A smarter approach to regulating marijuana

On NPR today I heard two stories that point to smarter ways of looking at the regulation of marijuana through capitalism. In the first, Uruguay, a small South American county, realized that there was a contradiction in its laws. While  the country had de-criminalized marijuana use, obtaining the drug had been a crime. This forced buyers to obtain it through illegal means, which fed the coffers of organized crime. Now, Uruguay has a new law that will create a state monopoly that allows the government to regulate and collect taxes much like alcohol is taxed. The law faces opposition from people using things like the tired old “marijuana is a gateway drug” myth. For years, this idea has been promoted without a shred of evidence to promote it. What we do know is the incredible cost of the war on drugs in South America and the United States. Thousands of people have been killed, hundreds have been imprisoned and yet marijuana grows more popular with laws to legalize medical and recreational use of the drug.

The second marijuana related story follows from the legal marijuana industry in the United States. Justin Hartfield has a new business that invests in marijuana related companies. It’s old fashioned capitalism. The one elephant in the room that could wreck this business model is federal marijuana law enforcement. And there are many vested interests including the prison guards who like things just the way things are, with laws that reduce a judge’s flexibility in dealing with people who  are convicted  of a crime and too many non-violent drug offenders in prison. Potentially there are billions of dollars at stake in taking an approach of regulating and taxing marijuana and abandoning our expensive and unsuccessful current strategies. Let Hartfield help grow the pot industry and create jobs in a whole new area while letting thousands of people become productive citizens.




Which model of peer support specialist do you prefer and does it matter?


I worked for many years as a peer support specialist for low wages and rarely received performance evaluations or raises. I passed the certification test in February 2012 and accepted a new job as a full time peer support specialist. I received my performance evaluation this week and my third raise in thirteen months. This now means I am earning more than $5 per hour than I was before this job. Plus I have the kind of benefits that used to be reserved for clinicians. Am I in a dream?

I can earn this amount of money and respect because peer support is a billable service. And I am very productive, assisting a lot of consumers with our agency. We are engaging people in ways that had never been possible before, which contributes to our success. With the agency’s encouragement and support, I have attended as many training sessions as possible. This includes many that I believe will be very valuable in my practice.

Currently I am awaiting word of my application for graduate school and this weekend I will be studying the Neuroscience of Addiction in a program organized specifically for peer support specialists. There are many jobs available for certified peer specialists, who are often highly trained, experienced and able to handle many different types of tasks.

Another model of peer support is the one I escaped, where is was assumed that we relied upon SSI or SSDI for our income and could only work part time. Health care comes from Medicaid or Medicare. The tasks are also relatively limited. I have seen people who worked in this model become very frustrated want to do more. No one who relied on disability benefits could work in my type of position more than a few hours per week out of fear they would lose their disability benefits.

It depends on your level of stability and coping skills. I wanted an agency with upward mobility from which I could retire. this brings us to Model #3 which is represented by people who do not trust the mental health system. They believe that their best role it to be a volunteer under the radar and outside the mental health system.They may identify themselves as anarchists, people who inherently distrust government. I always hoped that we would develop the right kind of government and it would be replenished by people’s movements from below. Since I didn’t find that kind of society I began to vote for Democrats instead.

These models will become increasingly important as we implement community based mental health. I see people sliding between all three and being enriched by the experience. Where do you see yourself in this?


Yesterday I finally accessed my HealthEvets website. I had originally signed up for the site several years. I don’t know why I did it. I was probably fairly new in my career as a peer support specialist and was living in rather poor conditions. I had a lot of concerns about being able to access my care team at the VA. It’s one thing to be living in vets housing and you just have to go downstairs to the nursing office to make an appointment. It’s quite another to be off in the community taking care of things and needing to figure out things on my own.

So a lot of things I was doing did not quite fit together. I must have heard about the HealthEvets at an appointment and decided why not? This could be a lifeline. Flash forward to the Obama administration which seems to be making more efforts to promote accessing your health records over the internet. This includes lab tests, immunizations and self reported health data. Curiously, mental health information is not yet available. This may seem a little contradictory given what I said yesterday in my post about the greater emphasis on preventing suicide among vets and active duty personnel.

My latest experience with the HealthEvets  program was last week when I went to the VA for a flu shot and a TB skin test required for work. There was a guy near the front door (one of our favorite sayings at work is “shut the front door” which we use instead of cursing) who had a beard that reminded me of the guys on the old cough drop packages. I figured that he doesn’t eat spaghetti or if he does, it was a major production. He also had a prosthetic left hand probably a result of his military experience. As I was passing by him thinking about going back to work, he called out and asked whether I had signed up for HealthEvets. I told him that I had not. So he asked me to come over and it would take just a few minutes to complete the application.

I was more interested in the oatmeal cookies on the table that looked so enticing. The process was fairly quick, as he had promised and he was efficient with his typing. That is, until we came to a glitch. It seemed that I had already signed up for HealthEvets because he was able to find my name. Unfortunately I was unable to  recall my answers to the secret questions that I had entered years ago. He gave me the name and contact information for the program coordinator to help me figure out what had gone wrong and sent me on my way.This week I decided to try registering again. This may be typical male behavior. If something doesn’t work the first or second time, we try it again. And again the system said I was already registered. I called the national HealthEvets program and the local office to figure out what I had been doing wrong. They helped me find the answers I had given when I signed up for the program and get access to my records.

