10: Surviving is Revolutionary
[00:32] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So the holidays are coming, whether you like it or not. For some people, this season is a time for good food and family bonding. But for others, the holidays are just a festive field of emotional landmines. And this year, we are going to acknowledge that fact together, head-on and we need your help. Have you lost your person to this crisis? If so, how are you doing? And what are you doing this time of year to remember them? Are you currently in remission and trying to avoid a relapse at the dinner table? Are you hosting and trying to be sensitive to relatives who are in recovery? Do you just want to share a happy festive holiday memory? We love those, too. Whatever you’re going through, however you feel, we would love to hear your stories, your concerns and your tips for making it through to the new year. You can call and leave us a voicemail at 1-833-4lemonada. Or if you’re like me and don’t understand how phones work, you can email a voice memo to email@example.com. Here’s the show.
[01:50] Jessica Cordova Kramer: So this the original review that was posted shortly after the first episode aired.
[01:57] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is Jess reading a review someone left of our show. Subject line ‘kind of disgusted.’
[02:06] Jessica Cordova Kramer: While I think this podcast is well done, in the first episode it is glaringly obvious that the root of the podcaster’s brother’s opioid addiction and subsequent death is the way his family treated him, coddled him, enabled him, etc. I haven’t finished the episode, but I am hoping that this is the conclusion she ultimately reaches because that realization could help a lot of people.
[02:29] Jessica Cordova Kramer: And several months later, or maybe a month and a half later, ‘kind of disgusted’ shifts to a five star. ‘Edited to add, I want to redact my previous review as I read of the podcast after listening to only the first episode. Now that I am up to date with the latest podcast, I now believe this is a phenomenal podcast. Well-researched and produced! I apologize for my harsh initial judgment.’ When I posted this on my Instagram stories, it was because I was like, this is the story of the opioid epidemic. This is it. Yeah, I’m kind of fuckin disgusted, too, right? At first it’s like blame, blame, blame. Blame Harris, blame the Wittels family for not, I don’t know what, what was supposed to be done, I don’t know. And then it’s like, oh, actually, this is a disease that is multifaceted and complicated. And this show is telling that story.
[03:28] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. This is Last Day. There are a few things that feel impossible to me. Getting my baby to sleep past 5:30 a.m., that’s really hard. Drinking the amount of water I’m supposed to drink every day, which I don’t know if you know this, is like 70 ounces, which is just an obscene amount of water. And then especially impossible is changing a person’s mind on the Internet. And I know the rules of Internet — that I’m not supposed to read the comments. But listen, I am a flawed human being, very flawed, and I just want to be loved. So, of course, I read the comments. And so does Jess.
[04:21] Jessica Cordova Kramer: Stephanie and I have a good, healthy yin-yang balance with reviews. I’m like, fuck anything that’s not nice. And she’s like, I’m only gonna zoom in on the mean stuff.
[04:33] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: She’s not wrong, but I challenge you to make a show where you take your grief and trauma, cut it into a thousand zig-zag puzzle pieces, try to fit them back together in a way that makes sense and then tell me you’re not going to read what people have to say about it and then take it personally. Which is why the ‘kind of disgusted’ redo was such a big deal. Because the idea for this show has always been rooted in understanding. Understanding how Stephano got to his last day. Understanding how others like Stefano are getting to their last days. Understanding what we need to do as a society to not have to make a show called Last Day in the first place. And all of this was swirling around in my head when I got on the phone with Garth Mullins.
[05:22] Garth Mullins: Yeah, just checking the level. Looking good. OK. Sorry, Stephanie.
[05:25] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: No, no, no, no. So, yes, rolling audio is important for a podcast. I like that you’re in your studio. Same over here.
[05:34] Garth Mullins: I mean, we — I mean, this is not a studio. This is basically a closet with me holding a microphone. And we try to roll audio every single episode. We try to include audio with every podcast.
[05:45] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I mean, you guys are really going above and beyond. That’s really impressive. Garth’s ability to roll audio isn’t the only impressive thing about him. I mean, he may be recording in a closet, but he’s created an award-winning podcast in Canada that’s rooted in activism. It’s called Crackdown and it’s, well, it’s also about drugs.
[06:10] Garth Mullins: We’re a group of drug users who are at ground zero for Canada’s overdose crisis. We know each other through activism, for fighting for safe injection sites and the kinds of reforms that could save lives. We know each other from that struggle. And we’re friends. And we decided to make a radio show because we didn’t like how we were perceived and how other people were telling our stories in the media. So we thought we better do it ourselves.
