Mind and Body

Building a constituency of consequence

The success of the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC was on display at the group’s first anniversary celebration

Photo by Richard Asinof

Annajane Yolken, co-chair of the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC, with award winners Sen. Josh Miller and Rep. Scott Slater, at the PAC's first anniversary celebration.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 8/19/19
The first anniversary celebration of the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC showcased its growing clout as legislative advocates representing a constituency of consequence.
Why have political reporters in Rhode Island overlooked this important story about the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC? When will a public, transparent database, one that shows the deaths of despair in Rhode Island from alcohol, suicide and drugs, become a reality? What are the opportunities to apply the practice of mindfulness and yoga as part of the efforts to support long-term recovery from substance use disorders? When will AG communications director Kristy dosReis schedule an interview for ConvergenceRI with Attorney General Neronha?
One of the recurring themes in the recent mass shootings is a hatred of women, what some have called misogyny, exhibited by the shooters. Similarly, in substance abuse disorders, one of the recurring themes is trauma from sexual abuse and domestic violence, directed by men at women.
More than just a symptom of “mental illness,” most of the men involved in perpetrating mass shootings display a severe hatred of women. In many domestic violence situations, the violence directed by men at women is often an attempt to control the women through threats and fear.
The cruelty being practiced by the Trump administration in separating families and children at the border is a clear expression of misogyny that needs to be called out.

PROVIDENCE – When the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC held its first anniversary party on Thursday evening, Aug. 15, at Layali restaurant on Weybosset Street, ConvergenceRI had the strong sense that the spirit of Jim Gillen was hovering nearby, grinning ear to ear with his infectious smile, watching as the recovery community emerged as a constituency of consequence in Rhode Island, flexing its new-found, hard-earned political clout, as more than six-dozen folks crowded into the front room of the establishment, a veritable who’s who of elected officials and advocates who were pushing for a legislative agenda that recognized that the state was not going to arrest its way out or prescribe its way out of the current overdose crisis.

If this were a Rhode Island Monthly high society story, there would be, no doubt, glossy photos showing the attendees posing to be seen as part of the scene. But this was a political gathering, with a much different kind of sense and sensibility. Among the guests were recovery community stalwarts Michelle McKenzie, co-founder of PONI, Preventing Overdose and Naloxone Intervention; RICARES Executive Director Monica Smith; CODAC’s President and CEO Linda Hurley; Rebecca Boss, executive director of the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities, and Hospitals; and Colleen Daley Ndoye, executive director of Project Weber/RENEW.

Eyes on the prize
The event was awash with top elected officials, including R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha, who won the first of several awards given out by the PAC, and who spoke off the cuff about the importance of the work being done to decriminalize drugs.

Neronha received the “Hit the Ground Running” award, in the shape of a plexiglass star. Neronha said he had just come from an interview at The Public’s Radio with Ian Donnis, where the topic they wanted to discuss, it seemed, Neronha continued in a self-deprecating fashion, was his “failed” legislative agenda.

But Neronha said he pushed back, because he did not see the results of the 2019 session as a failure, particularly in his ongoing efforts to make the possession of Schedule 1 through Schedule IV drugs misdemeanors, through his support of legislation sponsored by Rep. Scott Slater [also an award winner] and Sen. Michael McCaffrey.

Neronha talked about the long-term nature of the political struggle, and even though the proposed legislation did not pass through either the House or the Senate this year, momentum was building for next year.

Indeed, at the July 10 meeting of the Governor’s Task Force on Overdose Prevention and Intervention, Rep. John G. Edwards and Sen. Josh Miller had given a briefing to the task force members on the substance use disorder-related legislation, a scorecard with impressive results for the 2019 session. Eleven pieces of legislation had passed both the Senate and the House, nine pieces of legislation had passed one chamber only, and three did not pass either chamber. [A batting average of .478 in the PAC’s rookie season is an impressive stat.]

Award winners
The presence of so many legislators – including Sen. Josh Miller [the “Long-Term Commitment” award winner] and Rep. Scott Slater [the “True Believer” award winner], spoke to the growing clout that the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC had achieved in less than a year, very much under the radar of most political reporters.

The awards that were given had a touch of humor to them: Michelle McKenzie, for instance, was given an award for being an “All-Around Badass” in her community advocacy efforts.

Roxxanne Newman, who was once homeless and addicted to heroin, and who since then has become a college graduate, married, with one child and a second on the way, also received an award, the “Mic Drop” award. While Newman might be considered a poster woman for “Recovery is Possible,” she used her time in accepting the award to speak about the divisions and discrimination revolving around class that divide Rhode Island and the nation when it comes to drug prosecutions – and serve as a barrier to achieving justice.

Steve Brown from the R.I. ACLU received the “Watchdog” award, while Dennis Bailer of Project Weber/RENEW received the “Community Superhero” award.

All the news that fits?

If the art of politics is the story of who gets what, when, and for how much, the first anniversary celebration of the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC was a lesson that political reporters in Rhode Island need to heed: the recovery community has assembled a group of tough-minded advocates effective in pursuing a legislative agenda, and in doing so, have won the respect and allegiance of lawmakers.

More than the ability to spread the wealth of lobbying dollars, the Substance Use Policy, Education and Recovery PAC is building a winning political strategy based upon tenacity and perseverance and, when necessary, the ability to be a “bad ass.”

The efforts to build a comprehensive harm reduction strategy continue to be led by recovery community advocates, outside the lens of mainstream news coverage. For instance, RICARES has just purchased 2,000 more fentanyl test strips to be distributed to community groups such as Project Weber/RENEW.

On the bureaucratic level, negotiations with the Rhode Island Medicaid office about the low reimbursement rates paid by Medicaid that are making it impossible for group practices such as Coastal Medical to refer patients to providers are underway, according to sources.

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