Drug Policy Conference – Thursday morning

Quite a buzz of excitement in the hotel this morning, with all sorts of people here for the 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference at the Astor Crowne Plaza in New Orleans.
Everybody’s mingling around the continental breakfast, getting registered, peering at nametags to see who they know. 1,000 people pre-registered for this conference, so it’s huge, and the grand ballroom is packed for the opening welcome.
Pretty much every reform organization is represented here — some with information tables in the lobby. LEAP is here in force, and the bold “Cops Say Legalize Drugs – Ask Me Why” T-shirts are everywhere around the hotel, including Howard Woolridge with his great cowboy hat. I saw Irv Rosenfeld – a great guy, and one of the very few medical marijuana patients actually supplied by the federal government. Of course, people from DPA, MPP, NORML, ACLU, ASA, and on and on, but also some excellent international groups, including Transform (their “Tools for the Debate” publication was included in our welcom packets).

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As I blog this conference, I’ll be working without internet access during the sessions, and then coming out to the lobby to actually post (unfortunately, the only option). So I’m a bit handicapped without having access to links or being able to look up information online while blogging. Statements beginning with (-) dash are paraphrases of the speakers’ comments. Sometimes these will be less than coherent as a whole (if you want the whole speech, buy the CD). But I’ll try to provide some highlights and focus of major presentations.
Opening session led off (after housekeeping stuff) with Norris Henderson of Safe Streets, Strong Communities – a local partner for the conference. Norris works with people in NOLA and is hoping this conference will help “change the frame.”
He talked about the fact that New Orleans police brag about the number of people they arrest to show that they’re restoring order, but the vast majority are paraphernalia/marijuana/drug possession arrests.
There are drug problems in New Orleans, but they aren’t solved by the drug war.
As far as the bigger picture:

“The casualties of this war are greater than any other war we’ve engaged in.”

He also talked about the fact that New Orleans is in serious shape and is far from being a liveable city for many of its residents.
Ira Glasser, former head of the ACLU, was next.

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The war on drugs has violated two main principles from the very beginning.

  1. Personal autonomy and freedom
  2. Racial Equity and Justice

He talked about the racial aspect to the beginnings and continuation of prohibition for all the major illicit drugs. Interestingly, the only major drug that was made legal was alcohol, the drug of the white majority.
With that opening, Glasser set up the fact that race and the drug war was going to be a key focus of this conference.
— In New York 92% of all the people in state prison for drug offenses are black or latino.
— In many states in the south, 30% of blacks are disenfranchised from voting, due to felony convictions. At the same time, they are counted toward population figures for getting the states more representatives in Congress.

“This war on drugs is the greatest source of the violations of both personal freedom and racial justice… It is long past time to end it, and it is long past time to be patient about ending it.”

Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance

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– We need to build a movement for freedom and justice, for science and compassion, for human rights.
– There are so many different kinds of people here with different perspectives: cops and those arrested, those who love drugs and those who have been damaged by drugs. We can’t agree on anything, except the conviction and belief that the war on drugs, this policy of punitive prohibition, has got to go.
Ethan really gets on fire when he gets in front of an audience. You can’t help but getting a little bit swept up in his enthusiasm.
Ethan follows up with more on the race issue, following up on Ira’s start.
– Ignorance, fear, prejudice and profit drive this system. The thing that rises to the top is the element of fear. The war on drugs is a fear-based paradigm. It’s about fear. We need to uproot that fear.
– While the drug war is very much about race, it isn’t a struggle of white against black. This is a struggle of justice and freedom versus oppression.
– We’ve developed a theocracy of drug war prohibition in this country and around the world. An orthodoxy, and a set of rituals, and we forget why they were started.
– It’s not just enough to talk about harm reduction. We are fighting for freedom and liberty.
– What does the American flag mean? Doesn’t it represent our freedom? We have to stand up and say “Wait a second — this flag is ours, too.”
Ethan addressed the point of having a vision, yet having to talk the language of little steps.
– While I’d rather say ‘legalize,’ when talking to legislators, sometimes I have to say ‘That 20 year penalty should be 10 years, or 5 or 3.’
– We’re not just fighting for the bigger picture, but we’re also fighting for people today.
– But it’s not enough to just do that. We have to be careful that we do not lose sight of that ultimate vision. Freedom.
Ethan talked about the new surveillance society and how that may affect us.
He also talked about the fact that we must all be teachers.
We cannot carry prejudices into other areas (fighting for marijuana, but demonizing meth in the same way). We have to lose our own fears and prejudices. We should not say that my way is the right way and the only way in drug policy reform, but rather encourage and work with all the people in various areas of reform.

Most drug treatment does not work most of the time for most people. But dollar for dollar, it’s a far better investment that locking those people up.

– What every works for you is right.
– We have to, and must, fight amongst ourselves in the reform community about everything, and then hug each other at the end.
We must assert and fight for this fundamental principle:

We believe that no one deserves to be punished solely for what they put into their bodies if they don’t hurt another soul. We must be sovereign over our bodies. My body doesn’t belong to the state or to an employer.

… on to the next session.

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