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.