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The International Drug Policy Reform Conference takes place on the colonized territories of the Nacotchtank Native American people. Yet sitting in the crowded plenary hall I could not help but notice an absence of Indigenous voices anywhere. It has been amazing to hear all the voices of people of colour at the conference, but coming from a country that has been so engaged in removing Native American voices, it felt like a missed opportunity and a failure of our own to acknowledge the multiple lives impacted by the war on drugs. This is why I was excited when I saw the panel entitled: “What do Religious, Cultural and Indigenous Rights Have to do With Drug Policy Reform” as a workshop being held to open the morning.
As a student studying anthropology and sociology, the amount of sociologists and anthropologists on this panel excited me. On the one hand, it was a shame that this would be one of the few times indigenous rights would be mentioned, but on the other it meant at least it would be included within the conversation. This was actually the first time a panel on indigeneity was featured at the conference. I hope it will not be the last. Particularly among the psychedelic community, the use of plant medicines in facilitating care for those with problematic relationships to substances. It should also be no surprise that some of the precursors to a lot of the illicit substances such as cocaine and heroin, come from plants with long cultural histories. On the panel was a man named Yawa Bane who was from the Kaxinawá tribe located in Northern Brazil and Peru. He was wearing what I imagine to be the clothes of his people, with jeans and running shoes underneath. His face was painted red, and he wore a beautiful bloomage with a gradient of colour running down the sides. He spoke of the use of ayahuasca (which he called Huni) by all the indigenous peoples of the surrounding area, centering Huni practices as something inherently important within his life. Huni means “power of the forest” something that seemed to speak to the experience of Huni itself. He refused to call it a tradition, but saw it as a practice that currently exists and is continued. He also identified no problem with the usage of Huni by non-indigenous people. Anyone who may have come into this room looking for the last remnants of indigeneity was going to be left changed. He said that ayahuasca was the teacher of teachers; it shows us our reality and not to forget who we are.
Next, Aura Maria Puyana Mutis who was a sociologist discussed the socioeconomic relations that frame the war on drugs in South America. She discussed how indigenous workers in Peru and Bolivia were involved in the manufacturing of cocaine for the black market due to a lack of economic opportunities within the region. She argued that agricultural workers were doubly exploited first by capitalism, and their inability to find work, and secondly by the black market in their manufacturing of cocaine. Strictly framing her argument within a political economic lens, she argued that we cannot understand the cultural and social ramifications of the drug war without understand the deep underlying class and economic effects in the area. Most workers in the region are not mobsters but farmers. Then she turned towards broader geopolitical policy and pointed out that the voices of those most impacted on the production side of the drug war were rarely consulted. They were thousands of miles away from the real implications of their social policies. Yet when the army comes into town to destroy your coca, or fumigates the area based on United States drug policy it leaves environmental degradation and the inability to find new work.
The moderator further complicated the story of indigeneity and substance use by speaking about her research as an anthropologist. She discussed the environmental implications of legalization. Peyote the plant used to manufacture mescaline, and one with long term indigenous usage within Mexico is seen as a plant which may go extinct. It can take years for a cactus to grow, and they only grow under certain specific conditions. If they were to become legal, they would still need to stay highly controlled, and would need to be fostered and taken care for. No free market solutions for this plant. When she spoke about traditional drug use, she discussed a controversial point. By limiting peyote to indigenous peoples only, she argued we just recreated the colonial norm, which had long allowed peyote usage due to the consideration that they were not people, and therefore not bound by the same laws. I am still grappling with this argument myself, but one of the important things she did say is that to talk about cultural drug use is a silly proposition. All drug use is cultural, as humans are intimately tied to their culture. Whose culture and where they interact is a question that was left out of the discussion.
While there were two other speakers at the talk, I would like to focus on a question brought up by one of the audience members, and one that I hope will tie us back to Canada. After the Martin Collazo and a representative from the Global Rastafarian Youth talked, someone in the audience raised their hand to respond to a question, and asked where were the Native American’s in this panel? This was the very question I had been asking myself, but it really hit home when the person in the crowd who was Native American passionately brought up the reasons she felt excluded at the conference. As someone of European descent, I do not have an experiential connection to colonialism outside of being a colonizer. While I love anthropology and sociology, the fact that this was one of the only panels to consider indigeneity but not even American indigeneity I think points to the larger societal issue with the war on drugs. It excludes certain voices, and includes others. In that process, we bought into the narrative of the Other, of the essentialization of Indigenous peoples of the America’s and also bought into the erasure. When the person who had organized the panel apologized, the speaker said “I don’t want apologies, I want accountability”.
Following an early breakfast, our team of five delegates shuffled into the largest conference hall for the introductory plenary session of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference. Opening the plenary by video, Senator Cory Booker discussed the stark reality of the drug war’s impacts, including over-incarceration and discrimination against minorities. Senator Booker stressed the need to repeal these policies and restore justice to those who have been harmed by repressive drug laws.
Following a moment of silence for those who have needlessly lost their lives due to the war on drugs, asha bandele stirred the crowd with an arresting speech which underscored the wide-reaching and negative impact the war on drugs has on all of us. Shortly after, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries reminded us that the drug war has had its successes: wasting time, wasting energy, wasting resources, wasting countless lives, succeeding in creating a prison industrial complex, and pushing forward mass incarceration which has led to the US having the highest incarceration rate in the world. One thing was clear: it is time to end the war on drugs.
