Telling them what we think

Lobbying Day in DC

By Mikki Norris, Human Rights and the Drug War (HR 95)

It felt like a freedom ride as we boarded the bus that took us to Capitol Hill. In fact people sang "We shall overcome" as we rode along, preparing to enter the offices of our lawmakers to demand a change in our nation's drug policies.

On the morning of May 12, about 50 drug policy reformers had convened in Bethesda, MD, for a training session on lobbying. Organized by the Drug Policy Foundation (DPF) to coincide with its annual conference, the session offered basic tools to help turn inexperienced, first-time advocates into effective reform lobbyists.

Scott Ehlers did a terrific job preparing a DPF Legislative Training Information Packet for each activist. It included a list of the do's and don'ts of lobbying, along with background information on the specific bills we were targeting. Ehlers and his co-sponsors, Rob Kampia and Chuck Thomas of Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) and Keith Stroup of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), outlined the legislation and gave helpful tips on how to approach legislators and their staff. Eric Sterling, of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, shared his insights based on a long personal history on the Hill. We ended with interactive role playing, and a critique to really get us primed for our afternoon appointments.

Thanks to a contribution from a generous donor, the citizen lobbyists were able to carry along copies of the powerful book, Shattered Lives: Portraits from America's Drug War, and left about 40 copies with congressional offices. This book unmasks the human cost of the Drug War, through lots of photos and stories of prisoners and their families. It shows the human face as it presents an overview of the prison/drug war industrial complex, leaving lawmakers with no excuse for supporting current policies.

Some of the bills we lobbied on were HR 1658, Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform, which requires the government to get a conviction before forfeiture and provides assistance to people to fight for their property rights if needed. (This bill recently passed and now awaits the Senate version to become law.) We spoke on behalf of HR 912, Medical Use of Marijuana Act, to move marijuana from Schedule I to Schedule II, so doctors can prescribe it in states that have approved its use by patients.

We also asked them to support and co-sponsor Rep. Maxine Waters' bill to repeal mandatory minimum sentences, and to move away from the prison model and towards a public health model for dealing with drug abuse. In particular, we asked them to stop incarcerating people for drugs and to find alternatives, because the Drug War is causing more harm than the drugs themselves. We gave them quite an earful. Many people lobbied on the above bills also, and for the Traffic Stops Statistics Act of 1999, HR 1443, SB 821, to do a study on racial profiling in police traffic stops. The Crack Cocaine Equitable Sentencing Act of 1999, HR 939, to end the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, was also a priority for some of our lobbyists.

There were a variety of other bills to lobby on, some good and some bad, and each person spoke with their representatives or the congressional aides on the topics they wanted to advance. Chris Conrad of the Family Council on Drug Awareness, Dale Gieringer of Cal NORML, and myself represented the California contingency. As a group we met with legislative assistants to both our Senators, Barbara Boxer and Diane Feinstein.

When Dale went to his appointment with Representatives Barbara Lee and Nancy Pelosi, Chris and I met with our congressman, Rep. George Miller. We were among the very few who got to actually speak with their Representative, rather than an aide. He understood the issues and has a pretty good voting record. We are happy to report that he basically agreed with all our positions. We spent about 20 minutes chatting and letting him know that his district was a "hotbed of activism for drug policy reform," with the Human Rights and the Drug War exhibit project based there. Chris and I had also been the statewide community action coordinators for the signature gathering effort for Prop. 215, the 1996 Medical Marijuana Initiative. He thanked us for those efforts, and we thanked him for co-sponsoring the Higher Education Act Reform, HR 1053, to restore financial aid eligibility for students convicted of a drug offense.

After all our scheduled visits, we dropped in unannounced on the offices of Reps. Maxine Waters, Barney Frank, and John Conyers to give them a copy of Shattered Lives and to thank them for their efforts in sponsoring legislation to restore justice to this country.
People were tired as they rode the bus to the hotel, but felt the day had gone very well. It felt good to let our lawmakers know what we think. For all of us, it was empowering, worthwhile and fun. As Chris Conrad expressed it, "Some policymakers were shocked to hear our position, others were delighted to hear it; but they all need to hear the reform message over and over again. This was just the beginning."

For more information on the Human Rights and the Drug War exhibit project, please contact:

Human Rights and the Drug War
PO Box 1716, El Cerrito, CA 94530