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DPA Reform Conference Day 3: Ending Prohibition

Russ Belville

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DPA Reform Conference Day 3: Ending Prohibition

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) Reform Conference happens every two years. It’s a truly amazing event that brings together drug policy activists from around the world to discuss a reform agenda beyond just legalization of marijuana. Lately, though, I wonder if the agenda has become too broad. Has ending prohibition become an afterthought?

Drug policy reform and harm reduction naturally encompass a wide array of topics, including psychedelic medicine, club drug testing, opioid overdose prevention and, yes, marijuana legalization.

But when we look deeper into the issues of drug prohibition, we find they are entangled with the issues of racism, inequality, incarceration, public health and economics, too.

In her excellent opening plenary speech, Professor Michelle Alexander encouraged us to “go big or go home,” explaining that we must put racial justice at the center of our work as drug policy reformers.

My question is: How much are we, as a drug reform movement, expected to solve? Is it our primary focus to end the prohibition of drugs and mistreatment of people who consume them, or to solve the mistreatment of people altogether?

What happens if the opportunity arises to end drug prohibition, but in doing so, there would still be racial injustice? Do we abandon that opportunity as being not good enough?

“The End of Capitalism!”

In the closing plenary, the DPA invited people to speak who had made an impact throughout the three-day event. One speaker, a man, Rafael Torruella, the executive director of Intercambios Puerto Rico, a community harm-reduction organization, referred to Alexander’s call to “go big.”

“What does that mean for me right now,” he asked the audience. “Thinking big for me right now means that harm reduction should work towards the end of colonialism. We should work for the end of imperialism, and, why not, let’s say it, the end of capitalism!”

Really?

Because it seems to me that for 40 years, people made all sorts of efforts at legalizing marijuana, to no avail.

Activists pointed out the studies showing prohibition of marijuana to be a waste of criminal justice resources, that pot is a less harmful substance than alcohol, that the drug war is a detriment to harmonious communities, and that cannabis is a medicine with benefits for so many ailments.

Seems to me nothing really moved the ball forward much on marijuana law reform until businesses and state treasury departments could make money from it. Even the compassionate gains made in medical marijuana weren’t possible until some billionaire capitalists threw lots of money at it.

I’m not trying to play Gordon Gecko here and say, “greed is good.” There are big problems with the way capitalism works today. Colonialism and imperialism are terrible practices and should be opposed.

But if I’m an activist trying to legalize medical marijuana in Oklahoma or Utah in 2018, “we should work for the end of capitalism” isn’t going to win me many supporters.

“Don’t Screw Pookie”

Another speaker, a man I have the utmost respect for, was Pastor Kenneth Glasgow from All of Us or None. Pastor Kenny has been fighting for the rights of formerly-incarcerated people from his base in Brooklyn for years now.

I’ve seen the pastor speak many times.

One of his riffs focuses on the concept of how prohibition has established illicit drug distribution networks that serve as the only source of income for many people. Using the name “Pookie” to represent the street-level illicit drug retailer, Pastor Kenny often asks, “what about Pookie?” when he notes how the emerging legal marijuana market is inaccessible to people of color.

“When you hear me talk about Pookie,” Glasgow intoned, “I’m only talking about the equity. So, it’s not just that we end the drug war; we do it in an equitable way. If you’re just going to get high and keep me broke and my family poor, we still have a problem.”

Yes, we do still have a problem… but we no longer have a marijuana prohibition problem.

This isn’t just abstract discussion.

The question of “how inequitable must legalization be to be rejected?” was already answered in 2015, when the drug policy reform movement nearly universally panned a marijuana legalization initiative in Ohio called Issue 3, because it wrote its investors into the state constitution as sole beneficiaries of the cultivation industry.

Of course, Issue 3 didn’t just present an inequity to people of color looking to get into the grow business; it kept white people out of the business, too.

Maybe that’s why Ohio was soundly rejected, but the other state medical and recreational initiatives that included provisions banning marijuana licenses to previously-convicted persons (read: mostly people of color) or setting astronomical entry barriers (read: that mostly white people can clear) were acceptable and endorsed by the DPA and other marijuana reform organizations.

