Immigration came to a halt during the pandemic, but family separation continues in full swing

Reports show ICE officers often offered families in detention centers two options: separate willingly, or risk dying from the virus.

As COVID-19 spread throughout the world, dozens of countries limited or entirely stopped immigration to help reduce the chance of additional cases of the virus. The U.S. shut down its borders in April, and the number of legal and illegal border crossings dropped substantially. 

But, as the news cycle and national conscience turned toward the pandemic and away from the border, the Trump Administration’s family separation policy continued, and COVID-19 outbreaks ravaged detention centers. 

In total, there are currently 6,468 confirmed cases of the virus in ICE detention centers around the country. Eight people have died from COVID-19 in ICE detention centers.

“There are mounting COVID-19 outbreaks in two out of the three family detention centers that leave children and their parents vulnerable under unsanitary and inhumane conditions,” reads the statement. “In order for these children to be truly safe, they should be released with their parents and not subjected to the long-term harm caused by family separation.” 

Michelle Brané, senior director of the migrant rights and justice program for the Women’s Refugee Commission, said the issue of family separation during the pandemic is much more complicated than in the past. 

“COVID-19 has added a lot of stress both on the system and on individuals within the system,” said Brané. 

Family separation, she said, has taken on a complex meaning that refers not only to the Trump administration’s Zero Tolerance policy, but also to the current immigration restrictions and border control operations during the pandemic.

Brané said the families and independent migrants who continue to cross the border do so out of necessity, face much higher levels of risk and are often escaping gang or domestic violence.

“The people you see moving despite [the risks] and the people who are seeking protection despite all the additional burdens are a lot more desperate,” said Brané.

She said she sees families that travel through already harsh and dangerous conditions also do not have access to masks, hand sanitizer, or the ability to social distance. Even more concerning, said Brané, is that because of the strict deportation guidelines during the pandemic, children who cross the border before their family members are often deported back to countries where they no longer have any close relatives and are at-risk of becoming homeless or the targets of violence.

Even before the pandemic, families were crossing the border at lower levels than in the past, but as COVID-19 became a more well-known concern, the demographics of the population continuing to cross the border changed drastically. 

Brané said despite the reduction in border crossings, the pandemic was quickly politicized not only in terms of domestic policy, but also in border control and immigration policy. 

According to reporting from the Associated Press, CDC officials issued a report that deporting asylum seekers and ICE detainees, and continuing family separation during the pandemic would lead to an increase in cases, while not effectively protecting American citizens from the virus. Healthcare professionals argued that families being detained in tight and unsanitary quarters that characterize ICE detention centers were at higher risk for contracting and spreading the virus. 

CDC officials argued that continuing these policies could actually increase the risk for unchecked COVID-19 cases that would harm migrants and U.S. residents alike. Brané said the issue is not only affecting immigrants, but also workers in detention centers and border patrol officers who may spread or contract the virus within ICE facilities

Those concerns were overruled by Vice President Pence, who ordered border patrol to continue apprehending, detaining and deporting migrants, as well as separating children from their family members.

Brané said this is not surprising to her, because she believes the goal of family separation and detention, especially during the pandemic, was never to protect U.S. citizens, but rather to punish immigrants and deter illegal border crossings in the future. 

“The levels of cruelty and the extremes to which this administration has been willing to go to punish this population are shocking,” said Brané. “Making people suffer and having that message get out there: ‘if you come to the United States, this terrible thing is going to happen to you.’ That’s exactly the point of this policy.”

Other policies currently putting families at risk for separation that fit into the broader definition provided by Brané include a recent court decision allowing the Trump administration to end Temporary Protective Services for hundreds of thousands of people. 

“With the current COVID-19 pandemic, over 130,000 TPS holders are on the front lines working to help protect the health and safety of Americans,” Rebecca Lightsey, executive director of American Gateways, an immigration law and advocacy organization in Texas, said in a statement. “They are medical and health care professionals, agricultural workers, and transportation workers, to name a few.”

The decision made by the 9th circuit district court would end TPS for 300,000 people, many of whom have lived in the U.S. for decades, have families in the country and whose relatives have moved to the nation as well. 

Although not directly being removed by the zero-tolerance policy, the decision follows Brané’s argument that family separation continues to permeate immigration policies during the pandemic. 

