Saturday, April 22, citizens gathered across the globe to march for science. In the the wake of a US presidential administration which candidly denies scientific evidence in favor of “alternative facts” made up to suit their personal agendas, international support for scientific inquiry is vital. Climate change, natural resource management, and sustainable technology are obvious focal points. However, the medical uses of marijuana (and other federally illegal drugs) is another trending topic within the scientific community. So, for that matter, is the social science supporting an end to prohibition period. In keeping with these causes, I celebrated science Saturday 4/22 at the Morehouse College of Medicine, where I attended Not One Step Back: A One Day Strategy Session on the Drug War, Mass Incarceration and Public Health, brought to Atlanta by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).
Based in New York, the DPA works nationwide to fulfill its stated mission: To advance those policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and to promote the sovereignty of individuals over their minds and bodies. In other words, DPA advocates for responsible use of all drugs, as well as for a society within which this is possible.
One major hurdle to achieving responsible drug use is de-stigmatizing the drugs themselves. An even more important hurdle is de-stigmatizing the people who use them. The de-stigmatization of people requires a major re-shaping of society into a system which centers on respecting our shared humanity rather than on celebrating business acumen and the accumulation of wealth. This means, ultimately, dismantling capitalism, white supremacy and patriarchy—you know, the trinity which forms the bedrock of America. It's a big task and a tough sale—especially when small, personal victories occurring between the Civil Rights Movement and the present suggest there is not much amiss and that anyone who thinks otherwise is either wrong in some way or deserving of ridicule.
Rising above the stagnant thought pattern that nothing is wrong requires people to see on a broad scale how systemic white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism both sustain, and are sustained by, mass, ongoing oppression. We must recognize that, by simple virtue of our citizenship, we are part of this oppression. We must not condemn ourselves for this. Likewise, we must not justify our role. We must instead own it, as objectively as possible, and then take deliberate steps toward a better way of existing. Furthermore, we must act from self-motivation. No good comes from stalling your own evolution in the name of wanting someone else to do their work first. It is natural to evolve together, each person and group of people moving at different paces which ebb and flow over time.
I discovered the DPA via my work with PeachTree NORML. Unlike so many people I meet, I have known NORML existed virtually my entire life. The primary reason for this knowledge is simply my education. I read voraciously and pay attention to world around me. However, even knowing about NORML and sympathizing with the cause, I did not join until I hit a turning point a couple years ago after someone rear-ended and totaled my car. The investigating officer issued a ticket to the driver who hit me and then returned licenses to everyone except me. Instead of receiving my license, I was arrested on a bench warrant for missing routine traffic court. I then spent about 9 hours in custody waiting to be officially booked.
I am white. I had enough money to pay a cash bond. I was cable of navigating the system well enough that charges against me were easily resolved and my license restored within days of leaving jail. The officers I encountered treated me civilly. The inmates were kind. Nonetheless, I saw enough to know that not everyone received such gentle treatment, despite the fact that most people I encountered were there on charges of nonviolent drug possession. I was also acutely aware that, while the officers were choosing to treat me like a person, it wasn't their obligation. Until I paid for my freedom, I was a number. Being stripped of my autonomy, albeit briefly, made me more acutely aware of both my day to day oppression and privilege. For me, this was motivation enough to use my privilege to help end oppression, and marijuana reform felt like a good place to start.
Considering that the movement to legalize marijuana continues to spread (despite Attorney General Jeff Sessions' utter distaste for it), it seems many may view it as a gateway to more sweeping reform. During lunch at Not One Step Back, each table was assigned one of three conversation topics, and one of these was marijuana. The other two, the opioid epidemic and prison reform, provide further insight into both the breadth and depth of the issues DPA confronts.
On one level, the opioid epidemic feels unique in its focus on the abuse of prescription, rather than federally illegal, drugs. It demystifies the image of users by portraying them as people who uphold major social norms and usually play by the rules, so to speak. For some, it will take little effort to draw the connection between users of prescription opioids and users of heroin. However, for others, the starkness of this divide speaks volumes about how deeply people are stigmatized for engaging in behavior perceived as deviant and/or associated with a specific social class.
The medical community enforces this divide via its tendency to over prescribe to one group and in its refusal to adequately treat the other. Once members of the first group develop a clear dependency, they become assimilated (by degrees) into the second group. Meanwhile, a third group of individuals, capable of both exercising and benefiting from, responsible opioid use are given little to no say in a society which insists that users must either be exploited, pitied or shunned. The resulting feeling of hopelessness likely affects many individuals who ultimately use opioids to take their own lives. In this sense, the opioid epidemic may also be seen as evidence of our culture's limited capacity to adequately recognize, treat and accept the reality of mental illness.
While study of both the opioid epidemic and marijuana's history of prohibition each shed light on the role prejudice plays in the drug war, prison reform is the issue which brings this home. This is because understanding the prison industrial complex makes the following clear:
It isn't so much that the criminalization of drugs has led to disproportionate arrests of people of color as it is that the US government needed to justify its arrests of people of color and thus criminalized drugs as a means of achieving its fundamentally racist agenda.
This is why so many of the speakers at Not One Step Back refer to themselves as abolitionists. Slavery within the United States hasn't ended. It has simply changed form. People of color are essentially harvested from their communities daily to fuel an industrial complex which relies on prison populations for cheap labor to sustain a capitalist economy run primarily by rich, white men—who themselves are dehumanized by the very system they lead. The system feeds principally on fear, and the counter to that it not bravery but love. Call it incredibly hokey. This doesn't change its truth.
Yesterday, my husband shared with me the obituary of Nick Sands. In my opinion, it's beautifully written, and I suggest you read it here. We had recently learned about his work as a chemist via the documentary The Sunshine Makers. This documentary focuses on the role Sands and his colleagues played in manufacturing LSD and pioneering an ongoing psychedelic revolution. In The Sunshine Makers, Sands admits to originally thinking that widespread use of LSD would change the world by allowing everyone to transcend their internal barriers to experiencing authentic love. After years of successfully “turning people on,” he remained dedicated to his mission despite openly recognizing its flaws—made evident by the fact that widespread use of LSD failed to bring an end to violence and oppression. Personally, I agree with Sands that LSD (& other drugs) can be useful in sparking real change toward a more loving, authentic, life honoring existence for everyone. Yet, I do not think that the use (or even abuse) of any substance can ever have as much power as the use (and also abuse) of our voices.
DPA does lots of important work. It simplifies the process of alerting our elected officials when drug policy reform is up for debate. It supplies clean syringes and life saving medicines (like Naloxone) to people who need them. Perhaps most importantly, it facilitates meetings like Not One Step Back which give people a forum for sharing their stories and, thereby, creating needed changes to both drug policy and society as a whole. DPA will be returning to Atlanta in October for a comprehensive 3 day long event, and you can register for that here. I will see you there.