Filter in 2019: A Dramatic Year in Drug Policy

7 months

This year has been a turbulent one in drug policy, harm reduction and human rights. Large-scale oppression, disastrous policy decisions and preventable deaths have continued in the US and across the world. Yet there have also been unprecedented victories, inspiring campaigns and other substantial grounds for hope.

To take stock, here is a month-by-month summary of just some of the news events and perspectives in Filter that mattered in 2019—including the stories that you read the most.

Thank you to everyone who has shared and otherwise supported our work this year. And whether or not the news is better in 2020, Filter will be here to cover it.

January

In the news:

Philippines harm reductionists persevered amid President Duterte’s murderous drug war. Black people comprised 96 percent of cannabis arrests in Baltimore, while New Massachusetts District Attorney Rachel Rollins resolved to address racial injustice in office. New York Governor Cuomo wanted to treat vaping like tobacco and New York City held a hearing on banning flavored vapes. Brooklyn had its first medical cannabis dispensary.

Scoop:

Why Crystal Meth Has Made a Big Comeback in Philadelphia, by Christopher Moraff.

Perspectives:

“Exhilarating”—The Life of a Career Drug Dealer Illustrates Hard Truths, by Tessie Castillo.

My Life of Overusing Pills for Back Pain in a Grueling Factory Job, by Ray Mwareya.

What you read the most:

The Reassuringly Normal Recovery of Lindsay Lohan

Stanton Peele’s analysis, applying the non-disease lens to a much-maligned public figure, was Filter‘s most-read story of January.

“Whether or not they are in a program or drink is not the primary source of their wellbeing. Having a purposeful life is. And this is the true recovery story.”

February

In the news:

Philadelphia cops cracked down on a camp of homeless people who use drugs, and the feds moved to block a safe consumption site from opening in Philly. The Supreme Court limited drug-war civil asset forfeiture. A campaign formed to decriminalize sex work in New York. Brave Russian harm reductionists launched a chemsex program. A study showed that vaping is more effective for quitting smoking than traditional NRT. Vancouver researchers proposed heroin buyers clubs. Global executions fell, but not by nearly enough. Trump’s State of the Union was as bad as you’d expect, but he faced pushback for his false border claims. Fentanyl-involved deaths continued to spike on Mexico’s northern border.

Scoop:

Why Has Amazon Limited Sales of Drug Checking Kits?, by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard.

Perspectives:

How My First LSD Trip Led Me to Accept My Sexuality, by Rae Nieves.

Struggling to Compete With Fentanyl, Mexico’s Poppy Farmers Ask for Legalization, by Simon Schatzberg.

What you read the most:

Stop Chasing Amy Klobuchar for President Without Looking at Her Record

Rory Fleming’s scathing critique of the prosecutorial and legislative record of Senator Klobuchar, who had not yet announced her presidential candidacy, struck a nerve.

“Pushing for Presidential Candidate Klobuchar based on ‘electability’ before a full accounting of her deeds is offensive to the families—disproportionately people of color—permanently harmed by her scorched–earth prosecutorial tactics.”

March

In the news:

A Massachusetts commission called for safe consumption sites, which were shown by a study to save money as well as lives. Cannabis activists crashed SXSW, while the money for Los Angeles’ cannabis social equity program went missing. US smokers were misled into thinking snus is as risky as cigarettes, while San Francisco was poised to ban vapes. New York Governor Cuomo was urged by prosecutors to reduce use of bail and the state sued the Sacklers. Beto O’Rourke threw his hat into the presidential ring. States worked to reduce HIV criminalization. Vermont cops peddled fentanyl myths.

Scoop:

Investigation: Where Are Naloxone Confiscations Happening the Most? by Lucas Marten.

Perspectives:

We Need More Focus on How the Drug War Attacks Parents of Color, by Dinah Ortiz

“Yellow Peril”—How Blaming China for Fentanyl Continues a Racist Legacy, by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard.

What you read the most:

Inside Rikers Island: A Social Worker’s Hellish Account

Helen Redmond’s harrowing exposure of the horrors of solitary confinement at Rikers, through an interview with social worker Mary Buser, added to calls to shut the place down.