“They are considered essential and provide critical infrastructure on the frontlines, and without them our country would not be able to function,” Lightsey said in her statement.

Anti-socialist messaging during the election hits close to home for Cuban-Americans

“That label of socialism, that fear-mongering about socialism that was applied nationally, had a particular impact on Cubans,” said Pérez. “For them, socialism means something a lot more radical than anybody in the U.S. has ever proposed.”

Many Americans were surprised when President Trump won Florida on election night this year because of his low popularity within Latino and Hispanic communities, but pro-Biden activists and experts said this result was foreshadowed by months of misinformation targeting Cuban-Americans throughout the state. 

Trump received the support of 56% of Cuban voters in Florida, an increase of 4 percent compared to the 2016 election. According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, Cuban-Americans have historically always supported Republicans, but were beginning to shift toward democratic candidates up until this election.

Lisandro Pérez, founder of the Cuban Research Institute and professor of ethnic studies at John Jay College, said in an interview the Trump campaign’s focus on connecting now President-elect Joe Biden to socialist policies was critical to securing the Cuban vote. 

In the weeks leading up to the election, the Trump campaign spent $37.2 million on campaign ads, dozens of which painted Biden as a radical left ideologue. Ad campaigns targeting Cuban-American communities in Florida said Biden “embraces extremist left-wing politics,” and other ads said he had close ties with Nicolás Maduro, the socialist leader of Venezuela.

“That label of socialism, that fear-mongering about socialism that was applied nationally, had a particular impact on Cubans,” said Pérez. “It had a particular impact on Cubans because of this history, that, for them, socialism means something a lot more, shall we say, radical than anybody in the U.S. has ever proposed.” 

Many Cuban-Americans arrived in the country after fleeing the Castro regime, a communist dictatorship in their home country that resulted in the deaths of thousands and a mass exodus of Cuban refugees to the United States. 

Pérez said the Trump campaign pushed hard in the months leading up to the election to connect socialism with radical left policies in a way that would intentionally frighten Cuban-American and Venezuelan American communities. 

“The word socialism for someone who has experience in Cuba, particularly those who have somewhat more recently arrived from Cuba … socialism means a system that is to them, much more coercive,” Pérez said. 

Pérez said the idea that Biden is a socialist is “laughable,” and that even policies from further left-leaning legislators like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders never echoed the actions of the Castro regime. But this hasn’t stopped Trump’s anti-socialist messaging. 

Raymond Adderly, a 16-year-old Afro-Latino Cuban-American political organizer in Miami-Dade county in Florida, said the Trump campaign’s messaging created a “deep divide” in his community. 

“That type of rhetoric, it’s turned family against family,” said Adderly. “I can’t tell you the amount of organizers that we’ve had that have had fights with their family, and people that are kicked out, disowned, called Socialists, excommunicated from church.”

Adderly is a political organizer with Cubanos Con Biden, a grassroots organization of Cuban-American voters who pledged their support to the Democratic nominee this election. He said the results in his county specifically showed that the gains Democrats made in Miami-Dade over recent years seemed to vanish.

While Adderly said part of the blame lies on the Democratic Party for its “neglect” of Black and Latino voters in Florida, he said the “most vivid” issue was how Republican rhetoric “played into the trauma” of his community, spreading fear and disinformation that muddied the political waters for people going to the polls. 

“Not only Cubans, but Venezuelans and Nicaraguans alike all suffered, leaving their countries because of socialist regimes,” he said. This meant to Adderly that these communities already susceptible to anti-socialist messaging were exploited to gain votes.

But, for the Cuban-Americans who supported Biden, their family histories play an important role in how they viewed the 2020 election as well. 

Mercedes Aleida Hughes Terrill and Maggie Ramirez Malast, two sisters from Florida, said their family’s history escaping the Castro regime only strengthened their resolve to vote against a president who they said “doesn’t play by the rules.” 

Terrill and Malast are the daughters of first generation Cuban immigrants, refugees that fled the island to the U.S. to start a new life. Their grandfather, a prominent anti-socialist demonstrator on the island, was murdered during the overthrow of the Batista regime. While some of their family members remained trapped on the island, those that could escaped. 

