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

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Editor's note: This is the final installment 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. To read part three, click here.

For some in this movement, there is no opportunity to disconnect from the personal impact. This is perhaps most apparent in the youth reform movement's emissaries operating in Mexico City -- where warring drug cartels have threatened the social and political stability of the region for decades.

Maria Villanueva, a member of a tight-knit group of youth organizers from the ReverdeSer Colectivo, came to the drug policy convention because of her close acquaintance with the growing ranks of the "disappeared:" the over 26,000 men, women, and children who have gone permanently missing at the hands of the Mexican drug cartels -- disappearances that the local and national government can't, or won't, solve.

"When you know someone who is 'disappeared,' there's no longer a good reason to not be involved in the movement," she said. "You know that, no matter what you do, you could always be next, so there is no reason to not act in your own defense."

Her sentiments echoed those from a few of her compatriots, who believe military and law enforcement officials have an unspoken policy to allow the cartels with the biggest pocketbooks to slaughter other smaller and less prosperous gangs -- and anyone who gets in the way. In fact, representatives of Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently stated publicly that they had evidence proving state officials had supported half of the organization's documented "disappearances" in Mexico.

I asked Villanueva what it was like to be here in Denver; with legalization slowly coming into effect. It was the same question I'd asked some of the Sheraton's staff a bit earlier, and they gave me an answer that I'd grown pretty accustomed to myself: It felt almost like nothing had changed but the aroma; you knew more and more people every day had access to marijuana, yourself included, but you still had to go to work, there were still bills to pay, and the world kept on spinning.

But I wanted to know what it felt like to someone who had only had a few days to soak this all in, coming from almost halfway across the globe. In short, she told me that she really couldn't tell me -- that there was no place, no experience, to compare it to. For all she knew, this was normal for Denver.

What she could tell me, though, was what I needed to hear: that if she could take this feeling back with her to Mexico, if legalization could be brought to her home, everything would change for the better. "Drugs of all kinds are a problem in my country, but marijuana is the backbone of the trafficking industry," she said. "Without that foundation, the cartels would lose their power in a very big way. That is what I would want to see for my country."

In the face of that, there's definitely something to be said about the way that you, I and everyone we know are able to so easily and quickly forget about those of our own nation who number among the world's "disappeared:" Over 2.2 million of our citizens remain locked away behind bars -- far from our sight, and even further from our minds.

According to Bill Fried, a LEAP program director, this fact, more than any other, reveals that punishment over rehabilitation doesn't work in solving the overall problem. But the common, blase attitude toward confronting this issue really proves that, well, the system works.

Continue for more coverage of the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver, including additional photos. "Say you want to make a problem to disappear, to go away," Fried said. "It's pretty easy: Make it so all the evidence of the problem is locked away from public sight...where you can't hear their voice. From there, it's easy to say poor people are just all killing each other in the ghettos because it's what they want, and you don't have to think about your government's role in creating that environment -- and you sure as hell don't have to feel responsible for finding a solution."

Nico Orduz, one of LEAP's youngest legislative coordinators, took it one step further: "You can't expect just anyone to be able to realize there's even a problem (with current drug policies). You can only expect that reaction from the people who become imprisoned -- who become the actual victims of the drug war."

With so many battles to be fought, it was easy to forget that high hopes for the future were a heavy part of the conference: There was a feeling of connection through shared ambition and progress that seemed to carry strongly from one person to the next, and in every conversation I was able to latch onto.

You'll seldom find an activist community where the hard work and hard play needed to keep the movement really alive results in the best possible conversations for the future. There's a case to be made that marijuana keeps this movement fueled -- and when the presidents of foreign nations can come together in what may be the freest city in the world to smoke up alongside the veterans of a red-ribbon generation, the bear hugs and the bro moments just seemed more intense and more productive than the good vibes you might catch from a typical stoner crew.

That being said, I was standing off the mall smoking a blunt with a group of some of the brightest minds of this movement when the conversation of division reared its ugly head. Right now, the big concern is the Justice Safety Valve Act, the 2013 law that, if passed through Congress, could give judges the option to enforce -- or not enforce -- mandatory minimum sentences for not just drug crimes, but all criminal offenses.

The division stems from the fact that the act is being regarded as a preliminary concession from the federal government to the growing demand for radical progressive reform -- and, as negotiations typically go, some want to take the offer quick before it's lost, while others feel like its time to push even harder.

I asked Daryl Atkinson of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice what he thought of the offer as it currently stands, as compared to an offer that would make everyone happy. And what would that second one look like to him?

"It's a good thing," he said. "It expands the conversation, and expanding the conversation is so important right now, because it gets us closer to full decriminalization of drug use."

Responded a young woman from the Drug Policy Alliance's National Office in D.C.: "Full decriminalization is the absolute goal, end of the day, no questions asked. It's what we have to have as a nation, but at the same time, we've got multiple federal bills related to drug reform going through Congress. A settlement on one isn't so bad, and really, all of our eggs aren't in one basket here. If we had nothing going through Congress right now, it would be a different story."

So there you have it, if you can even call it a difference: The next big victory for a nation -- and a movement -- with a new outlook on what it means to be a criminal and a victim in the Twenty-First Century.

More from our Marijuana archive: "Photos: Inside the International Drug Policy Reform Conference, part three."

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