Transcript: Ep. 6 - In a war on drugs, who really loses? | Dec 10, 2019

NARRATOR:
You're listening
to a TVO podcast.
COLIN:
Hi, I'm Colin Ellis
and this is On Docs,
a podcast about documentaries
and the stories they tell.
(Theme music playing)
This week's doc
looks at how a Canadian
experiment from the 1970s
has changed our understanding
of addiction.
MAN:
When I think about addiction,
I think about the work of
one of my favourite Canadians,
Bruce Alexander.
He showed that rats raised
in an enriched environment
are far less likely
to take drugs
than rats raised in a barren
or desolate environment.
(Liquid bubbling)
And so, we thought
we'd bring that idea
to the human laboratory.
MAN 2:
The easiest thing
is to blame the drug.
If they weren't
using that drug,
their lives
would be altogether.
MAN ON STREET:
I need help, man.
I'm like,
really having a hard time.
MAN 2:
And it's very hard for people
to kind of go
to that deeper level.
SHAWNEY:
I wanted to reinvigorate
this experiment from the 70s,
so I decided to make
a documentary
where we go to the worst place
in the world to do drugs
and the best place.
COLIN:
That's Director Shawney Cohen
discussing his new doc
for Vice Studios,
Rat Park.
He and co-producer Rachel Browne
travelled to the Philippines,
Portugal,
and the United States
to examine each country's
approach to drug use.
In the Philippines, under
President Roderigo Duterte,
drug use is basically
a death sentence.
In Portugal,
on the other hand,
hard drug use has been
decriminalized,
which has reduced
drug-related deaths,
but come at other costs.
Meanwhile, the United States
is still reeling
from the opioid crisis.
Much like the experiment,
they found that living
conditions were a major factor
in drug addiction, along with
a bunch of other factors.
Here is Rachel Browne.
RACHEL:
When we're talking about
human society,
a lot of people
point to the fact
that it's not the drug
necessarily that is the problem
when it comes to addiction
and the harms that can come
about when it comes to drug use.
It's things like unemployment,
lack of opportunity,
poor housing,
all of these
sort of bigger social issues
that are more important
and that should be more--
that should be taken
more seriously
when we're having
these discussions.
COLIN:
So, let's have a discussion.
Here is Shawney Cohen
and Rachel Browne.
(Theme music playing)
Shawney,
I'm gonna start with you.
Uh, why did you call the film
Rat Park?
SHAWNEY:
Rat Park's actually
the name of an experiment
that, uh,
happened in the 1970s.
So, there is a psychologist,
his name is Bruce Alexander.
Um, very smart man,
and he wrote a book recently
called
The Globalization of Addiction.
And, um, in a nutshell,
I guess I'll just
jump into the experiment.
So, you take rats and you
have them in an isolated cage.
They have the option
to do water or heroin.
Um, in isolation they gravitate
towards the heroin
until they essentially die.
And he didn't--
I mean, this was kind of the
prolonged thought in psychology,
when it comes to drug use,
that the drug
was responsible for, um,
you know, for addiction.
So, he didn't believe that
and I think what Bruce
wanted to do
was turn addiction
on its head.
And he decided to come up
with something called Rat Park,
which is essentially
a bigger cage,
um,
more like a utopia for rats
where they can play,
they can have sex,
they can raise
each other's children.
And the same thing happened
where he would take water
and then heroin or morphine
at one end of the cage,
and he found that
when they were in Rat Park
and they had more access to,
you know, being social,
they would do much less,
um,
of the drugs
than in isolation.
And I kind of liked this idea
metaphorically.
So, um, I wanted to,
you know,
kind of reinvigorate
this experiment from the 70s.
So I decided
to make a documentary
where we go to the worst place
in the world to do drugs
and the best place.
And I found
that it kind of worked.
COLIN:
Rachel: rats, humans,
very different.
How do you, I guess,
find, like, a commonality
between the way rats respond
to drugs or morphine,
and, uh,
the way humans do?
RACHEL:
Well, I think the metaphor
that the experiment presents
is really important.
You know,
Bruce talk a lot about
how you can't think
about drug use and addiction
without considering the
environment that a person is in.
