Editor's note: This is part three of correspondent Shannon Brandt's reports about the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver last week. To read part one, click here. To read part two, click here.
Down the street from the convention, a few hundred people slowly gathered for a bit of poetic justice shouted from some elevated sewer grate off the side of Ashford University's downtown Denver office.
There's no stage better than a street corner for the war's victims and victors to share their pain and their passion, sun beating down on the sleek, black face of a nearby building. Loose talk of kids shuffled like playing cards from a magician's hands, one foster home to the next, because drugs lost a mother her children; firsthand testimony on the deterioration of the DEA followed a quick demand for its full dissolution as a government agency; even the smallest victories in drug education on college campuses get to brag of lives saved.
And on the subject of addiction, specifically addiction to crack cocaine, there's more than enough to be said about the recovery process being more about an escape from slavery than an escape from a drug.
From Dorsey Nunn of the San Francisco LSPC (Legal Services for Prisoners with Children), we got a few more words about how a return to smoking crack can be righteous, even liberating -- and into the mike he screamed why to a smiling, crying crowd, over and over again: "I own me. I own me... no one else, not anymore. Even if I decide to end my life, that choice belongs to me."
All of this is a part of the poetry of a movement bent on addressing a great world sickness -- one apparently claiming to dissuade us from the individual and perhaps natural desire to adapt and to evolve.
I was caught up in the glow of this. There was a heat of spiritual reverence and strength coming off this man, and he was standing right next to me, so I just had to ask: "Dorsey, does it feel like you're standing on the peak of everything good that's happening in this world right now?"
He stared off for a moment, and then this flash of a smile came through.
"Yeah," he responded. "And everything bad, too. That's what makes this so important - this is where it gets fun."
As the crowd broke up into dozens of chattering, passionate discussions working their way back to the convention, I was looking for a moment to catch my thoughts -- to find my way through a surge of emotional intensity that was whipping its way like lightning through everyone around me. I was reminded briefly of how the Drug Policy Alliance's founder and executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, had been known to describe the conference, as a cross between an academic meeting of the minds and an old-school revival meeting.
I didn't have any time for that, though, because it seemed I was being paged. From out of the corner of my eye, there was this shining smile paging my name into the mouthpiece of a silent bullhorn: Art Way, Colorado's senior drug policy manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. A physical and literal giant of the convention, Way, along with his small crew of staff and volunteers, was responsible for ensuring the whole conference went off without a hitch -- and as a growing team of solemn police officers slowly filed into the exterior of the courtyard, it was becoming fairly clear that his job was beginning to get harder.
Continue for more about the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver. This wasn't the same Denver of just a month or so ago, when officers stood and watched as hundreds of city residents were given joints as part of local attorney and pot activist Rob Corry's marijuana protest of regressive, high-end taxation being pushed on the local industry.
From his place upon the stage, Way saw what most in the audience didn't: a young man on the periphery of the crowd quickly and expediently thrown into jail for smoking publicly -- shuffled off quickly and with no opportunity for any support or intervention from the organizers. Way told me this isn't uncommon. Rather, it's indicative of tighter control over enforcement, which he believes may be coming from the Denver District Attorney's Office.
Photo by Shannon Brandt
Way spent a lot of time where I grew up -- in Montgomery, Alabama -- and as he spoke, I was reminded of some of the views that Montgomery's Tree Top Piru street gangs espouse to their recruits about local government's powerful role within the illegal drug market. You can take it or you can leave it, but their position is that all of a city's drug trafficking is typically controlled through "selective prosecution" by the local district attorney's office. In other words, certain communities within cities are targeted for highly public drug busts and regarded as media "wins" in the war on drugs, while in other communities, illegal drugs -- and payoffs -- flow freely through the streets.
Fearing prosecution themselves for illegal activity - or violent retaliation from law enforcement - the residents of those former communities don't have much of an option to take their stories to the press, and even less trust that their politicians will act in their best interest.
On the bus ride back to the convention, somewhere in between a string of non-sequiturs and protest slogans Way blew out of his resurrected bullhorn for our benefit, the conversation floated back to Denver.
"All this good action happening with marijuana reform, and I can't even get (Denver mayor Michael) Hancock to sit down and have a conversation about how we should be tackling this in Denver," he said. "He looks at marijuana like it's this gateway drug for black and brown people, this gateway into incarceration, and that's it."
Without a doubt, some of the more unconstitutional ordinances currently being pushed by Hancock's administration don't just reflect that sentiment - they're trying to make it reality. After all, he's been pushing an ordinance that would have put Denver residents at risk of arrest just for carrying their own marijuana -- medicinal or recreation -- on the 16th Street Mall, or even for smoking marijuana in their backyard if neighbors could smell the aroma.
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It wasn't like this was news to any of the folks on the bus listening in on the conversation: They were already there, and only too willing to share their minds on the matter. More than a few were keen to tell us that the mayor's draconian stance on drug reform might have a lot less to do with politics and a lot more to do with addiction itself -- addiction that has affected his family.
Which could make Hancock as much a victim of the drug war as anyone who took that stage -- and would provide just one more reason to expand the conversation on drug policy reform to include the personal, as well as the political, if we want to even come close to understanding the effect the last few decades of drug policy have had on our own lives.
More from our Marijuana archive: "Photos: Inside the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, part two."