Feature: Drug Reform Goes to the Big Easy -- The 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, New Orleans

In its biggest show of numbers yet, the drug reform movement gathered in New Orleans last weekend for the 2007 International Drug Policy Reform Conference. More than 1,200 activists, harm reductionists, treatment providers, drug users, law enforcement professionals and government officials came together in this city devastated just over two years ago by Hurricane Katrina to listen to speakers and panels, hob-nob in the hallways, and experience the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans. Panelists and attendees arrived in New Orleans from across the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, Poland, Colombia, Bolivia, Argentina, Mexico, Hungary, Brazil, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

conference plenary session (courtesy drugwarrant.com)
"There has never been a gathering this big on this issue before," said Drug Policy Alliance executive director Ethan Nadelmann as he greeted attendees on the conference's opening day. "We're trying to build a movement for freedom and justice, science and compassion, and human rights. We're coming from the left and the right, from law enforcement and from being arrested, from those who love their drugs and those devastated by drugs. But we all agree on the conviction that this war on drugs, this policy of punitive prohibition, has got to go," he said to clamorous applause.

The war on drugs is about race, said Nadelmann. "This is all about race -- no, it's mostly about race," he said. "We know who is mostly getting arrested, beaten up, and convicted. If the people behind bars were not black or brown, but white, this policy would change like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

Nadelmann's remarks came on the opening morning of the three-day conference hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance, and co-hosted by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Harm Reduction Coalition, and the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation.

Also on the conference's opening day was a speech by Antonio Maria Costa, head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, who told a boisterous and sometimes combative audience of drug reformers that while a drug-free world is probably not attainable, it is almost certainly desirable, and that he would continue to work toward that goal. Costa took more flak in a question and answer session immediately following his speech.

The selection of New Orleans for this year's conference was especially appropriate, given the conference's emphasis this year on increasing racial diversity within the movement and the city's tawdry reputation when it comes to criminal justice and drug policy. In addition to attending conference functions, hundreds of conference-goers traveled to the ghost town-like 9th Ward to see first-hand the storm's devastation and the equally devastating lack of reconstruction in the area. Dozens more attended sessions devoted to familiarizing them with drug reform-related issues in New Orleans and meeting with local activists and officials.

Drug offenders are jailed at one of the highest rates in the nation in New Orleans, speakers said. Poverty is high, treatment options are limited, the justice system is in a post-Katrina crisis (as if it were in good shape before the storm), yet the drug war continues to roll along. "The criminal justice system in New Orleans was always in a sad state of affairs, yet very good at making a high number of arrests," said Bruce Johnson of the National Development Research Institute, who is working on an analysis of post-Katrina drug markets.

"We've been known for a long time for having the worst and most corrupt police force in America," said Morris Henderson, an organizer with Safe Streets, Strong Communities, a local community group. "Our police department is making 900 to 1000 arrests a week, but 85% of them are people arrested for paraphernalia or marijuana possession or having one or two rocks of crack," he said. "Our system has been overwhelmed by this approach, and now we have a unique opportunity in this city to change the frame. We're tired of being last in what everybody else wants to be first in. We've been fighting this unjust drug war for 40 years, and it's time for something sensible to be done."

The conference also attracted at least one local congressional candidate, Democrat Gilda Reed, who is running to replace Republican Rep. Bobby Jindal, who vacated the seat to become Louisiana governor. "There is so much going on here," she said in the lobby of the Astor Crowne Plaza Hotel on Canal Street. "It's really quite amazing," she said after meeting with high-powered drug reformers and listening in on sessions Friday afternoon.

Throughout the three-day conference, attendees were treated to a dizzying array of panels, speeches, roundtables, and working sessions on almost every conceivable aspect of drug policy and drug prohibition. On Friday morning alone, conference-goers had to choose between "Who Else Should Be Diverted From Prison," "Prescribing Heroin," "Marijuana and Health: Risks and Benefits," "Beyond Zero-Tolerance: Experience it For Yourself," "Understanding and Preventing Opioid Poisoning: A National Perspective," and "Building Momentum in Congress," before coming together for a plenary session on "Black America: The Debate Within." (See the conference web page for a complete listing of panels, all of which are now available for sale on audio.)

While the drug reform movement has long been criticized (and has long criticized itself) for being overwhelmingly white, organizers this year took pains to make race and the drug war a central issue, and it seemed to make a difference. The number of non-white faces in the crowd, while still a distinct minority, was noticeably larger than at any other national drug reform conference.

During Friday's plenary session, among others, the movement confronted the race issue head on. "We have never effectively dealt with the issue of racism as we should," said the Rev. Edwin Sanders, a leading black clerical voice for drug reform. "Here in the drug reform family, we need some serious conversation about this issue. Sometimes, you don't appreciate the dynamics of power and elitism."

