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Drug Policies For The New Millennium . . . [continued]
Notes on the Lindesmith-DPF Conference, by Erowid Crew Member V
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III. Comments on the conference from your correspondent

This conference was enjoyable, informative, and an excellent place to meet motivated activists and concerned citizens. I highly recommend the one next year to everyone. Below are a few themes I believe are worth commenting on, and some suggestions for the conference organizers.

Anger and Communication
One of the major themes of the conference was communication, the power of words and expression, and the difference between activist expression and personal expression. Rev Sanders said, "Speech is the appropriation of infinite possibilities…born out of that place that allows it to be something more than words. " And it is crucial at this time, to voice our truth, to express our own understandings and experiences around the War on Drugs. We need to talk about the damage we have sustained, which harms so many so needlessly, and which prevents so much potential from reaching its fulfillment.

Ethan Nadelmann's point, though, is also crucial –it's important not to allow anger at the the situation to harm the cause. Activist expression has to be for the express purpose of communicative - that is, guided by what those receiving the message can hear, rather than the emotional need to be heard. In other words, we run the risk of poisoning our own message by communicating from a purely emotional place, thus allowing proponents of the WOSD to paint us as illogical hotheads.

However - there is a psychological tension here. If we communicate from our anger alone, we will be ignored and marginalized- but is there not a place for it? We have a claim to a righteous anger at the injustices around us, at the needless damage that has been done in the name of political power and financial gain

Perhaps more importantly, we need to express this anger in order to heal it and direct it towards the most benefit. Similarly, we need to express our pain and sorrow and grief about the WOSD and the waste and damage it has done to so many lives. In a brief unscheduled address to the conference, Deborah Small of the Lindesmith Center pointed out that we are fearful and ashamed of telling the stories of damage and death from the drug war. Yet personal stories are essential to an understanding of the true impact of the War on Drugs - personal, familial, and professional; community, sociopolitical, and economic. The mass media do not report these stories, so let us make the damage that is invisible to so many, visible by communicating our stories and our experiences.

Race and the drug war
Race and the WOD was another theme at the conference. The media would have us believe that African-Americans and other people of color are the primary users of illegal drugs, but as the statistics Representative Maxine Waters presented (and in fact all other data on the subject shows it, there is no dispute over this), white people in America are the primary users - they simply do not pay the price in the same way other groups do. For the American public, truth is the first victim of the War on Drugs.

A number of speakers brought up race even when they weren't speaking on it, pointing out to the audience that those who were most affected by the drug war were in the least attendance. While reasons for this were not made explicit, it may be that specific invitations to the African-American and Hispanic communities are needed to join this effort.

Another reason, discussed by youth in an evening meeting in which race was a central topic, was the surprised realization that perhaps people of color are fearful of even more harassment, or even are so busy with day- to-day survival in the current climate of oppression that their energies are better spent elsewhere. In that case, more effort and support should certainly be devoted to enabling people of all ethnicities to attend future drug policy conferences, and especially the conference on Race and the Drug War announced by Ethan Nadelmann as the next conference they will hold.

Perhaps the damage done by the War on Drugs can eventually serve a useful purpose by helping to catalyze the healing that is needed around the racism still so present in American society and culture.

The issue of fear
Ethan Nadelmann opened the conference by talking about how it is fear that keeps people in agreement with the War on Drugs. But I would have liked more on the subtle squashing of free speech due to the WOD, and how we could counter this.

Fear stifles the speech of millions who are not in favor of the drug war, for fear they will be harassed, singled out, searched, imprisoned, and otherwise made to pay a negative price for their expression. Is this the Land of the Free?? Do we treasure and support our rights to free speech in American culture? How can it be so, if the price to be paid for speaking out is so high?

The wealthy, the educated, scientists, teachers, administrators, government officials, and police, as well as just your average Joe or Jane - people in all of these groups have used drugs made illegal by our illogical drug policies. But they cannot speak out on the benefits they find and the reasons they use these chemicals despite their illegality, because the consequences to themselves could be so great. If they do, they are stigmatized, and run the risk of being targeted for reprisals by a government that should be protecting their civil rights.

This unspoken inhibition of our free speech also prevents the propagation of useful information on safety, and of models of usage that are not abuse. Only by educating people can harm reduction be successful, but the current situation inhibits the free flow of information around crucial issues of set and setting, beneficial use, and safety.

