Call For a Drug War Truce

LOS ANGELES, August 15, 2000 -- "The next time we get together will be to celebrate that peace has come to the war on drugs," said Dave Purchase, director of the National Association of Syringe Exchange Network, to a packed Patriotic Hall auditorium this morning at the Shadow Convention. His remarks highlighted the second day of the convention, which was dedicated to analyzing the failed war on drugs.

Members of the Lindesmith Center, which hosted the day's events, elected officials, doctors, members of various non-profit organizations and several celebrities took turns on stage. Their words danced around and through the web of entangled issues that constitute the failed war on drugs. The prison industrial complex, racial profiling, mandatory minimums, legislation, health and AIDS were all addressed.

"Drug war politics impede public health efforts to stem the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other infectious diseases," says a leaflet distributed by Lindesmith Center. "Civil and other human rights are violated, environmental assaults perpetrated, and prisons inundated with hundreds of thousands of drug law violators. Scarce resources better expended on health, education and economic development are squandered on ever more expensive interdiction efforts. Realistic proposals to reduce drug-related crime, disease and death are abandoned in favor of rhetorical proposals to create a drug free America."

During her speech, Deborah Small of the Lindesmith Center likened the war on drugs to a slave ship whose triangular trade connects black and other minority communities, the police squads who search them, arresting disproportionately high numbers of blacks and minority drug offenders, and the upstate jails where they end up, far from home.

"You may say that these are strong words," said Small, "But strong words are necessary."

Human Rights Watch recently released a study revealing that 13 times as many blacks are incarcerated than other groups, Rep. Maxine Water (D-CA) told the crowd.

While the United States government spends $19.2 billion to fight the war on drugs annually, drug use continues to rise. 600,000 people were arrested last year on possession of marijuana charges.

A tour of the South-Central LA Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment and the Palms Residential Care Facility was offered to convention-goers who wanted to witness the effects of the drug war on minority communities.

"The war on drugs has had a visible effect on South Los Angeles," said Mary Lee of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse Prevention as the van rumbled down Central Avenue, once the busy heart of south Los Angeles and the historic dividing line between whites and blacks. "This used to be a venue for businesses, restaurants and night life with jazz clubs and hotels."

South Los Angeles before 1960 was also home to several industries. General Motors, Good Year Tires, Firestone and many other auto and defense parts factories provided thousands of union jobs with health benefits and wages high enough that workers often owned houses and were able to send their children to college.

That all began to change in 1965 after the Watts Riots initiated a pattern of disinvestment in the area by banks and supermarkets who deemed it unsafe or unprofitable. By the early 1970s, the plants had also begun to close, unable to comply with increasingly stringent environmental regulations. When they shut down, 70,000 to 100,000 people lost their jobs, leaving the area desolate and vulnerable to the invasion of drugs.

"The crack cocaine epidemic hit the area in the 1970s. It touched almost everybody," Lee said.

Former banks and supermarkets which had been systematically red-lined were replaced by over 300 liquor stores as well as cheap motels. Gangs and prostitution moved in.

This city, which Lee describes as "one of the most segregated in the nation" entered the 1980s wobbling, without sufficient schools or jobs and with a freely flowing supply of crack-cocaine, which had destroyed its communities.

"There was little progressive response to the war on drugs in the 1980s," said Solomon Rivera, Associate Director of the Community Coalition Against Substance Abuse. "Some residents supported Drug Enforcement Zones which literally barricaded neighborhoods, for lack of a more progressive solution."

Finally, in the early 1990s, several non-profits and grass-roots organizations formed to combat the drug and the drug-war invasions.

The Community Coalition was among these groups. Founded in 1990, the Coalition "felt that the issue would best be addressed by developing a comprehensive and multi-method approach of organizing different population groups in South L.A. so that residents could influence issues such as economic development, land use policy and welfare reform," reads the vision statement.

With a staff of thirty and an annual budget of $1 million, the group has begun to influence the community. They organize youth, hold study groups, serve as an advocacy group for people on public assistance, provide social services and oranize protests against the city council's toleration of landowners who run storefront businesses overrun by gangs.

When a liquor store has become home to gang members and prostitutes, residents who feel threatened by it approach the coalition. The coalition helps them organize by canvassing the neighborhood around the troublesome store. Once there is enough support, the residents take their complaint to the zoning council who can revoke the store's liquor license.

At the Palms Residential Care Facility, a temporary home for men with AIDS and HIV, the focus of the discussion is harm reduction versus abstinence.

Drugs may as well be legal here, says Kevin Pickett, founder and Executive Director. Pickett, who was shot twice leaving the facility several years ago by gang members, has seen the devastation caused by the drug epidemic and the failure of the "war on drugs" to help alleviate that devastation. He bought the Palms in 1992 to run as a motel, but soon transformed it into a home for HIV/AIDS victims who are turned away elsewhere.

One resident commented, "I am just glad to be able to start my life over again here."

The facility has nursing assistants, a social worker, substance abuse counselors and a recreation director. They help residents get back on their feet and ultimately help them move into permanent housing.

"Our drug policies are ruining peoples' lives unnecessarily," said Judge Jim Grey at the Shadow Convention. Here the words ring even more truly than they did within the confines of the convention hall.

"Treatment can no longer be one side fits all," said Carrie Broadus, Director of Governmental and Community Affairs at the Palms Facility.

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