Reformers in Babylon

Washington, DC has been described as a “power vortex.” It has also been called “the capitol of Babylon.” DC is a place of presidential motorcades, television stars, soldiers, and diplomats, of people who make decisions that affect the world.
I traveled to DC in May, driving past marble monuments, the White House, tourist hordes, Secret Service agents and war memorials, to attend the Drug Policy Foundation’s 13th annual international conference.

The Foundation (otherwise known as DPF) was created in 1986, and has become an extremely influential and respected organization in a field that is little understood by most grassroots marijuana smokers and growers.

Along with other public policy reform groups ? NORML, the Marijuana Policy Project, Common Sense for Drug Policy, Alliance of Reform Organizations, the Lindesmith Center, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, the November Coalition, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums among them ? the DPF works with politicians, bureaucrats, scientists, community organizers, lobbyists, lawyers and activists to change drug laws and society’s attitudes toward drug use and users.

The DPF has 25,000 members and a healthy financial surplus that enables it to fund dozens of projects, organizations and individuals. In Thailand, Liverpool, Puerto Rico, Bolivia, and other international and North American locations, the DPF’s grant program gives millions of dollars for needle exchange programs, medical marijuana activism, community clinics, outreach to minorities and women, professional lobbying, and political direct action.

The DPF conference, with its whirlwind of panel presentations, symposiums, debates, dinners, networking, and a closing awards ceremony that has honored many of the most famous and hard-working members of the reform movement, has become a much-anticipated event that embodies the optimism and complexities of people who work “within the system” to change laws and perceptions.

DPF’s conference program focuses most on community service and political activism. Every few hours during the three-day event, visitors had the pleasure of choosing between four or five interesting workshops.

In medical marijuana workshops, activists like Oregon’s John Sajo, who recently stood down a police attempt to steal his legal medicinal marijuana crop, explained how people can start and maintain medical marijuana distribution centers. Sajo and other panelists were assisted by input from Canada’s Hilary Black, who runs a cannabis Compassion Club based in Vancouver, Canada.

“Marc Emery just made a significant contribution to our club,” Black said. “We continue to expand services available to patients, and are now offering alternative health care options. The way to keep a medical marijuana club going is to be professional, caring and careful.”

Other panels dealt with drug testing, hemp, drug education, heroin addiction, drug related disease, drug use during pregnancy, raves and club drugs, imprisoned women, police corruption, and the export of America’s drug war to other countries.

People interested in professional advocacy attended workshops that provided instructions on how to influence politicians and the media, start community organizations, and use the Internet to encourage policy reform.

The panel presentations were fun and practical, with polite but spirited exchange. Many of us also eagerly anticipated the Friday luncheon’s two keynote speakers, Congressman Barney Frank, and Randy Puder, brother of deceased Vancouver police officer and drug law reform advocate Gil Puder.

Congressman Barney Frank: the movements best friend in congressCongressman Barney Frank: the movements best friend in congressBeing Frank

Barney Frank is a long-time Democratic member of the House of Representatives and one of the most progressive, courageous voices in a US Congress that has become increasingly conservative during the Clinton presidency.

When it comes to drug law reform, Frank is the best friend the movement has in Congress. He’s led the fight against mandatory minimums and asset forfeiture, and has repeatedly tried to pass a bill to keep federal officials from interfering with state-approved med-pot laws.

Frank is refreshingly blunt. He was given several ovations, but he also told the luncheon crowd some things it didn’t necessarily want to hear.

During his presentation, and in subsequent conversations, Frank said the drug war was “the single stupidest set of public policies in the United States,” but he laid blame for these policies partially on marijuana users and the American electorate.

“I do not believe the American people are wise, noble, generous individuals who constantly misrepresented by evil politicians,” Frank said. “I have been in Congress for 20 years and have encountered miserable and offensive colleagues, and every one of them was there because they got at least one more vote than their opponent. Vilifying politicians and exonerating the people who elected them is intellectually dishonest. Politicians made the laws that made the drug war, but who put them in office? Politicians make lots of mistakes, but the voters do too. We bring out the worst in each other.”