[06:36] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So how long have you guys been making the show?
[06:39] Garth Mullins: We start in January, so not all that long. I think we’re at Episode 9 right now.
[06:44] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Right. Because you do it monthly. [06:45][1.0]
[06:46] Garth Mullins: That’s right. We’re very slow. We’re extremely slow and methodical. But it also has to do a little bit with — baked into this is a little bit of activism and democracy and discussion. And so that, you know, getting that right also takes a little time.
[07:02] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Garth’s production team is different than ours. When we’re making our show, I go around and around in circles with one producer, Jackie, and a technical director, Kegan, making sure that the show is well-researched, fair, informative, entertaining, impactful, structurally sound. Lots of things. You get it. In Garth’s case, he has scientific advisors, a full production team and an entire editorial board to answer to. So how many people are on the editorial board for your show?
[07:33] Garth Mullins: There’s eight on the editorial board. Actually, there’s there’s seven now because we did lose one editorial board member earlier this year. So there’s there’s seven of us.
[07:45] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And did you — did he die of an overdose?
[07:50] Garth Mullins: Yeah. It was. It was pretty sad, actually. She — name is Chereece Keewatin, or it was Chereece Keewatin. And, you know, she, like all of us, was a drug user for a long time. She got on methadone, really helped her out. She was kind of organizing her life how she wanted to. And then all across the place where we live they switched brands of methadone. They forced us to all take something different. And for most people, that really wasn’t working. So people were going back to feeling really dope-sick and having those cravings. And then using, you know, heroin to top up. This happened to her. And the overdose crisis started around here just at the same time as this forced switch. She was never able to get everything back together and eventually that just that just caught up with her.
[08:48] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Oh, I’m so sorry.
[08:50] Garth Mullins: Yeah. Thank you.
[08:52] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I am — I’m doing this show because I lost my brother in 2015. And, you know, when I — I’m not a drug user. And so when he told us about the addiction and that whole thing, like, I just was so naive and ignorant to what he was going through, and how I could help, and what I could do, and what he should do. And, you know, it was like all of the stupid things that I know now during the show, you know, I’ve learned so much. Like I was joking yesterday, like, let me teach a class — like, oh, I’ll teach a college-level class, because now I know so much. But it’s so sad because I feel like, I don’t know, you always, like, ask, you know, if I would’ve known what I know now, then would the outcome be different or, you know — but I just feel like I obviously have just a lot of empathy for that kind of loss. So. I’m sorry.
[09:50] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So my original plan was to talk to Garth about international solutions because he’s in Canada. And he’s done extensive reporting in Portugal, which is basically a beacon in the drug policy world. And I will do that in a bit, I promise. But honestly, it just felt good to talk to someone who gets it. Not just what it’s like to lose someone, but to take that grief and make a show about it.
[10:20] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s so wild that I’m talking to you today because we are working on this episode right now about kids. Like about foster care, how schools are dealing with it, neonatal abstinence syndrome, you know, all of this stuff around kids. And I was reading through all the transcripts today and I called my producer and like, I was like having a normal conversation. I’m like, listen, I think that the episode needs to be about control. And I’m sort of explaining like, yeah, it reminded me of the Serenity Prayer that used to hang above my brother’s head when we ate dinner. My mom had like a needle-pointed it. And so my entire fucking childhood, I was looking at my brother, and then looking right above him at the fuckin’ Serenity Prayer. And I like I’m saying this to her today and like, just start sobbing literally could not breathe.
[11:10] Garth Mullins: I feel you. Because ‘I cannot accept the things that I cannot change.’ I cannot accept it. So when when the transcripts that you were reading say, oh, we can’t do anything about that. That’s the foster care system. We can’t do anything about that. It’s just like. We have to. We have to do something about it. We have to change the laws and change the supports so that parents get a chance to parent, and kids get a chance to stay with the parents. Because every woman I know practically in the life has had their kids taken away. And if there was just some supports, and some help, and to get the law off them a little bit to make that possible. I mean, fuck, that would just change the world, right?
[11:57] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Oh my god. Yes.
[11:10] Garth Mullins: If we believe there’s these things that are just like they’re a force of nature, that’s just how it is, and it’s just like it can’t be how it is. It can’t be.