"From the beginning, combating the war on drugs has been about two major principles: the principle of personal autonomy and freedom and the principle of racial equity and justice," said Ira Glasser, former executive director of the ACLU. "The war on drugs violates those principles egregiously. From the beginning, this was a war driven by race. The only prohibition that was ever repealed was that on alcohol, the favorite drug of the white majority," Glasser noted. In the wake of the end of formal segregation, "the war on drugs has become a replacement system for the subjugation of black citizens," he added.

Where are the mainstream civil rights organizations?, asked Nadelmann. "If they were to come here, they would see what's possible and what kind of constituents they truly have. There is such tremendous energy, drive and passion here," he said. "People feel the suffering in their communities, and they recognize that drug policy reform is one of the key ways to go about changing what they are seeing and experiencing."

For black America in general and the hip-hop generation in particular, drug reform activism is only part of a larger struggle, said Dr. James Peterson, a Bucknell University English professor and hip-hop scholar. "Drug policy and drugs in general are part of an interconnected series of challenges for them," he said. "First, there is the prison industrial complex and an aggressive justice policy. We think of over-incarceration in general as being the larger problem. Second, if you consider what crack did to inner city communities, it is difficult to think of drug policy reform rather than the destruction of certain illegal drugs in their communities. Third, gangs and gang related violence, again linked to drugs, but seen as more of a problem. Fourth, the proliferation of guns in general," Peterson said.

And so the long overdue movement conversation on race and racism begins to move within the movement. If something comes of these conversations on race in New Orleans, that will be the 2007 conference's greatest achievement.

[Editor's Note: No single article can accurately encapsulate what went on at the conference. Look for more Drug War Chronicle articles based on what we learned at the conference to appear in coming weeks. Click here for links to more coverage.]

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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War on Drugs

Thank you for such a concise and thorough treatment of one of the most important issues in America

I am a minority MD that has done pain management. I was singled out for federal prosecution due to our policy of prescribing in counts of 100 and giving 5 refills. We also saw patients for $5 per visit who were not pain management. The DEA agent in charge claimed that we were replacing crack sales, even though we expelled many patients from the practice that were convicted of selling drugs . I am a victim of the War on Drugs also.

We also had a potentiating liquid to pill with ANSAID treatment. In addition we treated the medical illness of the whole family and community doing echocardiograms. lab, x-ray and other necessary ancillary studies.

There has been extensive prejudicial media relative to my practice which has made a jury trial difficult.

I say all this to say that it is impossible for me to resume any pain management even it I do beat what is a formidable opponent, namely the DEA, who has been very aggressive. Please consider offering any support.
I would appreciate any suggestions legal and otherwise to continue this battle against a few that are oppressive within the power structure of our "Justice"system

A. Peters MD

WAR on DRUGS or is it LIBERTY?

Dr. Peters, suggestion, buy the best attorney in your area. Jury nullification is also a possibility if you keep the press involved.Federal cases are sometimes called slam dunks for a good reason. That being the federal judge himself. The appointed judge is there to do the job requested of him by Washington, that is ONDCP. What this judge tells the jury,by way of instruction, is often incorrect and misleading. The jury needs to be aware of this fact. How to accomplish this awareness can be....tricky. Of course all of this is going to be co$tly.,but freedom does not come cheap. To me ,the government is oblivious when it comes to pain. They will want to make an example of you, should any other caring physicians be watching. What Nadelmann said in N.O. is the truth.You will need more than luck but... GOOD LUCK!

Working Toward Diversity

I'm glad that racial diversity is beginning to be addressed in the drug reform movement. It would be a worthy goal to increase the number of women in the movement as well. For some reason "drug culture" is overwhelmingly male-oriented, while in actuality users are men, women and trans-folk.

I've tried to do some drug policy work, but am overwhelmed by the "dude parties" that these conferences can turn out to be.

While we're unpacking our race privilege, let's unpack our sex privilege too.

Drug Reform Conference Boon-Doggle

So the head of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime comes to your conference to engage with reformers, and your response is to burn the guy at the stake. You showed him huh? Wow. Nice effective policy engagement. I am sure that the global scope that you seek for your reform work will soon be a reality.

Sure, the guy may be a prohibitionist...his donor countries (read: funders...Like the Dutch, British and US Gov) make him toe this line regardless of what he may think personally. -But he was there! Instead of engaging him and establishing what common aims there might be (like demand reduction -treatment- rather than a criminal justice policies for drug use) he gets trashed for mandating treatment for every drug user?

I think many in this movement have years of pent up frustration that was unleashed on this guy, who didn't have to even show up at this po-dunk little conference. Now you've got years before someone like him will ever show up again....

Next time, five-ten years from now when you have another person attend your conference that can actually facilitate change, set him up in panel discussion where common goals are focused on, instead of this 'burning of the guy' type of deal... save that for the desert.

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