This article was published in collaboration with Alternet and first appeared here.
Hundreds of members of the Atlanta community and dozens of the nation's leading advocates for drug policy reform gathered in a groundbreaking meeting over the weekend. The meeting aimed at building alliances with the African American community to both advance smart public health approaches to drug policy and maintain and protect existing reforms in the face of hostile powers in Washington.
[image:1 align:left caption:true]Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, Georgia State University's Department of African American Studies, the Morehouse School of Medicine, Amnesty International, The Ordinary People's Society, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and Peachtree NORML, "Not One Step Back" marked the first time the drug reform movement has come to the historically black colleges of the South and signals the emergence of a powerful new alliance between black academics and reform advocates.
The event included a series of panels filled with activists, academics, and public health experts, including Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrice Cullors and VH1 personality and best-selling author Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, and was highlighted by a keynote address by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).
To the delight of the audience, "Auntie Maxine" slammed the drug war as aimed only at certain communities while those making fortunes at the top of the illegal drug trade go untouched. The representative from South Central reached back to the days of the crack cocaine boom to make her case.
"The police did everything you think wouldn't happen in a democracy," she said, citing illegal raids and thuggish behavior from the LAPD of then-Chief Darryl Gates, the inventor of the SWAT team. But if low-level users and dealers were getting hammered, others involved went scot free.
"Something happened to devastate our communities," she said, alluding to the arrival of massive amounts of cocaine flowing from political allies of the Reagan administration as it waged war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. "The CIA and DEA turned a blind eye," Waters argued. "If you're the CIA and DEA, you know who the dealer is, but they take the lower-level dealers and let the big dealers keep selling drugs."
"Ricky Ross did time," she said, referencing the South Central dealer held responsible for unleashing the crack epidemic (with the help of Nicaraguan Contra connections). "But those big banks that laundered all that drug money -- nobody got locked up, they just have to pay fines. But for them, fines are just a cost of doing business. Even today, some of the biggest banks are laundering money for drug dealers," Waters noted.
"We have to defend our communities; we don't support drugs and addiction, but you need to know that people in high places bear some responsibility. One of the worst things about the drug war is that we never really dealt with how these drugs come into our communities," Waters added.
The selection of Atlanta for the conclave was no accident. Georgia is a state that incarcerates blacks for drug offenses at twice the rate it does whites. While blacks make up only a third of the state's population, they account for three-quarters of those behind bars for marijuana offenses.
The state has the nation's fourth-highest incarceration rate, with a prison population on track to grow 8% within the next five years, and one out of every 13 adults in the state are in prison or jail or on probation or parole.
Atlanta is also the powerhouse of the South -- the region's largest city, and one that is increasingly progressive in a long-time red state that could now be turning purple. And it is the site of the Drug Policy Alliance's International Drug Policy Reform Conference -- the world's premier drug reform gathering -- set for October. What better place to bring a laser focus on the racial injustice of the drug war?
"The drug war is coded language," said Drug Policy Alliance senior director asha bandele. "When the law no longer allowed the control and containment of people based on race, they inserted the word 'drug' and then targeted communities of color. Fifty years later, we see the outcome of that war. Drug use remains the same, and black people and people of color are disproportionately locked up. But no community, regardless of race, has been left unharmed, which is why we are calling everyone together to strategize."
And strategize they did, with panels such as "Drug Reform is a Human Rights Issue," "This is What the Drug War Looks Like: Survivors Speak," "Strength, Courage, and Wisdom: Who We Must Be in These Times," and "Dreaming a World: A Nation Beyond Prisons and Punishment."
While denunciations of white privilege were to be expected, the accompanying arguments that capitalism plays a role in perpetuating oppression and inequality was surprisingly frank.
"We have to dismantle both white supremacy and capitalism," said Eunisses Hernandez, a California-based program coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We need to reach a place where trauma is dealt with in a public health model. The current system of law enforcement, prisons, and jails doesn't do anything for us."
"We're in agreement here," said Dr. Hill. "We have to eliminate white supremacy and capitalism."
That's not something you hear much in mainstream political discourse, but in Atlanta, under the impetus of addressing the horrors of the war on drugs, the search for answers is leading to some very serious questions -- questions that go well beyond the ambit of mere drug reform. Something was brewing in Atlanta this weekend. Whether the initial progress will be built upon remains to be seen, but the drug reformers are going to be back in October to try to strengthen and deepen those new-found bonds.
As part of his effort to fight heroin trafficking, Lake County, Florida, Sheriff Peyton Grinnell has released a video pledging to go after drug dealers, but the effort from the sheriff's "Community Engagement Unit" is both creepy and wrong-headed.