By Friday afternoon I had a full report at my fingertips. I also sent an email message to my care team and got a response. I printed out a health card that carry in my wallet and it gives me an added level of protection. I need to find the information about my blood type and add it to the card. This will be handy in case I am unable to speak. I am happy and hoping that the glitch in the system as far as not having access to mental health data will be fixed. After all, a mind is a terrible thing to waste.

How can we stay safe?

I had a variety of emotions yesterday that took me all over the place. I wrote a rather bizarre story about my mother ordering my siblings and me from the Sears catalog. It was a true story but there were a lot of details left out. A lot of Sunday focused on the tragedy in Newtown, and the president’s response.  I saw a youtube video after reading several positive reviews on twitter.

I had looked for the speech before I realized I had a copy. I had many mixed emotions about the speech and the powerful of the President’s spirituality. He connects to people in a way that is very moving and feels genuine. And I started saying to myself there was no one else who could have given that speech. We have a horror in this country at the same time more people are buying more guns with higher capacity ammunition. We have unending stories of massacres and smaller scale murder suicides involving abusive men and their loved ones. We also have random acts of violence in which people shoot complete strangers. The common factor is that we resolve our problems through acts of violence.

The president said that this must end. That is true. We must work on an interpersonal level to end violence, we must restrain the police from inflicting violence upon the people who they believe may have committed crimes and we must work as a nation to resolve our differences with other nations without resorting to violence. We can and we must do better.


I have come to make a difference

It’s happening now, the new role for certified peer specialists is going on in Milwaukee and I am right on top of it. Let’s be the change that we want to see happen. Certified peer specialists are being added to the programs such as community support programs and targeted case management to which consumers are connected. People in community support programs are considered very changeable and in need of frequent contact, perhaps every day. Targeted case management is less intensive and referrals are very important. We help people look at whet they need in their lives for recovery.

That is the new role and something I am taking on. I have worked in residential settings as a peer specialist since the beginning but opportunities for growth can be limited. That’s why I jumped at the chance to interview for something different. My interview went so well that I was hired on the spot, which I was told almost never happens. So now will be the transition. I will be spending the next period preparing for the next phase of my life: having a livable wage, being able to take vacations and having holiday pay. We all need those things in our work lives, they’re not frills, but necessities.

Only by offering certified peer specialists opportunities for better paid positions can we upgrade the profession and bring about truly recovery oriented experiences for those who give so much to others. The Wisconsin motto is Forward and that is definitely the way to go.

Speaking up at the mental health redesign meeting

Yesterday I received an email about the mental health task force continuum of care action team meeting. I scurried out to the Milwaukee mental health Complex this afternoon. Although I arrived late I had a major impact. As is customary with these kinds of meetings, I added a little local color. This is due to my background  as a Certified Peer Specialist of Puerto Rican heritage. Combined with Polish, of course.

For those who may be unaware, there is a major expansion of Peer Specialist services underway throughout Milwaukee. Employers are posting positions for certified peer specialists and there is a scramble to locate the certified peer specialists who are either unemployed or working outside the profession. At the same time we  also need to assess the strengths and weaknesses of Wisconsin peer support system. This reflects the concerns expressed during Empowerment Days  in Madison.

We are rapidly evolving from a peer specialist model in which one agency hired the majority of the peer specialists and provided a lot of the training to one in which many agencies hire peer specialists  and another entity provides the training. Under the laws of capitalist supply and demand, the increasing number of peer specialists will force lower paying agencies to raise their wages of be left with the lower skilled workers.

At the same time, we need to pay more attention to the problem of peer specialists as employees. One of my recommendations to the Continuum of Care Action Team is to focus more effort in that area. I brought out examples of peer specialists who were extremely poor listeners and did not last long as employees. We need to create support groups in Milwaukee and possibly other cities where peer specialists can talk among ourselves. In addition we need  to create a telephone line people can call to talk with someone about their professional struggles with someone who has experience in the field. This is the natural evolution of our profession. As the Wisconsin motto says, forward.

Tonight’s speech to policy-makers

I am Kenyatta Yamel a certified peer specialist in Milwaukee. I have 8 years of experience as a peer specialist working in supported apartment programs developed to fill the gap of safe affordable housing for people living with mental illnesses. I was also a peer specialist at the Crisis Resource Center that was created as an alternative to hospitalization.

I am a Vietnam era veteran which was a key factor in my recovery from mental Dis-Ease. After experiencing a series of losses, including jobs, my marriage and my housing, I turned to the Veterans Administration for help 10 years ago. While I was living in veterans housing I learned about peer support. I joined a committee that was meeting to develop peer support in Milwaukee and Waukesha County. The fact we have come this far is a testament to survival.

Because of the low wages I earned, I was unable to secure safe affordable housing, even being evicted from a slum dwelling. The roaches followed me to my next residence, which was incredibly humiliating. My teeth deteriorated and started to bleed due to the lack of dental insurance. And I had to rely upon food stamps and financial aid from college to pay my bills. I was often miserable and depressed. And I was truly a candidate for anti-depressants.

I don’t want any more peer specialists to endure these kinds of horrors. We need livable wages so that we can afford our medication or wholistic health services. We need position that offer professional respect and collaboration with clinicians and most importantly our peers. And finally we need to be able to see peer support as a chosen profession not one into which we were thrust by accident. We embrace certification the way we help our peers embrace recovery.

I tell consumers to look upon diagnosis as a snapshot. So it is with tonight. I want everyone to think of this gathering as a picture. Remember this picture when you look back 5 years from now on how far we have come. With your help, we will go there together. Thank you.