Fighting the war on drugs may seem a rather macho pursuit, but when it comes to the war's targets, it's not just a boys' game. Women bear the drug war's fury in many ways that they share with men and in some that are unique to their gender.

That was the message of a lively panel discussion on "Women and the Drug War" in San Francisco on March 8th. Sponsored by the San Francisco Medical Society and attended by roughly 50 people, the event not only marked International Women's Day but also saw a dramatic, harrowing example of the drug-fighting mania's impact emerge from the audience.

Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated speaker was Amy Ralston (formerly Pofahl), whose campaign for clemency from a 24-year sentence brought her national attention and, ultimately, freedom. Ralston was released from prison last July after serving nine years of her sentence for the crime of assisting her estranged husband after he had been arrested on charges of distributing Ecstasy. (He served four years of a six-year prison sentence he received in Germany.)

"I was not going to stop working for my freedom until I got out," said Ralston in what she described as her first public speaking engagement since her release. "I'm free, but a huge piece of me is still in there. I left a lot of women behind who have no hope any more."

She recalled her own despair in her first years in prison. She had made audiotapes about her case that were played at conferences across the country. "I began to wonder if anyone heard," she recalled. "It's indescribable, how powerless you feel, the degradation, how surreal it is."

Ralston bludgeoned her audience with her tales of life behind bars in the USA: fetuses aborted in the prison shower, heartsick mothers speaking to their children from the phone outside her room, and crackdowns on defecating in the shower, where inmates would disgorge drugs that friends had smuggled in.

But Ralston also provided rays of hope. "There are so many women in prison who are looking for any kind of support from people on the outside," she said. "I'm trying to get a foundation started that will help people get legal representation and other kinds of support."

Ralston told the audience she wants to help make drug reform a "mainstream issue" with the help of the film community in Los Angeles, and that she was strongly opposed to the use of prisoners as captive employees by private companies.

Panelist Barbara Owen put Ralston's prison nightmare into a larger framework. A professor of criminology at California State University-Fresno, Owen has written extensively on women, crime and substance abuse. "We as a society expect entirely too much from prison," she said. "People who don't study prisons expect good things to go on there. The reality is very different."

Owen told the audience that women are at a special disadvantage in avoiding the harshest abuses of the criminal justice system. Because women are often low-level, or unwitting, players in drug crimes, they have nothing to trade or offer in exchange for a dollop of leniency. She cited the case of a woman serving a 20-year prison sentence based on an indictment where her name appeared in only one sentence of the document's 169 pages.

Andrea Shorter, a consultant with the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, emphasized the need to keep a feminist perspective at the forefront of drug-war analysis and warned the audience to beware of calls for crackdowns in light of recent violence.

"I'm afraid we will hear a lot more talking tough, and a lot less talking smart on crime from the Republicans especially in light of recent schoolyard shootings in San Diego and other places," she warned.

Speaking from the trenches, Prija Haji of Free At Last, an East Palo Alto, California, community-services group, told the audience how the drug war plays out on the street.

"The drug war is not a uniform war. It targets certain groups of people and communities," she said. "We have 3% of the population in our town and 80% of the CPS (Child Protective Services) cases, according to a study done in the mid-'90s. Most of those are because their parents are in jail or addicted. The same study showed that 30 percent of African-American women between the ages of 15 and 35 had been arrested at some point."

Haji urged the audience to "challenge the current notion of criminality that associates it strongly with minorities." The activist noted that in the days of slavery, the status of "subhuman" was linked to race; today's subhuman is the criminal, she said. "When your kid asks you, 'How did you let them recreate slavery? What did you do about it?', you'll want to be able to say you stood up for the truth."

But the day's most dramatic moment came during a question-and-answer session, when audience member Mellody Gannon of San Francisco stood up to tell her own drug war horror story and ask for the panel's help.

Gannon told the panel she had been arrested on January 8th "for leaving my dog in the car for an hour." The arresting officer found a marijuana pipe in the car, at which point Gannon produced three doctors' recommendations for medical marijuana.

"I was in a car wreck a number of years ago, and I'm pretty much held together now by wires and pins," said Gannon, as she rolled up her sleeve to reveal a huge scar running the length of her arm. She then recounted a Kafkaesque series of events that have separated her from her almost-2-year-old son and caused her great anguish as she prepares for a trial to begin on April 9th.

"They want to put my baby up for adoption," said Gannon, in tears, as she waved a photo album brimming with pictures of her son. "Please help me."

Event organizers pointed out a number of people to whom she should speak, as audience members unexpectedly got a direct taste of the impact of the drug war on women.

-- END --
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Issue #177, 3/16/01 Dedication: Patrick Dorismond | Students Helping Students, HEA Update | Colombian Governors Come to Washington to Denounce Plan Colombia, DRCNet Interviews Tolima Governor Jaramillo | US District Court Overturns Mandatory Drug Tests in Texas School, Lockney Policy Was Nation's Broadest | Drug Reform Battle Heats Up in New York: Pataki Package Would Increase Marijuana Penalties, Democrats Offer Alternative Bills, Activists Don't Like Either Version | New Mexico Update: Ups and Downs for Johnson's Reform Package, State GOP in an Uproar | In Another Step on Path to Cannabis Decrim, Swiss Government Submits Proposed Law to Parliament | Hemispheric Parliamentarians Reject Debate on Drug Legalization | Uruguayan Leader Takes Legalization Views Online, Recommends Traffic | Narco News: Mexican Federal Police Chief Calls for Legalization, Bush Adds Another Half Billion to Colombia Fire | San Francisco Conference Looks at Women and the Drug War | Job Listing: Access Works! in Minneapolis | The Reformer's Calendar | Editorial: The Rule of Law
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