College kids are among the largest groups of users of illicit drugs, and they have been since the 1960s -- yet propaganda would have us believe that the uneducated, the poor, and the violent are the primary users. It is hypocrisy of the highest order that our educated and wealthy classes can use drugs with impunity, while those without advantages are punished on their behalf. That both of our last Presidential candidates had engaged in drug use without reprisal, while thousands were arrested and punished for the same offenses, shows that our traditions of fairness and justice in this country have been seriously compromised and must change.

The restriction of information and the free flow of discussion are impingements of our right to free speech - but implemented in such a way that complaints about the restrictions themselves are inhibited. Recent revelations that the Reagan administration sought to destroy biomedical records of cannabis anti-tumor research illustrate the extremes governmental inhibition of information have take. Surely, if we live in a free country, the current structure and restriction of the debate in the media must change - those in a position to not fear reprisals must speak out for the benefit of all.

Fear was also addressed in the teen caucus. Young people expressed their frustration at parents' and adults' fear of teenagers, their drugs and their behavior. This fear creates a knee-jerk reaction - the desire to clamp down, to control, to inhibit the expression, activity, and potential of young people. It was pointed out that this fear is only a subset of the fears driving the American people and American culture. Buried in consumerist drives and political propaganda, sleeping American culture is fearful of change, of expression of emotion, and of waking up to the new ways of being and culture that are being explored. The drug known as ecstasy is especially under fire and fear by parents, while the young people who use it at raves and communal gatherings have experienced it as a loving and connecting force. Again, though, there is no place for young people to express their truths and deep experience in these areas. And it is the backlash against those who would do and reveal these things that is in part driving the drug war itself. Being a young person at this time, and showing these new possibilities to America, means that youth can't help but call down the effects of this fear on themselves. We need new approaches and avenues of expression to explain the benefits that many in dance culture have experienced with ecstasy, and explore how other cultures have ceremonialized the use of drugs that have an important role in their societies .*

On the youth movement
The large number of young people who attended the conference, and the large number of youth activist groups who participated, were striking to this observer. I attended two sessions centered on youth: "The Emergent Student and Youth Movement"; and the evening "Youth Caucus: Connecting the Dots". There were representatives from more than a score of youth-based and youth-organized groups. The many young people I talked with individually and heard speak in groups - from Oklahoma, Vancouver, San Francisco, New York, and New Mexico - were impressive. They are articulate, intelligent, perceptive, and willing to act. They are also activists like we have not seen since the '60s - they understand that civil rights are being infringed, and that as a society we are in grave danger of demolishing the democratic structure we have left.

Personally, I was amazed, and heartened. These young people have grown to adulthood in a fast-moving media climate that has commercialized them, propagandized them, disinformed them, and in general overwhelmed them with lies and half-lies. Rather than buying all of this, however, they have simply honed their bullshit detectors to a fine edge, and have learned to seek truth and turn away from those with hidden agendas. Even further, they have (to some extent due to the use of empathogens and entheogens) connected amongst themselves with love and truth and understanding, in ways larger American culture has not accepted. They are less concerned with security and consumerism than the media paint them, they are supportive of each other, and they are rejecting barriers based on race and gender, class and sexual orientation. As a group, they are the most loving and awake generation I have observed. They claim that they deserve a place at the table; I agree! They have an energy and a motivation that this movement needs, and they have a lot to teach their elders about community and connection.

IV. Recommendations for the conference organizers

I offer the following suggestions for improving the next conference.

More discussion time
Insufficient discussion time was the single major disappointment I had with the conference. For instance, discussion time should have been allocated for the plenary sessions; if the topics were important enough to be plenary sessions, they were important enough for 30 minutes to be given to the other 900 participants to comment on them.

While clearly the breakout sessions were meant to be for discussion, often the panels took up much of the time simply in introduction. There was little time for discussion even in these. Why not have some time allotted simply for group discussion, brainstorming, and idea exchange? Many people came to the conference not only to learn, but to propose ideas and suggestions, to get the ear of those who need help making things happen and who would benefit from the ideas of the community. How about panels of experts, to listen and not just talk? And some time should definitely be scheduled for sessions to explore the ramifications and deeper aspects of all of these issues.

The evening Youth Caucus was a great idea - now please extend it to some buffet dinner-and-discussion evenings on multiple topics, and some ways for people to self-organize to form discussion groups for their major areas of interest.