“The jail is full of poor people with mental health and drug problems, homeless people, and survivors of trauma and gang violence. Ultimately, a burned-out and jaded Buser resigned, realizing that she could no longer make a difference.”

April

In the news:

The CDC jumped on the fentanyl-myth bandwagon. Dozens of sheriffs and DAs called for MAT in jails. The legal struggle for a safe consumption site in Philadelphia continued. Activists fought for access to Gilead’s over-priced HIV prevention meds. Gov. Cuomo stalled on New York cannabis legalization, but New York lawmakers condemned sex-work policing. Trump administration officials saw the humanitarian crisis at the Mexico border as a “distraction” from counter-narcotics ops. Joe Biden entered the presidential race. Students for Sensible Drug Policy focused on legalization-equity at their conference; the International Harm Reduction Conference allowed Portugal to teach the world.

Scoop:

Hep C Treatment Is Scare Behind Bars—And Jeopardized Upon Release, by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard.

Perspectives:

To Address Addiction, Confront Racism in Our Health and Justice Systems, by Tracie Gardner.

Our Irrational Cruelty to Pregnant or Parenting People Who Use Drugs, by Elizabeth Brico.

What you read the most:

Shades of Sobriety: Life Shows That Recovery Needn’t Mean Abstinence

Stanton Peele and Dolores Cloward’s formidable argument for a many-faceted interpretation of “recovery” was Filter‘s most-read article of April.

“Virtually everyone, like it or not, undergoes drug experiences within which they must learn to steer a sober course. This demands an understanding of the term ‘sober’ that differs from the one commonly understood.”

May

In the news:

Sri Lanka’s president found a pretext to launch a Duterte-style drug war, President Bolsonaro escalated the drug war in Brazil, and a Philippines drug-war architect was elected to the Senate on a death-penalty platform. Gilead relinquished its PrEP patent after activist pressure. Pain patients protested against discrimination and suffering. Filter held a tobacco harm reduction and health justice event. A cannabis ban in NYC public housing was lifted and Denver decriminalized “magic” mushrooms.

Scoop:
Deprogramming From AA—When a Fellowship Resembles a Cult, by April Smith.

Perspectives:

It’s Time for People With Privilege to Come Out About Their Drug Use, by Louise Vincent.

What Psychedelics Reveal About the Nature of Consciousness, by Kiran Sidhu.

What you read the most:

I Chose Functional Heroin Use. Here’s How It Works for Me.

M.L. Lanzillotta’s searingly-honest, thought-provoking essay was Filter‘s most-read story of May.

“Heroin itself, I began to realize, is not the problem. It’s just a chemical that happens to be very likable—as well as illegal and deadly if ingested in vast amounts or combined with other substances.”

June

In the news:

Preliminary 2018 figures showed US opioid-involved deaths to be falling, while meth-involved deaths rose. California police departments received an “F” for racial bias. A massive cocaine bust in Philadelphia caused collateral damage. Oakland, California decriminalized psychedelic plants. A Massachusetts nurse was convicted for giving her meds to MAT-deprived incarcerated people. The Global Forum on Nicotine crystalized goals and challenges for the tobacco harm reduction movement.

Scoop:
“Arrested While ‘Panicking on Meth”—An Hour Later, He Was Dead, by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard.

Perspectives:

Harm Production: Ontario’s Brutal Cuts Add Fuel to the Overdose Fire, by Carlyn Zwarenstein.

Italy’s Rocky Road From Harsh Prohibition to “Cannabis Light,” by Guido Long and Marco Perduca.

What you read the most:

If We Wrote About Caffeine Like We Do Other Drugs…

Elizabeth Brico’s hilarious satire was applicable to a number of drug policy situations⁠—and reminiscent of too many other publications. It was one of Filter‘s most-read stories of the year.

“Skyrocketing rates of coffee addiction across America mean that this can rightly be termed an epidemic. Something is broken in our society when millions feel the need to self-medicate in this way.”


