up using cannabis to help reduce his pain during the chemotherapy, before surgery, and then right afterwards as well as his other rounds of chemotherapy. I had a chance to see for myself how the patient can benefit directly from cannabis and that was something that I was never exposed to in medical school or during any of my medical education and then I started looking at some of the research online and I was really fascinated with the amount of research that has already been done back in the 70s in other countries on the medical mechanisms and actions of the cannabinoids in various different organs in diseased states. I then started looking at our medical cannabis program and that is when I really became politically active. I could see how patients were really being injured by some major flaws in our law and this whole perception that our patients were violating federal law which puts them at risk for a whole host of unintended consequences like failing a drug screening test for drug employment; or failing a drug test during employment and getting terminated; or not being able to travel to other islands with their medicine and we travel a lot in this island state to other islands to visit family and for work; or not being able to take advantage of the benefits of the Americans with Disabilities Act; or being evicted from federally subsidized housing. These are all consequences that our patients are burdened with every day because of this perception that our patients is violating federal law. I have been researching this on my own over this past seven years because the other thing we don’t learn much about in medical school is how controlled substances are refrigerated. We leave medical school and get a medical license and we are able to start prescribing controlled substances but we don’t learn about how controlled substances are regulated and what authority the state has to control the medical use of controlled substances within that state and that is really the crux of the matter because states have retained the authority to decide how controlled substances are used within their state. Our state and just about all the other states in the union have decided that cannabis has medical use and federal law says that if a substance has accepted medical use it cannot be a Schedule 1 drug. That is usually taken to mean that is an FDA approved drug product but that is not the only way something can have medical use because congress never defined accepted medical use which leaves it up to the state to determine that and our state has already determined that cannabis has medical use. If you look at our statute it doesn’t say medicinal use of cannabis, it doesn’t say botanical use. It says Chapter 9 – Medical use of Marijuana, so that is how I got in to the politics of this. I am not a lobbyist, I don’t get paid for any of my efforts. I am just doing this on my own trying to raise awareness in an environment where everyone has just been convinced that we cannot do anything until the feds fix things for us even though this is really a situation that our state created when it decided that cannabis had medical use but it never went back to the federal government and requested a special use exemption that would remove our patients and our dispensaries from the criminality of violating a Schedule 1 Federal Controlled Substance Regulation.

DOUG MCVAY: You don’t have to be a lobbyist to advocate for your patients and that is really what you are doing is advocating for patients. That is what doctors should do –I wish more of them did. This is important stuff especially when it is someone with the expertise. As you were saying, a lot of anecdotal stuff and having met a number of people who are cancer survivors including myself. I was just finishing up my last session of chemo 16 years ago. I started chemo at 128 lbs. and thanks to the kindness and generosity of some friends I managed to use enough weed to gain back 12 lbs. and ended chemo at around 140. Nurses were telling me that I was going to convince them about this stuff.

PHIL SMITH: As you probably know that is a big problem when you are on chemo because you lose weight, your immune system drops out, and then patients get secondary infections and that’s usually what kills them. So that’s amazing.

The other thing that I have done here in Hawaii is become a certified physician for Hawaii’s medical cannabis program which means that I certify the patients who meet the criteria set by the state and then I am able to give them advice on how to use cannabis effectively within the confidentiality and freedom of speech as well as doctor/patient relationship. So I am getting a lot of firsthand information and feedback from my patients and it is amazing what they are doing! They are really doing whatever they can to try and improve their lives and the quality of their lives. They are all so frustrated with these pharmaceutical medications that are being thrown at them by different doctors and not really getting any relief or good results so it’s a really brave bunch of people and that just makes me really want to help them and get them out from underneath this horrible situation that they find themselves in by the fact that they are just trying to be pain free and functional in their lives; that’s all they really want.

DOUG MCVAY: Again folks I speaking with Dr. Clifton Otto, he is an ophthalmologist based in Hawaii and we are chatting about glaucoma and medical marijuana. Doc, do you have a website? Do you do any blogging or anything like that?

