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

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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.

Latest Stories