[12:08] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So in case you didn’t hear Episode 9 — one, how dare you. Two, we actually included audio from this emotional phone call at the top of that episode. And three, what Garth is talking about in this conversation, which I recorded just three hours after having that emotional phone call, is exactly what pushed me over the edge in the first place.
[12:30] Garth Mullins: My best friend Jeff, who I’ve known for so long. He’s Cree, he’s indigenous from Ontario. Him and his brothers and sisters were taken away from their mom by the state and sent to, like, white foster homes. And this was like an epidemic in Canada. It still happens. It’s still extremely common. And he was just sort of speaking out loud about, well, you know, I guess my mom doesn’t want us. I guess my mom was kind of chucking us away. And I was like, no, dude. It was the state. It was the state’s policy. And he didn’t know that. So he went through his whole life having this traumatic first experience within his first couple of years of being seized off his mom. And kind of just carrying with him this idea of somewhere deep inside it’s because of me or I’m not I’m not worthy of it. Right? And so, of course, this guy and me together, we’ve done, like, a lot of drugs together in our life. Like probably enough to buy a condo in San Francisco. And like this is what he is trying to keep down, right? This feeling that that haunts after him, you know, and we can change that. Right. Human beings made those laws, made those rules to take those kids. Human beings can change those rules. And human beings can decide, you know what, we’re going to even send some tax money towards programs to help kids stay with parents, to give people supports. And, for sure, kid’s gotta be safe and you’ve got to make sure all that. But that’s not what the history shows. That’s not what the current moment shows. The current moment just shows kids get taken away.
[14:16] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This idea that human beings are actually behind the curtain is what drives everything Garth does. He knows that even the most burned-out bureaucrat has a heart and a mind. And that it’s up to him and other activists to cut through all the layers to affect change, which is hard. I mean, it may be even harder than changing someone’s mind on the Internet. So Garth believes that, yes, the world is broken, but that it can be fixed and that kind of activism takes time, energy, grit and a fuck-ton of work.
[14:56] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: My question is, like, what for you has been the hardest part about making this show? Or has there been. Like is there any days where you’re just like, I can’t do this anymore, or this blank is killing me? Or has it been all sunshine and roses for you? And if you say, yes, I’m going to hang up. I’m just kidding! I won’t.
[15:14] Garth Mullins: So I’m losing my friend Chereece, which was really hard. And that’s a kind of — I hate to say it, but it’s kind of — it’s like you learn — I don’t know if I can say this right. You kind of learn the skill of losing. I don’t know. It sounds wrong, but it’s like you lose things through your life that you care about, you lose pieces of yourself, you lose people who were close to you. And you just get this muscle memory of losing. Doesn’t make it easier, but it is like, oh, this is this place, you know. And it’s a terrible space to be in. And now there’s a whole bunch of us who just live there. And that’s rewired my brain, like this — I think I was probably a different person five years ago. But just — it’s so traumatic. But at the other side of this, we’re dealing with these government officials that feel no sense of urgency. They’re operating not on an emergency public health footing, they’re just operating business as usual. You know, there’s a diffusion of responsibility. There’s bureaucratic silos. There’s, oh, summer vacation. We can’t meet about that. It’s just like that disconnect is — it’s so, so deeply frustrating to me.
[16:27] Garth Mullins: Like, I’m a very calm, calm person most of the time. I’m not constantly getting in fights, like physical scraps of people. But I was on a conference call with some of these officials not so long ago. And I put a hole in my apartment wall. I just punch straight through the, you know, the jib rock, the drywall, because I just — they do not feel what we feel. They can’t feel any sense of urgency like, oh, yes, it will take another six months to even think about this policy change or whatever. Well, how many of us are going to die in that time, you know? And if what a doctor says is it’s substance use disorder — she says that’s what I have — and is chronic and relapsing, and you’ve got to watch out, and it can come back and come back. And you might use again, again. So like, will I make it to that time? Like I guess that’s what drives me nuts. And we, on our show, we have a scientific adviser because I realized — government and people, you know, the officials they want they don’t listen to drug users. They think we’re running some kind of scam or whatever. But so we’ll get some science guy to come in with us and maybe they’ll listen to him. So we get all the studies, all the evidence. we show conclusively that our point is right. They still don’t care. You know, it’s just such a rigged game. That’s what that’s what deeply frustrating about making it.
[17:43] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: The lack of humanity, right? Yeah. Yeah.
