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November 16, 2007 - DrugSense Weekly (DSW)

Connecting With The Congregation

By Mary Jane Borden

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Sometimes we have choices. We can stay in our groove and speak to the choir, or we can step outside of our comfort zone and interact with the congregation. Drug policy reform conferences, while interesting and energizing, often involve the same people in similar places and under common circumstances. More rarely do we converse with those whose ideas and attitudes are uncommon to us. I recently had such an opportunity in Pittsburgh where former police officer Tim Datig and I represented Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) at the annual ICMA conference.

Pittsburgh is like going home. I grew up in the Ohio River Valley, where Pittsburgh embodied the allure of the big city. The last time I was there, Led Zeppelin rocked Three Rivers Stadium with tunes from their Houses of the Holy tour. The group and the stadium are now things of the past much like Pittsburgh's rust belt decay. The city underwent revitalization, replacing crumbled steel mills with Heinz Field, PNC Park, and the glistening David L. Lawrence Convention Center that lines one block near the Allegheny River with glass. Any group that can utilize the entire Center for its annual conference must be huge. Such a group is the International City/County Managers Association (ICMA).

The ICMA is the trade group for local government managers, employees, academics, students, and others with interests, affiliations, or business relationships with these locales. It maintains a diverse membership -- 8,000 worldwide -- and a $27,000,000 annual budget. Of this budget, quite likely $1.5 million was devoted to this conference alone.* Rumor had it that there were more than 4,000 in attendance, staying at 14 hotels across the city. Four exclusive bus lines ran to and from each of these hotels every half hour for all days of the conference. It is that big.

The conference indeed occupied the entire Convention Center. Imagine your local big box store. It's the approximate size of Exhibit Hall A. The hall contained not only seven aisles aligned with 150 booths, but also 12 glass-enclosed mini lecture halls. Exhibitors hailed from a myriad of organizations from Keep America Beautiful to Waste Management. From Black Box to Bobcat. Government was there, too, via the U.S. Census Bureau, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and the U.S. Department of Justice.

LEAP required me to keep tick marks for each person I spoke with: Agree, Undecided, or Disagree. My undercounted tallies equalled: Day 1 (13 agree, 4 undecided, 1 disagree); Day 2 (38 agree, 7 undecided, 4 disagree); and Day 3 (16 agree, 6 undecided). Of the three-day total of 89 people, more than 75% agreed with LEAP's position about drugs: policies should reduce the harms that result from fighting the War on Drugs with the ultimate goal of ending drug prohibition.

Some of the more colorful attendees included:

* The Greetless Greeter. Beginning at the far end of our aisle, a woman sauntered left to right, booth to booth, greeting each one as she passed. Good morning sir, good morning ma'am, that is, until she reached us. Silence. Then onto the next booth. Good morning sir, good morning ma'am.

* The Chemical Bigot. I have found the Chemical Bigotry poster child. A muscular 30-something introduced himself as a veteran of DEA anti- drug missions in Colombia. He just wanted to find out what we were about, he said, while declaring that, if a drugged up pinhead harmed his family, he would kill him. He went on to assert support for the death penalty, suggesting that users should be executed because drugs are against the law. When soft spoken, yet assertive ex-police officer Tim injected reason into the argument, the drug warrior retreated to a libertarian, you-can't-legislate-against-everything viewpoint, only to return to name calling and bullying. Finally, I apologetically replied, "With all due respect, sir, [and reiterating my respect] you are a bigot." He bristled. "I am NOT! Bigots are racists." Calmly, Tim piped in again, "Bigotry involves more than race." Slipping my Ohio Patient Network business card in the warrior's shirt pocket, I told him to read my Chemical Bigotry essay ( The warrior quipped as he ambled away, "We'll have to agree to disagree. You agree that if a druggie hurts my kid, I'm going to kill him, right?"

* The Nutty Professor. When I asked a matronly chemistry professor if she thought the War on Drugs was working, she replied, "No. It's evident in medical students. They're only there to get drugs." "What?" I queried, "I find that hard to believe. Medical school is rigorous and you as a teacher must demand much of your students." "No," she responded, "they know how to game the system." Reflecting her observation, let's see: med students work untold hours to learn a mountain of minutia at a price tag of over $100,000 just to get drugs. Yeah, right.

* The Gateway Theorist. One of the most confusing drug-related conjectures belongs to the Gateway Theory: marijuana inevitably leads to hard drugs. I could see this written on the face of one gentleman as he wavered in his support for decriminalization. Postulating back to him I replied, "Something like 100 million Americans have tried marijuana, yet the number of hard drug users consistently remains around 2 million. Wouldn't you expect many more hard drug users if marijuana were indeed a gateway?" As he processed this query, I could see this logical-thinking public servant transform into an advocate.

* Garden Geometry. A slightly disabled California woman claimed to agree with medical marijuana in concept, but felt that garden sizes were way out of control, indicating to her that cannabis in California is less about medicine than recreation. In response, I pointed to the five legal Compassionate IND patients who receive a tin of 300 marijuana cigarettes each month from the federal government. I explained how the monthly use of just one of them might equate to a 10' x 10' garden with a four-foot canopy. Extrapolating that size to tens if not hundreds of patients multiplies the grow size proportionately. Computing this concept, she appeared to walk away with a change of heart toward the garden dimensions necessary to maintain an adequate patient supply.

Other memorable characters included young woman who briskly parted the crowd, making a beeline toward our booth to tell us about the thesis concerning the drug war she wrote for her Masters in Public Policy. A Southern Ohio township administrator dashed through taking a sample of every brochure we had. We made sure he left with his hands full. Two enlightened Japanese cops, a city manager from Dublin, Ireland, and an academic from Ontario illustrated the international scope of the ICMA and worldwide appreciation for viable drug policy alternatives. Several of the wait staff eagerly digested LEAP information, dismayed that few reform groups seem to exist in the Pittsburgh area. We made sure they visited MAPInc to find or even begin a local group ( A number of attendees specifically took information for their police chiefs and prosecutors.

Conferences like ICMA's bring together a wide variety of individuals, few of whom are drug policy wonks. Despite how we're sometimes treated by the greetless, the bigots, or the downright nutty, the congregation in reality contains fewer disbelievers than we perceive. Instead - and perhaps the most hearting aspect of the ICMA conference - - many, many people stopped by just to show their support and to simply thank LEAP for being there.

Participating with LEAP at the ICMA conference gave me the opportunity to step out of my own comfort zone and speak with scores of people for whom our drug policy reform ideas are uncommon. I clarified inconsistencies, challenged preconceived notions, and, in so doing, believe I changed minds and hearts by personally connecting with the congregation, one ICMA member at a time.

Mary Jane Borden is a writer, artist, and activist in drug policy from Westerville, Ohio. She serves as Business Manager/Fundraising Specialist for DrugSense.

(*) Estimate from the ICMA FY 2007 Year End Financial Results, Annual Business Meeting booklet.

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