DRCNet Interview: Cher Ford-McCullough and Jean Marlowe of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform 7/22/05

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Formed in 1929, the original Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform (WONPR) played a crucial role in bringing about the end of alcohol Prohibition. Now, three-quarters of a century later, a new generation of women activists have resurrected the organization and its mission to undo the damage wrought on children, families, and communities by the failed war on drugs. To see what is going on with this relatively new organization, Drug War Chronicle spoke last week with two of the group's co-founders, WONPR president Cher Ford-McCullough and executive director Jean Marlowe.

Drug War Chronicle: What prompted you to form the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform?

Cher Ford-McCullough: It was the Goose Creek raid in South Carolina, when those police burst into that school with guns drawn and terrified those kids. That was when we realized just how bad things had gotten. It was time for women to stand up; we just couldn't have this anymore. We needed to make clear to those police and school administrators that they are not going to do this to our children without being held accountable. We didn't have to reinvent the wheel because we had a model in the original WONPR. Those women succeeded in ending Prohibition, and we applied the same principles they did. Shortly after that raid, Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow/Push Coalition put on a protest in Charleston, and we went down to that. After that, Jean, Florida-based prison activist Kay Lee, and I got together at the hotel and decided to resurrect this group. It was the atrocity at Goose Creek that got us going.

Jean Marlowe: I have two granddaughters, with the oldest just starting first grade. Their mother grew up with this drug war, knowing the police could come and take her children away. I don't want my granddaughters to have to endure that when they grow up. When I saw those police at Goose Creek taking their loaded weapons with the safeties off and pointing them at those children, I took it as seriously as if that had been one of my own children. I was just outraged that they would treat children like that. Our position is that every child in America is red, white, and blue, and they all deserve their rights.

Chronicle: Your organization is named after the original WONPR, which was founded to combat alcohol Prohibition. Why did you resurrect that name?

Ford-McCullough: As we looked at things, we saw that the original WONPR were successful in ending alcohol Prohibition in their time, but we felt that their work wasn't done. While they legalized alcohol again, they didn't end prohibition. We feel that women work together differently and constructively, and we thought we should come together for the common goal of protecting families and children in the war on drugs. We seek to address the issues faced by children whose parents are incarcerated, especially single mothers, but also kids whose fathers are in prison. So many women are affected, and so many of them are from single-parent households. With no fathers around, those women are literally the last line of defense for those children. In nature, the most dangerous animal is the mother protecting her cubs. It seemed very natural for us to pick up the banner to protect the children.

Chronicle: Given your orientation toward women, children, and the family, what issues to you concentrate on?

Marlowe: We really concentrate on how the drug war negatively impacts women and their families, on all the ways it does. The National Organization for Women just passed a resolution opposing the drug war and asking for policies based on compassion, health, and human rights. Part of that resolution explains that they are using pregnant women to write drug laws that have a terrible impact on women and their children. We are really concerned with women who face being sent to prison or losing their children forever because of laws like the Adoption and Safe Families Act, which allows the state to seize children and take permanent custody with the mothers, grandparents, and siblings forbidden from having any contact with that child ever again. This kind of thing is un-American at best and fascist at worst. Any law that allows the state to take away a woman's child when she may not even be guilty of a crime is intolerable.

Women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population, and much of it has little to do with their actual personal responsibility. A lot of them are charged on conspiracy charges and told things will go easy if they cooperate, if they give up names, but they don't know anything. They have no ability to rat someone out, so they get long mandatory minimum prison sentences, they lose their children, they lose their health, they lose everything. These are women in peripheral roles, women who may be dependent on the men or may be abused by them and afraid to go to their authorities.

Right now, we're explaining to the state legislature here in North Carolina that they are incarcerating their tax base. Across the country, there are over two million children who have a parent or guardian in prison, and most of those kids are in some form of state-funded social service program -- Medicaid, free lunch, food stamps, foster care. That's why so many of our state budgets are in the red. When you have millions of children whose parents are in prison, it's not too hard to figure out the taxpayers are going to be left with the tab.

Chronicle: I'm sure this didn't just happen out of the blue. What sorts of histories of activism do you have?

Ford-McCullough: I started out with the Florida Journey for Justice in 2000. We had a friend named Eddie Smith with AIDS who has since died, and we took him down there in our motor home. The next year, I went on the Texas Journey for Justice. I'm also the Kentucky state director for the American Alliance for Medical Cannabis and have been working with long-time marijuana activist and occasional political candidate Gatewood Galbraith since 1999. We went up to Rainbow Farm in Michigan after they shot Rollie Rohm and Tom Crosslin, and we were probably the only activists on the ground giving out information to counteract the lies they were printing in the newspapers.

Marlowe: I got started back in 1995, when Barney Frank introduced the first medical marijuana research bill. I had been talking with Donald Abrams and knew he had permission to do a study with AIDS patients, but NIDA wouldn't give him any and the DEA wouldn't let him import any. So we held the first demonstration in Polk County, North Carolina, history to raise awareness of that bill. We started off with the local newspapers and had stories like "Jean smokes marijuana every day." That prompted a bout with the local cops, which led to more rallies. In 1997, a judge basically accepted that I had no choice but to use marijuana, and ordered the sheriff to return my grow lights and leave me alone.

