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Montana activists hold first drug policy summit

From The Week Online with DRCNET

The University of Montana in Missoula was the site of Montana drug reformers' first statewide Drug Policy Summit, September 5-7. Marijuana activists, harm reductionists, concerned citizens and university students gathered over two evenings to hear a plethora of local and national drug reformers denounce the war on drugs and call on local activists to open a new battlefront in Big Sky country. On Saturday, summiteers joined hundreds of other attendees in a daylong celebration of cannabis culture at the Missoula Hempfest in downtown's Caras Park.

Co-organized by Montana NORML (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws) head John Masterson and Missoula nurse Frances DeForrest, the event introduced Montana audiences to nationally known drug reformers. These included Kevin Zeese of Common Sense for Drug Policy, Cliff Thornton of Efficacy, and Ron Mann, director of "Grass," the widely acclaimed documentary about the criminalization of marijuana.

Other national figures with local or regional links included former Missoulian and author Dan Baum ("Smoke and Mirrors: The War on Drugs and the Politics of Failure"). Chuck Armsbury and Nora Callahan of The November Coalition motored from nearby northeastern Washington state to press their issues of relief for drug war prisoners. University of Montana researcher and Editor of "Journal of Cannabis Therapeutics," Dr. Ethan Russo, also addressed the summit, as did local activists such as Masterson, Missoula defense attorney John Smith, and Montana ACLU head Scott Crichton.

Attendance at the summit was about 75 people on the first night and more than a hundred on the second night, which included a screening of Mann's film, "Grass."

"We think the summit was an absolute success," Masterson told Phil Smith of DRCNet. "We had close to a hundred people sign up on our list of people who wanted to actively participate in drug reform in Montana. That's important. We're thrilled at having met so many students who are ready to get active."

The budding activists certainly drew inspiration from the speakers, as well as being challenged to locate their activism in a broader political context. Thornton, who traveled from Connecticut to address the summit, challenged the audience to confront the racism that permeates the war on drugs. "It's easier for white people to believe that Elvis is alive than to recognize that racism still exists in this country," he said. While noting that drug laws are not racist on their face, Thornton said, "White America focuses on the intent of the law, but black America looks at the effect."

Dan Baum called for "class consciousness," a term usually forbidden in US political discourse, and for drug reformers to ally themselves with other progressive movements. "We are being raped" by the drug enforcers, Baum said. "I despair when I see anti-drug war people focus exclusively on drugs. Seattle (the 1999 World Trade Organization disorders) was our fight; the environment is our fight; social justice is our fight. We need a broader analysis," he told the audience.

Masterson told DRCNet the summit aimed to broaden the drug reform movement in Montana and bring it to a mainstream audience, but admitted that the effort was less than completely successful. "We were aiming at folks like the PTA or the city council, but if they were there, they must have been in disguise," he said. "While we're thrilled to have contacted and educated scores of students, it is disappointing that more Missoulians didn't show up to dialogue with us about this failed drug war. Maybe next year."

By next year, Missoulians could have more reason to confront drug policy issues, Masterson said. "We are having our first Grizzly (University of Montana) NORML meeting next week, and we are considering a local initiative in either Missoula or Missoula County that would establish prosecutorial guidelines telling law enforcement and the courts that marijuana crimes should only be prosecuted under certain conditions, such as if a minor is involved or it the quantities suggest drug trafficking," he explained. "The vast majority of marijuana use would then be outside the purview of law enforcement."

In his address to the summit, Masterson reviewed the most recent poll (from 1998) on Montanans' attitude toward drug reform, telling the audience that medical marijuana and industrial hemp had 70% support and half of Montanans surveyed would support regulating and taxing marijuana like alcohol or tobacco. In a telling indication of the libertarian conservative ethos that pervades much of the West, 2% of respondents objected to regulating and taxing pot on the grounds that they wanted "no new taxes."

Masterson had only praise for the national reformers who attended- and some advice for other local activists interested in doing something similar. "Thanks to Nora Callahan for suggesting I call Kevin Zeese," he said. "I pretty much just cold called him and asked if he could come, and he said, 'What day?' He turned out to be a real linchpin in this thing, and I feel really fortunate to have spent some time with him discussing the future of drug reform in Montana. We basically cold called everyone and got a real good response. If you want to do something similar, don't be shy about picking up the phone."

The primary focus in Montana will be marijuana reform, Masterson said. "The Montana agenda is to protect those who use marijuana, but we support the efforts of the harm reduction community and would love to work with them on broader reform issues," he said.

In the meantime, in Montana as elsewhere, there is evidence of a divide between Cannabis Nation and users of other drugs. Hempfest visitors talking about methamphetamine at November Coalition's 'jailhouse' booth often sounded more like Asa Hutchinson than Kevin Zeese. November Coalition, which has organized a national petition drive focussing on getting all drug war prisoners out from behind bars, has more than once heard versions of the following dialogue as they consider signing:

"Is this just for pot prisoners?" "No." "Then I won't sign."

Oh, Cannabis Nation. When they came for the speed freaks, I did nothing.

To learn more about drug reform in Montana:

Visit the Journey for Justice archive!

The Razor Wire is a publication of The November Coalition, a nonprofit organization that advocates drug law reform. Contact information:
795 South Cedar - Colville, Washington 99114 - (509) 684-1550


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