It was 40 years ago Friday that President Richard Nixon (R) declared illegal drugs "public enemy No. 1" and ushered in the modern war on drugs. Four decades, millions of drug arrests, and a trillion dollars later, the sale and consumption of illicit drugs is as firmly ensconced in American society as ever, and a growing number of Americans are ready to end drug prohibition and embark on a more sane and sensible, not to mention less harmful, approach toward drugs.
Messages varied from city to city -- in California, demonstrators focused on prison spending during the budget crisis; in New Orleans, the emphasis was on racial injustice and harsh sentencing -- but the central overarching theme of the day, "No More Drug War!" was heard from sea to shining sea and all the way to Hawaii.
In San Francisco, several hundred people from more than a dozen sponsoring organizations gathered at City Hall for a press conference and to demand that Gov. Jerry Brown (D) and the state legislature prioritize vital social services over spending on prisons. Then, accompanied by drummers from the Brass Liberation Orchestra, they marched through the city center to state office buildings before returning to City Hall.
"It is past time that we take real steps to make real changes to California’s totally inhumane prison system," said Emily Harris, statewide coordinator for Californians United for a Responsible Budget (CURB), one of 17 local groups organizing the march.
"We call on the governor, California's mayors, police chiefs and sheriffs, and all Californians to join us in calling it a failure that should be stopped immediately," said Dr. Diana Sylvestre of Oasis Clinic and the Oakland-based United for Drug Policy Reform. "We will continue to organize to win our fight against this endless assault on sane drug policies."
In Chicago, hundreds gathered outside James R. Thompson Center in the Loop to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the drug war, while inside the center was a ceremony honoring Juneteenth, a remembrance of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln in 1863. For those present, the connection between the struggle to win civil rights and the fight to end the drug war was easily made. Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, Father Michael Pfleger and other community leaders lent their voices to the rally.
"We all know that the war on drugs has failed to end drug use. Instead, it's resulted in the incarceration of millions of people around the country, and 100,000 here in Cook County on an annual basis," said Preckwinkle, the only elected official to address the crowd. "Drugs and the failed war on the drugs have devastated lives, families and communities. For too long we've treated drug use as a criminal justice issue, rather than a public issue, which is what it is."
In Honolulu, the ACLU of Hawaii and other drug reform advocates marked the occasion with a rally and speeches. Access to medical marijuana was a big issue for attendees there, although the main focus was on ending the drug war.
"It has cost a trillion dollars. It has perpetrated massive racial injustice. It has made the United States the largest jailer," said Scott Michaelman. "Treatment over incarceration is a core part of our message. Low level nonviolent users should not be a part of the criminal justice system," he added.
"You get to see the people coming together. It's a unity thing," Keyondria Mitchell, a supporter who led one of the dancing groups, told the Pelican Post. She said the event's varied attendees were testament to a changing public perception of the drug war. "That's what you want, awareness."
Women with a Vision director Deon Haywood said that 40 years on, the drug war had failed to make us safer despite all the money down the drain. "It hasn't curbed the use of illegal drugs, but what it has done is incarcerate many people," said Haywood. "We have only two licensed addiction counselors serving three parishes: Orleans, Plaquemines, and St. Bernard. Why can't that money be put into treatment?"
In San Diego, dozens gathered at Pioneer Park in Mission Hills to hear, among others, former California Assemblymember Lori Saldana call for complete repeal of drug prohibition; in Denver, the Drug Policy Alliance sponsored a well-attended debate; and in Portland, Oregon, the Lewis & Clark chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy organized a candlelight vigil at Pioneer Square attended by around 100 people. Events also occurred in other cities, including Ann Arbor, Miami Beach, and Washington, DC.
The crowds didn't compare to those who gather for massive marijuana legalization protests and festivals -- or protestivals -- such as the Seattle Hempfest, the Freedom Rally on Boston Commons, or the Ann Arbor Hash Bash, or even the crowds that gather for straightforward pot protests, such as 420 Day or the Global Marijuana March, but that's because the issues are tougher. People have to break a bit more profoundly with drug war orthodoxy to embrace completely ending the war on drugs than they do to support "soft" marijuana. That relatively small groups did so in cities across the land is just the beginning.