Um, so, when we're talking
about human society,
a lot of people point
to the fact that
it's not the drug necessarily
that is the problem
when it comes to addiction
and the harms that can come
about when it comes to drug use.
It's things like unemployment,
lack of opportunity,
poor housing,
all of these
sort of bigger social issues
that are more important
and that should be more--
that should be
taken more seriously
when we're having
these discussions.
So, it's all about
the environment that we're in
and and Bruce's experiment
has formed the basis
for a lot of science
around human drug use.
So, you know, Carl Hart
is a psychologist in the film
and he's really taken this--
this experiment by Bruce
and has shown that it applies
to humans as well,
that we're talking about
environmental factors
as probably one of the most
important things to consider
when we're talking
about addiction and drug use.
COLIN:
When you said environment,
you mentioned, like,
low employment, uh,
I guess poor neighbourhoods.
But you know, I mean,
wealthy people as well
use drugs.
So I mean, is that not
an environmental factor?
How do you, I guess--
how does that factor
into the experiment?
RACHEL:
Yeah, when we're talking
about environmental factors,
there are things to consider
like drug laws,
harsh criminalization,
and what the impact of that is.
It's not based on science,
it's not based
on pharmacology,
it's not evidence-based
to criminalize drugs.
And when you have these laws
that are in place,
you look at who they
disproportionately target.
It's people from poor
and marginalized communities
who are predominately targeted
by these drug laws.
So when were talking about
the environment,
we're not just talking
about societal, social factors.
We're talking
about drug laws
and how they impact people
as well.
COLIN:
Shawney, how much attention did
the Rat Park experiment receive
when it was released?
SHAWNEY:
When it was released,
not that much.
I think, um,
it was in a couple journals.
I don't know if you can
correct me on that, Rachel,
but I don't think
it really hit its stride
until about
20 or 30 years later,
when you begin to see
the beginning of,
you know, the opiate crisis
and overdose crisis happen.
So, um, yeah.
I would say, unfortunately it
didn't get that much notoriety.
RACHEL:
I think Bruce had a hard time
convincing people of its merit.
It happened around the time of
this ramping up of
the drug war,
this really
tough on crime approach.
Um, you know,
especially in the States.
It was all about this hysteria
and paranoia around drugs.
Heroin, crack,
and eventually meth.
Um, so, it was hard for people
to sort of think
that it wasn't just the drug
that would just
automatically consume you
and take over your mind
and your brain.
So he had a tough go of it.
It wasn't accepted
into a lot of journals.
Eventually it did get accepted
but he faced a lot of, uh--
SHAWNEY:
A lot of criticism.
RACHEL:
--obstacles.
SHAWNEY:
Yeah. Johann Hari, he, um,
had a TED talk
a few years ago
and he mentioned it
and I think, um,
he put it so eloquently
and his understanding
of addiction, you know,
the opposite of addiction
isn't necessarily sobriety.
It's more about connection.
And when he referenced
Rat Park,
I think it's kind of made its
stride, um, in the media again.
And you know,
hats off to Johann Hari
for kind of bringing it back
to popular culture.
COLIN:
His book,
Chasing the Scream
is excellent,
for anyone that's interested
in the subject.
I highly recommend it.
Um, I grew up in the 80s and um,
was told "just say no".
That was the slogan.
Nancy Reagan, you know, like--
you know, basically--
and I think the idea
was that no one should ever
use drugs ever.
And I wonder if that--
if our understanding of drug use
has changed since then.
SHAWNEY:
I think a little bit.
I think, you know,
in doing this film,
you begin to understand
the history of the drug war.
And when you begin
to understand how, um,
from prohibition on
in the 40s
and the construction
of the DEA
and people like Harry Anslinger
who was essentially
a person who,
after Prohibition ended,
needed to fight a new war,
so he just started going after
immigrants using cannabis
and going after
jazz singers in New York.
COLIN:
Billie holiday, right?
SHAWNEY:
Billie holiday, yeah.
And, um, yeah,
and I feel like
that never really stopped,
up until you get
to the 80s
where Nancy Reagan
is coming up with this slogan,
you know,
"just say no".