In the following years, their family worked with the CIA to try and rescue people from the island. According to the sisters, their father transported refugees from the island for ten years following his escape, shipping in supplies for the elderly and disabled and shipping out those that were able to meet him at the shore. 

Terrill and Malast said they never believed the Trump campaign’s claims that Biden was a socialist, because they understood that socialism and socialist programs weren’t what led to the deaths of their family members, it was Fidel Castro and his communist regime that did that.  

“Donald Trump in the White House scares the shit out of me,” said Malast. “I don’t want somebody who will undermine the constitution, I don’t want somebody who’s not gonna follow the rules, who’s not going to respect my rights.” 

Terrill said the “concentration camps holding Hispanics” at the southern border, the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric from Republicans and subverting the constitution were echoes from Cuban history. 

“It scares me because that reminds me of all the stories I’ve heard from my family,” said Terrill.

In particular, she said she was affected by the Trump administration’s rhetoric toward migrant families and refugee families throughout the presidency.

“The stigma he put on them, not accepting them into the United States, I thought: what’s the difference between them and what my family went through?” said Terrill. 

Now, as the post-election fighting unfolds and Trump refuses to concede, she said it’s clear  Trump is like the strongmen of Communist Cuba.

“I don’t trust this guy, because he’s a dictator at heart,” said Terrill.

American University contributes to research on link between eviction and STDs

*This story was originally published Feb. 14, 2019 for an in-class assignment

WASHINGTON – A new study published in the scientific journal Sexually Transmitted Diseases found evidence of a link between eviction rates and a higher likelihood of STD contraction. 

The study collected data on rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea in counties across the United States. Controlling for factors such as poverty and environment, both of which can affect rates of STDs, the study concluded that areas where more evictions occur also see a higher rate of sexually transmitted diseases.

American University sociology professor Kim Blankenship coauthored the study with Dr. Linda Niccolai and Danya Keene of the Yale University’s School of Public Health. 

“That study was inspired by a big project that I have called the ‘Justice, Housing and Health study,’” said Blankenship.

The study, published in 2018, was a joint effort between scholars at Yale University, Drexel University, and American University that covers an array of subjects linking public health effects with community policies. 

Guadalupe Mabry, a junior studying public health at American, said that a major benefit of going to school in Washington is the opportunity for community-based research in a diverse urban environment.

“I think that it’s really interesting to just hear from other students about what AU’s connecting them to off-campus,” said Mabry. “D.C. is a place where you get can experience interning in clinics, as well as, like, the policy aspect of public health.”

Katie Marx, a student in the Three Year Scholar program for public health at American, said the science department is still developing “to be competitive with the big science schools.” However, Marx explained that she is happy to study public health at American. 

“This is a good place to be to have that balance of policy and the science part of public health,” said Marx.

House Committee on Rules debates amendments to firearms bills

* This article was originally submitted for a class assignment on Feb. 28, 2019

WASHINGTON – The House Committee on Rules held a hearing Monday night to debate amendments on two pieces of legislation related to background checks for purchasing firearms.

The two bills were presented by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., the chair of the House Committee on the Judiciary, and Rep. Chris Collins, R-N.Y.

According to both representatives, the Bipartisan Background Checks Act of 2019 and the Enhanced Background Checks Act of 2019, are designed to close loopholes in current legislation and institute universal federal background checks across the U.S.

The first bill would make background checks mandatory for all private transactions related to purchasing firearms, including online sales and purchases at gun shows. The second piece of legislation would institute a 10-day waiting period to allow time for a background check to be processed before a federally licensed firearms dealer could complete a transaction. Under current federal law, a transaction can be finalized after three days without a response from the government. GOOD CLEAR WRITING ON WHAT THE BILLS ARE

Nadler said during the hearing that the that main inspiration for the measures is to “ensure firearms won’t be found in the wrong hands.”

Congressman Collins argued that the process within the committees regarding both bills was “a radical and alarming departure” from the normal level of debate for legislation moving to the House floor.

“We are considering a combination of bills that will do nothing to stop the proliferation of violence in this country, bills that have been poorly conceived, were barely considered in committee, and are simply not ready for primetime,” Collins said during the hearing.

“The universal background check bill –, it’s been around for a long, long time. It’s not a complicated bill. … I think it’s probably a little bit disingenuous for anybody to say that somehow this was being rushed,” Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., the chairman of the House Committee on Rules, said in an interview.

