Together we can do so much

By Kevin Zeese, President of Common Sense for Drug Policy

Copies of the enclosed picture came across my desk just as the last century was ending. It came at a time of reflection, when I was reading books on other social justice movements for the rights of blacks, women and gays. It also came when the media was discussing the last century.

Looking at this photograph of the Alliance of Reform Organizations with Governor Gary Johnson reminded me of Helen Keller's comment: "Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much." We face an important and difficult challenge: getting America to recognize the importance of developing a drug policy that does not rely on force but is consistent with individual rights, limited government, public health and personal responsibility.

Other social justice movements illustrate the slow pace of change is often disheartening for those in the midst of it. Only when change is looked at in a historical context does it seem like the march toward justice was inevitable and rapid. Perhaps the Internet and other forms of modern communication will speed change. When you have a vision of a world where people are treated as equals, where drug use does not exclude a person from the social contract, and where people are given the basic dignity all deserve, it is hard to accept another day of prohibition, discrimination and abuses caused by the present approach.

The death of Rufus King during this time added to my reflection. Rufus was the old war horse of reform. He wanted reform now. Often the frustration he exhibited with the pace of reform was something I imagine abolitionists felt in the 1840s when, after decades of abolitionist agitation, the Fugitive Slave Act became law allowing the return of slaves with virtually no due process and no court review. I do not want to end my career with the drug war still flourishing. I hope you will join me in committing to an increased effort to repeal drug prohibition early in the 21st Century.

In reviewing the 20th Century, Anthony Lewis wrote in The New York Times that "The great enemy of reason in this century has been political utopianism." Attempts at achieving utopia have meant sacrificing individuality to fit the utopian view of whoever was in power. He noted how the advances of the last 1,000 years have been in science because it relies on the scientific method where theories need to be proved, facts understood and progress built on those lessons. Unfortunately that approach is rarely applied to public policy.

The parallels to drug prohibition are evident. Prohibition is a utopian policy - the stated goal of a drug free society has never been achieved, and if it were achieved it would not be the utopia prohibitionists imagine. Rather than adopting a scientific method, we seem to have adopted an antiscientific method. Drug prohibition enforced by drug war is aggressively pursued. When it fails, rather than considering that drug prohibition may be unworkable, our society puts more money into the drug war, grants more power to the police and undermines public health and safety.

In the end, people will face up to the failure and damage of current policy and change will come. History shows reason is persistent. It challenges myths, discourages the dark, negative impulses humans harbor within them. We need to keep putting forth facts and reason to challenge the myths and fear on which advocates of prohibition base their campaign.

The last century was freedom vs. totalitarianism. Freedom seems to have won the century, but totalitarianism had its costs - more than 100 million people were killed in the name of ideology (and battles around this conflict continue). Franklin Roosevelt, a key player in this conflict, ended alcohol prohibition as one of his first acts as President. However, even countries at freedom's forefront have blood on their hands over the century and continue to have institutionalized inequities. The war on drugs fits this history and remains one of the unfinished battles of the conflict between freedom and totalitarianism - how basic a freedom is being denied when people are told what they can put in their body and for what effect on their consciousness.

Early in my reform career the Reagan era dawned and intolerance for people who used drugs increased, harsh laws were passed on the premise that intimidation by government power would result in submission to force. But the poet line "Do not go silently into that dark night" seemed to be the theme of a small band of reformers. We supported people incarcerated, medical marijuana patients when they said no and were prosecuted, AIDS prevention activists who ignored laws that allowed the spread of deadly epidemics and joined others from various walks of life who publicly said: Prohibition cannot work and makes matters worse. People said no - they would not go into that dark night - they would not succumb to the negative impulses of the human psyche enshrined in harsh drug war laws, they would do what was right regardless of government intimidation.

In those early years of the revitalized Reagan drug war, reformers were a very small group. Slowly a national network of reformers, of people who care about this issue developed. Now there are many capable people who improve each other's work and give great hope that reform can be achieved. My overarching goal of the next year is to find ways for us to work together more closely and effectively.

I am sure you can add to this list, but the things that I think are needed for us to succeed are:
· ardent confidence in the need to end drug prohibition; · education of our fellow beings with the facts that debunk the prohibitionist myths; · agitation to highlight the unfairness and injustice of current policy; · organization so that we get the most out of every opportunity and our limited resources · making room at the reform table for new reformers even if it means our role is diminished; · supporting our political friends and showing our foes that standing for unjust, unworkable policies has a political cost; and · as Winston Churchill said a commitment to "never give up, never, never give up."