[17:46] Garth Mullins: And really, I like, you know, got on methadone, got that kind of sorted out. It was going along OK. I just thought maybe I can forget about all this shit. Maybe I don’t ever have to think about death and syringes and all that. Like maybe I don’t have to think about that every day. But I also, at the same time, I just had such deep survivor’s guilt that I had — I was making it. I seemed to be surviving and so many people weren’t that I kind of had to do something.
[18:16] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I know what it’s like to almost outrun your trauma. Like, you get just far enough away from it and you think I did it. I can leave that in the past. But of course, it never really goes away. And then this woman calls you up and is like, ‘hey, do you want to make a show about your trauma?’ And rather than continuing to try to ignore it forever, badly, you act on it. Hence the term activist. More on what that activism looks like for Garth when we come back.
[21:08] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. So Garth calls himself and his team ‘drug user activists.’ So what does that mean?
[21:18] Garth Mullins: Well, I mean, it starts from the premise that we don’t want to die, right? Like, we don’t want people to feel sorry for us, but neither do we want to be just left to die or die essentially at the sharp end of really bad policies from the state. So the activism includes everything from trying to overhaul and end the whole trans-national drug war at the very highest and biggest level, to trying to do the very small things in the immediate area where we live, and where people live, to make things to make things better. So it’s it’s a survival, but it’s also revolutionary. I mean, the odd thing is that in the context of an overdose crisis — the drug war — surviving is revolutionary.
[22:10] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: A critical part of Garth’s survival strategy is methadone.
[22:15] Garth Mullins: I did heroin for a long time. Well over a decade. That was as an everyday user, you know, you get wired to it. Like if you stop doing it, you get so, so sick. But but not just dope-sick, not just like the worst flu times 100, but also all the reasons that you were doing it to begin with. All the things you were keeping away or pushing off from you — trauma and alienation and stuff that you’d managed to find a little respite from — it crashes on you like a wave. So it’s it’s quite bad. And I was never able to just stop by, just, you know, kick the habit, go cold turkey, you’re sick for a week, and then you’re fine. It wasn’t like that for me. It hasn’t been like that for anybody that I know really. And so methadone is kind of like — it’s like a nicotine patch, right. It substitutes for what the cigarette was giving you. But of course, there’s always a period of time where you find someone walking around who’s smoking and has nicotine patches on. And that was me, right? I was using both for quite a long time, both heroin and methadone. Now, you know, I’m mostly just on methadone, you know? Touch wood. That’s how my life is. But these things are both opioids, right? The molecule of methadone, the molecule of heroin, they’re all very similar. But methadone comes from a pharmaceutical company and is regulated by the government and is always a known strength. So I don’t drive myself into extreme poverty trying to get it. And I don’t take a risk with my life every time I use it. And I don’t do something illegal every moment. So there’s the law enforcement, the health and economics of it. I’m all unshackled from those things. Basically, it’s just law and policy that’s allowed me to have a sort of a modicum of stability in my life.
[24:03] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That was such a good explanation of all of that. You should have a podcast because you really know how break you shit down.
[24:12] Garth Mullins: Hey, same back at you, Stephanie.
[24:15] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So. So what is your relationship now like with your drug use? Like I — again, not a drug user. So my best friend, who was my brother, I watched him, you know, go in and out of rehab and try all these different things and I was so frustrated and sad and angry and scared. And, you know, then he died and, you know, in my mind, as somebody who doesn’t use drugs, it’s like as much as I learn about it my bias is that — why would you want to use drugs? You know, like that’s my bias. And it’s like I’m like, I feel weird admitting that to you. You know? Like, is there is there a plan to ever stop using drugs or is it just you’re like this is your disease, like this is — I’m on thyroid medication until the day that I kick the bucket, you know? Is it, is that your relationship? Or —
[25:11] Garth Mullins: Well, my friend my friend Meg says, you know, there’s this expression like, you got a monkey on your back. She says, well, you can try to train the monkey, you know. So I think I’ve — I think I’ve trained the monkey. You know, if I stopped using opioids right now within about eight hours, I’d be throwing up out of my mouth and ass. And it would not be pretty for anybody, especially me. So that’s not in the cards for me. And things are going all right. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if I’m on methadone for the rest of my life, that’s OK.
[25:43] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: This is the point in the conversation where like the author of ‘kind of disgusted,’ the tectonic plates in my own mind started to shift. Because — this is my confession — up until this point, I still believed deep down inside that the ultimate goal to curb this crisis is to not use drugs. Like, sure, meet people where they’re at on their journey to sobriety. After talking to Dr. Harrison, I updated that journey timeline to about five years. But in my mind, on some level, true sobriety meant abstinence. And drugs were always the enemy. But during this conversation with Garth, this deep-rooted paradigm was actively shifting.
