The first album I ever bought was the Wayne’s World soundtrack on CD, mostly because my adolescent mind could not compute Tia Carrere. Her version of Ballroom Blitz was what I thought all music should aspire to. It was only many many years later that I actually started getting some taste. Not quickly enough to stop me from starting an acid jazz band in Montreal when everyone else was starting Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade, but hey. I wore it with (very funky white boy) pride.
I’ve been in a fair share of bands, some of which have brought me around the world. It’s great. Music is just the best.
Here’s one of my favorite songs and videos from my band Woodhands. The band was made up of me and Paul Banwatt; he drummed and I played synths and sang. Maylee Todd, who is a real star, was a frequent collaborator with the band and sings on this song. It’s called Dissembler and the video is a time capsule of a time in the Toronto music scene in the early 2010s when lots of bands were exploding. Check the video, directed by the extremely multitalented José Lourenço, for some fun cameos.
A few thoughts on solving urgent problems the long way.
How many times have you seen a headline that was something along the lines of, “study shows that getting hit by a rock on the head is bad for your health” and thought to yourself: why did anyone bother? We already know the answer!! See the video below for a great example of what I mean, courtesy of The Onion.
All I can say is: I feel your pain. While I write about a lot of different things, most of my research is focused on one topic: how poverty and substance use intersect to cause people to die. I think a lot about overdose these days, for obvious reasons: over the past five years, over 100,000 people have died of overdose across North America. It’s a staggering number, recently dwarfed by the number of deaths from COVID-19 in the United States ( which at last count was almost at 750,000, which is truly horrific). The difference, though, is that stopping COVID has radically altered society: we’ve by and large changed the way we live in an effort to stop people from dying, while the pandemic has spurred incredible scientific discovery (learn all about that in my upcoming book, The Invisible Siege). But what’s been done to stop people from dying of overdose? Basically nothing.
The disparity between how society has reacted to the two epidemics – COVID-19 and overdose – is shocking. But it’s also revealing about the different ways in which science can be used as a tool for change. With COVID-19, the central scientific problem was pretty straightforward: figure out what the virus was, and then create vaccines and antiviral treatments that could stop it from spreading. The overdose epidemic, though, doesn’t require fancy new discoveries to prevent people from dying: it requires that society treats drug use differently, and crafts policies that change how we collectively treat drug markets.
Because we basically know how to stop people from dying of overdose, ending the overdose epidemic is arguably the harder scientific problem: it can’t be solved through discovery. Instead, scientists need to find a way to challenge accepted orthodoxy that sees drug use treated like a moral failing.
I spend a lot of my days doing exactly that. It’s a lot of incrementalism: running studies that show that arresting people doesn’t actually stop them from using drugs. Or showing that people don’t die of overdoses if they’re allowed to inject in places where they can be supervised by medical professionals. A lot of the work can sometimes feel like stating the obvious using the most absurdly resource-intensive way possible. But the fact is that the scientific method is one of the most bulletproof ways of showing truth to the world, even if that truth feels self-evident.
With the COVID-19 pandemic, the world understood that delays meant death. That’s why vaccine trials were run as quickly as possible while maintaining rigorous protections to ensure safety. That’s evidently not the case with the overdose epidemic. So for those of us doing science to try to stop people from dying of preventable overdoses, we’re trying to do two things at once: make a scientific argument for urgency, and then enact the complicated solutions that we know will stop death. It’s all slightly crazy-making, but all we can do is use the tools that we have to do the work the long way.
The Fix was my first attempt at writing about my scientific research for a popular publication. I had written a fair bit on issues around drug addiction when I was a freelance journalist, but when I started writing The Fix, it turned out that it was a lot easier explaining other people’s ideas compared to my own. My editor Amy Macfarlane was friendly but relentless in pushing me to think harder about the implications of the work I was describing. I was doing my PhD when I wrote the article, and I had had it bludgeoned into my head that scientific findings should always be written about with great caution. Under Amy’s editorial guidance, The Fix ended up being a kind of trial balloon for some big scientific ideas I had been thinking about but had been too cautious (scared?) to advance into the world (it also won a National Magazine Award in Canada, which was wonderful). Those ideas are now the basis of my research work on injection drug use prevention which you can learn about here: https://harmreductionjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12954-016-0114-1.
Oh my God the Werblog is live. I’ve been mulling a personal website for about 15 years, when I first learned what a myspace was. Since then I’ve set off on a few different careers but the ones that have stuck are writing, science and music. My goal with this site is to share some of the work I’m doing, along with the ideas and art that are getting me all excited these days.
Before diving in, here’s some extremely technical information that will be helpful as you browse this Werblog world: My name’s Dan Werb. I am epidemiologist. I am a science writer. And I compose and produce music. What’s the latest? Well shit. I do lots of work on epidemics, including COVID-19 and the North American overdose epidemic. A lot of my purely research work is focused on addictions and, basically, showing how treating people who use drugs humanely can actually help make things better for everyone. I run a research group called the Centre on Drug Policy Evaluation. I write (mostly) non-fiction about epidemics and the drug trade, including a book about the US-Mexico border. I also like writing about people. I compose and produce music most recently under the name Grapes Godly and I’ve worked on a bunch of different musical projects in various capacities. I’m 5’8.99999″. I live mostly in Toronto but find myself in San Diego a lot. Here’s the worst headshot of me I could find. I’m on twitter @danwerb.
ENJOY. That’s an order.
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