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Reflections on landmark Connecticut event

By Cliff Thornton, Efficacy director

I offer some observations about the late-October 2005 Hartford Drug Conference that was chaired by Dr. Bob Painter. Considered Hartford's "minority leader," he's a Republican City councilor to a Democratic Hispanic mayor. The fingerprints of drug policy reformers were all over the conference content.

The conference presented great diversity both in the audience and on the panels. Behind the leadership of Mayor Eddie Perez, the importance of a conference hosted by and held in a capitol city inspired invaluable cooperation with Trinity College, and the financial support of the nonprofit foundation of health insurer Aetna, Inc.

Aetna's executive director, a Latina attorney, gave a moving keynote address about the non-stigmatizing of addiction during which she discussed her own struggle with chronic depression.

I will share only two observations concerning legalization and the conference as an effective model for future gatherings. The discussion of legalization and its capacity to alienate or attract people has been debated within the reform movement. In the past I respected the opinion of many who felt the "legalization" word was a "bridge too far beyond the mainstream" with the capacity to scare more than persuade.

"My considered opinion is that drug prohibitionists no longer own the "legalization" word as a scare-tactic in public discourse. Reformers now have a great opportunity for presenting open public education forums."

Whatever may have been the reality back then, in 2006 the need to prove that drug prohibition has failed is fading; it's conceded by the mainstream. The unconverted but open-minded are more concerned with what the alternative looks and sounds like, whether you call it legalization, regulation, normalization, or liberation.

I watched a mayor, a judge, a state prison commissioner, city councilors, doctors and therapists, recovering addicts, nurses, teachers, Hispanic and black community activists accept the failure of current policy and recognize the need for an alternative involving more treatment and fewer police. Opinions differ!

Within this informative and rich discussion, legalization was mentioned many times as a tool for better public health and safer neighborhoods, not for a worsening of current conditions. While most spectators were sympathetic to reform, many were merely fed up with drug prohibition and struggling for an alternative.

The law enforcement panel attempted to argue otherwise, with some exceptions like the district attorney who said the problem with current policy was absence of too little public shame for drug use and users. The police chief angrily denounced "legalizing" experiments in 'his grandchildren's neighborhood'. These prohibition panelists talked about "demand reduction" and gave lip service to treatment, demonstrating their lack of insight.

My considered opinion is that drug prohibitionists no longer own the "legalization" word as a scare-tactic in public discourse. Reformers now have a great opportunity for presenting open public education forums.

The police, the state prosecutor's office and the DEA were powerful early in the presentation. They spent some time shamelessly promoting more of the same and claiming vaguely, and with no documentation, the failures of acclaimed Amsterdam, Zurich and Baltimore drug policy reforms. The contrast between law enforcement views and reformers' framing of the public health question and the regulation policy struck me as quite educational and enlightening.

Sr. Judge Burnett of Washington, DC -- representing black, professional criminal-justice experience within the criminal justice system -- gave a powerful presentation for policy change virtually immune from criticism. Other presentations included: demographic studies about the Hispanic community, female addiction, testimony of recovered addicts now delivering therapy, juvenile justice workers. Dale Gieringer regaled listeners with stories of how Oakland, CA has survived medical marijuana distribution without a "political earthquake." All presenters provided knowledgeable and respected views about practical change from drug prohibition to regulation.

Concerning drug management issues, professor and psycho-pharmacologist Robert Heimer of Yale's Public Health School taught us about the role of drugs in drug abuse management. Reformers frequently say that "treatment works," but I found it useful to know more about what and why, particularly because prohibitionist, coerced-abstinence "treatment" ideology bankrolls so many junk-science therapy programs for marijuana users.

The conference closed on the compelling issue of what can be done now by cities and local activists, within the framework of federal prohibition laws and state prohibition enforcement. In particular, Roger Goodman of the King County Bar Association of Seattle is working up a list of "little changes" for distribution, doable work now to reduce the harm of prohibition.

This type of conference can be held in other cities, packing a comprehensive agenda into two days, with city officials hosting. Every city has 'players' in this failed war on drugs: frustrated health care delivery experts, frustrated community activists, academic experts, addiction survivors and open-minded law enforcement officials.

Yet to be seen is whether the connections made by local activists can be harnessed to provide an ongoing source of political organizing and pressure on state and municipal legislators to create change. Hartford happens to have a mayor who is ready to lead a neighborhood parade with no fear of soft on crime criticism. The real work has just begun.

(Editor: Cliff, or Clifford Wallace Thornton, Jr., can be reached by postal mail at Efficacy, PO Box 1234, Hartford, CT 06143, by telephone at 860 657 8438, or by email to Website:

Another perspective on Hartford Conference

Activist Scarlett Swerdlow of Students for Sensible Drug Policy reported on some important lessons she learned from the Hartford Drug Policy Conference of October 2005:

Accessibility: The conference only cost $25 to hear an amazing line-up of speakers and panelists. There was also food and drink for all the attendees. Moreover, the city hosted the conference in Trinity College. Trinity is similar to many universities, operating on a lovely, yet isolated, setting. For as soon as you step outside college grounds, you're in the parts of Hartford where fighting the Drug War wasn't a matter of choice, but one of survival.

This is one of the communities that observers talk about when noting how communities experience the Drug War differently. I commend Cliff and all other organizers for holding the conference in the midst of the community, as well as making it affordable to people of all walks of life. That's not something I've seen very often at our drug reform movement's events and conferences.

Diversity: The conference presented a wonderful, winning combo of people with varied backgrounds in academia, public policy, treatment, and harm reduction. Also, I found it impressive that not only were members of the city and county governments present, but officials from the state and I believe federal levels as well. And, of course, the majority of the people attending were members of the Hartford community.

I commend all of the organizers of the conference for understanding the importance of uniting with the communities we're working with. That sounds like a statement that deserves a "duh" in response, but it's another rarity in drug reform activities. At such times, the preponderance of experts from academia, public policy, treatment, harm reduction ngos, etc. often make it seem as though our events and conferences are overflowing with bureaucratic "wonks," and so it was heartening to see something more real.

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