[26:41] Garth Mullins: If people can be abstinent, more power to them. You know, I know I know few. Not very many. And I tried to go to NA myself and it didn’t it didn’t work out for me. But if that’s the path you’re gonna go, please, please be careful, because the most common thing is that you’ll be absent for a while and then you’ll go use a bit. But your tolerance changes. Maybe you don’t have the connection to the same dealer, so maybe you have to get it from somewhere else. So you don’t know your own tolerance, you don’t know the quality of this stuff. And that’s a really dangerous moment. So when you’re in that moment, like, please don’t use alone, like take the precautions, getting Naloxone, get trained. Like I’ve known too many people who in that moment, they’re not with us anymore. And I know that maybe that might have been — like that might have been what happened to your brother, too. You know.
[27:35] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It was. It was.
[27:37] Garth Mullins: I’m really, really sorry. And that’s why, like, this sort of drumbeat of abstinence that’s constantly going on is like if that works, like I said, that’s great. But it doesn’t for lots and lots of people and actually can make it a bit more risky. So I kind of — I don’t really advise people to do that. Like like the people who are really close to me, I say just try to find a way to be safer. The unicorn ideal of abstinence might be sometime in your future, but you’ve got to live that long to get there.
[28:10] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Exactly. The ultimate goal isn’t sobriety. It’s life. Five years ago, when I lost my brother, the idea that there was an outcome that involved him being on Suboxone for the rest of his life, or him even choosing to use drugs safely like in a non-chaotic way, was unthinkable to me. And maybe that’s because when Harris was alive, my primary goal was to keep him alive. And drug use of any kind seemed like the thing standing in the way of that goal. That’s the thing that haunts me now. Like if I had it — if he was here and I knew what I know now, I would be like, you have to fucking be on medication, you know, like it’s not an option.
[29:05] Garth Mullins: And Stephanie, that’s that’s not on you. And that’s not on — I know that some of the parents I know feel really guilty about that. And that’s not on any of us. We’re just — we’re recipients of this pre-baked ideology that’s so strong. It’s been going for a century that it’s not our fault of it if it seeps in under the skin. You know, we have to forgive ourselves.
[29:26] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yeah. Well, that is lovely. And I think I do. But there are some days I’m just like I’ll do an interview and I’m like, god, why the fuck didn’t I know this? You know? It’s just hard. It’s a hard thing.
[29:41] Garth Mullins: It’s really — I mean, one of the things about making the podcast — it’s hard to remember what you felt like before you knew something. Like I can’t quite remember what past Garth thought about stuff. And I just have to be like, OK, I wasn’t I wasn’t especially stupid. I was just average, you know?
[29:58] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You were just average. Exactly. That’s right.
[30:02] Garth Mullins: I mean, that’s what we all are. We’re all just like nobody is going to all of a sudden become a drug policy expert in their life for no reason.
[30:10] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s right.
[30:11] Garth Mullins: Like we all learn these things on a giant hill of grief and trauma, you know. It is the most hard-won kind of expertise that there is in the world, probably.
[30:28] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: That’s it right there. I mean, this entire show is being made on a giant hill of grief and trauma. And it took a tremendous amount of effort to get to the top. And much of the show has been looking down and being like, ooh, that was a really hard hike. Tough one, tough course. But what if we stopped looking down and instead looked out? We’d see that these giant hills of grief and trauma exist everywhere. When we come back, we return to the original plan, taking a look at this crisis in other parts of the world.
[33:16] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: We’re back. This is Last Day. So I’m just taking a poll here. Did you also grow up in a house where everyone was constantly talking about skinning cats? The adults in my life were always telling me, ‘there’s more than one way to skin a cat.’ Like, why is that the example? They definitely never went on to describe a single method for skinning a cat, which is a really good thing. And yet this sociopathic phrase is now stuck in my lexicon permanently as the folksy way to say there’s more than one way to do something. In this case, though, I am bringing it up again, and it feels appropriate because in my mind, America’s approach to the opioid crisis is about as humane as skinning a cat. So I look to Canada are kinder, sweeter northern neighbor for a better solution.
[34:10] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I just had this very naive perspective, and I want to talk about like America versus Canada, because I think that’s really interesting.
[34:18] Garth Mullins: We’d lose.