Frank’s opinion about the causes and continuation of the drug war were challenged during a question and answer period after his speech. Audience members asserted that “big money lobbyists,” federal interference, powerful non-elected officials, private anti-drug organizations, the “prison-industrial complex” and a lack of true democracy make political participation frustrating and useless.

“That is exactly the reason why drug policy reform has not taken place sooner,” Frank countered. “You haven’t done as good a job as you need to do on this issue. You’re not going to win votes by having marches or interrupting somebody’s press conference or fund raiser. I know a lot of you are critical of the American system, you don’t believe in the American system, you feel alienated and ill treated and it’s natural to say ‘the hell with it.’ But votes will outweigh money every time. Voting is a tool you have. Use it. Casting a vote doesn’t mean you are indicating support for the entire system.”

Frank admitted that votes don’t always count enough, however.

“The drug war is one of the clearest cases in my viewing of American history where the elected officials lag behind the public,” he said. “Voters have approved medical marijuana in every state it has been on the ballot, but politicians in Washington vote to overturn that. Politicians have become extremely punitive. They are totally out of touch with a public that is far ahead of them on this issue.”

Correcting “out of touch” politicians means using techniques that work for other single-issue groups.

“Look at the NRA [National Rifle Association] and how they do it,” explained Frank. “You need to write these people in Congress, preferably using snail mail instead of email, and tell them that unless they change their position, it’s going to make you, and everybody you know and meet, vote against them. It’s especially powerful to have people who are not involved in marijuana use, such as friends and relatives, write in to tell them that they will also vote against politicians who oppose drug policy reform. Don’t spend the whole letter telling why your opinions are correct, just tell them that if they don’t pay attention to your opinion, you are going to make sure they lose their next election.”

Although Frank repeatedly expressed faith in the American political system and the ability of organized, professional, dedicated drug policy reformers to change America’s drug laws, he also expressed outrage at the drug war.

“As long as large numbers of people are willing to spend their own money to get drugs, nobody is going to stop drug use,” he said. “All we’ve done is demonize people, ruin their lives and waste lots of money. The drug war is an enforcer of racism and socioeconomic inequality. It continues because some people believe marijuana is associated with a 1960’s counterculture that criticizes America, while others think drug use causes crime, not realizing that prohibition causes crime. It is totally lacking in rationality.”

Chris Conrad, author of Shattered Lives: shedding light on prisoners of the drug warChris Conrad, author of Shattered Lives: shedding light on prisoners of the drug warHalls of power

Chris Conrad and Mikki Norris, pot’s power couple who authored the book Shattered Lives, lured me out of a panel discussion by inviting me to a Congressional hearing chaired by democrats John Conyers and Maxine Waters.

I walked into an impressively furnished hearing room wearing a Cannabis Culture “Overgrow the Government” pot leaf T-shirt ? everyone else was wearing expensive suits. Copies of Shattered Lives were everywhere; some witnesses referred to the book during testimony.

Waters and Conyers are, along with Barney Frank, some of the few progressive members of Congress. They and their witnesses denounced mandatory minimums, Barry McCaffrey, and drug war-induced police corruption.

Joanne Warwick, a legislative assistant working for Conyers, said the hearing was designed to “open a dialogue on a new drug policy.”

“We’re trying to figure out how to move away from the police model, toward a public health and behavioral health perspective,” she said. “The supposed motivation for the drug war is to help people, but all we are doing is throwing them in jail.”

Warwick emphasized the same tactics that were being discussed across town at the DPF conference.

“We have to get credible people in here who can make the case with statistics and real life solutions,” she said. “We need help from drug policy reformers so we can reach across party lines and ideology to build a consensus on changing current drug policy.”

One good cop

DPF conferences feature an awards component that has honored most of the power hitters in the reform movement.

This year’s award for “Outstanding Achievement in the Field of Drug Policy Reform” went to Kevin Zeese, a widely-respected veteran drug reformer who heads Common Sense for Drug Policy. In previous years, this award has gone to psychedelics pioneer Sasha Shulgin and NORML director Keith Stroup, among others.

Lynn Zimmer, co-author of Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, received the award for scholarly research; Rolling Stone magazine won DPF’s award for journalistic achievement.