July

In the news:

India persecuted a prominent lawyer who advocates for people who use drugs. A Missouri man, who is black and gay, was released from prison after being sentenced to 10 years for exposing four other people to HIV. The FDA launched a video campaign against youth vaping that cherry-picked evidence about e-cigarette’s alleged role as a “gateway drug” to combustible cigarettes. That same agency cited vapes as a cessation device earlier in July. A North Carolina bill establishing a drug-induced homicide offense was signed into law.

Scoop:

Inside the Philippines Prison That Sparked Duterte’s Murderous Drug War, by Niko Vorobyov.

Perspectives:

When Harm Reduction Expansion Stifles Activism: A Lesson From Europe, by Tessie Castillo.

A Conversation With Michael Johnson, Criminalized by Missouri’s HIV Law, by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard.

What you read the most:

Psychedelics Take the TED Talk Stage for the First Time

This Filter staff summary (with video) of MAPS founder Rick Doblin’s groundbreaking TED talk illustrated the rapid mainstreaming of psychedelic drugs.

“Walking the audience through his personal experiences with psychedelics—like how they “helped me have a spiritual connection that unfortunately, my bar mitzvah did not produce”—as well as the ongoing  “global renaissance of psychedelic research,” Doblin makes the case for the potentially-transformative benefits that psychedelic-assisted therapy could provide to patients with post-traumatic stress disorder.”


August

In the news:

2020 presidential candidate Andrew Yang tweeted his support for safe consumption sites. The head of the so-called Sinaloa drug cartel, Joaquín Guzmán Loera, or “El Chapo,” was tried. The DEA signaled the end of a three-year delay on its review and approval of research-cannabis grow applications. NYC jailers hindered patients’ access to mental health services. The feds argued against Philadelphia’s proposed safe consumption site in court.

Scoop:

SAMHSA Ushers in Law Enforcement ‘Fishing Expeditions’ for MAT Patients, by Alison Knopf.

Perspectives:

Drug Research Ignores Stable or Pleasurable Use—And That’s a Problem, by Aliza Cohen.

Lisa’s Legacy: How the Buprenorphine X-Waiver Costs Lives, by Hugo Hanson.

What you read the most:

Here’s What a Legal Market for Cocaine Could Look Like

Troy Farah’s report, mixing expert interviews with examples of existing international policies, demonstrated just how practical such a model could be—if only we would allow our imaginations to go there. This was Filter‘s most-read story of 2019.

“Legalizing cocaine will require a major shift of the Overton Window—the range of ideas acceptable to the general public. But you have to start somewhere—remembering the dramatic rise achieved in public support for cannabis legalization—and discussing the issue is a first step.”

September

In the news:

The vaping crackdown kicked into high gear as states like Michigan banned flavored vapes, while Trump moved to do the same on a national level, though he’s since back-peddled. The Drug Enforcement Administration teamed up with the FDA on tackling THC vapes. The Sackler Family settled a federal lawsuit to relinquish ownership of Purdue Pharma and pay out billions. The ACLU sued the federal prison system for denying a person access to burprenorphine, and SAMHSA stifled public comment on its proposal to expand cops’ powers over MAT patients.

Scoop:

National Guard Drops $100k on Fentanyl Fear-Mongering Classes for Cops, by Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard.

Perspectives:

“I Am Not an Addict”—What Should “Recovery” Mean in 2019?, by Adi Jaffe.

The Empowering and Dangerous Work of Harm Reduction in Afghanistan, by Michelle Tolson.

What you read the most:

The Mystery Lung Disease Caused by “Vaping” Was a Textbook Drug Panic

Helen Redmond’s powerful account of how government agencies and media mobilized against nicotine vaping in the wake of an outbreak of lung injuries—now known to have been caused by vitamin E acetate in illicit THC products—spelled out how current anti-vaping efforts follow the classic prohibitionist pattern.

“We’ve seen this playbook before, and the omens aren’t good. Lies last. Remember the ‘crack baby’ panic? The idea persisted in the public consciousness for years, despite being soundly debunked. Or how about the ‘addicted baby’ slur tied up with the opioid-involved overdose crisis? It’s still being peddled by the likes of New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof today.”

