By Phillip Smith
Hundreds of members of the Atlanta community and dozens of the nation’s leading advocates for drug policy reform gathered in a groundbreaking meeting over the weekend. The meeting aimed at building alliances with the African American community to both advance smart public health approaches to drug policy and maintain and protect existing reforms in the face of hostile powers in Washington.
Sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance, Georgia State University’s Department of African American Studies, the Morehouse School of Medicine, Amnesty International, The Ordinary People’s Society, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and Peachtree NORML, “Not One Step Back” marked the first time the drug reform movement has come to the historically black colleges of the South and signals the emergence of a powerful new alliance between black academics and reform advocates.
The event included a series of panels filled with activists, academics, and public health experts, including Black Lives Matter cofounder Patrice Cullors and VH1 personality and best-selling author Dr. Marc Lamont Hill, and was highlighted by a keynote address by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA).
To the delight of the audience, “Auntie Maxine” slammed the drug war as aimed only at certain communities while those making fortunes at the top of the illegal drug trade go untouched. The representative from South Central reached back to the days of the crack cocaine boom to make her case.
“The police did everything you think wouldn’t happen in a democracy,” she said, citing illegal raids and thuggish behavior from the LAPD of then-Chief Darryl Gates, the inventor of the SWAT team. But if low-level users and dealers were getting hammered, others involved went scot free.
“Something happened to devastate our communities,” she said, alluding to the arrival of massive amounts of cocaine flowing from political allies of the Reagan administration as it waged war against the Sandinista government of Nicaragua. “The CIA and DEA turned a blind eye,” Waters argued. “If you’re the CIA and DEA, you know who the dealer is, but they take the lower-level dealers and let the big dealers keep selling drugs.”
“Ricky Ross did time,” she said, referencing the South Central dealer held responsible for unleashing the crack epidemic (with the help of Nicaraguan Contra connections). “But those big banks that laundered all that drug money — nobody got locked up, they just have to pay fines. But for them, fines are just a cost of doing business. Even today, some of the biggest banks are laundering money for drug dealers,” Waters noted.
“We have to defend our communities; we don’t support drugs and addiction, but you need to know that people in high places bear some responsibility. One of the worst things about the drug war is that we never really dealt with how these drugs come into our communities,” Waters added.
The selection of Atlanta for the conclave was no accident. Georgia is a state that incarcerates blacks for drug offenses at twice the rate it does whites. While blacks make up only a third of the state’s population, they account for three-quarters of those behind bars for marijuana offenses.
The state has the nation’s fourth-highest incarceration rate, with a prison population on track to grow 8% within the next five years, and one out of every 13 adults in the state are in prison or jail or on probation or parole.
Atlanta is also the powerhouse of the South — the region’s largest city, and one that is increasingly progressive in a long-time red state that could now be turning purple. And it is the site of the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference — the world’s premier drug reform gathering — set for October. What better place to bring a laser focus on the racial injustice of the drug war?
“The drug war is coded language,” said Drug Policy Alliance senior director asha bandele. “When the law no longer allowed the control and containment of people based on race, they inserted the word ‘drug’ and then targeted communities of color. Fifty years later, we see the outcome of that war. Drug use remains the same, and black people and people of color are disproportionately locked up. But no community, regardless of race, has been left unharmed, which is why we are calling everyone together to strategize.”
And strategize they did, with panels such as “Drug Reform is a Human Rights Issue,” “This is What the Drug War Looks Like: Survivors Speak,” “Strength, Courage, and Wisdom: Who We Must Be in These Times,” and “Dreaming a World: A Nation Beyond Prisons and Punishment.”
While denunciations of white privilege were to be expected, the accompanying arguments that capitalism plays a role in perpetuating oppression and inequality was surprisingly frank.
“We have to dismantle both white supremacy and capitalism,” said Eunisses Hernandez, a California-based program coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We need to reach a place where trauma is dealt with in a public health model. The current system of law enforcement, prisons, and jails doesn’t do anything for us.”
“We’re in agreement here,” said Dr. Hill. “We have to eliminate white supremacy and capitalism.”
That’s not something you hear much in mainstream political discourse, but in Atlanta, under the impetus of addressing the horrors of the war on drugs, the search for answers is leading to some very serious questions — questions that go well beyond the ambit of mere drug reform. Something was brewing in Atlanta this weekend. Whether the initial progress will be built upon remains to be seen, but the drug reformers are going to be back in October to try to strengthen and deepen those new-found bonds.