Make salient the economic and social costs of the War on Drugs
A session on the economic and social costs of the WOD would have been really useful, especially if there were handouts or other documentation. The assumption might be that everyone knows how much the WOD costs, but do we really know the combined expenses of the U.S. federal and state budgets for the WOD: the cost of imprisoning people, the costs of defense against illegal search and seizure, the cost to individuals of property forfeiture, the cost to families and taxpayers of parents going to prison and leaving their children, the costs of not being able to openly seek rehabilitation, the costs to communities of losing otherwise law-abiding taxpayers, the staggering costs of our foreign efforts?

These don't even address more subtle social costs that have powerful ongoing impacts on the world: the erosion of democracy, the stunting of free speech, the climate of fear, the destruction of political and law- enforcement institutions through corruption.

While many of these issues were touched on at times, the economic, social and political costs of the War on Drugs to us all, need to be put into a coherent package where the full scope of the damage to American society can be made completely clear.

Especially since the press was there in full force, this conference could be a major source of information on exactly what the WOD costs us all, and how such massive amounts of funding could be used alternatively for the good of all.

Short talks by many groups
Plenary talks by major figures are great, but perhaps a few hours could have been spent in an afternoon of short presentations by people in the front line - community workers, police, non-profit organizations, etc. A series of 10 minute presentations with 5 minutes for questions from the audience could have alerted many groups to workable solutions that communities have found, problems that need more attention, education and harm reduction programs, and so on. It would also allow the audience to acknowledge and support the many organizers and activists doing such great work.

Things not said: On core issues of culture and society
Many core issues were not addressed at the conference, probably because they are considered outside of the focus of these organizations. I can understand that there needs to be such a focus for a conference, that there is an agreed-upon agenda, but even so we also need a place to discuss these central issues. Some of the 'core issues' below were mentioned in passing by various speakers, but these are crucial questions that deserve examination in their own right.

Why do people take drugs? In many cases it is for reasons of escape, avoidance, boredom, lack of opportunity, hopelessness. It must be asked why Americans maintain a culture that induces such destructive and avoidant proclivities in so many. Prohibition and repression are not the answers; a straightforward scientific and social examination of core causes is. Deeper reasons may include the breakdown of American community structure, and/or it may indicate a desire to access paths of being that are not based on consumerism, obedience, and acceptance of the status quo.

In other cases, as is seen throughout history, people use drugs to explore emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of themselves that are otherwise difficult to access, especially in a Puritanical culture. Many say that their experiences have been expansive, awakening, and joyous - why would compounds and plants with such obvious benefits be outlawed?

Why is the United States so bent on punishment rather than rehabilitation or harm reduction? Why are illegal drugs feared so much when they are so much less harmful in most cases than alcohol, nicotine, and even many prescription drugs? How can the public be inoculated against the level of propaganda that is used to manipulate them even against their own wellbeing? Why is data that claims that many illegal drugs have positive uses in medical treatment and for therapy, rejected by agencies which have no medical or psychological expertise? Why do we deny that many people have positive, life- enhancing experiences with many of these compounds? Why do U.S. governmental agencies reject facts and studies that they themselves have commissioned? Why ignore evidence that the War on Drugs is a war on minorities and the poor, destroying all the ideals supposedly held dear in the U.S.?

What emotional, cognitive, social, political issues need to be addressed, to create a climate where such issues can be tackled rationally and on the basis of the facts?

These and so many other crucial questions are rarely asked in current forums. In other words, there are core issues of our society that there is little place and little space to address, anywhere in U.S. culture. They are issues of emotion, belief, attitude, education, judgment, fear, and bias. Maybe these should not be addressed at a conference exactly like this one, but perhaps we should give thought to what kind of conferences are needed, to open the dialog on these core foundational issues. The causes of the problems, and not just the symptoms, require attention.

"Fighting the War on Drugs"
The War on Drugs is a war against people, and it does seem natural to talk about how to fight back. But this brings up the question of whether 'fighting back' is the appropriate metaphor and tactic. First of all, reacting as though we are in a battle is their strategy, one that serves to demonize others, and polarize everyone. Do we want to adopt the strategies that have been used to marginalize so many? It also increases the likelihood of escalating the conflict. Further, adopting condemnatory and close-minded behavior patterns and strategies can only help prevent the healing around this issue which will undoubtedly be necessary when we have dismantled all these unfair practices and persecutions.

Rather than fighting to win - which implies that the other party loses- perhaps we should seek to create win-win situations. If there is benefit in our solutions for everyone, and they can be made to see how that is the case, the likelihood of improving the situation for everyone massively increases.

