Challenging the War on Drugs

A unique coalition of religious leaders, politicians, former inmates and addiction specialists gathered at a Los Angeles conference the weekend of Sept. 27-29 to discuss the impact of the "war on drugs," which has led to the incarceration of more than half a million Americans. While highlighting the disproportionate impact of the drug war on ethnic minorities, organizers and attendees of the conference -- called Breaking the Chains: People of Color and the War on Drugs -- sharply criticized the failure of incarceration as a strategy for controlling drug abuse.

Today, African Americans and Latinos make up over three-fourths of prisoners doing time in state prisons for drug-related offenses, despite the fact that the majority of drug users in the United States are white, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Virtually every drug war policy -- from racial profiling to length of sentencing -- is disproportionately carried out against minorities," said Deborah Small, director of public policy and community outreach for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which organized the event.

In addition to nearly 600 attendees who traveled from across the U.S. and Europe to sit in on dozens of sessions and workshops, politicians including California Rep. Maxine Waters, Texas Rep. Ciro Rodriguez, Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank and others weighed in to support efforts to end what many participants referred to as the nation's "failed, prohibitionist" drug policies, including mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes-you're-out legislation.

In 2002, federal and state governments will spend more than $40 billion in their battle against illegal drugs, compared with just $1 billion spent in 1980. Critics of the drug war point out that, despite this dramatic increase in drug war funding, neither street-level dealing nor drug trafficking has been reduced, and illicit drugs are now cheaper, purer and more readily available than they were decades ago.

"The least successful policy we have is the war on drugs," said Rep. Frank in a video presentation during the opening session.

Others in attendance included the three-term mayor of Baltimore, Kurt Schmoke, who spearheaded one of the nation's first needle exchange programs. AIDS is now the leading cause of death among both African American and Latino men between the ages of 25 and 44. Among African Americans, more than 60 percent of these deaths are associated with injection drug use resulting from contaminated needles.

During his tenure from 1987 to 1999, said Schmoke, he worked hard to get his constituents and Congress to understand that "there is no simple solution to these problems, but we should consider [addiction] to be a public health problem, not a criminal one."

Schmoke was joined by Antonio Gonzalez, President of the William C. Velasquez Institute in Los Angeles, who stressed the pressing need for movement-building across ethnic lines to address the "incarceration crisis" afflicting communities of color.

Religious and faith-based leaders issued some of the conference's strongest statements in favor of abandoning moralistic, punitive and ineffective drug policies. The task is as important for religious organizations and ethnic communities as it is for the government, said Ana Garcia-Ashley, Senior Staff Organizer for the Gamaliel Foundation in Wisconsin.

With regard to the drug war in America, "The church needs to become a spiritual body that cares about human beings and stands up for what's right when nobody else is doing it," said Garcia-Ashley, an outspoken Catholic activist and immigrant from the Dominican Republic.

Garcia-Ashley explained that she has two brothers who struggle with addiction.

"One brother is an alcoholic. One is dependent on illegal substances. [But] for me," she said. "These are good people. I don't have an evil brother and a Christian brother ... I have two good brothers."

Garcia-Ashley was one of several panelists in a workshop addressing issues of faith, morality and drug use. The workshop, moderated by Antionette Tellez-Humble, director for the New Mexico Drug Policy Project, also explored the unique impact of the drug war on Native Americans. Because Native Americans who live on tribal lands are subject to the mandates of federal -- not state -- law, those who are arrested for drug-related crimes are processed through the federal court system. Indians now comprise almost two-thirds of those prosecuted for criminal offenses in federal courts.

But the answer to addressing alcohol and substance abuse issues in Indian communities, said Gayle Zepeda, a community organizer with the Northern Circle Indian Housing Authority in Ukiah, Calif., is not prison. "Our communities must do that healing ourselves. We can't enact a law that we won't put something in our bodies or shoot something into our arms. For us, it's a healing issue and connecting with our own spiritual power so that we can arrive at a place of balance again."

Better, more effective and less expensive models for addressing both recreational and habitual drug use might lie in studying approaches of other countries, suggested several conference participants, including David McFarlane, a Scotland Yard detective and coordinator for the National Black Police Association of London.

McFarlane noted that police officers in the UK have begun to take a more relaxed approach toward "soft" drug use, including the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

James A. Pitts, a conference panelist and public health expert based in Sydney, noted that Australia, which now has the lowest HIV infection rate in the western world, has had considerable success with its treatment-oriented approach toward drug addiction.

"People are going to continue to use drugs, but you can do something to prevent the health consequences," he said.

Brian Awehali and Silja J.A. Talvi are co-editors of the online magazine, LiP.


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