The Drug Policy Reform Movement Wants to End the War on People

By Will Godfrey 11/29/15

Record numbers of reformers gathered in Washington, DC, recently to explore ways to extend their growing influence far beyond drugs.

The Drug Policy Reform Movement Wants to End the War on People
Photo via @CatchFireCX

"I'm Ross Ulbricht's father," said the gray-haired man on the stage. "Ross was arrested two years ago and convicted. He was sentenced to double life in prison a few months back and is now appealing his sentence. I'm here as his advocate."

His story was unusual in that his 31-year-old son, Ross, aka “Dread Pirate Roberts,” founded Silk Road, the pioneering deep-web, drug-dominated marketplace that was shut down by the FBI in October 2013. Devastating prison sentences, on the other hand, have long been normal in the US.

Just this month, Washington, DC, hosted the biggest drug policy reform activists’ conference in history. Over 1,500 delegates from 71 countries packed out dozens of plenaries, panels and town hall meetings over several days, extending their activities to a lobby day on Capitol Hill and a vigil on the National Mall.

The numbers reflect something more significant. Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which organizes the biennial Reform conference, described in his opening speech how the movement “increasingly has something most of us are unfamiliar with: That's power.”

Will Godfrey typing away Photo via @nzdrug

Some national politicians participated. A video message from Senator Cory Booker opened the conference, and speakers included Rep. Earl Blumenauer, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries and Mark Golding, Jamaica’s Minister of Justice. 

Yet the movement’s determination to keep its feet on the ground, and its eyes on its reason for existing, was reflected by the presence of many who have been personally victimized by the War on Drugs but are now determined to be agents of change.

They included Jason Hernandez, who in 1998 was sentenced to life without parole for selling crack, aged 21 and the parent of a seven-month-old baby boy. His sentence was eventually commuted by President Obama in 2013. He shared his message for Obama now: “I love you like a father for giving me my life back...but you need to do more. If you don't act, our brothers and sisters doing life without parole for nonviolent drug offenses, they're going to die in there—and their blood will be on your hands.”

They included Edo Nasution. As a drug user in Indonesia in 2007, he was shot in the leg, hung upside-down, tortured and left for dead by police who were trying to obtain information about his suppliers. After that incident, he became an activist: “My outrage and my anger became more powerful than my fear.”

Healing the rift between law enforcement agencies and the populations they’re supposed to serve was another widespread theme. 

They included many others who had experienced incarceration or violence—mothers who had lost children to overdoses that might have been prevented by better public health policies, people with serious illnesses, and veterans with PTSD who had been denied legal access to marijuana to alleviate their symptoms. 

Their presence, and their determination to prevent others' suffering, was a powerful reminder that the War on Drugs is better understood as a War on People.

Further progress in ending it will require concerted effort. But to most observers, a pronounced shift in public and political mood, and a raft of recent legislative victories—marijuana legalization in four states plus Washington, DC; medical marijuana and harm reduction laws in dozens of states; sentencing reforms at state and federal levels—seem to have created unstoppable momentum in the US and a ripple effect around the world. 

And the newfound power Nadelmann mentioned opens up broad possibilities. Yes, this movement wants to legalize marijuana, and either decriminalize or legalize other drugs, and expand access to life-saving harm reduction measures. But the view expressed constantly here was that its ambitions should extend beyond drugs—that changing drug laws should be part of a wider human-rights vision, intersecting with other social justice causes.

One acutely obvious overlap is with the issue of racial inequality. #BlackLivesMatter, which arose in 2013 after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted, and gathered steam after the events in Ferguson and other police killings, permeated this event. Mass arrests, mass incarceration and police killings inflict grossly disproportionate harms on communities of color—and all are unambiguously related to the enforcement of drug laws.

One evening, hundreds of delegates attended a town hall meeting on this issue. “The reason people are burning shit down in the street is because people are devaluing our lives every day,” said Lumumba Bandele of the NAACP. “Until we see that our flesh, our blood is more valuable than a store, than a car, then we're going to be here.” 

“What I find hard to believe is that if we can win the War on Drugs without winning the War on People of Color, we're doing something different,” said Kassandra Frederique, DPA’s New York policy director. “If our drug policy reforms don't include systematic recommendations for how we can help people of color, then we should stop using the talking points!”

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
Will Godfrey.jpg

Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of TheFix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others. He is currently the Executive Director at FILTER. You can find Will on Linkedin and Twitter.