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40 Years of a Pointless, Tragic Drug War -- But As Feds Crack Down, Reformers Fight Back

Tension between popular will and the political establishment makes this a time of hope and frustration for the drug reform movement.

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This embrace reflects a growing belief among reformers and civil rights organizations, that the War on Drugs is not really about drugs but is in fact a system of racial control. Recognizing the racial inequalities at the heart of the Drug War, both the NAACP and the U.S. Conference of Mayors called for an end to the War on Drugs this year.

The policy, which successive administrations have doggedly pursued despite its failure to achieve its stated aim of ending drug consumption, has given law enforcement unprecedented powers and resources which have largely been directed at low-income minority communities. The result is an incarceration rate that is six times higher for black men than white men.

Ira Glasser led the ACLU for 23 years and now heads the Board of Directors of the Drug Policy Alliance. He points out that Nixon declared the War on Drugs 3 years after the last major law was passed ending racial discrimination. Glasser notes that a minority of drug users are African American but they make up more than half of those sentenced for drug offenses. “The drug laws became the new form of legalized discrimination that was a successor system of subjugation to Jim Crow.”

In November, 1200 people gathered in downtown Los Angeles, for the International Drug Policy Reform Conference. On the eve of the conference a dozen miles South but a world away from the gleaming towers of the Bonaventure hotel, 270 people met at the Labor Center in Watts. They came from across the United States to ratify the national platform of the Formerly Incarcerated And Convicted People’s Movement (FICPM). It was the culmination of a year of reflection and organizing. Earlier this year, the FICPM organized a march of formerly incarcerated and convicted people over the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, where, in 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led a protest for voting rights. Their goal, to draw attention to the millions of formerly incarcerated people who are barred from voting.

“Women’s rights were secured through a movement, black people’s rights were secured through a movement, gay people’s right’s were secured through a movement. So we decided to cement us a movement,” says Nunn, who helped draft FICPM’s 14-point platform. Among the organization’s immediate priorities are registering a million people in time for next year’s elections and expanding the “Ban the Box” campaign which has reduced discrimination against job seekers with records in six states. With a quarter of adults having an arrest or conviction record, according to a recent report by the National Employment Law Center, advocates say their campaign has the potential to improve the civil rights and economic prospects of over 60 million Americans.


If the American victims of the Drug War are becoming increasingly visible in the reform movement, so are the relatives of the approximately 50,000 killed in Mexico’s Drug War, which entered its sixth year last week. The face of the bereaved is Javier Sicilia, a celebrated Mexican poet whose son was murdered by members of the Gulf Cartel in March. He is now spearheading a national citizens’ movement against the Drug War in his country. Earlier this year, Sicilia led thousands of marchers to Mexico City and Ciudad Juarez, the epicenter of the drug violence. They are calling for an end to the impunity which has left most of the killings uninvestigated. They also want thorough reforms of the federal government, which they say is deeply corrupt. Now, Sicilia is bringing his campaign to the United States, which he says holds the key to stopping the bloodshed in Mexico.