Opening Plenary at Day One of #ReformConf15 in Washington DC
We’re at the lunch break of Day One of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Washington, DC. This is the largest gathering the Drug Policy Alliance has ever held, with over 1,400 attendees from 71 countries.
Our day began with our emcee, DPA’s asha bandele, greeting the crowd with an almost evangelical tone. asha let us know “Brooklyn is the house,” which elicited call backs from the other New York activists in the audience.
Senator Cory Booker from New Jersey addressed us first, via a pre-recorded video message. He detailed the work being done through his CARERS Act and other federal legislation to roll back the war on drugs, which Booker describes accurately as “a war on people”. He closed by reminding us of the old African proverb, “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”
Next, my congressman, Earl Blumenauer, addressed the audience. He discussed being a freshman state legislator when Oregon decriminalized marijuana in 2015. “You are here at a fascinating time in our nation’s capital,” Rep. Blumenauer said, “you at are a time when a wave is building and the train is leaving the station.”
Then Rep. Hakeem Jeffries from Brooklyn took to the stage. “We’ve got the largest incarceration rate in the world and it is time to end our failed war on drugs,” Rep. Jeffries announced to a cascade of cheers. “Abraham Lincoln about 150 years ago once asked the question, ‘how do we create a more perfect union?’ … We’ve come a long way, but we still have a long way to go.” He recalled the legacy of Harriet Tubman, who when told she was a hero for helping free over 200 black slaves, said, “’I could’ve freed more if they only knew that they were slaves.’ Sometimes what holds us back is self-doubt.”
asha then welcomed to the stage Jim and Stephanie, two of the lead organizers for the Reform Conference for the announcement that the next conference will be held in Atlanta, Georgia, on October 11-14, 2017.
We then got to here from Kemba Smith, an African-American woman who had been sentenced to over 24 years in prison for being a pawn in a conspiracy conviction meant to take down her then-boyfriend, a crack dealer. “I thought like some of the other college girls that what he did was his business and I was just going to school,” she explained. “The government stated that I never handled, sold, or used the drugs in the case, in the hopes by having me in custody they could eventually get to him.”
She talked about how she had turned herself in while seven months pregnant, with the promise she’d be able to give birth outside the prison. “They lied,” she told us, “and five minutes after I gave birth to my son my leg had to be shackled back to the bed.” President Clinton had commuted her sentence following journalistic attention to her case from Emerge Magazine and the NAACP Legal Defense taking up her case pro bono. She also talked about her “survivor’s guilt” of knowing so many other women just like her are still locked up.
Kemba introduced Jason Hernandez, another prisoner who was granted clemency, but by President Obama. “Of the 89 people who’ve been granted clemency by President Obama, only ten percent have been Latinos,” Jason stated. “And of them ten percent, not one was a female.” Jason lamented the lack of attention the Hispanic community pays to ending the drug war, which he calls “a war on minorities” to applause from the crowd. About the clemency stat he cites, Jason tells us “Nobody’s fighting for us, not even our own people.”
“There’s nothing that can describe what I felt on that day of clemency,” Jason continued. “But the one feeling I will never forget is that I had to return back to my cell and look at my friends who were still serving life without parole, and to tell them that I was going home. It was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. And though they were grateful and happy for me, and told me ‘don’t worry about it,’ that one day, they would get their chance. In the back of my mind I knew that the percentages were that they were going to die right there in that cell that I was standing in with them.”
The plenary concluded with the always captivating Ethan Nadelmann, the executive director of Drug Policy Alliance. Ethan exhorted the younger activists in the crowd to learn their history and discussed the era of McCarthyism from the 1950s. “The worst part about it is that the people went along,” said Ethan. “Even in the 1960s when people began to repudiate that history of McCarthyism, there was some lacking of accountability. There was some failure to call it to account and come failure to ensure that future generations knew about McCarthyism.”
Ethan also lamented, somewhat, the success of the marijuana legalization movement and how that’s brought in moneyed interests with no knowledge of reform history or best practices. “Oh my god,” he moaned, “those guys in Ohio, if you’d have won it, it would’ve lit up American politics and if you’d have won it, oh my god. A constitutionally mandated oligopoly for an agricultural product that every American should be free to grow, I don’t know…” he trailed off, drowned by the raucous cheers and applause from the crowd.