Reflections from the International Drug Policy Reform Conference
I am at the airport on my way home from the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Los Angeles. As I sit and wait to board my flight, I am reliving so many intriguing and exciting moments from the meeting, and feel full of ideas and revelations after three intense days with progressive leaders, law reformers, activists, academics, human rights advocates and visionaries. There was an incredible diversity of opinion and approach and lived experience among the panellists and participants. However, despite that diversity, we were all there because of a common goal: to end the failed war on drugs and move all nations towards drug policy grounded in evidence, compassion, health and human rights.
The conference began with a series of distinguished speakers, including Gavin Newsome (California Lieutenant Governor), Gary Johnson (Former New Mexico Governor and candidate for the Republican nomination for President), Pete White (LA Community Action Network), Alice Huffman (President, California NAACP) and Ethan Nadelmann (Executive Director, DPA). Throughout this session, the crowd leapt up a number of times to give standing ovations for these speakers who described, each in their own particular way, the tragic consequences of the war on drugs.
This may not come as much of a surprise to those who know me, but as I listened to these speeches I felt incredibly emotional. In my defence, I should say that I don’t think I was the only one. Looking around the room and feeling the energy of the thousand people around me, I am pretty sure we were all experiencing a wide range of emotions as we thought about the human rights violations of the past and present and our hopes for the future.
There were moments when I was overwhelmed by the passion of the speakers and felt an incredible urge to stand up on my chair and cheer (which I resisted…):
The drug war has failed our communities and families, stripping our collective ability to meet our full social and economic potential. However, for those in power, it has been a smashing success. Disenfranchisement, incarceration, destruction of family and community, disconnection from the labour market, racial profiling and the list of related oppressions go on and on and we know it all too well in this room. On this day, an estimated 7.2 million men and women are under correctional control in the United States. 2.3 million behind bars and 5 million controlled within our communities. But the casualties of this war go beyond those numbers. This war grips our communities and cripples them. This war grips our families and disintegrates them. This war against drugs is really a war against communities of colour… This war in no uncertain terms was launched as a tool to prevent the resurgence of a civil rights movement that retooled the way we all imagined America. (Pete White)
And there were many times that I was moved to tears:
I am here because I am sick and tired of my people being the pawns and being destroyed by a stupid war called the drug war. It is my community and the Latino community that my fellow government has declared a war on… and we need to stand up against them. Now whether you come because you love marijuana and you want to advocate for the use of marijuana or whether you come to further your rights, it doesn’t matter to me because we are all here together and together we can end this war on drugs. (Alice Huffman)
And there were many, many times when I heard words of wisdom that crystallized why it is that I feel an unwavering commitment to fight for social justice:
If there is one quality that is required of us more than any other, more than intellect and more than courage, it is the quality of empathy… we don’t have the option of beating up the opposition, they have the guns and the prisons and they still have the laws and the prejudices and the fears, they have so much on their side. We win when we extract every ounce of empathy we have within ourselves. When we can embrace and open our hearts to the law enforcer who has done his job sometimes courageously for 20 years and where we have been the victim and to reach into them and appeal to him and find the language that will bring him over here… and show our empathy. And we win when can reach and embrace people who have struggled with addiction in their families - who have lost people to horrible drug fatalities and hates drugs - where we can reach over... and feel, deep down, for people suffering around drugs… It is only by understanding - deeply profoundly - the fears that exist around drugs. Every parent’s fear for their kid. Everyone’s fear for the loss of control of drugs. Everybody’s desire to control their environment. Everyone’s desire to build that moat between their children and those drugs. It is only when we extract that empathic dimension of ourselves that we win. (Ethan Nadelmann)
Over the next three days, I learned from the wisdom of drug users, sex workers, social justice activists, hip hop artists, educators, researchers, medical cannabis providers, HIV experts, human rights advocates, lawyers, physicians, academics and journalists from North America, Latin American, Europe, Australia and elsewhere. I began to deepen my understanding of the role that we each play in this movement for social change and how we find strategic and (to borrow Nadelmann’s words) wily ways create progress in our communities. In particular, it was wonderful to see so many leaders from the Canadian drug policy movement at the meeting, and exciting to see the recent Insite decision featured so prominently as a major step forward. It also felt very important to be thinking strategically about how Canadians can continue to fight the Harper government's cruel and regressive omnibus crime bill.
Another particular highlight was participating on a panel called Sex, Drugs and Movement Building. I was on the panel with activists from various American sex worker organizations and two other social justice lawyers. We discussed the intersections and differences between the drug policy and sex work movements and ways in which the two movements can lend greater support and share expertise with one another. We discussed how law enforcement practices are selective and intensely discriminatory, as marginalized women are disproportionately targeted by police. As always, I learned so much from the sex workers on the panel who shared their expertise and insights into recent challenges, successes and the future of the movement.