I remember being at
a videogame, um, parlour
like, in grade school
and I was playing
this boxing game
and the first thing that came up
before you played the game
was "just say no".
And so you're kind of inundated
with these messages
and you're terrified.
RACHEL:
"This is your brain on drugs."
SHAWNEY:
Yeah.
COLIN:
Oh, yeah.
SHAWNEY:
Yeah. So, um,
I think they're
horrible messages, actually.
I think they, you know, they
just perpetuate the drug war.
And you're seeing more violence
when it comes to,
um, drug activity in the world
today than ever before.
RACHEL:
Yeah.
SHAWNEY:
So, clearly-- I mean,
that messaging didn't work.
It's proven not
to be effective, actually.
It actually has
quite the opposite effect.
You know, kids watch this stuff
or hear this stuff
and they just wanna do drugs.
And, yeah, so,
I will say I think
you're beginning to see
a change in attitudes.
I think the legalization of
cannabis in Canada is wonderful.
COLIN:
We're gonna talk a bit about
the places that you visited.
One last question
about Rat Park.
You did mention there were
some criticisms of it.
Has it ever been replicated?
Has--
And what is its status today?
SHAWNEY:
That's a good question.
I will say,
there's a lot of people
who look at the experiment
specifically
and try to kinda tear it apart
for its scientific merits.
But I mean,
if you ask Bruce,
and we spent a lot of time
with Bruce,
the original inventor of it,
I think for him
it was more of a metaphor,
it was more, you know,
what the idea of it
represents
more so than I think,
you know,
breaking down the actual
scientific attributes
of the experiment.
He's convinced it worked.
And you know,
what was interesting
when we were looking
at the original experiments
and the photos,
how seriously he took it.
You know, there was
some technology he used
with measuring
the amounts of morphine
that the rats were ingesting,
um,
that were quite impressive.
You know, like I think
there was even lasers involved.
There was like,
a trapdoor and, um,
that really like--
So, I think people look
at the experiment
and they think it was like this
kind of hokey thing, but no.
It was an actual, um,
you know,
rigorous scientific thing.
COLIN:
Well, let's talk
about Manila first,
'cause I think this is
the most extreme case
of, um, the drug war
that I've ever seen.
Or maybe Mexico next, um,
second-- second-worst.
Um, but how would you
I guess characterize
the drug problem in
the Philippines, first of all?
SHAWNEY:
It's-- it's traumatic,
I think is the word.
And I feel--
There's a sense of, um,
I don't know
the word I'm looking for,
but kind of disbelief
when you land
in terms of how people
and the government view,
um, ingesting
illegal substances
or any substances in their body
for a mat--
for-- you know.
When we got off the plane,
I remember getting
into our fixer's van,
and I rolled down the window
to have a cigarette,
and he told me
to do the window up
and not smoke because you can
get arrested for smoking,
um, in public in the car.
And so I knew exactly
what I was dealing with
right when we landed.
So, I would say,
you know,
so much of what you're seeing
in the Philippines now
in Manila, where we were,
has to do with this brutal,
you know, leader
who, for some reason,
has viewed all drug users
and people who sell drugs
as an enemy of the state.
Um, I don't think
in this context
we've ever seen
someone with such,
you know, a crazy radical view
before in power.
I mean, Duterte was essentially
a small town mayor,
um, who rose to becoming
the president of a country.
And he made all of these like,
populist promises at election.
And the-- you know, killing
the drug war was one of them.
And what's kind of tragic
about the situation
is not so much
that he's in power
and he's kind of conducting
these extrajudicial killings.
It's that, you know,
the country really supports him.
And that's what I found
interesting as well.
I mean, they're--
you know, it's a country that's
kind of in a state of awareness
and they're just now
understanding
what this all means,
but I found
the level of education
when it comes to drug use
in general was really low.
We went to a harm reduction
meeting there,
one of the first
in the country,
and it was surprising
to see the audience
not know the difference
between cocaine and caffeine,
and what meth was.
So, it's also very--
When it comes to drugs,
an uneducated population--
RACHEL:
Yeah, there's a lot of myths
around drug use too,
that float around.