October

In the news:

Advocates for the proposed Philadelphia safe consumption site prevailed in federal court, paving the way for the first legally authorized program of its kind stateside. Shortly after the ruling, New York advocates called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to heed the turning tide on safe consumption sites. The Food and Drug Administration affirmed Swedish smokeless tobacco product snus as a harm reduction product, but still refuse to do the same with vapes. A New York state appellate court blocked the vape flavor ban. The mayor of Porto, Portugal backed the recriminalization public drug use, complicating the country’s image as the world leader in drug policy.

Scoop: “The Ecuadorian Fishermen Snatched Away by US Drug Warriors, by Tessie Castillo.

Perspectives:

A TSA Officer Sexually Assaulted Me: Know Your Rights, by Alison Knopf.

Why the Curious Story of William S. Burroughs’ Heroin “Cure” Still Matters, by Tony O’Neill.

What you read the most:

How Psychedelic Exceptionalism Harms Drug Users

Alexander Lekhtman’s report from the Horizons psychedelic conference encapsulated how some drugs and the people who use them are still regarded as “better”—or worse—than others.

“’I have seen methamphetamine have very destructive consequences for a lot of people, and opioids even more so in my view,’ the man said.

‘You should probably broaden your scope of people who use them,’ Carl Hart responded. ‘You’re looking at someone who uses all of those drugs.'”

November

In the news:

A Canadian pharmacist faced punishment from an oversight body for his grassroots naloxone distribution efforts. Progressive candidate Chesa Boudin was elected to be San Francisco’s next district attorney. The murder of a US family in Mexico by gunmen presumed by the media to be cartel members sparked Trump to threaten military intervention. China delivered on its promise to sentence to death people allegedly involved in fentanyl manufacturing, which was applauded by Trump. In St. Louis, the US drug policy reform movement fiercely debated its future.

Scoop:

Heroin Pipes: How the “Hammer” Was Built for Harm Reduction, by Travis Lupick.

Perspectives:

The Agony of Attending My Son’s Probation Violation Hearing, by Dinah Ortiz.

Meth Has Many Medical Benefits. Stigma Holds Them Back, by Troy Farah.

What you read the most:

“We Want to Inspire Others”—Boston’s First Recreational Cannabis Dispensary to Be Black-Owned

The fact that Alexander Lekhtman’s report was Filter‘s most-read story of November was damning in a way: Black-owned cannabis dispensaries shouldn’t be anything remarkable.

“’We both grew up in the inner city, with the first-hand experiences of over-policing and the damage of the War on Drugs in our communities,’” Kobie Evans told Filter. ‘But then we saw legalization of cannabis and how people started making billions of dollars.'”

December

Senator Kamala Harris ended her presidential bid, signalling a culture shift away from “tough on crime” politics. New York City announced that a historic number of New Yorkers are accessing HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention resources, yet transgender women seem to be the exception. And as the year came to a close, New York public health workers scrambled to prepare for historic bail reform laws that are set to take effect January 1.

Scoop:

A Dire Shortage of ADD Meds Is Pushing Some Patients to Street Meth, by Christopher Moraff.

Perspectives:

“Six Years Ago, My Cousin Overdosed. What Could Have Saved Her Life?, by Jack Murtha.

Political Rhetoric and Policing: Can We Break the Vicious Circle?, by Diane Goldstein.

A Lifesaving Disruptive Technology and the Effort to Destroy It, by Clive Bates.

What you read the most:

A San Francisco Man Is Currently in Jail for Eating a Cookie in Rehab

Rory Fleming’s report summed up the sheer cruel absurdity of a “justice” system that punishes drug users for actions that have no negative impact on anyone else. (Happily, the decision was overturned and Gregory was released from jail shortly after.)

“Gregory ate the cookie, thinking, like a completely normal person, that there was no harm in it. Harbor Light staffers then went into Red Alert mode, demanding to know who ate it. Gregory admitted the cookie-eating immediately, but staff threatened to watch all the surveillance footage in the room to prove their case ‘beyond a reasonable doubt.'”

And Finally

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Photo by Mike Enerio on Unsplash

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