Montana Activists Hold First Drug Policy Summit 9/13/02

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The University of Montana in Missoula was the site of Montana drug reformers' first statewide Drug Policy Summit last Thursday and Friday. Marijuana activists, harm reductionists, concerned citizens and university students gathered over two evenings to hear a plethora of local and national drug reformers denounce the war on drugs and call on local activists to open a new battlefront in Big Sky country. On Saturday, summiteers joined hundreds of other attendees in a day-long celebration of cannabis culture at the Missoula Hempfest in downtown's Caras Park.

Co-organized by Montana NORML (http://www.montananorml.org) head John Masterson and Missoula nurse Frances DeForrest, the event introduced Montana audiences to nationally known drug reformers including Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy, Cliff Thornton of Efficacy, and Ron Mann, director of "Grass," the widely acclaimed documentary about the criminalization of marijuana. Other national figures with local or regional links, including "Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure" author Dan Baum, a former Missoulian, Chuck Armsbury and Nora Callahan of the nearby (in Western terms) November Coalition, and University of Montana researcher Dr. Ethan Russo, also addressed the summit, as did local activists such as Masterson, and Montana ACLU head John Smith.

Attendance at the summit was about 75 people on the first night and more than a hundred on the second night, which included a screening of Mann's film, "Grass."

"We think the summit was an absolute success," Masterson told DRCNet. "We had close to a hundred people sign up on our list of people who wanted to actively participate in drug reform in Montana. That's important. We're thrilled at having met so many students who are ready to get active."

The budding activists certainly drew inspiration from the speakers, as well as being challenged to locate their activism in a broader political context. Thornton, who traveled from Connecticut to address the summit, challenged the audience to confront the racism that permeates the war on drugs. "It's easier for white people to believe that Elvis is alive than to recognize that racism still exists in this country," he said. While noting that drug laws are not racist on their face, Thornton said, "White America focuses on the intent of the law, but black America looks at the effect."

Dan Baum called for "class consciousness," a term usually verboten in US political discourse, and for drug reformers to ally themselves with other progressive movements. "We are being raped" by the drug enforcers, Baum said. "I despair when I see anti-drug war people focus exclusively on drugs. Seattle [the 1999 World Trade Organization disorders] was our fight, the environment is our fight, social justice is our fight. We need a broader analysis," he told the audience.

Masterson told DRCNet the summit aimed to broaden the drug reform movement in Montana and bring it to a mainstream audience, but admitted that the effort was less than completely successful. "We were aiming at folks like the PTA or the city council, but if they were there, they must have been in disguise," he said. "While we're thrilled to have contacted and educated scores of students, it is disappointing that more Missoulians didn't show up to dialogue with us about this failed drug war. Maybe next year."

By next year, Missoulians could have more reason to confront drug policy issues, Masterson said. "We are having our first Grizzly (University of Montana) NORML meeting next week, and we are considering a local initiative in either Missoula or Missoula County that would establish prosecutorial guidelines telling law enforcement and the courts that marijuana crimes should only be prosecuted under certain conditions, such as if a minor is involved or it the quantities suggest drug trafficking," he explained. "The vast majority of marijuana use would then be outside the purview of law enforcement."

In his address to the summit, Masterson reviewed the most recent poll (from 1998) on Montanans' attitude toward drug reform, telling the audience that medical marijuana and industrial hemp had 70% support and half of Montanans surveyed would support regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol or tobacco. In a telling indication of the libertarian conservative ethos that pervades much of the West, 2% of respondents objected to regulating and taxing pot on the grounds that they wanted "no new taxes."

Masterson had only praise for the national reformers that attended -- and some advice for other local activists interested in doing something similar. "Thanks to Nora Callahan for suggesting I call Kevin Zeese," he said. "I pretty much just cold called him and asked if he could come, and he said, 'What day?' He turned out to be a real linchpin in this thing, and I feel really fortunate to have spent some time with him and discussed the future of drug reform in Montana. We basically cold called everyone and got a real good response. If you want to do something similar, don't be shy about picking up the phone."

The primary focus in Montana will be marijuana reform, Masterson said. "The Montana agenda is to protect those who use marijuana, but we support the efforts of the harm reduction community and would love to work with them on broader reform issues," he said.

But in the meantime, in Montana as elsewhere, there is evidence of a divide between Cannabis Nation and users of other drugs. Hempfest visitors talking about methamphetamine too often sounded more like Asa Hutchinson than Kevin Zeese. The November Coalition, which has a petition drive focused on getting all drug war prisoners out from behind bars, has more than once heard versions of the following dialogue:

"Is this just for pot prisoners?" "No." "Then I won't sign."

Oh, Cannabis Nation. When they came for the speedfreaks, I did nothing...

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