By social movement standards, The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation's annual conference, held this year in Albuquerque in homage to drug-reforming libertarian Republican Gov. Gary Johnson, was an unquestionable success. The first since the two organizations merged last year (DPF started them in the 80s), attendance more than doubled to over 800, Lindesmith-DPF reports, and conference organizers filled the four-day confab with dozens of special sessions on a huge variety of reform-related topics. Elected officials -- Gov. Johnson, of course, California Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Albuquerque Mayor Jim Baca, Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson, and numerous New Mexico state and local officials -- showed up, as did clergy members, activists, ravers, ex-cons and drug experts from countries as far removed as the Australia and the Netherlands. The overall mood was confident, if not a little triumphal.
With reason. The drug reform movement has more victories under its belt than ever before, as was noted repeatedly in the conference's first plenary session on Thursday morning. Bill Zimmerman, the political operative behind a plethora of successful initiatives with the Campaign for New Drug Policies, opened the discussion by recounting the growing string of drug reform initiative successes.
Graham Boyd, head of the ACLU's Drug Policy Litigation Project, was able to point to significant victories in the Supreme Court on highway drug checkpoints, searching people for drugs or guns on anonymous tips, and the drug testing of pregnant women without their consent, as well as favorable rulings on syringe availability, school drug tests and testing of welfare applicants in the federal courts.
Lindemith's Glenn Backes surveyed state legislative victories on medical marijuana (Hawaii), easing methadone restrictions (Vermont) and access to syringes (Rhode Island, New Hampshire, New York); and Julie Stewart of Families Against Mandatory Minimums (FAMM) discussed commutations and the growing prospects for federal mandatory minimum sentencing reform.
But if the conference, "Drug Policies for a New Millennium," showed the drug reform movement poised to create a sea change in drug policy, it also showed a movement bitterly and vocally divided over "coerced treatment," a term that for many includes California's Prop. 36 reform, where drug possession offenders can choose treatment over jail. Despite the impassioned defenses of Prop. 36 by CNDP staffers who insist it is not "coerced treatment" because defendants do have a choice between jail and treatment, many in attendance were not swayed by that fine distinction.
The rift was the subject of much hallway and barstool argumentation and of private meetings alongside the conference. The battle lines over coerced treatment, however, were articulated most eloquently Saturday morning, when ACLU Executive Director Ira Glasser, Lindemith's Deborah Small and addiction specialist Dr. David Lewis squared off before several hundred listeners in the Hyatt Hotel's main ballroom.
"Coerced treatment is an oxymoron," thundered Glasser. "Government intrusion by police and arrest is anti-treatment. I am not against treatment, I am against government compelled treatment."
The about-to-retire but unretiring Glasser warned dramatically about the growth of the "therapeutic state," where public health invades private life. "Fusing the police power of the state with medicine corrupts medicine and makes it a tool of the state," he said. "Then we get the therapeutic state and pretend that is progress. The worst danger is an ever-expanding net of social control. The 'benevolence' of coerced treatment is a trap. It will allow the state to define acceptable treatment," Glasser continued, "and that means abstinence and piss-testing."
The question, said Glasser, is do incremental reforms like coerced treatment get you closer to your goal? Not necessarily, he answered. "I worry that Prop. 36 will undermine our fundamental principles and reinforce greater social controls. In the long run," Glasser concluded, "coerced treatment takes us further from our principles."
But if Glasser's argument was impressive, Deborah Small's counterargument was equally strong. "How can you question anything that gets people out of the living death of prison?" she asked. "We have to engage with what is actually happening in the criminal justice system," Small argued, "and coerced treatment is an alternative to incarceration."
Coerced treatment is an unhappy compromise, Small admitted, calling it a lesser evil than prison, but still evil. "There is something intensely perverse about therapeutic jurisprudence," she noted.
But then Small drew a comparison with World War II. "Drug users are today's Jews," she analogized. "Just as Schindler saved the Jews from the Holocaust by getting them into forced labor camps, we hope to save drug offenders from prison by getting them into treatment. Certainly forced labor was better than death in the gas chamber, and just as certainly coerced treatment is better than being in prison under horrific conditions."
A strong point. But in his closing comments, Glasser got the last word. "It is not our job to be Schindlers," he told a cheering audience. "I would rather we be Eisenhowers" leading the way to D-Day and victory.
Dr. Lewis, caught between two ardent debaters, quietly pointed out the difference between informal coercion -- e.g., the cop on the beat cajoling the street addict to get to the clinic and help himself, or fear of job loss -- and actual state mandated treatment ordered by judges. And while opposing mandated treatment, Lewis recognized that it nevertheless works for some people who have undergone it.
The conference, with its multiple sessions and intense networking, is too much to cover in one story. Herewith a few highlights and snapshots:
A panel on gringo journalists and the drug war in Latin America:
Al Giordano, the expatriate editor of Narco News, who is being sued by Banamex (recently acquired by Citibank), gleefully recounts his battles-to-be. "We'll subpoena Citibank board members Robert Rubin [who as Secretary Treasury pursued Banamex in the Operation Casablanca case], ex-CIA chief John Deutsch, and we'll put the drug war on trial," he vowed.
Giordano also urged greater attention to Mexico. "Mexico is the only country in the world that can stand up to the United States on the drug war and say 'no more,'" Giordano argued. "The US couldn't blockade Mexico because that would only provoke a wave of migration. The same thing with military intervention. Mexico has the power to lead the way," Giordano said.