Brandon Combs, who heads the Firearms Policy Coalition, said the legislation is unnecessary and infringes upon the rights of U.S. citizens. The coalition believes its position that the freedoms enshrined in the constitution come with accepted social costs.

“Freedom is inherently dangerous, you have to accept that,” said Combs. “It doesn’t matter if you have an unregulated scheme or a completely regulated scheme, people that are evil or insane will still do what they do.”

Janice Iwama, an assistant professor of justice, law, and criminology at American University with background in research on gun violence prevention, said the legislation was the best that could be expected for federal gun reform from the current administration.

She said that the topic of gun control is extremely “politically divided.” “You talk about Sandy Hook, you had … 20 kids murdered, and nothing came out of it,” said Iwama. “I think the fact that this is even on the table is amazing.”

A “quiet storm” threatens the District’s efforts to reduce opioid deaths

Despite efforts to combat addiction and overdose throughout Washington, the numbers aren’t going down like Mayor Bowser’s administration had hoped.

This article was originally handed in as a class assignment on Dec. 11, 2019.

Mayor Muriel Bowser’s multimillion-dollar plan to reduce opioid overdoses in Washington in 2020 has hit a major roadblock. Despite educational initiatives, Narcan distribution programs and increased efforts to combat fentanyl trafficking throughout the DMV, overdose deaths have not decreased this year, according to a report from the D.C. office of the chief medical examiner.

The D.C. government is fighting “a quiet storm,” said Chikarlo Leak, who tracks opioid overdose deaths for the medical examiner.

In a phone interview, Leak said the key factor contributing to the District’s continuing opioid crisis is a lack of trust in government institutions, leading to a high rate of death specifically in historically marginalized black communities in Washington. Although the city is working to sustain partnerships with local organizations, the rate of overdose deaths is stagnating.

The newest opioid overdose mortality report is not currently available online, but Leak said it shows overdoses are not declining despite the $24 million spent on reducing deaths in the District. The initiatives in place revolve around expanding education and awareness while also providing access to life-saving opioid reversal drugs like Narcan. 

According to the 2019 second-quarter report produced by Leak Office of the chief medical examiner report, there are 14 fatal overdoses in the District every month. As of July 31, there were 98 opioid-related overdose deaths confirmed by the chief medical examiner compared to 109 deaths at the same time in 2018.

The Mayor’s plan

In order to address the increasing epidemic within the district, Mayor Bowser initiated the Live Long D.C. campaign in January 2018. The plan was implemented with the goal to cut opioid overdoses in half by 2020. The information provided by Leak casts doubt on whether or not this goal will be met by the end of next year.

“The District’s multi-stakeholder, public health approach has yielded progress in saving lives and reducing fatal overdoses,” the Mayor wrote in the strategic plan’s opening letter. “But there is still work to be done to reduce the impact of the epidemic on our city.”

The successes of the plan so far, according to Mayor Bowser’s letter, included reversing over a thousand opioid overdoses by distributing Narcan to community organizations, as well as monitoring synthetic opioids and providing educational materials on opioid addiction.

Between 2014 and 2018, 81 percent of all overdose deaths were African Americans, and 88 percent of all people who overdosed had been using for more than 10 years. This population provides a stark contrast to the average opioid user nationally, who are 18-29-year-old white men.

Live Long D.C. focuses on 7 goals, which include educating pharmacists and D.C. residents on opioid use, increasing access to harm reduction services and reducing barriers that might prevent or deter people from seeking out services.

Although the rate of overdose deaths dropped by 31 percent between 2017 and 2018, according to Leak the number of deaths has not dropped between last year and this year.

Leak’s role includes looking for trends in mortality rates, assessing causes of death and creating special reports for the Mayor’s office. He also serves on the oversight board of the Live Long D.C. initiative. He uses this data to provide policy suggestions to the various government programs designed to reduce opioid overdose deaths.

In addition to producing mortality reports, Leak also participates in meetings with government officials to discuss ways to improve access to care services within D.C. The quarterly meetings allow Leak to discuss and review his reports in a way to address opioid use and addiction with the city’s government.

He said that building on community partnerships has been essential to reaching users who would not normally interact with government-operated care facilities.