[34:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: You lose?
[34:20] Garth Mullins: Oh, no, America versus Canada. You guys have, like, more tanks and stuff, you know?
[34:24] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I wasn’t really talking about our military arsenal. What I really wanted was to compare notes about policy.
[34:32] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: When I say like, I want to talk to you about Canada versus America, because in my opinion — like just looking at what you’re doing, looking at what you have in terms of resources in Canada, you are so much further along. Like America — the idea of harm reduction in America, we are so punitive, justice centered. We are so like this is bad, this is good — binary — that the idea of having a safe consumption site. Or like the harm reductionists here have to fight so hard with the police to do their work.
[35:10] Garth Mullins: I’m watching that and we have our fingers crossed for you all. You know, we went through those fights up here, I mean, as recently as 2016, in many jurisdictions we’re still fighting. In some jurisdictions, they’re trying to turn the clock back. Like we have, you know, right-wing populists right in office who are trying who are against harm reduction. [35:31][21.2]
[35:32] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I asked Garth about the Canadian version of the war on drugs in America. It looked like a guy cracking an egg in a pan.
[35:40] Anti-drug PSA: This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?
[35:48] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: But mostly it looked like black and brown kids getting thrown in jail.
[35:55] Garth Mullins: Oh, the same. You know, Canada has this reputation in the world of of being sort of progressive and friendly and polite and everything. But actually, we have lots of systemic racism in this country. We have police that are carding people and profiling people. We have a whole history right up to the moment that’s really oppressive to indigenous people. So we have all of those features. And you combine it with the drug war and just makes life really hard for lots of people.
[36:27] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: In my mind, as an American, the grass has always been greener in Canada. I mean, who among us hasn’t joked at some point about immigrating to Canada? But I guess it’s not the utopia that I thought it was.
[36:44] Garth Mullins: Canada’s not utopia. It’s harm reduction. So it’s just less bad of bad options.
[36:50] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: There you go. Although less bad right now sounds really fucking good to me,
[36:54] Garth Mullins: Like really around the world and even here at home, you know, far-right authoritarianism is a thing again. And to be honest — and climate change apocalypse. And so I wonder, as a person who’s on opioids pretty much every day of my adult life, I wonder how people manage to run an adult life without some lovely cushion to stop that terrible shit from getting right into your brain every moment.
[37:19] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s really hard. It’s really hard.
[37:21] Garth Mullins: If there are such people, hats off to them, you know?
[37:26] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: I totally get this. Substitute opioids for wine, candy, cigarettes, melatonin, adult coloring books, whatever. The idea is that most of us need something to take the edge off. And if that something is opioids, how do we make sure that taking the edge off isn’t fatal?
[37:46] Garth Mullins: The way to stop people dying overnight is to substitute the regulated pharmaceutical version of what they’re doing for the street-contaminated version of what they’re doing.
[38:00] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: It’s a pretty straightforward fucking answer.
[38:02] Garth Mullins: I mean, we test the drugs around here. Someone buys a little flop of heroin, or what’s called heroin. And it’s got in carfentanyl, or maybe pig dewormer, or household detergent, or brick dust — and it’s like food coloring, dyed purple or orange or something like that. And what it doesn’t have in it is actual heroin. So that would be the first step. Is just give people what they’re trying to get. Then no one’s dying like this. You make it so much safer. That’s the key to it. And I know that sounds like a sort of a radical suggestion. But what’s truly radical is, is having thousands and tens of thousands of people dying in your country every year from this and thousands for us. You know, we have 12 people a day die in Canada, and we’re one tenth the size of you guys’ population. So we have a very high — and in British Columbia, where I am, it’s even disproportionately higher with our small population. So we just have this roaring crisis. The solutions are known.
[39:06] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Right. So the truth is that there are crazy-high stakes even in a non-utopian utopia like Canada. There are still fucked-up power structures in place, making it hard to save lives. And in the same way I look to Canada as a possible model for saner drug policies in America, Garth looked to Portugal. OK, here’s a little history for you. History-lite, if you will. For 40 years Portugal was under the authoritarian regime of Antonio Salazar, who — in an effort to keep his people passive — suppressed education, weakened public institutions and kept his citizens closed off from the outside world. Remember the wild, far-out free-love drug experimentation of the 1960s? No. Well, neither does Portugal. Like it was literally illegal to own a cigarette lighter without a license. When Salazar’s regime was brought down by a military coup in 1974, the country was suddenly exposed to everything they missed out on. Good and bad. So when marijuana and heroin suddenly began flooding into the country, the population, who still lacked formal education, was totally ill-equipped to deal with it. So in 2011, Portugal became the first country to decriminalize possession and consumption of illicit drugs within certain amounts. And drum roll — the results were pretty good.
