Press Conference Marks 40th Anniversary of Nixon Drug War Declaration


by Phillip Smith,

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Forty years ago Friday, President Richard Nixon officially declared "war on drugs," citing drug abuse as "public enemy No. 1." Now, forty years, a trillion dollars, and millions of ruined lives later, drug reformers are mobilizing for a day of rallies, vigils, and other actions in towns and cities across the country. Most of the actions are set for Friday and are being organized by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) in conjunction with other national and local drug reform and social justice groups.

"Some anniversaries provide an occasion for celebration, others a time for reflection, still others a time for action," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Forty years after President Nixon declared his war on drugs, we're seizing upon this anniversary to prompt both reflection and action. And we're asking everyone who harbors reservations about the war on drugs -- to join us in this enterprise," he said.

"The objective is to work with legislators who dare to raise the important questions, by organizing public forums and online communities where citizens can take action. We are enlisting unprecedented numbers of powerful and distinguished individuals to voice their dissent publicly, and organizing in cities and states to instigate new dialogues and directions in local policies," Nadelmann added.

Some 50 cities will see events, including New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, DC, and New Orleans. [Editor's Note: To find the action nearest you, clickhere. Look for Drug War Chronicle reporting on the San Francisco event Friday evening.] Here's what will be going on in the six cities listed above:

  • Washington, DC: Leaders from African American and religious communities, including Rev. Jesse Jackson and Dr. Ron Daniels, will hold a forum at the National Press Club on June 17th to denounce current drug war policies. Leaders will call for a new direction in drug policy that reduces the role of the criminal justice system and that addresses the devastating impact of drug policies on black communities.
  • Chicago: Hundreds of Chicagoans will gather at the James R Thompson Center to rally against the drug policies that have led to injustices such as the extreme racial disparities in Illinois’s prisons and jails.
  • Los Angeles: Grassroots organizations and students, including Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Pico Youth and Family Center, Mothers United to End the War on Drugs, All of Us or None, Homies Unidos and other criminal justice organizations, will stage a Day of Action to call for an end to the war on drugs and mass incarceration. Also, the William C. Velasquez Institute will host a forum in Los Angeles with top Latino leaders to discuss the impact of the drug war on Latino communities.
  • New York City: Advocates, community leaders and elected officials will attend a forum and silent vigil at the Harlem State Office Building to highlight the impacts of the drug war on NY communities. The event is being organized by Women on the Rise Telling HerStory (WORTH)
  • New Orleans: Local criminal justice organizations will commemorate the 40th anniversary of President Nixon’s declaration of the war on drugs with a Second Line March that is a "Funeral for the failed war on drugs."
  • San Francisco: An amalgamation of drug reform, criminal justice, budget reform, and other groups will hold a "Communities Rising" rally and march to send a strong message to Gov. Brown and the legislature that California must prioritize key social services over prison spending. Sponsoring the event are Californians United for a Responsible Budget, the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California, All of Us or None, American Friends Service Committee, Berkeley Needle Exchange Emergency Distribution, California Coalition for Women Prisoners, California Partnership, Californians United for a Responsible Budget, Critical Resistance, Justice Now, Harm Reduction Coalition, Legal Services for Prisoners with Children, Oasis Clinic, SF Drug Users Union, TGI-Justice Project, These Cuts Wont’ Heal and United for Drug Policy Reform.

"We call on the governor, California’s mayors, police chiefs and sheriffs, and all Californians to join us in calling it a failure that should be stopped immediately," said Dr. Diana Sylvestre of Oasis Clinic and United for Drug Policy Reform. “We will continue to organize to win our fight against this endless assault on sane drug policies."

DPA kick-started the Friday events with a Thursday press conference at the Newseum in suburban Washington, DC. It was supposed to feature former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson and a number of US representatives, but a key congressional vote and a conflict in Johnson's schedule meant it was largely up to the silver-tongued Nadelmann andThe Wire star Sonja Sohn (Detective Shakima Greggs on the show) to keep the event going until Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) managed to vote, then rush across the Potomac River to join in.


But Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin (D), a big drug reform supporter joined in via teleconference from Vermont.

"We're so congested with convicts we can't build prisons fast enough," said Shumlin. "When we lock up a nonviolent offender it costs us about $47,000 a year, and every dollar of that comes out of a hardworking Vermonter's pocket."

Nadelmann interjected that New England has become a hotbed of reform and cited its proximity to Quebec as a possible reason.

"They have heroin maintenance there," he said. "They can go to a clinic and obtain legally produced heroin, called diamorphine. It's a tragedy that the drug czar and others are unwilling to sponsor such research here."

"There is an unwillingness among elected officials to deal with this," replied Shumlin. "Almost every country in the world has a better policy. I find it astonishing that after 40 years of a failed drug policy costing taxpayers billions of dollars we continue to followed this failed policy of the war on drugs. It just amazes me."

"The war on drugs has caused great harm to our nation's most precious resource, our women, children, and families," said Sohn, who revealed that she had been a drug-taking mother who kicked on her own. "Mass incarceration leaves a gaping hole in society. Those adults become walking wounded parents, trying to guide children caught up in a community in crisis," the actress said. "We need a society based on compassion and love and freedom for all, as opposed to the heartless lock 'em up strategy of the past. Tough love only works if love is part of it."

Sohn said she used drugs while pregnant and wanted to get off them, but was afraid to. "I feared I would lose my child" if she sought help, she said.

"We need a much more pragmatic strategy," said Nadelmann. "Nobody believes anymore you can drugs away from our young people. Our first message to young people is don't do it, our second message to young people is don't do it, our third message is don't do it, but if you are going to do it, here's some things you might want to know. The bottom line is that you come home safe at the end of the night," he said.

Once she arrived at the Newseum, Rep. Waters was in typically fine form. The Los Angeles congresswoman ripped into the drug war and the politicians that enable it. Drug prohibition is "an utter failure of policy," she said.

"We have led congressional efforts to enact meaningful reform, but we've only achieved incremental change," Waters said. "Reducing the sentencing disparity in the crack law progress, but it doesn’t go far enough. The US has spent a trillion dollars in the last 40 years to fight the war on drugs, and we have very little to show for it."

Waters said she was going to introduce the Major Drug Traffickers Act of 2011, which would curb federal prosecution of low-level drug offenders and refocus federal resources to target major traffickers instead.

"We can give the courts greater discretion to take individual circumstances into account," she said. "We now have the opportunity to identify some consensus priorities in changing our federal policies, and it's time to take the message to the White House and Congress.

That's exactly what Thursday's press conference and Friday's actions across the country are intended to do. Politicians can only plug their ears for so long before the outcry becomes too loud to ignore.

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