|Drug Law Reformers See Progress|
|By: NATHAN RILEY|
Activists opposed to punitive drug policies, meeting in New Orleans last week, were stoic yet confident regarding national trends. No one expected a breakthrough, but most were satisfied with their growing strength. Ethan Nadelmann, the leader of the Drug Policy Alliance, announced: "We stand poised today where the movements to abolish slavery once stood, and the movement against racial oppression and oppression of women and gays once stood."
A historical symmetry marked this gathering of reformers. The conference opened on December 5. Seventy-four years ago on that date, the struggle to repeal the 18th Amendment to the Constitution came to a successful conclusion, and Americans could legally take a drink.
1933 was the first year of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency and the beginning of Democratic Party dominance. In addition to the Great Depression, another factor in the Democratic victory was hostility to Prohibition. This lesson was brought home with reminders that drug prohibition has to date worked to the advantage of Republicans.
In a brief history lesson, Ira Glasser explained that1968 was the year Democratic dominance ended, and a Republican era began. It was the year that Richard Nixon, the president elected that November, began the escalation of the war on drugs. In Glasser's view, the move aimed at unwinding the gains made by the civil rights movement.
Drug prohibition was a "a replacement system for the separation and subjugation of black citizens," roared Glasser, the former head of the American Civil Liberties Union and the current board president of the Drug Policy Alliance. "We have tripled the number of arrests in this country for drug offenses since 1980. That would be bad enough if it were enforced evenhandedly, but it is not. Two-thirds of all the people in prison are black. This is an astonishing assault on racial justice - the worst since before the civil rights movement."
As a result five million individuals are disenfranchised and they come from groups that vote Democratic. The United States is "the only industrial democracy" that that denies the vote to individuals after their release from prison.
Glasser called for the recognition of a new principle that would stop "even a legitimate law" from being "enforced in a way that is discriminatory on the basis of skin color."
Race alone doesn't explain the war on drugs, said Nadelmann, the Alliance's executive director. "This system got built by calling on people's fear." Although these laws criminalized large areas of human conduct, their proponents believed they were protecting woman and children.
"These oppressive laws were simultaneously embraced and fought for by leading people of color." They said the crusade would protect but "actually it oppresses" because when it comes to enforcement, "it is all about race. This is not just a struggle of black versus white. This is a struggle of justice and freedom versus oppression."
Nadelmann hedged his radical views, by calling for reforms that "help people today." The reform movement has to "talk the talk" that legislators need in making utilitarian arguments showing the cost savings from alternatives to incarceration and the reduction in medical costs when sterile needles prevent AIDS. But reformers must look closely at the terms by which reforms are implemented. Reforms have to be guided by principle.
"Will it be a better world to have fewer people behind bars but we have doubled or tripled the number of people under the supervision of a massive surveillance system?" warned Nadelmann. "We have to be wary of substituting for this prison system a system that is less oppressive on its face but ultimately more totalitarian."
Nadelmann offered a succinct description of the Alliance's ultimate goal, which involves a fundamental principle that is a radical departure from punitive practices.
"No one, but no one deserves to be punished for what they put in their body," he said. "We must be sovereign over our minds and over our bodies. It does not belong to the state or employers."
The meeting rejuvenated supporters and encouraged their belief that they are on the right track. A delegate from Syracuse wondered why Switzerland was allowed to give heroin to addicts when international treaties seem to prohibit it. No sooner had he asked then he was surprised to be speaking to a senior member of the Swiss government, who explained that nation never signed the treaties.
Only through his involvement in the Alliance's work was this New Yorker able to meet the Swiss government official able to shed light on what seemed a thorny problem. The wide range in age, education, professional status, and nationality of those in New Orleans was proof to the attendees that the movement is growing all over the world.
In New York City, reformers are expected to release a major report on marijuana law enforcement and its discriminatory impact. Harry G. Levine, a Queens University professor said the New York City police converted the marijuana decriminalization law from a policy to prevent young people from being stigmatized by a criminal record, into its opposite, a mass dragnet based in "quality of life" rhetoric, targeting minority youth, the group most vulnerable to problems from a criminal recor
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