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Photos: Inside the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, part one

Which state will be the next to legalize marijuana? What do the Obama administration's recent announcements about marijuana legalization and mandatory minimums really mean? What are some solutions to the national overdose crisis that takes more lives than car accidents or gun violence? Those were just some of the questions that over 1,000 people gathered to consider at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance at the Sheraton Denver Downtown Hotel October 23-26.

Our correspondent, Shannon Brandt, was there; the first in a series of reports follows:

There's this joke somebody once told me.

Kid walks down the street, comes up to these three strangers and asks them: "If there was an absolute cure for human pain and suffering, would you take it?"

Guy on the left, clearly a scholar, responds back with his own question: "What would life really be like if we were to exclude a portion of the human experience?"

Guy on the right just says,."No," as emphatic, as strong and as daring as a middle-schooler in the middle of red-ribbon week.

Photos: Inside the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, part one
Photo by Shannon Brandt

Woman in the middle says, "You know, it would really just have to depend on the side effects."

Kid takes a step back in his head, thinks that would make a pretty good punchline, but decides to go a little bit further. And so he says, "But who really defines what the human experience is?"

This time, from all three, same answer: "The individual. No one but the individual."

Kid gets real quiet, doesn't say much for a while. Finally, he blurts out: "Wait a minute. Are you telling me that each and every one of us has got some sort of inalienable human right for the pursuit of their own human happiness?"

If I'd stumbled straight down the streets of Denver right into that joke, you can bet that a lengthy conversation would have followed -- but you wouldn't need to hear that. You'd just need to know that what this joke really amounts to is everything that the 2013 International Drug Policy Reform Conference was about.

For the uninitiated, the first thing you need to know about the community at this conference is that it is, first and foremost, a drug "policy" movement -- broadly named for more than a few reasons. First off, "reform" of the legal system doesn't mean the same thing for those striking for full-on "decriminalization" of marijuana; likewise, decriminalization's a tad too happy-go-lucky for the folks who say that that process won't get us anywhere without effective regulation. Then there are the efforts for medicinalization, education, incarceration, treatment and more.

At the end of the day, it makes for a pretty big movement -- one of the biggest and fastest-growing in the nation right now, by far. So "policy" really is just about the only word that fits.

Attendees gather on the first day of the conference.
Attendees gather on the first day of the conference.
Photo by Shannon Brandt

But for some people, the word "policy" just won't work. For some, fighting for a "Brave New World" of effective and efficient legalization, decriminalization and regulation of all drugs, medicines, sacraments and anything else you might choose to call otherwise controlled-narcotic substances is the only way to go: full-on policy change from the ground-up -- and back again.

Continue for more coverage of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver.

Last Wednesday, October 24, all those people in that last category decided to show up in Denver, Colorado, for the Drug Policy Alliance's seventh biennial conference.

That is, Denver, Colorado: The civic capital and political heart of a state where the citizens of every voting district agreed to legalize marijuana for pleasure -- not just for the treatment of pain.

Denver, Colorado: Where, in September, community organizers hosted the largest free pot giveaway in the last few decades, dispensing over 600 hand-rolled cigarettes to citizens directly across the street from both the State Capitol and Denver City and County Building.

Denver, Colorado: Where the Denver City Council faced the ire of some constituents after an attempt to make illegal the smell of marijuana wafting from private homes.

Denver, Colorado: Where, by January, roughly 2.6 million residents of the metro area will for the first time have full, legal access to recreational marijuana.

Denver, Colorado: Where the conference location was just a block away from the 16th Street Mall, the famed pedestrian-only thoroughfare, where the scent of marijuana wafts from every alleyway, doorway and many patios, and where the homeless are known to carry signs proclaiming, "Green or Green: Either One Helps."

And they came to this conference in a unique assortment of accessories: dreads, drag and full-body tattoos; Italian suits and cocktail dresses; cowboy hats and cop badges -- race, gender, age and nationality all unmistakably diverse.

The conference offered glimpses of a movement that's capturing -- and reveling -- in a very colorful approach to social change.

Russell Jones.
Russell Jones.

Take Russell Jones, for example. A former narcotics detective and DEA task force agent for ten years, Jones ran intel during the Iran/Contra Affair and in "Soviet Russia and Red China" -- his words, not mine.

I asked if he felt like he could pinpoint a specific moment in his experiences that took him out of that side of the Drug War, the decades-long global campaign to prohibit illegal drug trafficking -- a campaign that most in the movement would like to see ended.

"I didn't have some big epiphany or anything," he replied. "More like a gradual change of mind over a long period of time...but if I did, it would have been back when I was behind the Iron Curtain. Working with those countries' narcotics forces to seize meth labs, trying to reach addicts and watching deals go down on the street in plain sight, I came home with this burning question in my mind: If nations as controlling of their citizenry as these can't win this war, how could we, as a free nation, ever hope to?"

Jones's group, LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition), represents roughly 5,000 law enforcement officials, including current and former judges, lawyers, police officers and chiefs, with about twenty times that number in civilian supporters.

Their motto? "Drugs Cause Crime Like Forks Cause Obesity."

That's only a hop and a skip away from Jones's personal views: He wants to save the children (yours, mine and ours) from a discriminatory, anti-drug economy.

"There's just no good reason any more to deny a meaningful private sector job -- and all public sector jobs -- just because someone's got a drug conviction," he said. "That's what I really want to say about what our government's doing to our kids: You can treat addiction -- but you'll never get over a conviction."

Adeolu Ogunrombi.
Adeolu Ogunrombi.

From a global perspective, Adeolu Ogunrombi described the challenges faced by the nation of Africa. A member of a fact-finding expedition with the West African Commission on Drugs, Ogunrombi was in Denver to find an evidence-based approach that he can use to bring political and social stability to his region, a hotspot of illegal drug trafficking.

"Our problem is that decriminalizing possession of marijuana or anything else isn't going to be a 'magic bullet' solution, because we're still going to be a major transit route for drugs being trafficked into nations where its not legal." said Ogunrombi. "The fact that there are deep connections between the traffickers and some of our political parties only complicates things even further, when we could just be prioritizing human services for the people that are suffering the most from addiction."

Visit The Latest Word this week for more coverage of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference.

More from our Marijuana archive: "No More Drug War Rally and Victory Walk a highlight of international conference."


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