Piece de résistance 

Foes of the war on drugs take a stand in Missoula

Wars of oppression have a tendency to leave the deepest scars of any armed conflict. In this country, the Civil War was fought in part over the South’s refusal to grant rights to black people, and we engaged World War II in part to combat the inhuman treatment of Jews at the hands of the Nazis. In both cases, rare beacons of hope arose in the forms of underground resistance movements that assisted those directly affected by the most savage of injustices.

Next week Missoula plays host to a modern-day resistance movement, with the first annual Montana Drug Policy Summit at the University of Montana starting Wednesday, Sept. 4. Co-organized by Montana NORML (The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) Director John Masterson and Frances DeForrest, a local nurse and mother, the conference will showcase the growing movement to effect a large-scale dismantling of federal drug policy.

The event was deliberately scheduled in the days preceding the Missoula Hempfest, which each year attracts a growing crowd that typically supports the cause. But Masterson hopes that the summit will generate interest across a broader spectrum of citizens.

“Frances [DeForrest] and I realized that events like Hempfest attract a certain group who have a progressive stance on drug policy issues,” Masterson says. “The value of the summit is in attracting a more mainstream audience, those who are undecided or even disagree with the drug policy reform movement. We want to present the position of a progressive drug policy in a more conservative, academic setting.”

The summit boasts an all-star lineup. Two of the summit speakers have ties to Missoula: local neurologist Ethan Russo, who has become a leading figure in the national medical marijuana movement, and former Missoulian Dan Baum, author of Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure, a scathing disembowelment of the architects of the drug war. On a national scale, the big hitters include the head honchos of several prominent drug policy reform groups.

Kevin Zeese is president of Common Sense for Drug Policy (CSDP), a highly regarded umbrella group that works behind the scenes to assist and coordinate the efforts of myriad reform groups. CSDP is the driving force behind the Alliance of Reform Organizations (ARO), a consortium of 150 leaders of like-minded groups. Zeese will lay out the argument against current drug policy and will outline a four-point plan for an improved national drug policy.

“The first thing is that treatment for drug addicts must be made available like any other health service, because in most cases drug addiction and abuse are symptoms of larger societal problems,” Zeese says. “The second is that we want to see money invested directly into our children instead of the drug war, because the best way to prevent adolescent drug use is to keep kids active and involved in life. The third is to restore justice to the current system, because we must address the obvious racism there as well as give judges the power to sentence people, rather than rely on mandatory sentencing. And last, we must face up to the fact that prohibition simply does not work.”

Zeese and CDSP have helped nurture the November Coalition, a Colville, Wash.-based organization that champions the cause of prisoners incarcerated for drug offenses. November Coalition Director Nora Callahan knows firsthand the anguish caused by the War on Drug’s appetite for incarceration. Her brother, Gary, is more than halfway through a 27-year prison sentence on drug charges.

“We want to put a human face on them, and show the public who is in their prisons,” says Callahan. “They are not the monsters you’d expect, they are like people in your own family. Our drug policy has to encompass a compassionate, pragmatic view of our fellow neighbors. And right now it does not do that. It’s selective enforcement of mostly vulnerable people.” The energy level at the summit will no doubt be buttressed by Cliff Thornton, a fiery, outspoken activist who heads Efficacy, a nonprofit that advocates peaceful solutions to social problems. Thornton, whose mother died of an apparent heroin overdose when he was in high school, has recently taken black civil rights leaders to task for their complacency in the drug war.

“What is most disturbing to me is that [black leaders] don’t see the overall devastation it’s doing,” Thornton says. “Let’s be realistic. A lot of these black leaders are in positions of power, and there must be some type of unwritten code that says no one in the political arena can talk about alternatives to the drug war for fear of retribution. It’s ludicrous. The overwhelming theme of this drug war is that it is a class war. It is a war on poor people, primarily those of color. This is not rocket science.” Thornton echoes the growing sentiment among drug policy reformers that the movement is gaining momentum every day. “We’re picking up steam,” he says. “I predict that within the next three or four years, this is a question that everyone is going to have to contend with openly.”

That momentum, says Zeese, is contingent on the efforts of everyday citizens like those here in Montana. “I think people need to understand the incredible power they have as individuals, and that if they work together as individuals, they can have a huge impact,” he says. “I expect we may be preaching to the choir here, which is OK as long as I can get the choir to get bigger and sing louder.”

The First Annual Montana Drug Policy Summit takes place at the University of Montana Sept. 4–6. A complete schedule of events can be found at www.montanadrugpolicy.org.

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