The Drug Policy Reform Movement Wants to End the War on People
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"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.
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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.
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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!”
Elsewhere, current models of marijuana legalization were fingered as one way in which reforms are not benefiting people of color as they should. In Colorado, for example, overall arrest rates have fallen since legalization, but a dramatic disparity between arrests of black and white people remains.
More subtly, legalization can occur in ways that hurt communities of color economically. “The only benefit the drug war has ever brought has been to give well-paid [black-market] jobs to poor people,” said Ernesto Cortés of the Costa Rican Association for the Study and Intervention in Drugs. Yet rules around the burgeoning legal US marijuana industry—such as bans on people with marijuana convictions getting a license, or large fees—reserve most of the profits for people who don’t live in heavily policed communities and are already wealthy.
The difference between a legislative victory and its effective implementation can also be stark. “There is a sweet faith we have, that if we write law and pass law, that's the way it is,” cautioned Harry Levine, professor of sociology at CUNY and co-director of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. “In 1977, New York decriminalized marijuana, yet by the late ‘90s we had more arrests than anywhere, nearly 90% people of color. The law is one thing and what happens on the street is another. In fact, when the police do obey the law, it's cause for celebration.”
Healing the rift between law enforcement agencies and the populations they’re supposed to serve was another widespread theme. A program named LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) could be one path to better relations. Pioneered in Seattle, Washington, in 2011, LEAD has since been adopted in New Mexico, and there are plans to roll it out in several more states.
Captain Deanna Nollette of the Seattle Police Department explained that for low-level drug law violations, “If you're arrested in Seattle, and if your criminal history is not disqualifying, you have the option of either being charged or doing a session with a case worker.” The session is used to discuss problems and goals and refer clients to relevant services; abstinence from drugs is not a required goal, and the criminal charge will be held in abeyance.
“Public safety should be our role,” Nollette said. “I’m looking to recruit guardians, not warriors. We're trying to internalize the ideas of harm reduction and procedural justice.”
Washington State has legalized marijuana, of course, and Nollette revealed one of the ways this has affected her force: “We're having to retire our drug sniffer dogs, because you can't un-train dogs who have been trained to detect marijuana, so you can't tell if they're detecting marijuana or other drugs.”
Marijuana legalization remains a primary goal of this movement, and a hugely popular one. So one question on many lips is how far legalization will spread, and how fast.
Rob Kampia, executive director of the Marijuana Policy Project, confirmed that 2016 should be another breakthrough year: “Vermont is most likely to legalize through its legislature in the spring, and Rhode Island also has a good shot at legalizing through its legislature,” he said. “Then there will be ballot initiatives in California, Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Massachusetts, and it could very well be that four or five of those states legalize.”
Many delegates predicted that change will be irresistible at a federal level if California, with its great size and influence, legalizes in November. Kampia speculated that after the next wave of state-level legalizations, Congress “could very well pass a states’ rights bill in 2019.” This would effectively end federal marijuana prohibition, leaving a few holdout states to continue banning marijuana on their own.
But the US is still a very long way from legalizing, say, cocaine. “They don’t grow it here,” said one delegate, “so there’s no money to be made.”
Allen St. Pierre, the longtime leader of NORML, suggested: “The cultural narrative around marijuana has been stupid stoners, cops and robbers—it's funny. But the narrative for ‘hard’ drugs—The Man With the Golden Arm, Trainspotting, Drugstore Cowboy—is not positive and typically ends in death or criminal justice consequences. I'm worried that there isn't a [positive] culture behind heroin, cocaine and meth use, so there isn't going to be this easy transition.”
The idea of a “positive” culture around heroin is anathema to some, but others point out the double standards at play. Eliot Ross Albers, executive director of the International Network of People who Use Drugs, reminded an audience of “people who use heroin every day, but don’t find it a problem for them.” He complained that “many in the recovery community still assume that we need recovery, that the fact that I prefer to use heroin rather than drinking wine is fundamentally a problem.”
Definitions of recovery and addiction were a battleground at several sessions. Maureen Boyle, chief of NIDA’s science policy branch, had the thankless task of defending her organization’s brain disease model of addiction from concerted criticism. “Addiction impacts a number of brain circuits in a way that impairs people's ability to stop taking drugs,” she said. “[The model] doesn’t say that environmental impacts, social or genetic factors, don’t have an influence—all these things impact those same circuits.”
“What NIDA are doing is placing the brain at the top of the hierarchy; it is a cultural decision to privilege the brain above everything else that makes us human,” responded Patt Denning of the Center for Harm Reduction Therapy. “This continues the demonization of drugs and undermines our attempts to legalize or decriminalize.” Rebecca Tiger, associate professor of sociology at Middlebury College, VT, rejected “the idea that science can define the line where ‘pathological’ is—that’s a cultural and social judgment.” Like many present, she accused the brain disease model of perpetuating stigma through “addict” and “normal” categorizations.
A panel following a screening of The Business of Recovery, a documentary that attacks the mainstream addiction treatment industry, devolved into yelling between proponents of different responses to addiction. “I think one of the biggest problems in this field is the ‘one-truthers,’” intervened Andrew Tatarsky, founder of the Center for Optimal Living. “Our job is to create a facilitative relationship for people to discover the path that best suits them.”