SHAWNEY:
Yeah, 100%.
So when you have a president
saying "all drugs are bad"
and people have no idea
what that means
and they just feel like,
well,
whatever drug I do is
kind of illegal,
it creates for like this,
traumatic situation.
COLIN:
Rachel, did you meet people
who, um, support Duterte
and support his approach to--
to drug users like this?
RACHEL:
Yeah. The big example
that comes to mind
is the funeral parlour owner
that we hung out with.
Um, I mean, he has a financial
incentive, I guess, because--
COLIN:
I guess his business
is going up.
RACHEL:
Oh, yeah. He says
there's been at least 1,000
uh, victims of the drug war
that he's, you know,
been involved with, uh, burying.
Um, so,
there's people like that
that say Duterte's
doing the right thing.
Of course we want
a drug-free nation.
Why would anyone
question that?
And we're gonna do that
by any means possible.
So, it was shocking
to hear that mentality.
And actually, one thing
I was thinking yesterday
is that we actually shot another
film in Sault Ste. Marie,
about the opioid
addiction issue there.
And the paramedic told us
he comes across people
all the time who say, like,
"Why do you keep reviving these
people who are overdosing?"
A lot of people
just say let them die.
COLIN:
The main targets
of this drug war there
are, it seems to me, users.
But I wonder
if there are also--
are traffickers also
being attacked?
Like, drug dealers?
Like, who's basically
being killed here?
SHAWNEY:
Um, it's a little complicated.
A lot of people think,
you know,
you can get shot on the street
just for using drugs.
It's not that simple.
Um, there's a list.
If you're on this list, um,
after a certain amount of time,
you know,
there's a death squad that'll
potentially come after you.
Um, yeah, but I mean,
if you talk to the main
character in the film,
Vincent Go,
who's this photojournalist
who's been documenting
everything for forever,
he kind of feels
the bigger players
that bring in, um, you know,
shabu methamphetamines
and these drugs
kind of go unchecked.
So, it's a kind of,
you know, thing
that's not really talked about
and you don't see
so many arrests
for the bigger shipments.
Um, yeah.
There was even rumours
that Duterte's-- was it son?
--was a drug dealer,
which I found
really interesting.
COLIN:
No.
RACHEL:
Yeah, yeah. Yep.
So, you have-- I mean, you have
these high-level traffickers
that are
bringing in meth and--
and they call it shabu.
They're not
being touched.
They're not
being convicted,
they're not being charged,
let alone being shot,
um, or killed.
So, you look
at who was being targeted.
It's disproportionately
poor, marginalized communities.
And Manila has some of
the poorest communities
in the world.
They're the ones that are
being targeted for drug use
or even suspected
of using drugs.
There's no due process
and it's--
it's--
it's mind-boggling.
COLIN:
And you were there when one of
these killings happened, right?
SHAWNEY:
Yeah, we were literally
filming another interview.
And during that interview
someone was shot
a couple hundred metres
behind us.
(Man speaking
foreign language)
(Woman speaking
foreign language)
MAN:
Someone was just shot
two minutes ago.
SHAWNEY:
Huh?
MAN:
Someone just shot someone.
(Man speaking
foreign language)
SHAWNEY:
So, it was--
you know, it was tragic.
I mean, what was interesting
when we got there, um,
we were the first
on the scene
and the police came
shortly after.
Um, the police started filming
us and that kind of worried me,
but you begin to recognize
these little nuances
of when people
and how people are killed.
I didn't realize this but
a lot of people that use drugs
are executed
between five and six o'clock.
And the reason that happens is
because traffic is just,
um,
insane during rush hour
and it takes forever for police
and, you know, other officials
to arrive at a scene.
So, um, yeah. It was--
it was very interesting to kind
of roll up on that situation
and see someone kind of bleeding
out on the street and--
And what was interesting too
was how many children
and how many people
are around the situation
and it just didn't faze them,
because it happens so often.
So, um, that's kind of
the tragic thing too.
It's, you know,
people are just so used to it
and they just accept it
as a part of life.