Organizations like Bread for the City and HIPS, which provide a number of legal and health support services within Washington, are the center point for this goal. They provide Narcan to residents, offer syringe exchange programs to reduce the transference of disease and offer buprenorphine, which reduces withdrawal symptoms in individuals who are trying to stop using opioids.

The Mayor’s office did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

Deaths in the District

The 2019 report on overdose-related deaths shows Wards 5, 7 and 8 having the highest rate of overdose deaths. These neighborhoods are all predominantly black. African-American men between the ages of 50 to 59 are the most at-risk population for opioid-related fatal overdoses in the District, constituting nearly a third of all deaths in 2018.

Michael Kharfen, senior deputy director of the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB administration for the D.C. Department of Health is in charge of the city’s Narcan distribution program, which was introduced earlier this year.

In a phone interview, Kharfen said that because the opioid-using population in the District is so different, the city’s response has been unique in the way it approaches providing services for substance users.

“Our first intervention effort was partnering with our needle exchange providers who have very long-standing relationships and rapport with people who have a longer-term use of drugs,” said Kharfen. “We were not necessarily applying the same toolkit that may have been applied in place that’s more rural, that has the younger users … or are using prescription drugs.”

Kharfen said that a key part of the city’s response to overdose deaths is understanding the relationship between the District’s using population and government support systems.

“[Washington] is very different in terms of where people are willing to access, whom they trust,” said Kharfen. “The distinctive approach in the District has been … partnering with the organizations that have that kind of credibility and authenticity with a community of people who’ve used drugs for a long time and have been often marginalized or rejected by other traditional systems of care.”

He said that while his goal is to provide better access to Narcan for family members and friends of drug users, he also thinks about “adopting and adapting to the needs” of the city’s unique conditions.

Rana Bou-Serhal, the top pharmacist at an Adams Morgan neighborhood CVS that participates in the program, said her pharmacy has only distributed seven or eight kits since the program began. In 2018, there were eight opioid-related overdose deaths in Ward 1, where the pharmacy is located.

Bou-Serhal said “there’s no limit, they can get as many [kits] as they want.”

She said that she will then fill out a form that includes the requestor’s information as well as the number of kits they were given, which she then will fax to the Washington D.C. Board of Pharmacy.

Aside from the standard questions that pharmacists are required to ask, some local healthcare providers in the District go beyond the specific requirements laid out by the board of pharmacy.

Sukriti Kaushal, a pharmacist at Grubb’s Pharmacy Southeast, said in an interview that the pharmacy will cross-check a requestor’s name with their own database to view which medications they are currently prescribed.

“Any patient that comes in with a prescription that has the potential for abuse with the ability for Narcan to resuscitate, we offer them the Narcan for free,” said Kaushal.

She said the pharmacy offers patients information on the pharmacies that distribute Narcan, what days they’re open, and how to get to them. The pharmacy will also offer Narcan kits to friends and family members that pick up these prescriptions.

Kimberly Henderson, the director of communications and community relations for the D.C. Department of Health, said in an email that 1565 kits have been distributed since Aug. 31.

Purity and potency

Fentanyl is a highly potent synthetic opioid that is often cut into heroin in order to pack a more powerful punch in a smaller dose, making it easier to transport and distribute. This means that people who have been using opioids for decades are now facing an increased risk because it is nearly impossible to distinguish between heroin that is pure and heroin that contains fentanyl.

“You see a white powder, you don’t know the concentration” or purity of the substance, said Leak.

Leak said that his role on the Live Long D.C. advisory board includes making suggestions for policies that could reduce the number of overdose deaths involving fentanyl specifically.

“Handing out fentanyl test strips, getting Naloxone, and harm reduction” are all goals of the Mayor’s initiative, according to Leak.

In 2018, there were 213 total overdose deaths, with fentanyl contributing to 86 percent of fatalities. In the second quarter of 2019, 98 percent of all opioid-related overdose deaths in the District involved some amount of fentanyl.

Leak said that this trend remains the same for the unpublished third-quarter report.

Since the Office of the chief medical examiner first started testing for fentanyl in 2014, 873 of the 1,018 people who died from opioid-related overdose tested positive for the drug.