Panelists discussing young people and drugs reached more of a consensus around “Just say know”—applying not only to accurate information about drugs, but to open, safe-space communication between young people, family members and other responsible adults. Frances Fu of Students for Sensible Drug Policy related how she “came out” to her mother as a teenage cannabis user. Jeff Foote of the Center for Motivation and Change discussed evidence-based strategies that have helped families, such as CRAFT and Motivational Interviewing.
“One interaction I frequently have with people is they talk about drug-testing [their kids],” added addiction theorist and Fix contributor Stanton Peele. “I think: Huh, what do you want to know exactly? Don't you want your child to do their school work, show up on time, and develop as a human being? Aren't those the variables that we care about here?”
The idea that a person’s overall wellbeing matters much more than whether or not they use a particular drug informs work to expand legal access to harm reduction services. But ignorance and prejudice remain; for example, although syringe exchange programs have conclusively proved to reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis, federal funding for such programs is still banned in the US, while laws and law enforcement hamper syringe access in numerous states.
Meanwhile Insite in Vancouver, a supervised injection facility (SIF) which has been shown by dozens of studies to reduce overdose deaths and other harms to drug users and the wider community, remains, as Liz Evans of Open Society Foundations put it, “the only legally sanctioned demilitarized zone [of the War on Drugs] on this continent.” Campaigns are currently being waged to bring these benefits to US cities like San Francisco and New York. Other harm reduction measures, like heroin-assisted treatment—successful in Europe and Canada—also face major political obstacles in the US.
Yet US harm reductionists know that their cause has advanced further than ever, and expect the rapid progress to continue. Several delegates remarked that legal access to naloxone, the drug that reverses opioid overdose, is such an obvious, visibly good thing—somebody is OD-ing; you administer naloxone; they don’t die—that it opens the doors to other kinds of harm reduction thinking among people who might not otherwise have been receptive.
Forty-four US states have so far passed some kind of naloxone access law, while 32 have passed 911 Good Samaritan laws (11 in 2015 alone), granting limited immunity from prosecution to people who call for help for overdose victims.
This movement will not be short of new challenges, however. Novel psychoactive substances, or “synthetic drugs” (”as opposed to all that all-natural, organic LSD...” observed Mitchell Gomez of DanceSafe) are being developed at a dizzying rate, with new compounds continually produced to circumvent existing laws.
Predictably, scaremongering, misinformation and knee-jerk legislation are among the responses. That said, in yet another harmful side-effect of drug prohibition, many of the new substances are significantly more dangerous than the ones they’re designed to mimic—“K2” and “Spice,” for example, are much riskier than regular old marijuana—so some nuanced messaging is required of drug policy reformers. Yet the practical difficulties of banning these moving targets could also present an opportunity. "These drugs are the new front of the old drug war,” said Stephanie Jones, DPA’s nightlife community engagement manager. “We cannot be caught sleeping on this."
Then there’s the question of how all these drugs will be bought and sold. The closure of Ross Ulbricht’s Silk Road resulted in a profusion of other deep-web marketplaces, leading to law enforcement playing an online game of whack-a-mole—like the one it has already pursued across different countries, and from drug-to-drug. But are Silk Road’s imitators really such a bad thing?
Monica Barratt, a research fellow at the University of New South Wales, Australia, argued that such sites reduce the risk of harm for people who buy illegal and therefore non-quality-controlled drugs. “The rating systems [for online drug vendors] and the repercussions mean that it’s much more likely to be what it says it's going to be.”
James Martin, criminology program coordinator at Macquarie University, Australia, agreed. “There’s no ‘Scarface moment’ because you never physically interact with someone,” he said. “Online drug sales represent the biggest threat to prohibition, because they challenge the idea of inherent violence in the drug market.”
Millions of people around the world continue to be persecuted for nonviolent drug law violations. But at this event, where suited wonks rubbed shoulders with tattooed and dreadlocked activists, where veteran campaigners mingled with bright-eyed students, where the Democrat majority knocked along (mostly) with libertarian Republican allies, it was impossible to escape the optimism born of shared purpose and an unprecedented succession of legislative wins.
Ethan Nadelmann admits to plenty of worries: whether the momentum of this movement can be sustained despite the efforts of the prison-industrial complex to reverse it; whether dedicated marijuana activists will continue to campaign for wider reforms post-marijuana legalization; whether an extraordinary external event might, as 9/11 and the ensuing War on Terror did for a while, derail progress. Yet here, he could not avoid sounding bullish.
“We are not going to stop,” he told the crowd. “We are going to get bigger; we are going to get stronger; we are not going to let our internal conflicts tear us apart, because we have a commitment to freedom and justice.”
“Two years from now [at the 2017 Reform conference in Atlanta], we're going to have double the number of victories under our belt!”
Will Godfrey is the former editor-in-chief of The Fix. He was also the founding editor-in-chief of Substance.com, and previously co-founded a magazine for prisoners in London. His work has appeared in Salon, Pacific Standard, AlterNet and The Nation among others.