A group of women called Sisters for Safer Medicine then paid my way to go to Switzerland to a medical marijuana farm. There, you could buy it over the counter. They sent me a package by mail, Customs found it and prosecuted me, and I was put on probation. I asked permission to attend the 2000 Journey for Justice, but they wouldn't let me go, and when my probation officer found out I was sending video clips of the march to Florida legislators, he had me in court two weeks later. The prosecutor told the judge I was an in-your-face activist and needed to be locked up. They violated me because my THC levels were too high, even though I had a federal magistrate's recommendation to go to California to participate in a study on liver disorders. They sent me to federal prison, the women's camp at Alderson, West Virginia -- the one where Martha Stewart did her sentence. Martha made a few promises there, and now she's ready to get off parole and house arrest. I was interviewed by a bunch of media when she got sent in -- CNN, Fox, Newsweek, People -- and some of those folks said I had interesting things to say about the drug war and they would get back to me to do a story. With the National Organization for Women just passing their anti-drug war resolution, it's time for those stories to start happening.

Chronicle: You mentioned talking to the state legislature. How else do you seek to inform and influence public policy?

Marlowe: We do educational forums and workshops. Right now, we're going to different NOW chapters -- we'll do the North Carolina NOW state conference in September, and we'll be doing a presentation at Bennett College in Greensboro. We're also doing a presentation to the state General Assembly women's caucus. That is happening partly because of our issues and partly because we did a lobby day with the legislature. Now, the women's caucus wants us to address them. We've also been working with the National African-American Drug Policy Coalition (NAADPC) since they started. We're trying to reach out across lines of race, social standing, party, or gender. We've even been reaching out to farmers, explaining how prohibition is costing them their farms when they could be growing hemp. We're educating the voting base in this county. The drug war affects us all, and people are starting to realize it's their job to bring about common sense and change.

Chronicle: With the emergence of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, with NOW passing an anti-drug resolution, with WONPR, are we seeing the emergence of a woman- and family-centered segment of the drug policy reform movement, a "womanist" drug reform movement?

Marlowe: Of course you are. Women have an overall view of how negatively the drug war affects everyone, and I think it's fair to say women are more concerned about its impact on children. We did a workshop at NOW, and women drug reformers like Deborah Small from Breaking the Chains, Scarlett Swerdlow from SSDP, Wyndi Anderson from National Advocates for Pregnant Women, Angelyn Frazier from FAMM, and Anjuli Verma from the ACLU Women's Rights and Women's Prison Project were all there. Deborah and Scarlett were instrumental in getting NOW to pass that resolution, but we were all part of that workshop.

WONPR has now received its very first grant, from the Ms. Foundation for Women, and we are thrilled. Our first grant is coming from a mainstream women's organization. Not only are we seeing women's perspective in drug reform, we are seeing the broader women's movement take an interest in the subject.

Chronicle: Are women around the country responding to WONPR?

Marlowe: We have chapters in five states now, and our goal is to have chapters in at least 38 states by 2008.

Chronicle: That's an odd number. The only thing that really jumps out about it is that it is the number of states required to ratify a constitutional amendment.

Marlowe: Funny, isn't it? Anyway, we are seeking to create good, functional chapters, and our membership is growing rapidly.

Chronicle: You've also signed on to the August march on Washington to protest the mass imprisonment of Americans. Why is supporting that march important?

Marlowe: Those people in prison on drug charges deserve to have someone out there marching for them. Our position is that drug abuse and addiction should be treated as a health issue, not a criminal justice issue. Both of us will be there giving speeches. We hope it does some good. We hope our leaders will start to pay attention to this feminine energy. When I was in the prison camp at Alderson, I promised those women I would become a voice for them and their children. This is part of it.

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Issue #396 -- 7/22/05

Drug War Chronicle, recent top items


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Feature: Congressman Sensenbrenner Making Name as Drug War Extremist | Medical Marijuana: Steve McWilliams Remembered at Tuesday Vigils | DRCNet Interview: Cher Ford-McCullough and Jean Marlowe of the Women's Organization for National Prohibition Reform | DRCNet Book Review: "An Analytic Assessment of US Drug Policy," by David Boyum and Peter Reuter | Medical Marijuana: California Reinstates ID Card Program | Medical Marijuana: Nearly a Thousand Rally in Santa Cruz | Weekly: This Week's Corrupt Cops Stories | New Zealand: In Pragmatic Retreat, Nandor Tanczos Introduces Marijuana Decriminalization Bill | Europe: Magic Mushrooms Now Illegal in Great Britain | Asia: Philippines Man Gets 15 Years for Two Joints | Coerced Treatment: Pennsylvania Legal Challenge Threatens Drug Courts, Judge Complains | Web Scan: NOW Resolution, American Chronicle, NYT Editorial on Richard Paey, NORML Report, APHA/DPA Oregon Amicus | Weekly: This Week in History | Weekly: The Reformer's Calendar

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