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Who We Are and Why We Fight: "People Who Do Drugs, and People Who Don't, Will End the War on Drugs"

The foremost U.S. authority on the harm of the drug war paints a clear and brilliant picture of the path to a better future.

Ethan Nadelmann electrified the audience with this comprehensive and provocative address at the 2011 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in November  in downtown Los Angeles. At the conference, anti-drug war activists from all over the world, and all walks of life, converged to plan and discuss the movement to end the drug war. Former police officers with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and representatives from the NAACP and other organizations  joined formerly incarcerated drug offenders, addicts, and individuals as prominent as the Mexican poet Javier Sicilia for three days of collaboration and education.

Let me tell you something. We are all the future of this movement. We are all the future. You know, it is the young, the old, and the in-between. The black, the white, and the in-between. The gay, the straight, and the in-between. The drug users, and the non-drug users, and the in-between.  

It really is a remarkable moment right now. Some of us have been fighting this for many years, but every one of us who’s been in this for many years knows the same thing as those of us for whom this is a new thing -- which is, we have just begun to fight. We have just begun to fight. Because the fact of the matter is, what we are involved in here, inescapably, is a multi-generational struggle. This is a multi-generational struggle. There is no 18th Amendment of drug prohibition that is simply going to be repealed with a 21st. There is no Berlin Wall of drug prohibition that is going to come tumbling down like that and transform the world. We have to push, and we have to push, and we have to build, and we have to be smart. We have no alternative.  

Now, we also know that the unexpected can happen when you least expect it. We know that a monstrous empire like the Soviet Union can crumble when nobody thought it was possible. And we know that a black man with a name like Barack Obama can become president when nobody thought that was possible. We know that the inconceivable can happen, and part of what is incumbent upon us to do, is to keep envisioning the future. It’s envisioning a future in which drugs are going to be as much a part of our lives as ever, not because that is a good thing or a bad thing, but because that is simply the way it is. What we can change is not the realities or the existence of drugs in our society. What we can change, somewhat, is the harms that are associated with these drugs. But what we can change fundamentally is how the government and we, the people, deal with the reality of drugs.  

Now, it’s hard sometimes, as an American, to look at this thing with no blinders. It’s embarrassing to represent a nation that has less that 5% of the world’s population, but has 25% of the world’s incarcerated population. It is humiliating to live in a country which has increased, by ten fold, the number of people locked up on drug charges since 1980. It is horrific to exist in a society that has allowed a quarter of a million of our fellow citizens to die of HIV-AIDS because we would not embrace the commonsense and scientific approaches that were established and implemented elsewhere.   

In the country of the bill of rights, to see the drug war being used to eviscerate fundamental freedoms is an embarrassment. To preach to others about the significance of human rights, when we ourselves do not know to respect those in our own society, is the ultimate height of hypocrisy. That is our tragic exceptionalism -- that we have allowed this issue to become a vehicle for oppressing the poor, the vulnerable, and people of color -- in a way that almost no society has ever done, that did not have institutionalized racism on the laws, on the books of its society.