Alice Huffman: The Evolution of a Leader

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February 28, 2014 - By Stephen Gutwillig

Dismantling the catastrophic drug war is finally on the horizon, and mainstream civil rights organizations are playing a central role in that struggle. As Michelle Alexander has framed in agonizing detail, many if not most of the economic gains African American communities made in the 1960s and ‘70s have been undone by the devastating impacts of mass felonization.

Civil rights leaders increasingly place the harsh drug policies that drive unprecedented rates of American incarceration at the center of their reform agendas. Alice Huffman is among those leaders who put it there first and firmest.

Ms. Huffman is in her 14th year as President of the California Conference of the NAACP. As a member of the NAACP’s national board (chairing its criminal justice committee), she has made drug policy reform her signature issue with the venerable group. With her outspoken involvement, the national body embraced historic resolutions last year calling for an end to marijuana prohibition and to the war on drugs itself, the strongest position of any traditional civil rights organization in the country.

Her evolution into a nationally-recognized advocate for drug policy reform reflects an unanticipated journey many Americans have taken (and many of course still resist). Her candor about that transformation of consciousness is quite moving since she considers herself something of a latecomer to the fight for rational drug policies.

A member of the generation that transformed the historic victories of the Civil Rights era into concrete advances, Alice Huffman shared conventional fears about drugs and an active disdain for drug users. Her large extended family in Sacramento included literally dozens of people with addiction issues and many with criminal records and histories of incarceration. For many years, she avoided and judged them, even barring her own nieces and nephews from her home.

“That’s the painful part,” she recalls. “What they needed was help; they didn’t need punishment. But that’s what I was doing. I was following law and order.”

Ms. Huffman came to recognize the devastating toll drug enforcement itself was having on her own family. She also realized that alcohol actually produced more lasting harms than illicit drugs, particularly marijuana. She married those insights with a racial justice analysis of U.S. drug policy and began to openly question a system that uses racially-biased police practices to criminalize young low-level drug offenders on a colossal scale while offering pitiful levels of evidence-based drug and alcohol treatment.

“I don’t like drugs. I never used drugs. But I know something’s wrong with this war we’re in, and it has to end.”

Her new mission found its focus in 2010. The California NAACP endorsed Proposition 19, the first marijuana legalization initiative on a statewide ballot in the modern era, and Alice Huffman became a national spokesperson. “Marijuana law reform is a civil rights issue,” she declared, an unprecedented statement from a figure of her generation and official position. “Law enforcement strategies that target poor Blacks and Latinos and cause them to bear the burden and shame of arrest, prosecution and conviction for marijuana offenses must stop.”

The response from conservative African Americans in California was swift and harsh. A coalition of outraged clergy demanded her resignation and condemnation from the mainstream civil rights community. When neither occurred, a new era had formally begun, one that would soon coalesce around Michelle Alexander’s transformative national bestseller, The New Jim Crow.

Alice Huffman continues her fight to elevate drug law reform within communities and audiences that reflect assumptions she once held dear. She may be making up for lost time, but she’s already help make history.

Stephen Gutwillig is Deputy Executive Director for Programs of the Drug Policy Alliance.

*Editor’s note: This post is a part of the Black History Month series from the Drug Policy Alliance, New York Policy Office.

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