COLIN:
Well, on the other side of
the spectrum you have Portugal,
which you mentioned earlier
decriminalized the use
of all drugs
in, I guess 2001, it was?
SHAWNEY:
Yep.
COLIN:
How has this
worked out for them?
Rachel,
maybe start us off there.
RACHEL:
You talk to officials there
and you talk to people
who use in Portugal,
and they say that it's not
a perfect model.
It's not a silver bullet
that solved everything
and there's still
a lot of stigma
when it comes to drug use.
Um, but overall, overdose stats
have plummeted by 80%
since the height of their own
kind of opioid crisis
in the-- in the 90s.
And they had some of the highest
HIV transmission rates
in Europe.
Um, so they've really been
able to deal with
public health matters, um,
and also keep people alive
because of this.
It's reduced stigma
to some extent.
Um, but shifting it
from the criminal justice file
to the health file has really
just made treatment easier.
It's made it easier to access
healthcare for a lot of people,
so there's a lot
of pros to this.
But I think
one thing I will say
is that the way that they have
approached drug policy
hasn't really changed or evolved
a lot since 2001.
There's a lot of things
that can be improved.
They just opened their first
supervised consumption room,
a very small kind of set up
which is even
behind us in Canada,
where we have supervised
consumption sites.
So,
it's worked out for them
and it's definitely a model that
people look to around the world
as something
that can help us
as we're in
this opioid crisis now.
Um, but I think they still have
some things to improve.
COLIN:
Are other countries
looking at the Portuguese model?
SHAWNEY:
Oh, for sure.
You're seeing, I mean--
I think what the Portuguese
model taught a lot of people
was that harm reduction
really works.
And it's interesting
when you're, you know,
in the city and you're
hanging around with users
and basically a harm reduction
van with methadone
just pulls up
to someone's neighbourhood
and they can get
the access they need.
Um, yeah. You're seeing--
I think--
I agree with Rachel
in that they started something
that was
kind of is brilliant,
and they didn't, I think,
progress it that much.
And I think
there's many reasons for that
but at the end of the day, um,
they kind of proved
that decrim worked,
and it's the exact opposite
of Manila
where,
like we talked about earlier,
um, it's the bigger users
they were able to go after.
And-- and like Portugal
is a port city,
so a lot of heroin and drugs
come in from all over the world
and that's, you know, so--
we talked to one of
the police chiefs there
and, yeah, it's--
I mean,
a great test for understanding
if it's working or not
is no one in the country
wants to go back,
especially the police.
Because now the police
can focus all their energy
on a million dollars and up.
These bigger busts.
COLIN:
Could you just define
what harm reduction means?
I guess what's
the philosophy behind it?
How does it exactly work?
SHAWNEY:
Yeah. Um, I mean,
there's different ways
to describe harm reduction.
It's really just meeting people
where they're at.
If you think of AA
and the idea that
a lot of addiction therapy
or ways to get off drugs
were predicated especially
in the 30s and 40s and 50s
all the way
through the drug war
with this idea of
"just say no" abstinence,
"don't do drugs, just say no,
you should never do it".
And through science,
it's kind of been proven
that that doesn't work.
Like,
you just can't quit
and expect someone to never
do drugs again or not do drugs.
What harm reduction
kind of means is that,
you know, let's meet someone
where they're at.
Let's provide methadone, which
can be a substitute for heroin.
Let's just try to not punish
someone for using drugs
and slowly introduce the idea
where they need help,
but at the same time,
they're not gonna get in trouble
or they're not going to, um,
be ostracized for using.
So, yeah.
Do you want to add to that?
It's a tough one.
RACHEL:
Yeah, and it's things
like needle exchange,
it's things
like naloxone.
It's ways to help people
reduce the harms
associated with drug use,
and also make society safer.
Um, just very basic programs
that you can help people
access to more--
so that they can more safely use
and that they can be kept alive.
It's-- you know,
it's pretty simple.
COLIN:
One of those people
that you meet where they're at,
his name's Tiago.
TIAGO:
I began using drugs at 16,
smoking hash.
17, LSD.
At 18, heroin.
I just try it,
not to get addicted.