[40:33] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Overdose deaths dropped. Drug-related crime and incarceration rates fell. HIV infection went from an all-time high of about 104 new cases per million in 2000 to four cases per million in 2015. That is a lot of progress. And all of this irrefutable data has made Portugal’s model the blueprint for how to do drug policy better. So Garth and his team decided to head to Portugal to see what it looked like on the ground. Here’s a clip from Episode 5 of Garth’s show.
[41:06] Crackdown podcast audio: Portuguese society was trying to learn how to address the problem of drug use.
Do you think it has?
What worked in the beginning — I think it was amazing that we decriminalized the drug use. Of course, that was a super cool thing. We are very well known abroad because of it.
That’s why we’re here.
Yes. And it worked. Things became a little bit better. The government helps you. There’s a process if you want to go to treatment. They provided needle exchange to people. Even doctors learned how — we’re learning to deal with those, to deal with the situation. Families will be teach also how to deal with the problem. And of course, it worked in one way,
But in another way it didn’t. It’s still illegal to sell drugs in Portugal. In fact, the government pitched decriminalization to the public as a way to free up resources so cops could spend more time chasing dealers and traffickers. That means that drug users in Portugal, just like in North America, got to buy their drugs on the black market.
It’s like it’s a paradox. It’s like a gray area.
[42:32] Garth Mullins: Well, my trip to Portugal was really different than like you look on Instagram, you see people going to like wineries and on beaches and stuff like that. And I went to a different country. Absolutely. I did not see any of that stuff. And that’s OK, I’m not really like I don’t I hate the beach and I’m not a winery person. So I was I was fine with that. But I mean, we went to places where, you know, people were using drugs outside an old broken-down building. And while we were there, the cops were sweeping through that suburb. You know, kind of raiding stuff. And so there was a bit of a surprise for us because, you know, we’re so far away. We hear things like Portugal’s the solution, Portugal is the utopia, you know. And so we go there and we’re like, it’s not a finished project. You know, the revolution isn’t done there yet. They have made a great brave move 20 years ago by saying, you know, if you get caught with drugs for small amounts, personal possession, we’re not going to throw you in jail for that. We’re going to try and stream you towards treatment or methadone or something else. And so they they took all the money they were spending on, you know, courts and judges and jails and cops. And they still spend money on cops. But they put a lot of that towards health programs. And so that’s a big, that’s a big move. And that was like in 2000, 2001. So that’s pretty bold. While the rest of the world is still still in, just say no. You know. And that was that was pretty amazing. But what we also found out is that means that 90 percent of of the people that they’re finding, and that are getting involved in the system, are like kids who have a joint or something like that. So we went to what they call the Dissuasion Commission. That’s where when the cops catch you, they’ll take your drugs. Drugs are still legal, but they’ll take you to this administrative process instead of a criminal process. And so we went there and there’s this nervous-looking kid who got caught with like a gram of hash or something like that. And, you know, he went and he got a talking-to by the the guy who runs the commission and a social worker and let go, I guess. But — which is definitely better for sure. Definitely better than what’s happened everywhere else for most of the last hundred years, which is you get a criminal record, you go to jail, your life gets fucked up, you can’t vote, you can’t get housing, you’re criminalized. Your whole trajectory of your world is changed. So it is very impressive. But at the same moment, there is no regulation of drugs there. So there’s still illegal, there’s still a black market. They’re still plentiful available. And that means when fentanyl and strong opioid analogs like that find their way to Portugal, there’s nothing that will particularly protect people there. They will still be vulnerable to overdose and death, just like we are here.
[45:40] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: And just like we are in America.
[45:43] Garth Mullins: But, like, I’m not dissing Portugal, because — especially in the context of the U.S. and Canada, where there’s been so much criminalization and so many people go to jail for drugs — it just continues. I used to live in California and that’s where I had a really, really developing black-tar heroin habit. You know, we were constantly hiding from the cops. I mean, I did go to jail there and I went to a big, giant, industrial-size, huge American jail when I was just like a dumb teenage kid. And I realized — there were just thousands of us, it was overcrowded, like bunks pushed in everywhere — and I realized, my god, there’s thousands of people here and just about everybody is here for somebody to do with drugs. And then I realized, oh, this is just one wing of this thing. And it just spreads out all over the desert. And there’s loads more all over the county, and all over the state, and all over the country. And there just must be tens, or hundreds of thousands, or millions of us all locked down here for this thing. And to take that away, to stop that, to open those gates, or to at least stop putting more people in, it is totally revolutionary. And I mean, it’s amazing.
