DRCNet Interview: Marco Cappato, Member of European Parliament 4/4/03

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From his seat on the European Parliament, 31-year-old Marco Cappato has become a leading figure in the movement to end global drug prohibition. Cappato, a member of the Italian Radical Party, which he represents at the European Union, and the Transnational Radical Party (http://www.radicalparty.org), has been instrumental in mobilizing the forces of reform in advance of the United Nations' conference on the international treaties that form the legal backbone of global drug prohibition. From Brussels to Buenos Aires, Rio to Rome, Cappato has been meeting with activists, legislators and government officials, and has organized Parliamentarians for Antiprohibitionist Action, a network of legislators from various countries dedicated to advancing the drug reform agenda at both the national and the local level.

But Cappato has also spent time in less glamorous places, including a brief stay last week in Britain's notorious Strangeways prison, a stay he earned when he put his beliefs in nonviolent civil disobedience action into practice by openly possessing cannabis and getting arrested by English police. DRCNet spoke Wednesday with Cappato from the Transnational Radical Party's New York City office.

Week Online: You have just been released from jail in England. Can you tell us why you went to jail?

Marco Cappato: It was for an act of civil disobedience in Stockport, part of greater Manchester. My action was part of a series of arrests in the Manchester area, beginning with that of Colin Davies, who was imprisoned for opening a Dutch-style coffee shop in England. He worked with medical cannabis patients in particular, so we held demonstrations in his support. English MEP Chris Davies then was arrested in an act of civil disobedience, and I expressed my support by also being arrested. I went to the police station in Stockport with a small quantity of cannabis and turned myself in. I have paid over $2,000 in court costs because I did not want to burden British taxpayers, but I refused as a matter of principle to pay the fine. It was a nonviolent response to an unjust law. When I went to court, appearing before three judges, my attorney read a statement in which I explained the issue of over-incarceration related to the drug laws and also raised the issue of the United Nations criticizing the United Kingdom for its drug policies. I also argued the need for the UK to keep the promise its government made almost two years ago to reclassify cannabis. I told them that for all those reasons, and because I am a nonviolent activist whose duty it is to disobey unjust laws, I would not pay the fine. The judges then adjourned to their chambers, and after a few minutes a pair of policemen came out and handcuffed me and took me to the Manchester Jail. It used to be known as the Strangeways Prison. They had a famous rebellion there not too many years ago.

I was in custody for three days in a small cell with another person. The conditions were not very pleasant, but it was clean and everything was correct. The cell was closed most of the time. I was in a wing for newcomers, so there were no activities. Not a problem if you're just there three days, but it could be tough if you spend a few months. I had the chance to talk to fellow prisoners, as well as the police. Some police were supportive, some were just critics. The local newspaper had a full-page story about the action, so the prisoners could read about it, and the news spread throughout the prison. I was able to talk to people, I had copies of my speech, so I did some political activity inside.

WOL: You are a Member of the European Parliament representing the Italian Radical Party, and are an official of the Transnational Radical Party. Can you explain to our US readers what the European Parliament does and what the TRP stands for?

Cappato: The European Union (EU) is not yet a federation, but is a kind of supranational institution with jurisdiction in lots of different matters, including police cooperation and some drug projects, particularly rehabilitation and prevention. The European Parliament, with 626 elected members, including 87 from Italy and seven Italian Radicals, is the directly elected legislative assembly of the EU and shares legislative powers within the Union with the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of the member states, and the European Commission, which is the EU bureaucracy.

On many issues, such as drugs, legislation is at the national level, but the EU has a kind of moral authority; it can issue recommendations and resolutions, and the positions it takes are those of the only directly elected, multi-country European legislative body. So, the EU can exert influence that way. But it also has budgetary powers, and with those powers you can influence some political issues. For instance, we were able to delay for a year the disbursement of funds from the EU budget for crop eradication-related programs in Colombia because of the bad results of Plan Colombia.

The other power of the EU relates to judicial and police cooperation. Here, the parliament does not have direct power, but the EU Council is obliged to consult the parliament and take its position into consideration. These issues of police cooperation are important. For instance, there is a struggle to define drug trafficking, and that definition can end up being narrow or broad. If they adopt a broad definition, growing your own cannabis could end up being considered drug trafficking, and national governments would be obligated to criminalize it with a proposed minimum sentence of two years. The Dutch are trying to block this, while the Swedes are going for the broad definition.

The Transnational Radical Party is a nongovernmental organization with consultative status at the United Nations. The TRP is thus not an electoral party, but is instead an association of citizens, parliamentarians, and members of governments of many countries. Members of the TRP are united by the fact that we want to use nonviolent Gandhian methods to achieve a number of concrete goals aimed at creating a body of international instruments for respecting individual rights, democracy, and freedom around the world. We are involved in a number of issues, such as the death penalty and human rights violations around the world, but anti-prohibitionism is one of one key issues. We will participate in the meetings on the UN drug conventions in Vienna, for example.

WOL: You are also coordinator of Parliamentarians for Antiprohibitionist Action and a member of the International Antiprohibitionist League (http://www.antiprohibitionist.org). Please tell us about these two groups.

Cappato: There is no formal link between the PAA and the IAL. PAA is an informal network of parliamentarians, and is more of an initiative than an organization. It is people who agree to have their names listed as being antiprohibitionist and who want to reform the drug laws. It is an initiative that I undertook and that I coordinate. We work not only at the level of the citizen, but also at the parliamentary level, and PAA promotes this. The IAL is a constituent member of the TRP.

