You Can't Fight Racial Injustice without Ending the Drug War

April 19, 2016 - By Sharda Sekaran

Last month, the internet erupted in outrage over a decades old quote from an official in the Nixon administration that gained a new moment in the spotlight when it was featured in a cover story in Harper’s Magazine. The quote shocked many but it also affirmed what others knew all along: the war on drugs is a brutally effective tool for political control and systemic oppression of people of color.

While it is important for the public to become more aware of the insidious and racist foundation that props up the drug war, it is even more significant for the communities most impacted to have a voice in the conversation about what comes next and how society can go about repairing multi-generational harm. This was the focus of a major gathering on this topic organized by DPA’s asha bandele on April 17, in preparation for the gathering of the 2016 United Nations General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on drug policy.

The Drug Policy Alliance has long been a powerful voice in decrying the horrors, hypocrisy and blatant racism of the war on drugs. Under the leadership of Deborah Small, DPA organized a delegation of community leaders to attend the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism and put out a sign-on letter with support from public figures like Harry Belafonte and Julian Bond calling attention to damages of the drug war to racial justice. DPA followed this by convening a series of conferences about the impact of punitive drug policy on communities of color across the country, where thousands participated from Milwaukee to Los Angeles and Houston.

The April 17th gathering comes at an historic moment when public opinion has shifted decidedly against the drug war, in favor of policies with an emphasis on health and human rights, as opposed to punishment. Also in advance of the UN meeting, DPA released a new sign-on letter with more than 1,000 luminaries ranging from former presidents to celebrities and grassroots organizers (everyone from the founders of Black Lives Matter to Sting and Tom Brady).

The convening passionately emphasized the importance of engaging everyday people—families, drug users, formerly incarcerated people, educators, medical professionals, religious leaders, etc.—to achieve a holistic approach to ending the drug war, healing and moving beyond. As many participants asserted, “Nothing about us without us.”

Attendees heard from Svante Myrick, the charismatic young mayor if Ithaca, New York with a bold and courageous plan to reduce opioid-related overdose and disease; Dr. Carl Hart, the outspoken neuroscientist and professor challenging common misconceptions about drugs and the human brain; Erica Garner, activist and daughter of Eric Garner; DPA’s executive director, Ethan Nadelmann; Kassandra Frederique, director of DPA’s New York Policy Office; a host of community advocates; and, of course, the ever electrifying Deborah Small.

It was a powerful and engaging dialogue. If you missed it, make sure to keep yourself in the loop for future events (including the telephone town hall series, whose past speakers have included visionaries like Michelle Alexander, Piper Kerman and Angela Davis) by following the Drug Policy Alliance and asha bandele on Twitter.

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