Despite this information, in the 24-page Live Long D.C. report published in March, fentanyl is only mentioned seven times despite accounting for well over 90 percent of all opioid-related overdose deaths. While the report mentions the prevalence of fentanyl-laced opioids, there is no specific plan to reduce fentanyl-related overdoses.

The only plan outlined in the report is to “develop effective law enforcement strategies that reduce the supply of illegal opioids in the District of Columbia.”

Leak said that continuing to focus on “implementing educational campaigns” will be the major factor in reducing opioid overdose deaths. In the coming months, bus stops and homeless shelters will have advertisements with information on how to get Narcan and begin addiction treatment at local facilities.

He said that “reducing regulatory barriers, creating a robust and comprehensive surveillance system, … supporting behavioral health programs and providing immediate access to intervention and care” are all key to reducing overdose deaths.

“We want to make sure residents and users are aware that there are services in the city,” said Leak.

Braeden’s big list o’ podcasts

A list of podcasts that I love, more to come!

Listen to these and let me know what you think!

Harm reduction advocate emphasizes seeing substance users as “people first”

Frederick, MD – John Dittmann leans against the wall while sitting at his Starbucks table, with a kind smile on his face and a coffee steaming by his left hand. He speaks with an accent that’s hard place, which makes sense considering he grew up bouncing between California and West Virginia before settling in Maryland as an adult.

His baseball cap casts a slight shadow over his eyes, but passion lights up his face the moment he begins to discuss his work as an advocate for people in recovery from opioid addiction. 

“Being in recovery myself, my goal is to blend my advocacy work and to teach people about the medical aspects [of addiction] to correct misconceptions,” said Dittmann. “I will educate anyone who needs educating … where I see a need, I speak up.” 

Aside from running his Facebook group, Dittmann is a paramedic and also works as a member of the national group Advocates for Opioid Recovery as a member of their survivor’s council. He provides consultation for people in legal struggles with clinics as well as providing support systems for their recovery. 

Dittmann was in college when he first used opioids. It started with recreational cocaine use with some friends, but one night when they didn’t have any coke, they decided to take some Oxycontin with a friend who had been prescribed the drug.

“It kind of just snuck up on me,” said Dittmann. “It actually took me a long time to realize that I was physically dependent and became addicted.”

In school, Dittmann studied microbiology and analytical chemistry, and was on track to go to medical school. The science behind addiction had always fascinated him. By the end of college, he moved in with friends who also used and had gone from snorting crushed Oxy to injecting heroin, which culminated in his arrest after graduation. 

Part of his probation included a requirement to seek professional recovery assistance. Lacking confidence in 12-step programs, Dittmann instead chose to begin treatment at a methadone clinic. 

But what drove Dittmann to become an advocate for other people in recovery was not his personal experience as a user, but, rather, the neglect and corruption he saw during his decade hopping form one methadone clinic to clinic. During a span of 10 years, he sought treatment at seven different rehab facilities, seeking one that provided him with adequate support.

“We’re never going to stop the overdose crisis until we start seeing people who use drugs as people first.”

–John dittmann

At one time, after raising questions about medical advice he received at a clinic, he was put on “administrative detox,” where a patient is weaned off of the drug over 10-21 days. This is the process of slowly reducing the amount of methadone given to a patient and allow them to leave the clinic without suffering the most serious side effects of detoxification.

“It’s cruel, it’s dangerous, it’s to get you out of the clinic,” said Dittmann. He saw detox used as a punishment when other people like him were unable to pay their bills, or questioned the decisions of the clinicians.

Dittmann began to question the power dynamic in clinics that the people he and other people in recovery were relying on for medication and support. He saw contradictory information, such as warning signs and threats of felony charges for failing to follow clinic protocols, despite his knowledge that those punishments themselves were against the law.

When Dittmann’s younger half-brother died from an overdose, Dittmann realized that addiction is often a response to trauma. 

Even more important, he said, is understanding that people experience addiction and trauma in different ways. Making the recovery process more personal, allowing for mistakes and educating former substance users became a goal for Dittmann. 

From contradictory advice from clinician to clinician, to threats of legal action if patients failed to follow the program entirely that were posted in clinics and had no basis in state or federal law, Dittmann saw a need for advocacy on the behalf of others in recovery that didn’t have the same background in medicine he does. 

