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May 12, 2006 - Drug War Chronicle (US)

Feature: DEA Montreal Confab Greeted by Counter-Conference

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The US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and its law enforcement buddies from across the hemisphere met in Montreal this week for the agency's annual International Drug Enforcement Conference. But for the first time, the annual narc convention was met by organized opposition as an ad hoc coalition of Canadian and US drug reform groups countered the DEA with produced two days of events in Montreal and Ottawa, the Canadian national capital.

The "Can We Talk? International Drug Enforcement Counter-Symposium" was organized by the Alliance of Canadian Reform Organizations, the criminology department at the University of Ottawa, NORML-Canada, the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, Students for Sensible Drug Policy and Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. It brought a variety of law enforcement, judicial, and academic, and elected critics of the drug war to Montreal to ensure that messages emanating from the DEA conference did not go unchallenged.

Among those addressing audiences in Montreal on Monday and at the University of Ottawa on Tuesday were Argentine Judge Martin Vazquez Acuna, Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP) Member of Parliament Libby Davies, and British Columbia Provincial Court Judge Jerry Paradis, along with LEAP members former police Chief Jerry Cameron and Terry Nelson, a former Border Patrol and Department of Homeland Security counter-narcotics officer. Also speaking were attorneys Eugene Oscapella, executive director of the Canadian Foundation for Drug Policy and Kirk Tousaw, acting director of the BC Civil Liberties Association Drug Policy Project.

"This is the first time the DEA's drug enforcement conference has come to Montreal," said counter-conference coordinator Boris St.-Maurice of Canada NORML. "It is also the first time retired judges and police officers have challenged them by speaking out against the insane drug wars," he said.

The LEAP members made particularly effective speakers. "The only thing we're accomplishing is filling our jails because we're not keeping the drugs off the street," former Border Patrol officer Terry Nelson told the conference. "The war on drugs is not working. It's broken and it needs to be fixed." The solution is to tax and regulate drugs, Nelson said.

"After 40 years of failure, it's obvious it's time to try something new in the US, and Canada certainly doesn't want to follow the path of failure -- that's what I told them," said LEAP member and former Fernandina Beach, Florida, Police Chief Jerry Cameron. "My comments were very well received. I didn't realize Canadians were as concerned about their sovereignty as they are," he told DRCNet.

"We represent the establishment -- that's what makes us important," said Cameron. "Unfortunately, for the past 50 years the law enforcement establishment has totally misrepresented the drug problem to the public. When I think about the trillion dollars spent fighting the drug trade since 1970, fighting a war that cannot be won, I just have to wonder what would have happened if just a fraction of that money had been put into education and intervention."

But the events in Montreal and Ottawa were about more than hearing himself and the others talk, Cameron said. "I gave a class at the University of Ottawa, and I met with associates of the minister of justice and with a couple of members of parliament. This is about networking, and we have met a large community of people who really believe we need to change our drug policies. We're building the connections," Cameron said.

"We worked with Boris to promote the event in the student community and got students from a variety of schools to attend the meetings and come meet the dignitaries," said Eric Rumi, head of the McGill University chapter of SSDP Canada. "We also organized a student breakfast with the dignitaries Tuesday morning, and we had students and faculty there from colleges in Ontario and Quebec, as well as from Franklin Pierce College in New Hampshire," he told DRCNet. "This has been phenomenal. There are several initiatives that are going to grow out of this, and I'm sorry I can't tell you any more just now, but this has provoked a lot of talk about social justice. The students learned a tremendous amount from the dignitaries. We were bouncing ideas off them as fast as we could."

Canada SSDP is just getting off the ground, Rumi said. "We're setting up chapters at McGill, Concordia, the University of Ottawa, and Queen's University in Kingston," he said. "What we will be doing here is different from the States. We don't have to worry about getting kicked off-campus for a joint or losing our financial aid, so we can concentrate on different issues. We'll be looking at promoting human rights and harm reduction on campus, and we are also working with American SSDP chapters to integrate drug war issues with other student organizations, like Amnesty International chapters or campus AIDS organizations. For us as Canadians, we see the drug war more as a social justice issue than as a civil liberties drug culture kind of thing."

"This turned out to be a very good event," said St.-Maurice. "There was lots of media interest, and the public came out, too. The timing couldn't have been better. Not only did we attract attention to the DEA conference, but with our new government here in Canada it was also important to be able to get the anti-prohibitionist message out now. Having a bunch of high-caliber anti-prohibitionist judges and police is very powerful, and I hope it will help us hold back the repressive tide."

The event was a bit of a mind-blower for some Canadian pot people, St.-Maurice said. "For a few of the people who came to this, to see judges and politicians and police talking about the hard drug issue was a real eye-opener. It made people think twice, and that's fine, because we want to use this to begin building a national anti-prohibition network."

While the counter-conference's expressed goal of "opening a dialog with the DEA" seems chimerical, the event did manage to garner plenty of press attention and public support. "Our LEAP members have been on national talk radio and television, on the CBC, on the BBC," said LEAP speakers' bureau coordinator Mike Smithson. "On the CBC, they juxtaposed interviews with Jerry Cameron and DEA head Karen Tandy. I got calls from producers in Calgary, Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto," he told DRCNet. "The Canadian media is very interested, and it's very interested in balancing its stories, something the American press has shown very little interest in."

The Canadian press dutifully filed stories from the DEA conference, reporting that methamphetamine is scary indeed, but that marijuana remains the number one global drug problem. But this time around, opposing views made it into the media, and the DEA has been put on notice that it can expect no more free rides at its annual dog and pony shows.

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