Prohibition Distorts Everything

“When we ended prohibition of alcohol,” Glasgow continued, “we had black bootleggers, and we didn’t acquire distilleries and business that came with it once it was legalized…. We screwed Pookie… We’re on the cusp of legalizing marijuana and if we don’t have this conversation… we will practice the ugly part of being Americans: racism, supremacy and exclusion. So, I ask you, family, let’s not screw Pookie.”

Absolutely… but what, exactly, does it mean to “screw Pookie?”

Obviously, if we write laws and regulations that exclude people who were caught in the illicit drug trade, we’re “screwing Pookie,” because these prohibitions were disproportionately enforced against people of color.

But if we write requirements for, say, $500,000 capital escrow and a $15,000 non-refundable application fee for a dispensary license, are we “screwing Pookie” because people of color historically haven’t had the opportunities and connections to amass the wealth necessary to meet those requirements?

It’s a nuanced discussion.

You could answer “no,” if you could show that those financial requirements are reasonable and necessary; you could answer “yes,” if you could show they are unnecessarily being used to exclude certain people.

Is it the job of drug reformers to repair four centuries of the racist structure of our economy?

When Pastor Kenny laments being broke and poor, explaining how the Pookies of the world survive on the illicit drug trade, it’s important to note that Pookie is getting a massive prohibition risk subsidy. It is the fact that Pookies go to prison that enables free Pookies to sell an eighth-ounce of dried vegetable matter for $40 to $60.

Suppose there are 10 Pookies servicing a neighborhood who can make about $500 a week on the street hustling, Then we legalize marijuana and replace them with one pot shop with six budtenders making $12 an hour. Even if there’s no barrier to Pookie getting one of those budtending jobs, have we screwed him now that his take-home has dropped from $500 to around $340 after taxes that Pookie never had to pay before? Have we screwed four Pookies out of any job at all?

It’s not just Pookie who must adjust to the economics of a new legal paradigm.

There are plenty of Codys in Northern California and Jedediahs in Kentucky who built generations of their family economies on the two-thousand-dollar wholesale pound of cannabis. Their privileges aren’t keeping them from being screwed, either, as legality changes the economics of weed.

Stand for Something, or You’ll Fall for Everything

I don’t have the answers to these questions.

On the one hand, I agree wholeheartedly with the grand vision presented at the DPA Reform Conference. On the other hand, I’m a dyed-in-the-wool progressive leftie, so civil rights, economic justice and racial equality are music to my ears.

I’m just wondering how the tune sounds to a conservative voter in the Midwest or South whose vote we need to end drug prohibition? Or to allies in the fight against prohibition who may be libertarians or evangelicals or even (shudder) Trump supporters?

Because when four states passed their marijuana legalization, imperfect as they are with respect to the grand vision of equality, they did have the immediate effect of ending a practice that was disproportionately impacting people of color.

How many Pookies in Ohio have been busted since Issue 3 was rejected?

Again, this isn’t just an abstract discussion.

In New York, there is an effort to hold a convention that is possible every 20 years under the state’s constitution for the purpose of adding amendments. One New York investor is proposing that we support the convention so an amendment legalizing marijuana could be added.

But the Drug Policy Alliance isn’t on board.

The deputy state director in New York of the DPA, Michelle Moore, explained that “opening up the state constitution would also touch on a lot of issues well beyond marijuana legalization, many of which could potentially end up being altered in ways that would hurt our members or our allies, who live more than single-issue lives.”

She means that once a convention is called, the anti-abortion people, the anti-gun-control people, the anti-immigration people and whoever else will jump into the fray to push their issues, with no guarantee that marijuana would even make it to the convention.

So, here’s a viable method by which New York could become the second state after Colorado to enshrine adult cannabis cultivation and use as a constitutional right, but the DPA won’t go near it because it could affect other issues that are not drug policy?

Who wants to bet that if NARAL-Pro Choice America, Everytown for Gun Safety or Immigrant Solidarity Network had the chance to solve their issue with a constitutional vote, not only would they not think twice about whether it affected marijuana legalization, but that they’d sign onto it even if it repealed marijuana legalization?

I agree that we should fight for a legalization that ameliorates the devastation of decades of racist prohibition. But if it comes down to a choice, I will fight for an imperfect legalization over keeping a racist prohibition any day.

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