[47:03] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Once again, the revolutionary idea is to treat humans with humanity, to value their lives.
[47:15] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: You obviously are, like, very educated, in the know, you know, you’re an activist in this space. Has there anything in doing the show that has surprised you, or that you’ve learned? That you’ve been like, holy shit. You know, I feel like I have just like grown a new brain doing my show, but I’m coming from it from a really different perspective. Because I didn’t know anything about it. I’m a family member. You know, I lost my person. I’m trying to figure out what the fuck happened. You know, so I’m like exploding with new information. What is your experience of that been?
[47:51] Garth Mullins: You know, I know my own story, but I don’t really know what it’s like to be, you know, like wired to crystal meth for a long time. Or what it’s like to be indigenous and experience this crisis. Like I just realized I only know this narrow slice of experience. So I thought I’ll probably learn a little bit about all that stuff. And I did. I am. And I realize how little I understand of other people’s experience. I understand more and more how the privileges of my position, actually, even though they may seem incremental when you’ve got the state’s boot on your throat, they still count for something. And then I’ve also realized I know anything about myself. All this shit happened to me that I forgot or didn’t think about or whatever. Like doing this show, I realized there was a period in — like a bunch of years ago — where I overdosed, too. The way it happened, I kind of don’t have a proper memory from that day, but I reconstructed it and all of a sudden I realized, oh shit, that’s what actually happened. Like we’re making this show about the overdose crisis and I didn’t figure out until partway through it that I had overdosed myself. And my friend was like, yeah, yeah. You were in the back of the ambulance. You came to and you all got out and walked away and convinced them you were fine. And then you went around the corner and lie down on the street and all this stuff — like, oh, shit. I don’t remember any of that, you know. But I would never have gone trawling around in the terrible wasteland that is that my past memories to find something like that if I wasn’t trying to, I don’t know, make a radio show, or think about it or — it’s like radio storytelling is so first-person that it’s like you kind of gotta do that a little bit. You kind of gotta say how the whatever you’re talking about affects you. In doing that I’m just realizing all all the stuff about myself. That’s a surprise to me, too.
[49:45] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Yeah. Like digging into your own self. Like it’s like excruciating self-exploration.
[49:52] Garth Mullins: Yes. Yeah.
[49:56] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: So unfortunately, the fastest way to get to the top of a hill of grief is through excruciating self exploration. You know, we’re going on a bear hunt. You can’t go around it. You can’t go over it. You have to go through it. But here’s the thing, when you do reach the top, you look out and discover this endless landscape of people standing on top of their own hills of grief and trauma. That includes the entrenched bureaucrats and the people leaving mean, very personal reviews on the Internet.
[50:37] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: In our next episode, we go back to where we started. With Stefano and with Jess.
[50:44] Jessica Cordova Kramer: I want his story fucking heard, and I know it’s cleansing to people to hear it because it’s so mundane. Like he went to work, he bought drugs and he died in his bathroom alone. And we didn’t find him ‘till later and it was too late to save him. And that is the story of so many people, you know. Maybe it wasn’t the bathroom, but it’s the same fucking story over and over again. And I want to amplify it. I want people to hear it. And I don’t like — holy shit, what am I doing?
[51:18] Stephanie Wittels Wachs: Last Day is a production of Lemonada Media. This episode was produced by Jackie Danziger. Jessica Cordova Kramer is our executive producer and our series producer is Danielle Roth. Kegan Zema is our technical director and our music is by Hannis Brown. Special thanks to Westwood One, our ad sales and distribution partner. You can find us online at Lemonada Media. That’s Lemonada, like L-E-M-O-N-A-D-A. And if you like what you heard today, tell all the people that you know to listen and subscribe rate and review us on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And check out our show notes for a deeper dive into what you’ve heard today and how you can connect with our wonderful, glorious, fantastic, supportive Last Day community. I’m Stephanie Wittels Wachs. Next week we are off. So I’ll see you in two weeks. In the meantime, I am wishing you a happy, or at least a tolerable, Thanksgiving.