The biannual International Drug Policy Reform Conferences, organised by the Drug Policy Alliance, have always had a special place in my heart. The first time I attended a DPA conference – thanks to an Open Society Foundations scholarship - was in New Jersey, 2003. At that time, I was a newly-graduated history student, uncertain how to proceed with my career. I was interested in the history of drug prohibition, but my knowledge was limited to a few books and articles I had read at the university library. It was the DPA conference that opened my eyes and changed my way of thinking. A new world was unfolding in front of me, full of exciting issues and wonderful activists – among whom, Ethan Nadelmann was the most inspiring. I was caught up in this new world, and have been working in the drug policy reform movement ever since.
This year Drugreporter was again the official film maker of the event - please watch this short movie to get a taste of the conference!
Perhaps it was scholarly interest that led me to the world of drug policy reform - but it was its strong connection to social justice and personal freedom that appealed to me the most. I had never previously realised the sheer number of ways in which the so-called War on Drugs affects vulnerable communities and ruins lives around the world, including racial discrimination, mass incarceration, social exclusion, the global HIV and hepatitis C epidemics, overdose deaths, and violent crime. I came to realise that most of the harms I had previously attributed to drug use per se, should instead more properly be attributed to punitive drug policies. I recognised the insanity of policies which seek to eradicate human behaviours which are as old as human civilisation - and I learned about the alternative harm reduction strategies for dealing with risky behaviour. The DPA conference was the best school I could find. As we European participants, often whisper among ourselves, it is a very American conference. Sometimes, it even resembles a cult. But make no mistake: it is much more than preaching to the converted. It is a learning ground, where many people can confront the realities of the drug war. It energises those who have lost faith after continual struggles with prejudice and hate.
Members of VOCAL New York are interviewed by Drugreporter at the conference
Dan Bigg, head of the Chicago Recovery Alliance, winner of the Normann E. Zinberg Award is interviewed by Drugreporter
America was quite a different place then. Those were the dark years of the Bush administration, when the War on Drugs was being waged in earnest, and the US acted like the anti-drug policeman of the world, exporting its punitive approach to other countries. It is incredible how much progress the drug policy reform movement has made since then. Public opinion has shifted in the US towards legalising a plant which has been banned and demonised since 1937. 23 states have legalised the medical use of marijuana, and four have also legalised its recreational use. Federal prohibition is on the back foot, with more and more legislators joining the bipartisan fight to end it. And it is not just marijuana. The movement itself has become incredibly colourful, and has matured. It has recognised the voice of the communities most heavily affected by the drug war, but which had hitherto been voiceless – African-Americans and Latinos. It has embraced psychedelic researchers, environmentalists, LGBTQ people, injecting drug users and feminists – progressives and conservatives, professionals and community activists, harm reducers and recovery service providers - groups with little in common, beyond their desire to end the War on Drugs.
As Ethan Nadelmann said in his opening speech, progress entails a risk of losing sight of the core values we started to fight for in the first place. This new hybrid movement is now struggling with self-definition, manifold divisions and tensions. Now that the end of federal prohibition is nigh, there are debates about what comes next. Many people fear that their ideals will be sacrificed on the altar of big business; the case of Ohio is a good example. Many people fear that vulnerable communities will be left behind by those who are only interested in middle-class white guys smoking marijuana legally. After all, is it not Black and Latino people who have suffered the most from racial profiling and mass incarceration? The legalisation of marijuana goes nowhere close to to easing their suffering. Moreover, international participants at the conference are concerned about the lack of interest shown by far too many Americans, in any sort of global perspective. How can an injecting drug user, detained in a boot camp in Vietnam, benefit from the end of marijuana prohibition in the US? There are parts of the world where no progress is being made - just the dark reality of abuse and punishment.
Ethan was right to remind us that this movement is first and foremost about freedom and social justice - for all. I hope that the next DPA conference will see more celebration of success - but even more inclusion and openness to the problems of those who feel left behind.
Blog: Peter Sarosi
Video: Istvan Gabor Takacs and Peter Sarosi