Saying No to the War on Drugs
Wed, 16 Oct 2002 - The Metro Times (MI)
Copyright: 2002 Metro Times, Inc
- Website: http://metrotimes.com
Author: Sarah Klein
Conference Highlights Hypocrisy and Injustice
It was 6:30 on a Friday night on the University of Michigan
Ann Arbor campus. Students savored the last breath of summer
and lounged on porches, sipping beverages from plastic mugs.
At one house on State Street, a trio of young men sparked up
a joint in plain view and brazenly passed it around.
Although such indiscreet use of marijuana is not an uncommon
sight in Ann Arbor, home of the annual Hash Bash, the men could
have faced serious repercussions if busted. Like complete loss
of all financial aid or, in a worst-case scenario, a long prison
The war on drugs has accumulated many horror stories, accounts
like that of Chrissy Taylor, who at age 19 was sentenced to 20
years for conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine, because
her boyfriend coerced her into picking up a shipment of chemicals.
Stories like that of Robert Booker, a first-time offender who
was sentenced to life imprisonment for drug conspiracy.
The Journey for Justice is committed to spreading these very
stories across the nation, heightening public awareness of the
thousands of severe penalties doled out each year for nonviolent
drug convictions. The combined effort of two national organizations,
the November Coalition and Common Sense for Drug Policy, the
Journey for Justice will tour the nation for four years, highlighting
the injustices of current drug policy and calling for reform.
The kickoff of the tour took place last weekend with a Friday
lecture in Ann Arbor and a Saturday forum in Detroit.
Organizers say the drug war is a fallacy that has caused countless
injustices, wasted tax dollars, invoked sexist and racist policies
and resulted in thousands of draconian sentences for victimless
crimes. The Journey for Justice is calling for a complete re-examination
of the nation's current war against drugs, and is attempting
to organize a grassroots constituency through public education
and discussion. Proponents are not interested in highlighting
one particular drug or cause; instead, they want to draw attention
to the drug war as a whole - - especially the issues of incarceration
vs. treatment and creating alternatives to current policy.
"War on People"
A group of varied ages and races, some clad in tie dye, others
in crisp suits, filed into a U-M lecture hall. In a morose version
of a family album, photos flipped by on an overhead screen, snapshots
of men and women with their families, subtitled with such phrases
as "marijuana conspiracy -- 20 years" and "cocaine
Nora Callahan is executive director of the November Coalition.
She initially became involved in drug policy reform when her
brother was convicted on a drug charge 14 years ago. He has 13
years left to serve.
"The drug war is a fraud," Callahan repeated again
and again. "This isn't a war on drugs, it's a war on people."
Callahan said one of the fundamental problems with the drug
war is the focus on punishment and incarceration. She lamented
that drug users are treated as criminals, not as people suffering
from a disease. Callahan said the massive amount of government
money used to jail offenders would be better spent if funneled
into treatment programs for addicts.
"Treatment dollars in the U.S. were seven times more
effective than money spent trying to eradicate drug use at the
source," she said, quoting a study from the RAND Corporation.
It's no secret that the drug war is big business, on both sides
of the equation. Callahan feels the enormous sums invested into
the war on drugs are simply going up in smoke.
"Tax dollars are paying for a system that causes more
harm than any illegal drugs ever did," said Callahan.
Callahan would eventually like to see illegal drugs regulated
in the same manner as prescription drugs, which she feels would
make the illicit drug trade unprofitable.
"We need to take the profit out of the drug war, plain
Callahan feels drug users are unfairly targeted and sentenced
by race and gender. She says police use racial profiling when
searching for drugs, causing an inordinate number of minorities
to be imprisoned. Callahan says women are likely to face longer
sentences than men, because the system is "informant based,"
which she is against. In addition, she says women often hold
lesser roles in the drug trade, and know little about bigger
players in a network.
"When it comes time to barter for freedom by testifying
against others, they don't have any info," she says. "That's
the only way to get a sentence reduction. Tell on three, go free."
Another major problem: Drug offenders are sent en masse to prison,
where drugs are widely accessible.
"The place you can easiest find drugs in America is in
the prison system," said U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit,
during day two of the conference in Detroit.
"I smoked pot all throughout prison," said activist
Chuck Armsbury of the November Coalition.
Support for Reform
Historically, the state of Michigan has not placed an overwhelming
priority on drug policy reform. Debra Wright, co-chair of the
Drug Policy Forum of Michigan, said too few lawmakers are interested.
"There's more support [for drug law reform] amongst the
people than the legislators. They're behind the eight ball,"
she said. "There's a lot of people in the city of Detroit
that see and feel the damage caused by the war on drugs, so there
is a lot of support behind it."
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Detroit, spoke in favor
of ending the drug war at the Detroit panel. Detroit Chief of
Police Jerry Oliver was unable to attend, but criticized the
drug war in a recent op-ed piece in the Detroit News.
Wayne County Sheriff Robert Ficano was not in attendance,
and does not support legalization or regulation of any currently
illegal drugs for any reason. And he believes incarceration is
still an important factor in cracking down on drugs.
"Should there be more treatment? Sure," he said
during a phone interview. "What it really should be is a
combination of prevention, treatment and enforcement. You don't
use punishment as the full arsenal. There's a number of arrows
in the quiver-incarceration is just one of them."
Ficano believes legalizing or regulating drugs would not work.
"If you legalize drugs, you'll see insurance rates go
up, because you'll see more people who need treatment. If you
just let the market open up and say 'here, it's legal, try it,'
you'll have more substance abuse problems," he said.
"If you have someone on the street who can't afford the
drug and craves it, whether it's on the street or they can go
buy it at Rite-Aid, if they don't have the money they're still
going to have to commit the crime to get it."
Renee Emry-Wolfe is a criminal.
The 42-year-old mother of four mirthfully tells this to anyone,
without a tinge of shame in her voice. Clad in a sunshine yellow
top and flowered pants, Emry-Wolfe has a deep scratch on her
nose and two blackened eyes. The Ann Arbor resident has multiple
sclerosis, and the injuries were sustained in a fall. In addition
to difficulty walking, Emry-Wolfe suffers from muscle spasms
and pain. She is currently on probation for growing marijuana,
a drug which she claims is the only satisfactory treatment for
Emry-Wolfe was diagnosed with MS at the age of 19, and quickly
prescribed a cocktail of heavy medications, which she says made
her physically ill and reduced her to a stupor.
"In '85 I told them to put their drugs where the sun
didn't shine," she said cheerfully.
Frustrated with the avenue of traditional medicine, she decided
to try her friends' suggestion of smoking marijuana, and has
been steadily using to this day-and racking up a rap sheet in
Emry-Wolfe has been busted several times for possession and
growing her own personal supply of medical marijuana. She also
garnered national attention in 1999 when she protested a congressman's
anti-medical marijuana initiative by lighting up a joint in his
Washington, D.C., office. She was hauled off in handcuffs, but
received only a slap on the wrist.
Emry-Wolfe is angry that her only source of treatment comes
with criminal repercussions, but remains committed to spreading
her message to lawmakers on a personal level.
"The only arrests or convictions I have are for growing
my medicine," she said. At the Detroit discussion, she used
both hands to lift her body from her seat so she could stand
while addressing Conyers.
"If I have to talk to every one of you one at a time,"
she told him, "I will."