At the same panel, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies adumbrated a lengthy list of potential allies for drug reformers working on Latin America: human rights groups, refugee groups, isolationists ("they know a quagmire when they see one"), environmentalists ("birders are furious, birders are organized, birders scare Congress -- they're the warm and fuzzy NRA"), churches, fiscal conservatives, solidarity groups, the anti-globalization movement, people of color, unionists and journalists. Reach out, said Tree.
Tree also enumerated three factors driving the global drug trade: Poverty in producing zones, demand in rich countries, and the artificial escalation in the price of essentially worthless weeds caused by prohibition. ("We don't think coca is a worthless weed," retorted panelist George Ann Potter, a sympathetic observer of the Bolivian cocaleros who felt they would be upset with her if she didn't point that out.)
More lefties than usual?
Overheard in the hall: "It seems like way more leftists than libertarians here this year," complained one young observer, eyes aglitter over the prospect of a Gary Johnson presidential candidacy on the Libertarian ticket.
On Gov. Johnson:
Although this convention could have been called the drug reform movement's love-in with the libertarian Republican governor and Johnson himself delivered a fine speech (e.g., lines like "Current drug policy defies logic, defies common sense"), not everyone restricted themselves to saying only nice things about him. At the panel on prison conditions, home-state activist Tilda Sosaya of the Committee on Prison Accountability (COPA) lambasted Johnson for a laissez faire approach to inhumane conditions in New Mexico prisons. According to Sosaya, Johnson has allowed the state to become a guinea pig for new incarceration technologies such as "video visits," where prisoners are deprived of even the near-human contact of visits behind glass.
Johnson's libertarian approach to budget issues also earned him a few sharp words from New Mexico state Senator Cisco McSorley, a Democrat and ally who introduced several of Johnon's drug reform bills in the just ended legislative session. Johnson failed to provide any money for drug treatment as part of his drug reform package, McSorley said.
"That was probably the biggest strategic mistake we made in the last session," McSorley told a panel on the New Mexico experience. "When you start reforming drug laws in any state, you have to couple it with treatment and education." Johnson did eventually come forth with a $9.8 million treatment bill, McSorley said, but $40 million was needed.
Rep. Maxine Waters:
The Democratic representative from South Central Los Angeles garnered some of the loudest applause of the entire conference with a stirring speech in the main ballroom. "I will devote the rest of my time in office to reforming drug policy and the prison system in this country, and to get the necessary resources to deal with HIV/AIDS," she vowed.
"The left and the right can come together, and that will change drug policy in this nation," she said; "so Rush Limbaugh, eat your heart out!" Waters also applauded drug reformers from Johnson down to the grassroots activists. "You feel lonely working on drug policy, I know," she said, "but please continue. Every day you are finding more and more friends to defeat this wrongheaded drug policy. One day you will be considered heroes and sheroes."
Waters turned intensely personal at some points. "When I look at drug users, I see many people whose futures were already dashed long before they turned to drugs, including members of my own family. I couldn't do anything for them then, but I can damn sure do something for them now. We are losing too much, destroying too many families," she said.
"I want my legacy to be the end of mandatory minimums," she told the crowd, which responded with a standing ovation. Waters has introduced the Major Drug Trafficking Prosecution Act, to remove mandatory minimums from federal drug laws, allow for probation and suspended sentences, and force US Attorneys to get special permission before prosecuting low-level cases.
The annual awards banquet:
This annual ceremony felt the most like the DPF conferences of the past. Activists such as Chris Conrad, Mikki Norris and Virginia Resner (authors of the book "Shattered Lives"), Nora Callahan of the November Coalition and Randy Credico of the Kunstler Fund were recognized with the Robert Randall Citizen Action Award in the cause of drug policy reform. Journalists Dan Forbes (freelance, broke many stories including the ONDCP's cash for anti-drug TV show themes) and Dan Gardner (Ottawa Citizen) received the Brecher Award, named for the author of the groundbreaking Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs.
Researcher David Vlahov was awarded the Alfred R. Lindesmith Award for Achievement in the Field of Scholarship, for his years of public health research on programs such as syringe exchange and his work supporting research into heroin maintenance. Lynn Paltrow was honored for her work defending the rights of pregnant women prosecuted for substance use, as was the team of physicians who made heroin maintenance a reality in Switzerland. Top honors went to Gov. Johnson, though at a luncheon earlier during the conference, the Richard J. Dennis DrugPeace Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform.
Last but not least, Patrick Murphy, former police commissioner in New York City and chief in Washington, DC, received the H.B. Spear Award for Achievement in the Field of Control and Enforcement. Murphy is a long-time advocate for drug policy and justice reform, who could not receive the award in previous years due to being a DPF board member.
An object lesson in the futility of the drug war:
Two conventioneers shoot down to Ciudad Juarez, a high-speed 300-mile jaunt through deserts and mountains to the Texas-Mexico border. There they are offered high quality cocaine ($40/gram) within sight of the international bridge. Returning to the US, the encounter with Customs at the bridge goes without a hitch. Late in the night on the return trip, a Border Patrol checkpoint suddenly looms out of the blackness of the New Mexico desert. "Please get out of the car and sit on the bench while the dog takes a sniff," requested one border guard.
Making idle conversation, one traveler asks the Border Patrol agents if they enjoy their work. "I love it," said one. "It's good money and maybe I can get into Customs." His companion responded differently. "It sucks," he said, "but what else am I going to do around here?" The salesman across the border might have said the same.