The Drug Policy Alliance's (http://www.drugpolicy.org) 2003 conference, its first all-purpose drug reform confab since Albuquerque in 2001, has come and gone. With more workshops than any one person could attend, covering a wide array of drug policy-related topics, the conference generally won accolades from those in attendance.
According to DPA, about 525 people registered for the conference and another 200 participated as speakers, though some veteran conference-goers wondered whether DPA 2003 was as big as DPA 2001. Conference coordinator Jennifer O'Neal was having done of that, however. "We piled them in," she told DRCNet. "We're very satisfied with the conference, and we've had nothing but great responses from participants and speakers alike."
O'Neal's outlook was shared by drug reform novices and veterans alike. "I loved it," said Chuck Thomas of Unitarian Universalists for Drug Policy Reform (http://www.uudpr.org) and the fledgling ecumenical Interfaith Drug Policy Initiative (http://www.idpi.us). Thomas, who has countless movement conferences under his belt, told DRCNet he saw the event as an opportunity both to learn and to network with his reform peers. "For me, the networking, the time spent in the hallways and in peoples' rooms were most useful, although the workshops were great, too," he said. "There are so many different aspects to this movement, and the variety of workshops addressing those different facets was incredible. Both the speakers and the material they presented were of the highest quality."
For Loretta Nall of the Alabama-based US Marijuana Party (http://www.usmjparty.com), going to the New Jersey Meadowlands for DPA 2003 was an eye-opener. "I was absolutely amazed by the quality of the people and the information they had," the first-time conference-goer told DRCNet. "I wish 50,000 people could have been there." Newcomer or not, Nall is ready to jump right in. "I'm only a year into activism, so I figure in a couple of years I'll be up there with the speakers," she said. "I could have done it this year, but I figure I'll give people a chance to get to know me first."
Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy (http://www.csdp.org), another veteran of innumerable conferences, joined the approving consensus. "The quality of the presentations and attendees was excellent," he told DRCNet. "The movement is maturing, and we're getting more sophisticated. Also, a lot of new people are getting involved in leadership positions in their communities. At the end of the Alliance of Reform Organizations (ARO) dinner when I asked new people to introduce themselves it went on a lot longer than I expected. That's a good sign," he said. "During these times when there are so many things going on, the drug issue continues to draw people in."
But are others dropping out? Zeese wondered about the overall turn-out. "It was smaller than I expected," he said. "I'm not sure why, but that is disappointing."
Featuring Sen. Pierre Claude Nolin, who chaired last year's Canadian senate committee report calling for the legalization of marijuana, and current Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell and his immediate predecessor Phillip Owen, the session was a chance for the Americans to see that there is another path, and it is a viable one. Owen described Vancouver's process of community consultation and endless rounds of meetings as the city grappled with alternatives to the war on drugs and came up with the vaunted Four Pillars --- prevention, treatment, harm reduction, law enforcement -- plan to grapple with the consequences of rampant drug use under prohibition.
Because of all the meetings, said Owen, "We moved in lockstep with public health officials, social service providers, the media and the public. Our citizens came to recognize that you have to embrace the drug user -- he's not a criminal. And we involved drug users in our planning," Owen added. "You can't incarcerate your way out of this," he said. "You can't liberalize your way out, you can't ignore it, so you have to manage it."
Owen's successor, current Mayor Larry Campbell, agreed and was even more feisty. Campbell drew laughs and applause from the crowd as he described conversing with a menacing John Walters, the US drug czar. "He threatened to shut down the border if we decriminalized marijuana," Campbell said, "and I told him if they wanted to shut down the border, then California would go dark, since it gets its electricity from us." In another jab at US drug warriors, Campbell noted that "in Canada, prisons are not a growth industry."
Sen. Nolin, for his part, called for a regulated legalization process for illicit drugs, basing his conclusion on "ethics, science, penal law, and the appropriate role of the state." The state must play a role, said Nolin, because drug use is a public health issue and "because we've rejected zero tolerance as a viable option."
Nolin also slammed the now-dead Canadian decriminalization bill as "too early and not good enough." The bill was a compromise driven by the need to gain political support, he said, and was unduly influenced by pressure from the US. "Decriminalization is very popular," said Nolin. "Only 15% support the status quo -- and that's thanks to your drug czar. But I cannot support this bill."
All three Canadians were honored by DPA at the Saturday evening awards dinner, as were Rep. John Conyers -- who shared a table with former mandatory minimum prisoner and activist Kemba Smith and father Gus Smith and promised to attend next year's "Breaking the Chains" conference, Marc Mauer of The Sentencing Project, Allan Clear of the Harm Reduction Coalition, Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, Commander Brian Paddick of London's Metropolitan Police Authority, and The Economist magazine.
And last but not least, as the conference ended Saturday night, not everyone was intent on partying -- at least not right away. Some dozens of mainly youthful attendees crammed into a conference room for the first public viewing of "Busted: The Citizens' Guide to Surviving Police Encounters," the how-to video produced by Flex Your Rights (http://www.flexyourrights.org) to help keep people from being needlessly arrested. From crowd reaction at the viewing, "Busted" appears destined to be a major hit.
See http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/310/dpa.shtml for last week's coverage of the earlier portion of the conference, including the release of the DPA/JPI New Jersey incarceration report.