In addition to asha bandele’s shared personal stories, Kemba Smith Pradia took to the stage to share her experience with the mass incarceration in America. Kemba Smith Pradia spoke of having been jailed for drug crimes despite the government stating that she had never used, sold, or handled the drugs involved in the case. Instead, she had been dating someone who was involved in selling drugs and became an indirect target of the drug war, intended to be used as leverage in capturing a target the DEA had been searching for for 3 years.
Sentenced to 24.5 years in prison at the age of 23 and while seven months pregnant, Pradia gave birth in prison to a son whose childhood she knew she would miss. This changed when she was granted clemency six years into her prison sentence. While grateful, she acknowledged the feeling of survivor’s guilt in being one of very few prisoners whose sentences have been pardoned early, a group that is greatly overshadowed by the prisoners who remain in prison serving unjust sentences. The crowd gave her a standing ovation as her struggle seemed to touch the hundreds of audience members. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the statistics of the drug war, yet Pradia was an example of the real human cost a ‘war on drugs’ creates.
Following Pradia, Jason Hernandez was introduced to the stage. Having served time in prison for crack cocaine, he became the first Latino to have been granted clemency by President Obama. In the United States crack cocaine carries a penalty eighteen times higher than powdered cocaine due to its affiliation with lower class people of colour. He drew from his experience to underscore the racial disparity of drug law enforcement, noting that this all seemed much more like a war on minorities. Our prisons, he told the crowd, contain “some of the most talented, gifted, intelligent individuals. People that could’ve had President Obama’s job.” In closing, he reminded us of the need to hold our representatives to their word: “Mr. President, you’ve talked about changing the war on drugs. Now you’re President. The ball is in your court.”
With that, Ethan Nadelmann, Drug Policy Alliance’s (DPA) Executive Director gave an impassioned speech in which he framed the present state of our movement in a larger context. He discussed the challenge of maintaining an increasingly intergenerational movement, and the need to find ways to connect the drug policy reform movement with other social justice struggles. Recalling having visited Harvard-intellectual-turned-spiritual-guru Ram Dass, Nadelmann emphasized that overcoming the war on drugs will require letting go of fear and our attachment to the success of the movement—that is to say, to be confident that we’re pushing for the right thing whether we win or not. We have to understand the fears that have been exploited by the propagation of drug war policy, fears tied to racism, ageism and fears about that which is other to us. Until we understand and embraced those fears, our movement cannot ultimately win.
What are the Goals of Drug Policy Reform and How Do We Connect Those Dots?
Following the opening, asha bandele and Stephen Gutwillig hosted a session focused on the goals of the DPA and how we can draw stronger connections between the various goals, communities, and issues within the movement. The DPA’s main goals are:
- Legalize marijuana
- End mass incarceration
- Decriminalize use & possession of all drugs
- Create legal access for determined consumers
With this groundwork laid out, the session’s moderators opened the space for questions from the audience, which filled the remaining time. Important questions were put forth for discussion and reflection by those in attendance.
One attendee raised the topic of people who choose to sell drugs—if we push to decriminalize use and possession of all drugs, there is an implicit acknowledgement that people are still getting their drugs from non-legal sources. How does this population fit into the current drug policy reform strategy?
Another point raised touched on ways to reduce rates of drug abuse through less concentrated versions of different substances. Among them, coca leaves instead of cocaine; opium syrup instead of concentrated and refined opiates; and the idea of providing abusable prescription medications in dilute concentrations of water rather than in concentrated pill form. One attendee raised a very important question: What kind of an end to marijuana prohibition is it when people of colour from communities who are most affected by drug war policy struggle to gain a foothold in a market dominated by white people?
These discussions leave us with much to think about within our current situation in Canada. With a new Liberal government elected with a mandate to legalize cannabis, there remain many unanswered questions about what this will look like and who will be included in shaping these policies. Considering the lives and communities which have been affected by the criminalization of people who choose to use drugs, it is important that we focus on the ways in which our movement can seek to restore justice to these groups and individuals.
As you may know, the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference will be taking place in Washington D.C. over the next few days. The conference will host over 1,000 attendees with a diverse and packed schedule featuring speakers from all corners of the drug policy reform movement.
CSSDP is excited to have a strong presence at the conference! Over the next few days, our team will be covering the conference’s sessions and events through social media. To keep up to date, make sure to follow CSSDP on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram!
Our team of delegates includes:
- Gonzo Nieto, Co-Chair (Twitter & Instagram: @gonzebo)
- Alex Betsos, Personnel Liaison (Twitter: @existentialawe // Instagram: @alexbetsos)
- Lisa Campbell, Outreach Director (Twitter & Instagram: @qnp)
- Heather D’Alessio, Algonquin chapter leader (Instagram: @vegantichrist)
- Daniel Grieg, Toronto chapter leader (Instagram: @dan_of_greig)
We will also be participating in the Model UN General Assembly Special Session on the World Drug Problem, hosted by SSDP in partnership with SSDP UK and CSSDP. The Model UNGASS will help students become familiar with the international drug policy reform movement and show how drug policy directly relates to other issues of international importance, including human rights, public health, sustainable development, and security issues. Gonzo Nieto will be chairing the Human Rights and Alternative Development committee; Alex Betsos will represent Canada on the Drugs and Crime committee; Heather D’Alessio will represent Canada on the Human Rights and Alternative Development committee; and Daniel will represent the US on the Drugs and Health committee.
Stay tuned, and check out the conference program and tweet at CSSDP if there are any sessions you would like us to cover!
CSSDP Reform Team