David Borden, Executive Director, [email protected], 4/5/02
Few areas of criminal law have as much variation in their application as the drug laws. In some countries, possession of small amounts of drugs is effectively decriminalized. In others, possession can bring you a sentence of life or even death.
At the Congress of Europe's Transnational Radical Party in Geneva, Switzerland this week, Chris Davies, a British member of the European Parliament (MEP) who joined the Radicals in a civil disobedience action last January, described the possible consequences of his actions. Davies had delivered a tiny portion of marijuana -- stuck to the back of a postage stamp -- to the police headquarters in the London suburb of Stockport (http://www.drcnet.org/wol/222.html).
Davies, along with MEP Marco Cappato from the Radical Party's stronghold of Italy, was protesting the jailing of Colin Davies (no relation to Chris Davies), proprietor of "The Dutch Experience," a cannabis cafe in the model of Amsterdam's coffeeshops. Davies pointed out that in theory they could go to prison for two years, though it is not very likely.
Two years is a long time, a severe sentence. Yet many Americans, including legislators, fail to grasp the meaning of those numbers. I pointed out to the gathering that in the United States, nonviolent offenders often receive sentences of five years, twenty years, even lifetimes. And all the other consequences of the drug war -- drug-related AIDS and hepatitis, undertreatment of pain, the violence of the underground drug-trade, just to name a few of them -- spread the harm and injustice far beyond the people who are targeted by anti-drug enforcement most directly.
The Radical Party is highly principled in its opposition to a wide variety of governmental prohibitions limiting individual freedom and in its advocacy on a broad and global human rights agenda. To the Radicals, prohibition itself is a crime, an immoral, inappropriate exercise of state power. I agree, but how much more terrible then is the US drug war?
Another contrast is how much more accepted the prohibition/ legalization debate is in Europe than in America. In truth, many Americans don't even realize that there is a credible, intellectual, and yes, respectable movement for ending criminal prohibition of drugs. But that fact alone, the quality of our arguments and the credentials of some of our allies, is often enough to begin to open minds to our ideas. That is why I can't be pessimistic about the prospects for some form of legalization: Until every American hears our case and has a chance to think about it, there is good, effective work that we can all do on the issue. How does anyone know that our cause -- which the Radicals title "anti-prohibitionism," is hopeless, when that enormous but logical public education campaign is still in such an early stage?
We in the drug reform movement must wage and interlink two related struggles at once -- drug policy reform, ending the drug war in its current excessive form, while working for eventual repeal of the drug laws outright and allowing adults to have legal access to a legal supply of drugs under some sensible but not inappropriately burdensome framework.
Is that too idealistic? Is the cause lost from its outset? Only if we believe it to be and shirk from the task as a result. There is no need to hide from the truth.