At the urging of drug reform activists who are also members, the League of Women Voters of Texas (http://www.lwvtexas.org) voted at its annual convention last weekend to approve a two-year study of drug policies in the Lone Star State. The Texas League is the state affiliate of the national League of Women Voters (LWV), the venerable and well-respected nonpartisan political association encouraging good government and civic involvement.
The national League approved a similar study of drug policy two years ago, but that study withered on the vine for lack of financial support. That is not the case with some state and local chapters, however. LWV Seattle has for nearly a decade played a crucial role in what has become a formidable drug reform coalition there (http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle/304/i75.shtml), and according to Texas League members, efforts to get similar studies underway are now taking place in Arkansas and South Carolina.
The action taken by the LWV of Texas is due largely to the efforts of two women, Suzanne Wills of Dallas and Noelle Davis of Austin. Wills, a longtime member of the Drug Policy Forum of Texas (http://www.dpft.org), has been the drug policy chair for the Dallas chapter since she joined the group in 2001, Wills told DRCNet. She used her position to hammer at the issue, she said. "I've been keeping it in front of them with an article in every issue of our chapter newsletter," she said. "Most of the Dallas delegates to the state convention voted for the study because they knew what the issues were."
But the Dallas chapter did not put the motion before the convention—the Austin chapter did, and that was largely thanks to Noelle Davis, a 29-year-old newcomer to the LWV. "I joined the League a couple of years ago," she told DRCNet. "I was interested in drug policy, and I was interested in the League because they are a nonpartisan organization and don't take positions on things until they study them."
As a relative newcomer, said Davis, she sought out chapter leaders to understand the process of getting an issue considered, then ran with it from there. "The first step was to present the idea of a program study to a local chapter," said Davis. "Everyone there was very receptive to the idea," she told DRCNet. "Once we approved it at the local level, we let the state League know our group wanted to study drug policy in Texas."
But a request from one local chapter was not enough to convince the state league's board of directors to recommend drug policy as a study item. Instead, Wills and Davis and other advocates for the study took an alternate route to get the proposal before the state league. "We had to offer an official motion from the floor and convince delegates to approve it," Davis explained.
Advocates for approving the study held two caucuses before the final vote in an effort to educate and sway delegates. "We had to get two-thirds of the delegates to win approval for the study," said Wills. "We put out flyers telling people about the caucuses, and we had plenty of information on the issues for people to read."
Proponents advanced a number of arguments to win over delegates, said Wills and Davis. "We related drug policy to other issues of interest to the League, particularly criminal justice and public health issues," said Wills, "and we argued that we needed to study drug policy to arrive at an informed position." They also played the age card -- a smart move in an organization viewed as the domain of older women. Drug policy is an issue that could draw younger women into the organization, said Wills, pointing to the example of Davis.
Of the two caucus meetings, the first one was largely informational, while the second was devoted to answering the questions and objections of delegates. "We used the time allotted at the microphone pretty well," said Wills. "We addressed questions about what the state of Texas can do when prohibition is a national policy, we explained that we thought we could get the funding for the study (LWV studies must be self-supporting), and we pointed out that the LWV is very grey, looking to attract young members, and this could be an issue that does that," she said.
Given its orientation, the League can be a key player in drug reform if nudged in the right direction, said Wills. "The League tends to be progressive people, and while they may not be especially well-informed when it comes to drug policy, they are progressive and interested in good government. It is a good place for people interested in drug policy to go," she suggested.
The motion approved by the delegates calls for the state LWV to conduct a study on drug policy so it can "effectively advocate for its previously established positions on public school finance, criminal justice, juvenile justice, election laws and voting rights, health care for older Texans, and equal opportunity/income assistance." The study will research the history of Texas drug laws and "evaluate current laws and policies governing the sale and use of illegal drugs including their effects on young people, communities of color, and medical care and public health." Its mandate also includes evaluating "the social and economic costs of relying on prohibition, law enforcement, and imprisonment to solve problems related to drugs," and seeking alternatives to current policies.
"Since the delegates voted to approve this study, we will set up a chair and a committee," said Amy Farrier, communications coordinator for the LWV of Texas. "They will meet to pull together some background information, then after the study is complete, it will be submitted to our members," she told DRCNet. "What we want to generate is an unbiased educational piece for our members. Once that is done, there will be statewide study of the report, and then the LWV of Texas will attempt to reach a consensus position on what should be done."
The study of governmental issues is one of the League's primary functions at all three of its organizational levels -- local, state, and national, said Farrier. "We do studies of these issues for reasons of both education and advocacy, which are two of the basic missions of the League," she explained. "The League's process for study has acquired a solid reputation for its in-depth and unbiased exploration of an issue submitted to its grassroots membership for informed discussion. Once a position is reached, the League uses its grassroots strength to influence the shape of public policy."
Now, said Davis, it's time to get on the study committee. "The state League was very interested to know if there were people willing to work on this issue, and I definitely am, so I'm hoping I'll be selected."
For Wills, her work with the Drug Policy Forum of Texas and the LWV is an outgrowth of her experience. "I grew up in the 1960s, and the main thing that got me was the lies they told, like LSD causes birth defects and Agent Orange is benign," she said. "Not to mention the idea that they would imprison us for smoking a joint. That was important, too."
For Davis, the trajectory is much shorter. "I really didn't know much about drug policy until I attended a forum at a Unitarian Universalist church in Austin a couple of years ago," she said. "It's hard to think what you can do, and I think working with the League is something that can help."
Willis and Davis may represent a different generations in the LWV, but their goal remains the same: End the injustices of the drug war. And the example of their work with the League should be a beacon for other drug reform activists seeking change. In the Vietnam War era, activists spoke of a "long march through the institutions" of American society as the way to win fundamental change. They didn't march long enough then; but the long march of the drug reformers is just getting underway.