Beyond pot: Drug reformers demand end of criminalization

DENVER — The stage was set and the crowd felt as if the world was watching.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which is hosting its annual International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver this week. He took the stage on Thursday in a Sheraton Hotel conference room, one of a half dozen speakers to kick off the three day conference.

“We’re not just a movement for legalizing marijuana, not just a movement about reducing incarceration,” Nadelmann declaimed to the cheering crowd. They are a movement about ending the massive human rights violations they see as a product of the war on drugs, he said, and the crowd cheered.

Rev. Edwin Sanders said the drug war is nothing but the mask representing “all the stuff we hate.” The drug war is the mask of racism, the mask of sexism, the mask of homophobia, and “one of the things we’re going to do is take off the mask!” The war on drugs was a misnomer for a war against people who used drugs, he said, adding that it was time the movement ended the war.

The room was packed. The attendees were eager, bustling and diverse — female and male, dreadlocked and tattooed, business-suited and cowboy-hatted, young and old, Spanish-speaking, English-speaking, people in wheel chairs, South American, European, black, white, Latino, advocates, experts, professionals, users. They were the face of the movement and reach of the conference. They gave standing ovations to the speakers during the opening remarks.

The estimated 1000-person event has come to Denver in part because of Colorado’s passage of Amendment 64 last year. Along with Washington and Uruguay — which is edging closer to legalizing marijuana — Nadelmann praised Coloradans for their leadership, but apologized as well. Colorado would have to be a tightly regulated machine to show the country that legalization can work.

“We are the people that love drugs, we are the people that hate drugs, and we are the people that don’t give a damn about drugs, but every one of us thinks the war on drugs is wrong, wrong, wrong,” he said, and the crowd cheered.

The war on the drug war spilled into the streets during a “No More Drug War: Block Party and Victory Walk” along the 16th Street Mall. Around 100 protestors with signs marched to Skyline Park, chanting “No More Drug War” and “No more war on people.”

One of the marchers was Gary West, a community organizer with the San Francisco Drug User’s Union.

“I just joined to meet women,” he joked. West has been with his organization for four years. He said he was grateful for the job, and didn’t know where he’d be if he wasn’t involved with the union. He had worked for all sorts of companies, including private security, before he received an injury “you don’t recover from.”

A few of West’s coworkers were at the head of the march down the mall, holding a banner that read “Drug Users Have Rights Too!” He believed it was time to stop obeying oppressive laws, and to start to resist.

Reformers danced to music at the park, lunched in the grass, and listened to slam poetry.

According to one panelist who had been conscripted to help with the victory walk, the protesters didn’t have a noise permit. Their chanting echoed off the buildings in downtown Denver, and many bystanders looked on as the procession passed. However, the police that tailed the parade from the Sheraton did not interfere. At least seven police officers watched the event at the park, yawning and talking to one another.

[dropcap]E[/dropcap]arlier in the day, Congressman Jared Polis was one of the speakers. Like many at the conference, he lauded the recent Gallup Poll that found a majority of Americans are in favor of legalizing pot. He urged the crowd to do some “homework” and call their elected officials in order to get them to co-sponsor the bill he introduced: House Bill H.R.499, Ending Federal Marijuana Prohibition Act of 2013. Those who oppose legalization are on the wrong side of history, he said.

“Where public opinion goes, so goes opportunistic politicians.”

Nadelmann looked forward to a time when the nation had legalized marijuana, but said the struggle would not end even then. He hoped the attendees would not wash their hands of being drug policy reformers, and even if the war on drugs were won, there were other “evils” to be tackled: racism, xenophobia, ignorance, and prejudice. The movement was a movement toward freedom.

He said he kept returning to a prayer relevant not only to those people hanging on to sobriety every day, but everyone. As he spoke it, some in the crowd said it along with him:

“Grant us the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, the courage to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”


  1. Our policy regarding drugs is in the hands of frauds, liars and two bit crooks, and until they are in handcuffs, poverty will increase, injustice will prevail and perversity will rule the planet.

    * In 2001, Portugal decriminalized all drugs. This has resulted in the number of people infected with HIV who are drug addicts dropping from 50 per cent to 20 per cent, and new diagnoses of HIV among addicts dropping from approximately 3,000 to below 2,000 annually. The number of drug overdose deaths declined from 400 to 290 a year between 2001 and 2006, and “problematic” drug use and drug use among adolescents has decreased.

    * Prohibitionists have always been murderous parasites: In 1926, during alcohol prohibition in the USA, the federal government began a campaign of deliberately poisoning vats of liquor with kerosene, gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, acetone, methanol, and several other deadly toxins. Estimates place the body count above 10,000.

    * Illegal Drug Cartels cannot operate without the support of politicians, bureaucrats, and police officers.

    * Keeping various psychoactive plants and their derivatives illegal and unregulated means robberies, home invasions, murders, broken families, shattered lives—all mostly done by law enforcement agencies. Add to that list: environmental devastation, poisoning of lands, streams and wildlife—all preventable by regulated legalization.

    * Prohibition has been a slow but relentless degradation (death by a zillion cuts) of all our cherished national and international institutions that will leave us crippled for numerous generations.

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