Hilary Black and Randy Puder: promoting medical marijuana and an end to cop corruptionHilary Black and Randy Puder: promoting medical marijuana and an end to cop corruptionOf all the award presentations, however, the most emotionally moving moment came when Randy Puder, brother of deceased Vancouver police officer and drug policy reformer Gil Puder, accepted an award on Gil’s behalf.

During his acceptance speech, and in a private conversation afterwards, Puder explained the high price his brother paid for fighting police corruption and drug war follies.

“Gil broke silence by writing a Vancouver Sun piece in 1997,” his brother told me. “He was immediately targeted by factions within the police department, especially from the drug squad. The police inspector who had been in charge of raiding [Marc Emery’s] Hemp BC and Cannabis Caf? filed a complaint. Gil’s chief constable required him to get prior approval before he could speak out on controversial issues. Members of the drug squad went to places where he was giving speeches, sitting in the back of the room making rude noises and trying to intimidate him.”

Puder said his brother’s commitment to reform was strengthened by the harassment.

“Gil was a big guy, an 18-year officer who taught martial arts to cops, a father of two sons, and a proud member of the police force,” Puder recalled. “He felt that the police cannot behave ethically or responsibly while enforcing drug laws. He spoke out against excessive use of force. Even after he found out he was dying of cancer, while he endured the cruelty of people who opposed reform, he continued to work for change and be a loving member of our family.”

Gil Puder died in November, 1999, but he left behind a tell-all book, tentatively titled Crossfire: A Street Cop’s Stand Against Violence, Corruption and the War on Drugs. Randy Puder describes the book as “well-documented and controversial.”

“We had a publisher back out because he was scared of it,” Puder said. “Gil kept papers hidden away, and made sure that there were copies of everything. It’s a whistleblower’s book.”

Puder’s brother recalled how Gil tried to get medical marijuana on the Friday before he died.

“I was implicated in some potentially criminal activity,” Randy Puder said with a smile, explaining that Gil talked him into driving to Vancouver’s Compassion Club with a prescription for medical pot written by an oncologist.

“I expressed my concern that if the VPD drug squad was cruising the area, wouldn’t they like nothing better than to bust the Puder boys,” Puder said.

Gil and his brother entered the club anyway, Puder recalls, but an attendant told them that Gil would have to go through a counseling session and the earliest session wasn’t until Monday. Puder left without his medicine, was admitted to the hospital the next day, and died six days later.

Keith Stroup and Kevin Zesse: past, present winner, Outstanding Achievement in Drug Policy ReformKeith Stroup and Kevin Zesse: past, present winner, Outstanding Achievement in Drug Policy ReformBreaking down walls

Many people attending the DPF conference appeared to be attorneys, scientists, law enforcement officers, and drug educators who don’t use drugs. Some conference participants, however, utilized medical herbs during evening parties enlivened by ganja butter chocolates and brownies provided by a radical Ohio activist.

During the parties, tensions between reform factions were sometimes visible. At one point, I found myself consoling an activist who was near tears because she felt she had been publicly insulted by a professional lobbyist.

“He told me that street activism was counterproductive and a waste of time,” she complained. “His attitude is that unless you have a college degree and are working in an office making money pitches or phone calls to senators, you can’t make a difference.”

Later, I saw the two reformers talking amiably.

“We’ve decided that the drug policy reform movement thrives on diversity,” the female activist said, chuckling at her easy adoption of politically correct verbiage. “I get to run around in the street with signs denouncing the drug war, and he gets to sit on his ass and talk to people about contributing money to buy me signs and change the stupid laws. We’re all one big happy reformer family!”Keith Stroup and Kevin Zesse: past, present winner, Outstanding Achievement in Drug Policy Reform

? Drug Policy Foundation: 4455 Connecticut Ave NW, Suite B-500 Washington, DC 20008-2328 USA; tel (202) 537-5005; fax (202) 537-3007; email [email protected]; website
? Congressman Barney Frank: 2210 Rayburn HOB, Washington, DC 20515-2104 USA; tel (202) 225-5931; website
? Congresswoman Maxine Waters: 2344 Rayburn HOB, Washington, D.C. 20515 USA; website
? Congressman John Conyers: 2426 Rayburn HOB, Washington, DC 20515 USA; tel (202) 225-5126; website
? Chris Conrad, Shattered Lives: tel (510) 215-8326; website; Human Rights and the Drug War website