“It breaks my heart … the way people are being treated, the way they’re looked down on” while trying to recover from addiction, said Dittmann. “We’re never going to stop the overdose crisis until we start seeing people who use drugs as people first.”

Stacy Lesko was three years sober when she decided to join a Facebook group dedicated to helping people in recovery from opioid addiction. She said the group broke down “myths” and biases about addiction that are held by doctors and patients alike. 

“When you’re in active addiction, your life becomes this non-reality,” said Lesko. “A part of recovery is coming back to reality, and that was one of my biggest struggles.” 

For her, it was John Dittmann, the creator of the group, who helped her regain her footing. 

“Every morning I would get on there, and just read through,” said Lesko. “Not even just the questions you ask, things you didn’t even think of, or you forgot about, people were asking.” 

John would dedicate hours of time to researching and responding to each individual group member’s questions. He would provide links to research and personal anecdotes as a way for people to understand their addiction, and their recovery. 

“During active addiction, you’re fighting to get out, and you’re also fighting to defend yourself,” said Lesko. “All these people that loved and cared for me … they didn’t understand so then it built a barrier.” 

“When you’re in certain situations, people don’t understand how quickly it is to relapse,” said Lesko. “By John sharing everything that he knows, or can find, it’s easier to understand everything that you’re going through and to make better decisions.” 

Dittmann is too humble to admit the direct role he played in Lesko’s recovery.

Lesko said that thanks to Dittmann, she was able to reconnect with her friends and family because she had an outlet to discuss her recovery.

“I’ve learned that when defending yourself, you also have to be understanding of where people are coming from, too,” said Lesko. “People feel a certain way or have opinions about you, for a reason. Everything that I’ve gone through, they’ve gone through as well. ”

Lawmakers discuss banning flavored tobacco products in the U.S.

The legislation could remove e-cigarette flavors and menthol cigarettes from the U.S. market

Washington­­­­– Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday condemned tobacco companies for “aggressively” targeting children with flavored vaping products.

“We can’t allow young Americans to be ensnared in nicotine addiction,” Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), chairwoman of a key health subcommittee, said during a hearing on legislation aimed at ending youth tobacco use. “It’s time to do everything we can to end youth tobacco use.”

Eshoo’s remarks came in an opening statement during a hearing her panel, the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Health, held on a bill dubbed “Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019.” Witnesses from several major anti-tobacco advocacy groups and medical professionals appeared before the subcommittee and argued that e-cigarette companies such as Juul deliberately marketed their products to minors.

Aside from the variety flavors that appeal to children, such as bubblegum and mango, witnesses also testified that these vaporizers are easy to hide, often similar in appearance to flash-drives or office supplies.

“These predatory companies targeted our kids where they live, on social media, with slick ads, promotions, and influencers,” Dorian Fuhrman, co-founder of Parents Against Vaping e-cigarettes, said.

Fuhrman alleged that a representative from Juul approached her 14-year-old son at his high school after a presentation on tobacco use and showed him how to use the device, calling it the “iPhone of vapes.” Her son developed a “severe” nicotine addiction, she said, that required professional treatment to overcome.

Fuhrman submitted a series of different flavored pods from various vaping companies to the committee, before revealing that the highlighter in her hand was actually a vaporizer specifically designed to be innocuous.

Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor in the Boston University School of Public Health, said that flavor is not responsible for the addictiveness of vaping products, and that lawmakers should be more concerned about the regulation of highly concentrated nicotine salts. Siegel said that e-cigarette companies are able to pack much more nicotine into a smaller volume of liquid, allowing nicotine to enter the blood stream and give users a “buzz” almost instantly.

During her questioning, Chairwoman Eshoo said that while the flavor may not be addictive, but it is what convinces adolescents to try vaping in the first place.

“I love Italian food, so I go to Italian restaurants,” said Chairwoman Eshoo. “Flavor is very attractive.”

Although there was bi-partisan agreement that action must be taken to stop youth tobacco use, lawmakers butted heads on language within the legislation that would ban all flavored tobacco products, which would include menthol cigarettes as well as flavored nicotine salts.