Because heroin,
you must learn to get addicted.
19, 20, um, sniffs cocaine.
22, smokes cocaine.
Boom, things change.
(Chuckling)
After that,
altogether, woo hoo!
Then sleeping pills,
then depression.
COLIN:
How did you meet him and what is
his, um-- what does he do?
SHAWNEY:
We met him through, um,
uh, one of our fixers,
actually.
And I kind of liked Tiago
because when you see him
using drugs in a studio
while he's working, um,
and you realize
that this is someone
who is a productive member
of society,
you kind of get this impression
that while he's using drugs
and doing work, um,
the nuance between
someone who's doing that
or maybe writing a novel
and having a glass of wine
is just one of nuance
and context.
So, I liked this idea
that he was, you know,
not someone that you necessarily
expect to be using every day.
I mean,
he had his own problems
but at the end of the day,
um,
this is someone who's been able
to survive in the system
through harm reduction
and through all these other,
you know, things that
the government provides for him.
And I mean,
he-- he still had--
I mean, his views on drugs
were so liberal it was intense.
I think he was also someone
who was more interested
in Portugal taking it
a step further
and completely legalizing.
And his big problem
wasn't so much that,
you know, he was doing drugs
but he was paying a lot
for them.
And, you know, it's still
a significant black market.
There's still a significant
black market in Portugal.
So when he was buying drugs, it
could sometimes get dangerous.
So, he kinda felt like Portugal
should take it a step further
and provide safe, um, crack
and other drugs for him
at a-- you know,
at a price
that was affordable everyone.
(Chuckling)
And when you think about that,
it was just, you know,
it was just so different
than someone who was
completely terrified in Manila
doing drugs and could get shot.
COLIN:
His drug was crack, you said?
SHAWNEY:
So, he did a lot of drugs.
He, uh-- crack and heroin
were his two drugs.
COLIN:
Yeah, it's hard to imagine, um,
a society
where you could buy that
at the same place
you get your groceries.
Like, I just couldn't--
SHAWNEY:
And that's the big question,
right?
Like,
eventually in our lifetime,
if drug use or drugs become
decrimmed or legal,
how do you
kind of set up a system?
No one knows this, but how
do you set up a system
where cocaine or heroin
are available
for the people who want it
but also make society safe?
And that's kind of,
you know,
as one of the characters
in the film puts it,
"the $64,000 question".
COLIN:
Right. Well, the last place
we'll talk about
before we wrap up
is, uh,
Palm Beach, Florida.
And, um, you know,
you said it's Trump's backyard.
How bad
is the opioid crisis there?
SHAWNEY:
I wouldn't say at this point
it's any worse
than other places in the US.
I think Palm Beach specifically
has improved a lot
because, um,
they went through the gamut
of dealing with the crisis
from pill mills and, you know,
10 years ago,
to like, party pharma
to, you know, fentanyl.
So, I think
they've experienced a lot,
they went through
a lot of trauma,
and now some of the best
harm reduction workers
and people in the world
are they're dealing with it.
So, um, yeah. I mean,
in terms of if it's any better
or worse than other places
in the US, I would say
probably not anymore.
It used to be
but now, um,
I think there's other places
in America
that are probably
in worse situations.
RACHEL:
Yeah, and you know, the end
of the film talks about Justin,
our main harm reduction worker
in Palm Beach.
He and his team
last year reversed
more than 300 opioid overdoses.
It's a very small team.
Um, so they've been able
to do that
and now Palm Beach County is
one of the only places in the US
where overdose deaths are
decreasing because they've said,
"Okay, we need to
get naloxone out there,
"we actually need to start
taking harm reduction
seriously."
Even though they are
operating in the States
and in Florida where drug use
is heavily criminalized,
they're working to try
to push back against that tide.
COLIN:
Naloxone is a nasal spray,
right?
Can you just describe
how it works?
SHAWNEY:
Yeah, so it's his nasal spray
and you inject it into your nose
or through a needle.
I mean, it's more popular now
with the spray.
And it just reduce-- it reverses
the effects of the opiate.
Um, so it just essentially
brings you back to life.
