Drug Policy Alliance National Conference Underway in New Jersey -- State Ripped for Leading Nation in Drug-Incarceration Rate 11/7/03

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Hundreds of drug reformers, activists, academics, treatment professionals, elected officials, and interested citizens from across the continent (and even a few from across the water and south of the border) converged on the New Jersey Meadowlands, just across the Hudson River from New York City, as the Drug Policy Alliance (http://www.drugpolicy.org) held its biennial national conference. Proceedings opened with a bang as DPA hosted a noon press conference to announce the release of a report it commissioned that cites the Garden State as the nation's worst when it comes to percentage of drug offenders in the prison population.

Hours earlier, DPA executive director Ethan Nadelmann officially opened the conference -- the first real national movement confab since April's NORML convention in San Francisco -- with a keynote address outlining his and DPA's vision of the state of the struggle and where it is headed. Citing movement responses to the outing of Rush Limbaugh as a pill-taker as indicative of a movement with two sides -- left progressives and freedom-loving (or anti-statist) conservatives -- Nadelmann called for drug reformers to transcend ideological differences. "We need to build coalitions that cross over," he said, "They are a fundamental imperative for our future. For drug policy reform to succeed, we need to have the right wing fighting for freedom as well."

Conservatives opponents of drug reform, however, got no slack from Nadelmann. "That goddamned Ashcroft is doing things to people," he yelled in reference to the persecution of medical marijuana users and providers in California. And he painted a picture of a foe broader than simply drug warriors as he noted President Eisenhower's warning of the military-industrial complex, compared it to the prison-industrial complex, and suggested that we are now seeing the emergence of a "Homeland Security Act-industrial complex playing to people's fears of terrorism and drugs."

Recalling the gay rights struggles that began in the 1960s, Nadelmann also called for drug users to come out of the closet. "Forty years ago, everyone in America knew a homosexual," he told the crowd, "they just didn't know they knew. But people wanted human dignity, and by acts of personal courage they made change. Today, everybody in America knows a drug user, but they don't know they know one," he said. "But people are stepping out," not only in California's medical marijuana struggle, but with AIDS and Hep C as well. There needs to be more of this, Nadelmann said. "We have to change the media images."

He also sought to play down divisions in the movement and pointed to common ground. "There is a powerful, compelling case for legalization," Nadelmann said. "Some of us don't want to go that far, but we are united in believing that the criminal justice system should not rule drug policy."

At the noon press conference, DPA formally unveiled a study conducted by the Justice Policy Institute (http://www.justicepolicy.org) at its behest. "Costs and Benefits? The Impact of Drug Incarceration in New Jersey" raked the state for filling its prisons with a higher percentage of drug offenders than any other. "New Jersey wastes valuable human and financial resources by incarcerating drug offenders who don't need to be behind bars," said JPI executive director Vincent Schiraldi. "States like Texas and Michigan are reforming their drug laws to divert drug offenders into treatment instead of prison. New Jersey needs to move towards the more effective and less expensive solution of treatment for drug offenders."

"Just about everyone in New Jersey has paid a steep price for the war on drugs -- from prisoners and their families to cops and judges, from people struggling with addiction to taxpayers and policymakers," said DPA's Nadelmann. "Few states have suffered so much, and few could gain so much from basic reforms."

The report itself paints a bleak portrait of drug policy justice in New Jersey. Among its findings:

  • With 36% of its prison population doing time for drug offenses, New Jersey's rate is 80% more than the national average and higher than those of usual suspects, such as three-strikes California and lock-'em-up Texas.
  • Throwing drug offenders in prison has a disproportionate impact on people of color, particularly African-Americans. While blacks and latinos represent little more than one-quarter of the state's population, they are 81% of the prison population.
  • Features of New Jersey's sentencing structure, including mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes and "drug-free school zones" have made the problem worse.
  • The state is spending $266 million a year in direct costs to keep its drug prisoners locked up, a figure higher than total prison spending for one-third of other states. The massive increase in prison spending (up $825 million over the 1980s and 1990s) accounts for 20% of this year's state budget shortfall -- a shortfall that was made up by cutting education, health care, and social services.
  • And it doesn't make any difference. According to the study, which compared drug use with prison admissions in 22 states, "JPI researchers tested whether states with high rates of incarceration for drug offenses experienced a statistically significant decrease in drug use and found there is no statistically significant basis for believing that increasing prison admissions for drug offenses deters drug use."
Meanwhile, even as the press conference was underway, the convention was already in full swing, with first-day panels on topics ranging from "Got Teenagers? How to Talk to Teens About Drugs" to "New York City: Harm Reduction Advances," "Congress, Club Drugs, and the Business of Dancing," and "Drug Wars in the Americas: Views from the South." Unfortunately, this embarrassment of riches is limited by time constraints, leaving participants to forego some in order to see others.

The panel on "Pain, Opiates and Opiophobia" was representative of the quality of participants brought together by DPA for the conference. It included one of the nation's leading pain experts, Dr. Russell Portenoy, chair of the Department of Pain Medicine and Palliative Care at Beth Israel Medical Center, who told the audience that "under-treatment of pain is way worse" because of doctors' fears of prosecution. Also on the panel was Dr. Sidney Schnoll, executive medical director for health policy for Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of the much praised and much maligned Oxycontin. Schnoll provided a history lesson on the ever-tightening legal constraints faced by doctors, as well as pointing the finger at a sensational media for uncritically reporting death after death caused by Oxycontin -- figures that have not been matched by coroner's reports.

The panel also featured Will Rowe, executive director of the American Pain Foundation (http://www.painfoundation.org) and Siobhan Reynolds, executive director of the Pain Relief Network (http://www.painreliefnetwork.org). Rowe, who reported that an estimated 50 to 75 million Americans suffer from under-treated chronic pain, read letter after letter from pain patients who wrote of their inability to find doctors who would treat them with opiates and the resulting despair, while Reynolds, a veritable firebrand compared to her staid co-panelists, called for a stronger defense of pain doctors and patients. "I thought the war on drugs was like Smokey the Bear, it wasn't serious," she said. "But they were dead serious." And now, after being educated by her husband's endless pursuit of treatment for his chronic pain, so is she. The drug war cannot stand in the way of treating pain, she said. "Worrying about drug diversion and abuse is counterproductive when we have this national health care crisis," she said.

The conference continues through Saturday. Look for additional reporting on the conference next week.

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Issue #310, 11/7/03 DRCNet Video Review: "BUSTED: The Citizens' Guide to Surviving Police Encounters" | BUSTED: Special Video Offer for DRCNet Members | Pain Doctor Acquitted in Virginia -- Feds Fail to Win Single Count | Drug Policy Alliance National Conference Underway in New Jersey -- State Ripped for Leading Nation in Drug-Incarceration Rate | Newsbrief: NJ Supreme Court Just Says No to Vehicle Searches Where a Former Passenger Had Drugs | Newsbrief: A Friend of Reform Forced Out -- Detroit Police Chief Jerry Oliver Resigns | Newsbrief: China Bans Song for Opium Lyrics | Newsbrief: California Woman Gets Life for Meth Baby Death | Newsbrief: Amnesty International Calls on Thai Government to Name Those Killed in Drug War | This Week in History | DRCNet Temporarily Suspending Our Web-Based Write-to-Congress Service Due to Funding Shortfalls -- Your Help Can Bring It Back -- Keep Contacting Congress in the Meantime | Perry Fund Accepting Applications for 2003-2004 and 2004-2005 School Years, Providing Scholarships for Students Losing Aid Because of Drug Convictions | The Reformer's Calendar

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