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Thoughts and Hallucinations

The anti-war on drugs conference

I'm realizing all of a sudden that a blog is like fieldnotes, and fieldnotes always remind me of the Tristram Shandy paradox, which means that it takes longer to write about experience than it does to live it, which means the more you write about what you do the less time you have to do it. But I do want to say something brief about the war on drugs conference I attended in September, web page at http://warondrugsconference.utep.edu/.

Most sane people now agree that the so-called war on drugs, announced by President Nixon forty years ago, was, has been, and is now a colossal policy failure. My joke is that if the war on drugs were a company we all would have been fired in the 1970s. Along the way a lot of us have complained, criticized, proposed alternatives, and there have been islands of success, but for the most part it's been like questioning the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in early 2003.

The University of Texas in El Paso and city government on both sides of the border teamed up to organize an anti-war on drugs conference. They managed to organize a critical mass of people—researchers, academics, clinicians, law enforcement, government administrators, politicians, journalists—who collectively had decades of experience working in the drug field. This varied expertise converged in clear and strongly supported ways on the conclusion that the old policies were not only ineffective; they were and are destructive and contradictory to the very goals they articulated.

While everyone agreed that the old policies had to go, proposed alternatives varied. The most coherent and inspirational was presented by Sergio Fajardo, a Colombian mathematician turned politician who served as mayor of Medellin and is now entering the race for president. He spoke to a packed ballroom in Ciudad Juarez and showed how a coherent alternative vision was possible and how it had been implemented and changed life in a city formerly dominated by drug violence. Word was that his talk, in Spanish, will be put on the web.

Even though I'm out of the drug game, I was happy to be part of this conference. It had, as far as I could tell, a strong positive effect locally. The DC "border czar" and "drug czar" cancelled—no surprise—but national representatives from treatment and law enforcement did attend as did experts from all over the U.S., though the representative from the DEA was more the "before" picture on the drug policy reform poster.

The coherence of the conference and the convergence of conclusions from a large number of local and national figures, together with the media coverage and the timing, give hope that forty years of failure will finally morph into some space for alternative policies and programs. I'm an old drug field cynic who lived too many years in Washington, but this conference made me feel that the time to start policy reform on a national level might actually have arrived.
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