So, it's a wonderful
harm reduction technique
that Justin Kunzelman uses
in the film.
You know, we learned a lot
about harm reduction in general
and it's funny because
there's so many other aspects
to harm reduction
that we knew nothing about,
um, that were just
such commonplace.
Like, a seat belt
is harm reduction. You know?
You put it on, you don't want
to get into an accident
but you're still gonna wear it
because you may.
Um, when you go to McDonald's
and you see, um,
the lettering
under the big Mac
and you see how many calories
are in a burger,
that's harm reduction.
So for me, it was fun
kind of understanding
that harm reduction's
really information.
It's really this understanding
that we know we live a life
that could potentially
be dangerous
and we take chances
but how do you live that life
but at the same time,
you know,
be comfortable
with the decisions you make
to reduce some of those harms?
COLIN:
Hmm.
SHAWNEY:
And, you know.
COLIN:
How did you meet Justin
and how does compassion
and empathy
sort of factor into his work?
RACHEL:
We were doing research
and, you know,
one of the producers found
Justin and his group online.
He was really active
in sounding the alarm
about the overdose crisis
that was happening.
He himself is in recovery
and he's really passionate
about evidence-based approaches.
He just couldn't--
he was sick and tired
of seeing kind of these useless
policies being implemented
and people who had never
had experience using drugs
talking about policy.
So he really stuck his neck out
and he was doing
illegal needle exchange
out of the back of his trunk.
Like, he's just on the ground
doing what needed to be done
if the government
wasn't gonna do it.
And for him, it's all about,
you know,
compassion and harm reduction
go hand-in-hand.
So he's all about, again,
meeting people where they're at
and if they want to keep using,
it's about responding to that
in a compassionate
and realistic way.
It's like,
"You're gonna keep using? Okay.
"I'm just gonna
help you do so
"in a way that is not gonna
result in you dying."
COLIN:
Is that legal needle exchange--
that's like--
What would be the sentence
for something like that?
If that's a crime, like, what--
That's a real risk
he's taking, right?
RACHEL:
It totally is,
and only very recently
has the state of Florida
committed to expanding--
There is one
legal syringe exchange
that we went to in Miami.
And now they're maybe
gonna open a second one.
Like, they're still in
this mindset where we were in,
you know, here in Canada,
decades ago.
They were sort of thinking
of needle exchange
as this radical thing
and it really is not.
The sentence for something like
doing illegal syringe exchange,
I would imagine
it's way out of proportion
than what it needs to be.
But, yeah, he was facing
criminalization for sure.
SHAWNEY:
And it's really
a lot of the politicians
who have an issue with it.
If you talk to
even the police,
they don't have
an issue with it.
Most of them don't.
And I found that
really interesting.
It's a lot of the Republican
kind of senators and congressmen
who just look at drug use
with this old drug war mentality
and "just say no"
and this idea of harm reduction
and needle exchange
and safe consumption sites,
um,
are just as terrible thing.
It's crazy because
it's evidence-based ideas.
And you're seeing it in Ontario.
Like, Doug Ford is avidly
against the stuff as well
and I feel like
it's so hypocritical
considering his brother was,
you know,
someone who had a lot
of problems with substances.
COLIN:
Yeah. Well, let's, I guess kind
of close out our conversation
by talking a little bit
about Canada.
We obviously just had
a federal election.
We have a minority parliament
now,
we've legalized marijuana.
You talked about your
experiences in Sault Ste. Marie.
I'm just wondering
how Canada is doing
when it comes to drug policy?
SHAWNEY:
I think--
when it comes to cannabis,
I think better than a lot
of places in the world.
I-- when it comes
to harm reduction and decrim
and these ideas,
I don't think that well.
I feel like
we could really do a lot
to get rid of this idea
that, um, you know,
the old drug war mentality
is still quite prevalent.
And I feel--
I don't know.
Rachel, how do you want
to answer that?
I mean, you're a journalist who
talks about a lot of this stuff
and for me,
being on the ground
and making a lot
of these documentaries,
I kind of feel like we're
no better off than America
or a lot of these places
that still suck.