[image:1 align:left]The video features the sheriff surrounded by four masked officers, their eyes hidden behind sunglasses, their torsos protected by bullet-proof vests, wearing the olive green pants of the military -- not the blue of law enforcement. They look like some sort of paramilitary hit squad, and that's what Sheriff Grinnell promises they will be.
"To the dealers that are pushing this poison, I have a message for you," the glowering sheriff warns. "We're coming for you. As a matter of fact, our undercover agents have already bought heroin from many of you… To the dealers, I say: Enjoy looking over your shoulder, constantly wondering if today is the day we come for you. Enjoy trying to sleep tonight as you wonder if tonight's the night our SWAT team blows your door off its hinges."
The message is presumably designed to be reassuring for the good citizens of Lake County, but the sheriff's promise of increased resort to paramilitarized, high-intensity, middle-of-the-night drug raids is anything but, given the record of SWAT raid errors over the years.
The New York Times recently reported that in the past six years alone, at least 81 civilians and 13 cops have been killed in "dynamic entry" raids, oftentimes after police obtained a "no-knock" warrant allowing them to bust in a door and go in heavy without warning. And as the Washington Post noted in a roundup of SWAT raid mishaps last fall, such mistakes -- sometimes fatal -- continue to occur with depressing regularity.
But even when no one is killed and no headlines are made, mistaken SWAT raids corrode public confidence. Families whose children are subjected to screaming masked intruders kicking their doors down in the middle of the night and pointing guns at their heads are likely to be traumatized for years even if the cops say "sorry."
Bad raids happen for a variety of reasons. An informant may lie to score points with the cops. The cops might hit the wrong address by mistake. Or they may hit the right address, but without necessary information about who they may encounter, as was the case with the notorious 2014 Georgia raid where a SWAT member threw a flashbang grenade into a baby's crib and blew a hole in the 19 -- month-old's chest, nearly killing him. (Police in this case were also acting on a bad informant's tip.)
Heroin is a serious problem, and it is illegal. We expect police to enforce the law, but there has to be a better way than treating drug suspects like they're ISIS terrorists or Iraqi insurgents. What ever happened to, "We've got the place surrounded. Come out with your hands up!"?
Here's the video:
Chronicle AM: Pot SWAT Raids Kill More People Than Pot, Aussie Bigwigs Call for Decrim, More... (3/21/17)
The New York Times reports on fatal SWAT drug raids, Australian former premiers and police chiefs call for drug decriminalization, medical marijuana keeps statehouses busy, and more.
[image:1 align:right caption:true]Marijuana Policy
Colorado Poll Shows Support for Plant Limits. A new Keating Research poll has support for limiting home marijuana grows to 12 plants at 57%, with only 36% opposed. The poll comes as lawmakers consider House Bill 1220, which originally imposed a 12-plant limit, but was amended to up the limit to 16 plants. That bill has already passed the House and is now before the Senate.
Arkansas House Votes to Kill Bill Banning Edibles. The House voted 52-40 Monday to kill House Bill 1991, which would have banned the commercial production of medical marijuana edibles in the state. Bill sponsor Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Springdale) argued that patients could make their own and that medical marijuana is medicine, not candy, but her arguments failed to sway her peers.
Nevada Bill Would Let Medical Marijuana Patients Carry Guns. State Sen. Kevin Atkinson (D-Las Vegas) filed Senate Bill 351 Monday. That measure would allow medical marijuana users to possess a firearm and a concealed carry permit. Current state law requires sheriffs to deny such permits for medical marijuana users.
New Hampshire Senate Committee Approves Use of Medical Marijuana for Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. The Senate Health, Human Services, and Elderly Committee has approved a bill that would add Ehlers-Danlos syndrome to the state's list of qualifying conditions for medical marijuana. The measure now heads for a Senate floor vote. If it passes there, the House will take it up.
Utah 2018 Medical Marijuana Initiative Drive Gearing Up. Medical marijuana advocates are gearing up to try to put an initiative on the state's 2018 ballot. They said they would begin the process of signature gathering next month, and they cite promising polling. The state legislature has so far thwarted efforts to create a robust medical marijuana program.
Marijuana Raids Kill More People Than Pot Ever Did. According to data compiled by the New York Times, since 2010, at least 20 SWAT raids involving suspected marijuana dealers have resulted in deaths, including those of four police officers. The toll for all drug SWAT raid deaths is, of course, higher, with 81 people killed, including 13 cops.
Australian Police Chiefs, Former Premiers Call for Drug Decriminalization. A group of former premiers, police commissioners, and legal advocates have called for an end to the criminalization of drug users. The call comes in the Australia 21 report, which was released Monday. The report, titled "Can Australia Respond to Drugs More Effectively and Safely," makes 13 recommendations for reducing drug-related harms, such as supervised drug use rooms and other harm reduction measures, but also called for eliminating penalties for possession and drug use.