I'm certainly not saying that we shouldn't do all we can to get these damaging and useless laws repealed, to reduce harm to all by regulating rather than forbidding these compounds, and to create a vision for how currently illegal drugs can benefit our society. In fact that is clearly what we must do. And definitely we must stop the corruption and abuse inherent in a war where the government is against its own people, and against its own democratic traditions.

But - by choosing their metaphor, we choose their mindset. By choosing their mindset, we become like them. And it is time we created, through our minds and our hearts, our strategies and techniques, a different way of being that will generate a wiser, more compassionate future.

Proposing solutions

Related to the above, it would be strategic and helpful to formulate a positive agenda which stressed what is to be done about drugs in modern society. Not how to forbid them, as we know that does not work, but how to acknowledge and regulate them so as to maximize benefit and minimize harm to all. Sessions around this could include :
  1. Addressing core societal problems. Start examining the central stresses and problems of modern life which send many people to either legal anti-stress medications or self-medication with illegal drugs.
  2. Education to a depth which would allow people to truly assess and understand the risks and implications of taking drugs. This includes re-evaluating what and how we educate our children. We live in an increasingly drug-oriented and pharmacological culture, yet education has not caught up with this fact. The woeful lack of understanding of our biochemistry and brains prevents truly rational decision-making by the populace.
  3. Acknowledge disinformation. The general public needs far greater understanding of the ways they have been disinformed and misinformed about the costs and benefits of illegal drugs, and the War on Drugs and its damages. Many still believe certain drugs are illegal because they are the most harmful, which is certainly not the case. We need to introduce straightforward, rational analyses of all drugs and their risks in our society so that we can formulate sensible harm reduction and rehabilitation policies.
  4. Benefit from currently illegal drugs Identifying what areas of society and the individual indeed benefit from drugs, and support research into safer analogs. {For instance, a safer replacement for alcohol would cut down on DUIs, liver damage, and alcohol-induced violence and crime). Current SSRIs and other anti-anxiety and anti-depression drugs are strongly related to some illicit drugs, for instance, and many Schedule I drugs have been shown to be efficacious for the treatment of alcoholism and other problems for which current treatments are insufficient. Cannabis has been shown in numerous studies to have medicinal uses noted by medical research, but non-medical groups such as the DEA have blocked research in these areas.
  5. Recognize sacred and creative uses of many currently illegal drugs. While not widely broadcast by the media, many drugs induce transcendental states of awareness that have been valued and sought after throughout human history. Let us appreciate these paths to realization, awareness, and creativity, and establish socially acceptable paths toward beneficial uses.
  6. Modeling responsible drug use. As was pointed out by more than one speaker, we do not have models of responsible drug use. Establishing these is crucial, so that people have some understanding of guidelines and early knowledge of when they may be headed for abuse problems. We should investigate models of use by indigenous cultures that have used similar compounds to our illegal drugs, in a safe and socially accepted way for centuries. They have learned to distinguish appropriate use and to surround it with ritual cues that enhance the experience for individuals and the entire community, while minimizing harm. This approach is especially important where potential for abuse is high, for instance in the rave community, and could include establishing set and setting, availability of accurate information, and harm reduction through community guidance.
The above are only suggestions. Some of them may seem extreme. However, we know that the War on Drugs has failed, and does more damage than the problem it is treating. Hiding our heads in the sand and continuing on a destructive path can only lead to a negative future of persecution and unacceptable social control. We must therefore be willing to take innovative and soul-searching approaches to these issues before we completely criminalize our children and cripple our democracy.

Last of all, I found the conference heartening, and the conscientious, principled participants and speakers, inspiring. I highly recommend the next meeting to everyone. One of the purposes I can see for this conference was not only to hear the speakers - but to applaud them, to thank them, to note the sacrifices they have made, perhaps personally, perhaps professionally. It is something that we do not value highly enough in American culture - the impact and support and motivating aspect of appreciation. It was beautiful to see the crowd give their approval, and to realize that for some of the speakers, this was probably the first time they had been acknowledged publicly and fully for their work and their courage. In an America that is slowly dismantling its democratic traditions, that uses patriotism as propaganda, it was a heart-opening experience to be present to salute real defenders of our freedoms.

Congratulations to the organizers!

The suggestions above notwithstanding, I want to congratulate the organizers on an excellent and worthwhile conference. It was an important step towards the open discussion we need in this society on issues of such import to us all, and they are richly deserving of praise for all their good work.

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