WOL: The UN special session on drugs is coming up in Vienna next week and the week after. What have the TRP, the IAL, and the PAA done to prepare for Vienna, and what to you expect to accomplish at this session?

Cappato: We've been working hard for the past 10 months, but it is part of a continuing effort. The TRP was there in 1998, where we spoke on behalf of many NGOs. We had a conference in Brussels to prepare, and of course we went to Mérida in February. In the last month, we have reinforced our activities. We have prepared many studies and publications, some about internal UN process and some about science, and we are doing a lot of lobbying. The IAL will provide a report that gives a critical alternative reading to official UN data. We are also sponsoring a resolution signed by 205 legislators calling for the adoption of a system of legal controls over prohibited substances and the revision of the UN conventions. Anyone can sign it, and by doing so can demonstrate that we can build not just political lobbying but also a citizens' action on drug legalization and anti-prohibitionism. This could increase our chances to have both a national and an international impact on reforming the drug laws. We've tried to combine political pressure through a nonviolent popular movement with institutional work and scientific work. Because the TRP has consultative status with the UN, it is invited to the sessions. Marco Perduca, head of the IAL, will speak at the NGO forum, and MEP and TRP member Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner, will also speak.

We will have to wait and see what happens, but we think Vienna this year will not open the door to reform of the international drug conventions. Still, we will make the case for the total failure of the 1998 10-year plan for a drug-free world, and will be positive in making the case for reform. It is a big chance to exert public pressure and make clear to public opinion that the current strategies do not work. The world does not end with Vienna, and we are laying the groundwork for change. Even after Vienna, any signatory to the conventions could present proposals for reform. We don't have a country willing to do that yet, but we hope to have one soon, either before Vienna or after.

What we do not want to do is impose an ideological alternative global model to the prohibitionist model. We don't have a magic formula that can be applied all over the world, as is now the case with drug prohibition. We do believe in the legal control of substances that are currently prohibited, but we think that might be a different legal framework for cannabis or coca leaves than for heroin or cocaine. We want to see national and even local governments find their own pragmatic policies to deal with drug problems. This is what we will propose in Vienna.

WOL: You have also been traveling around the world to consult with activists and political figures. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Cappato: We have met with parliamentary leaders and government officials in many countries. We usually address hearings in parliaments, but we've also met with drug policy or foreign affairs ministries in various countries to present our proposals. In our recent trip through Latin America, we held press conferences and interviews with the main South American media. We went to Mexico for Mérida, then to Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. In some places, like Colombia under Uribe, we see a time of strong repression and reaction. In others, like Peru, we see fluctuations. It seemed better there after Fujimori left, but now Toledo is tightening up again. Even in Brazil, the new government has not yet taken the opportunity to move on drug reform. We had good meetings with ministers there, everyone was supportive and understands that Brazil needs to decide a new policy, but the policies of Cardoso remain. I think it is in Brazil that there is a real possibility for real reform; it has political leadership ambitions and could be an alternative to US-style policies.

WOL: What is your thinking regarding whether to concentrate on drug reform at the national vs. the international level?

Cappato: We need both, of course. We have to face this ideological imposition of global drug prohibition, but at the same time we have to work for reforms at the margins at the national level. It is not just an institutional problem, but a problem of relating to people. The campesinos in South America -- their problem is my problem. The heroin addict who can't find treatment or who dies of an overdose or of AIDS because we don't have harm reduction policies -- his problem is my problem. Global drug prohibition is a shared problem, but each society must find a pragmatic way to address it.

WOL: How did you get involved in drug reform efforts?

Cappato: I was a Radical at a young age on many issues -- human rights, the death penalty -- but the drug issue was the first one I felt really impacted me or people I knew. I was interested in those other issues, but the drug issue was the thing that touched my life. I started to participate in demonstrations with CORA (Radical Anti-Prohibitionist Coordination) and then with the Radical Party. I saw what was happening to my friends. And now I represent the Italian Radical Party as an MEP of the European Union.

Visit http://www.stopthedrugwar.org/shadows/ for links to video footage including Marco Cappato's speech in Mérida.

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Issue #281, 4/4/03 Week Online Fundraising Update | Editorial: Reasonable Doubt Routinely | Victory in Tulia! | Rosenthal Asks for New Trial, Cites Juror Violations | Drug Czar Gives Up on Drugs and Terror Ad Campaign, Also Cancels Studies to Track Ads' Effectiveness | Drug Czar Sends Flunkies to Try to Stop Columbia, Missouri, Marijuana Initiative | DRCNet Interview: Marco Cappato, Member of European Parliament | Newsbrief: Reform Rumblings Begin in Brazil, While Commands Create Chaos | Newsbrief: Post-Assassination Serbian Crackdown Creates Drug Panic | Newsbrief: Jamaican Official Promises Ganja Decrim Bill Soon | Newsbrief: Belgian Marijuana Decriminalization Passes Final Hurdle | Newsbrief: Midwest Meth Madness -- Indiana | Newsbrief: Midwest Meth Madness -- Iowa and Illinois | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cop Story | Web Scan: New HR95, JAPHA on Syringe Sales, Reason, Mama Coca, OAS | Clinical Cannabis Conference CDs Available | Job Listings: Drug Policy Forum of Massachusetts and Albuquerque Health Care for the Homeless | The Reformer's Calendar
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