PHIL SMITH: I am not a big blogger. I do have a website: www.cannabishealthcarehawaii.com. I have various pages with some of them devoted to the work that I have been doing here in Hawaii, some of them to various issues such as the upcoming Medical Cannabis Day coming up in 2020. Our medical cannabis program will actually be 20 years old on June 14, 2020. That is when our governor at the time signed our Medical Cannabis Act in to law here in Hawaii so I am putting some information on that. I am hoping that is going to be a more popular event this year given that it’s been 20 years and that patients will use this as an opportunity to rally around this medicine and hopefully make some progress with our lawmakers.

DOUG MCVAY: That sounds like a great idea because as you were saying those amendments that were in the appropriation bills were mostly all yanked. Thankfully the one amendment that remains is still the protection for the medical marijuana programs.

PHIL SMITH: We still have that one band aid that basically restricted DEA’s (UNINTELLIGIBLE), but it does not restrict the Office of National Drug Control Policy funding which is with the executive office. They are working with HIDA and groups that they are creating and there is still a very strong anti-marijuana campaign going on throughout the states – a well-coordinated effort between federal and state narcotics enforcement agencies.

DOUG MCVAY: Including some of the community groups like CADCA (Community Anti-drug Coalitions of America). About a decade ago there were some CADCA trainers working in California trying to help the communities learn how to use zoning and other kinds of municipal regulations to prevent marijuana businesses from being allowed in their area. They were doing these seminars for elected officials and I think the elected officials already knew how but it was just to encourage them. Lo and behold a lot of California has zoned out the possibility of marijuana businesses in this new adult use market which is why there is still an illegal market thriving in California. It’s an outrage. People have to stand up. I think there was a point where we relaxed thinking that we’ve passed the tipping point and that’s the point when the storm hits.

PHIL SMITH: Right and it could very well go back the other way with all of these recreational, adult use programs that seem to be a little out of control and not as well-regulated as everybody hoped they would be. That is why I am really focusing on medical use. I have seen the potential of this medicine and I have also seen people go through acute cannabis psychosis – people that are very sensitive to THC so this is nothing like alcohol or tobacco in my mind; this is a powerful substance that has real medical potential and I think that is where our focus should be. We should be protecting our patients and having the states take the lead on this. There is a lot we could do at the state level, it doesn’t all have to be multi-million dollar FDA clinical trials. My fear is that if the states don’t stand up for their medical use of cannabis now they are going to lose this opportunity to hold on to it. If we wait for the feds to just nationally legalize it and impose all of these standards on the states we will have lost the opportunity to protect this potential. Part of the reason that we have dispensaries and they are able to sell product is because the product is intended only for sale and use within the state which exempts it from FDA regulation. A state like Hawaii where we have year round amazing sunlight and could be producing high quality cannabis for medical use year round for exclusive use within the state and our original Medical Cannabis Act or the introduction of that statute said that the intent was to have Hawaii become an international research and treatment location for medical cannabis and I think that was a great insight, unfortunately it hasn’t really been carried forward but there is a huge potential for the states to develop this medicine on their own and potentially create cannabinoid-based, standardized medications that would be far cheaper and more accessible to patients than depending completely on this FDA approval process.

DOUG MCVAY: That was my interview with Dr. Clifton Otto who is an ophthalmologist in Hawaii as well as an advocate for patients and medical marijuana. Dr. Otto, I appreciate your time. I want to thank everyone for listening.

That’s it for this week. Thank you for joining us. You have been listening to Century of Lies we are a production of the Drug Truth Network for the Pacifica Foundation Radio Network. On the web at www.drugtruth.net. I am your host, Doug McVay, editor of www.drugwarfacts.org. The Executive Producer of the Drug Truth Network is Dean Becker. Drug Truth Network programs are available by podcast, the URL’s to subscribe are on the network homepage at www.drugtruth.net

The Drug Truth Network has a Facebook page, please give it a like. Drug War Facts has a Facebook page, too, give it a like. Share it with friends. Remember, knowledge is power. 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.