We also, frankly, I think,
tend to follow
a lot of what the US does.
And they're the worst kind of,
um, people,
government,
for perpetuating the drug war
and we just kind of
follow suit with them.
So, um, did I answer
your question not very well?
RACHEL:
Yeah, I think, you know,
certainly you've seen
a huge difference
between what
the Liberals have done
versus what the former
Conservative government did
in fighting the opening
of supervised consumption sites
and um, really taking
a tough on crime approach.
You've seen the Liberals,
especially under former health
minister Jane Philpott,
really embrace
a lot of harm reduction
in terms of easing
the restrictions
around opening supervised
consumption sites,
making naloxone
more readily available,
Suboxone, all of these things.
But up until a point.
When we're talking
about decriminalization,
you have countless
health experts
and harm reduction advocates
talking about how it's great
that you're embracing
these harm reduction approaches
but it can only go so far
unless you decriminalize.
And Justin Trudeau
has been adamant that yes,
we legalized cannabis
but no, no.
We're not gonna talk about
decriminalizing at this point.
So, I mean, I think a lot
of people are frustrated
at this notion
that we've legalized cannabis
to help deal
with the black market,
help address
public health concerns,
but that's not been
applied consistently
when it comes to other drugs
and obviously there's
a financial incentive at play.
But I think a lot of people
are frustrated
that Canada is really, uh,
scared of jumping--
jumping in all the way.
COLIN:
Do you think the, um, the NDP
or the Greens
or maybe the Bloc
will push him
in a more liberal direction?
RACHEL:
I think even within the Liberal
party you have backbench MPs.
You have Nathaniel Erskine-Smith
who put forward the bill
at the end of last parliament
to decriminalize,
um, small possession of drugs.
So even within
the Liberal party,
you have people
pushing for that,
and certainly
the NDP and the Greens
had a part in their platforms
specifically
to decriminalize
and support safe supply.
So I think, yeah,
the NDP and the Greens
want a public health emergency.
They want decriminalization.
So I think that
these are ongoing things
that we're gonna
have to contend with,
especially because of the fact
that overdose death rates
are continuing to rise.
It's a huge--
it's a huge problem.
SHAWNEY:
Yeah, and I think you mentioned
a good point there, safe supply.
I think when you look
at why people are dying,
it's not necessarily
because they're doing drugs.
It's because they're doing
illegal black market drugs
with fentanyl in it.
RACHEL:
Yep.
SHAWNEY:
And if you consider
all the regulations you have
with alcohol,
can you imagine if there were
no regulations for alcohol
and you had to buy moonshine
on the street
that could make you go blind?
Um, people would freak out.
So, with drugs
it's the same thing.
You know, if you're doing heroin
or you're doing crack,
or you're doing a drug
with fentanyl in it,
there's no regulation
around it.
So, and we know that people
are gonna use drugs anyway.
So this idea that
you're gonna eradicate the--
idea of doing drugs and people
are just gonna say no is crazy.
So, it's just, you know,
making a decision.
And that's kind of
what Portugal did.
It's, you know, they decided
to say, "You know what?
"There's other problems
associated with decrimming,
"but if people
are guilty of crimes,
"we'll catch them for
something else, not drug use."
And I think if we could,
you know,
at least approach an idea like
that, less people would die.
COLIN:
Well, you both left us
with a lot to think about
and I wanna thank you both
so much for coming in today.
SHAWNEY:
Thanks for having us.
RACHEL:
Thanks, Colin.
(Theme music playing)
COLIN:
And that's the podcast.
Rat Park
is streaming now
on Crave, so check it out.
If you liked what you heard,
please give us a five star
review on Apple Podcasts
and better yet, tell a friend.
Let us know what you think
of the film and this episode
by writing to us
at ondocs@TVO.org,
and follow me on Twitter
@ColinEllis81.
Thanks to producers Chantal
Braganza and Matthew O'Mara
and production support
coordinators Nikki Ashworth
and Jonathan Halliwell.
Kathy Vey is executive producer
for digital.
We'll catch you
at the next screening.
(Theme music playing)

Watch: Ep. 6 - In a war on drugs, who really loses?