“My fear … is that such a ban will inevitably lead to the creation of a black market for mentholated products,” said Rep. G.K. Butterfield, a Democrat of North Carolina, the nation’s top tobacco producer. “It is naïve to think that a prohibition of flavors for existing tobacco products, like menthol, will not have unintended consequences.”

Butterfield cited research stating that a third of all tobacco use in the U.S. is menthol cigarettes, and that 80% of African Americans who smoke prefer menthol. He said that if menthol was implemented it could specifically harm African Americans by pushing the product into illegal distribution.

“This bill does not address tobacco use in two thirds of the U.S. market, instead it targets one third of the market that just happens to be African American,” said Butterfield.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin (R-Ok.) said the conversation was “very hypocritical” because it was not addressing THC-laced pods, and witnesses chose not to comment on their positions regarding the legalization of marijuana.

“If we’re going to talk about this, let’s have an open and fair conversation about it,” said Rep. Mullin. “What brought this into a hearing to begin with was because the death and sickness that e-cigarettes has brought, but what hasn’t been discussed is that most of those individuals was buying illegal cartridges laced with THC.”

Rep. Mullin raised concerns that even if the flavored pods were made illegal, teens could still purchase them online.

While both parties support the idea of addressing the increase in youth tobacco use, they remain at odds over whether to legislate a broader ban on flavored tobacco products. The “Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019” is one of several bills making its way through the committee process.

The Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act of 2019 was introduced to Congress on April 18. It is still in its preliminary stages and is still awaiting amendments.

DC Health rolls out program offering Narcan at pharmacies around the District

Washingtonians now have access to free Narcan, a drug designed to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses, thanks to a pilot program aimed at cutting the number of D.C. opioid-related deaths in half by late 2020.

The overdose-reversing drug, a nasal spray that requires little to no training to administer, is available at 17 different local pharmacies. The program, which started on Aug. 31, is part of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Live. Long. D.C. comprehensive initiative to tackle the city’s opioid addition epidemic.

“Basically, anyone who requests one, they can get it without a prescription,” said Tom Brew, a pharmacist at Grubbs NW Specialty Pharmacy, which provides the kits.

“There’s nothing really complicated about [the program],” Brew said in an interview. “It’s pretty much just like asking for a flu shot.”

According to a press release from D.C. Health, the program was implemented on “International Opioid Awareness Day” as part of the city’s bigger plans to combat opioid addiction and deaths.

Michael Kharfen, senior deputy director of the HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis, STD and TB administration for D.C. Health, said in a phone interview that the program is part of a multi-level “strategy of making this lifesaving medication available within the community.”

According to Kharfen, DC Health has taken a community-based approach in order to reduce overdoses in the District. They began providing naloxone to local organizations like Bread for the City and HIPS, which provide a number of services for Washingtonians, in 2016.

Partnering with these organizations has been a way for DC Health to provide support for those who are at higher risk for overdose by supplying Narcan to local groups who already have relationships with users around the city.

“Our opioid epidemic is different than the rest of the nation,” said Kharfen. “The persons most affected in D.C. have been longer term users” who are more diverse and generally older than the average overdose victim in the country.

In a report from the DC Office of the chief medical examiner published on Aug. 21, the most at-risk population for opioid-related fatal overdoses in the District is 50-59 year old African-American men, who constituted nearly a third of all deaths in 2018.

Kharfen said that the new plan to provide Narcan at local pharmacies takes that information into mind when considering the locations where the medication will be distributed.

“We need to provide lots of different options and access points for people to get naloxone, and while the primary distribution has been through those community partners who work closely with the population, we do recognize there can be others who may have family or friends … who could benefit by having this medication on hand,” said Kharfen.

The pharmacies chosen for the pilot program are located in wards that have been hardest hit by the opioid crisis. In 2018, Ward 8 had the highest number of opioid related overdoses with 45 confirmed fatalities and now, by design, has the most pharmacies that provide Narcan.

Manjula Chitkula, head of Kalorama Pharmacy in Adams Morgan, said in a phone interview that her pharmacy is distributing its first Narcan kits today. The pharmacy provides training on how to use Narcan, Chitkula said, thereby “encouraging people” to be more prepared to respond to overdoses.

“We are distributing according to the need,” Chitkula said. “We just need their name, their date of birth, and allergy information, then we can give them [however] many kits they want.”

“This is a lifesaver,” said Chitkula.