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Drug Conference Attendees See Bleak Picture

Smokin Moose

Fallen Cannabis Warrior
Most Policies Don't Work, Speakers Say

A man wearing a pot-leaf emblem sat next to a former judge, not far from a former cop, a short hop from a lawyer.

All were listening intently to the discussion, taking notes and sipping coffee.

Attendees at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference in the French Quarter this past week represented the whole spectrum of opinions: crime fighters and former inmates, legalization advocates and opponents, casual users and part-time abusers.

As the conference, which ended Saturday, dissected the country's drug culture, no topic or approach was taboo.

But as a succession of speakers discussed their roles in the nation's war on drugs, the consensus was clear: The war is being lost.

Michael Jones, a member of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, said that in his former job as a deputy police chief in Gainesville, Fla., he grew despondent as he watched an unending drug crackdown carousel.

"We were going to the same houses, arresting the same people, getting the same results," he said. "We cannot arrest our way out of the problem."

Modern-day policing, which relies heavily on statistics, was criticized by participants who decried a "quantity over quality" philosophy of arrests.

In a handful of sessions pegged to New Orleans' post-Katrina drug problems, speakers offered bleak assessments.

Nowhere are failed government policies more clearly on display than in Louisiana, where drug offenders are jailed at among the highest rates in the nation, speakers said. Treatment and rehabilitation options are limited, zero-tolerance tactics are fruitless and poverty is high, they said.

"The criminal justice system in New Orleans was always in a sad state of affairs, yet very good at making a high number of arrests," said Bruce Johnson of the National Development Research Institute.

Johnson and his institute colleagues are working on a study that analyzes the post-Katrina disintegration and subsequent re-formation of the city's drug markets, based on interviews with more than 100 drug users and sellers in New Orleans and Houston. He offered few hints on their findings, saying the study hasn't been published.

As academic types in tweed jackets, former law enforcement leaders and idealistic reformers shared their thoughts, ideas for drug policy reform ranged from "legalize it" to establishing better prevention systems.

The wide variety of topics led at times to rambling discourses. A panel on the New Orleans drug problem devolved into a discussion of medical marijuana policies in California and Washington.

"Harm reduction," race and sentencing guidelines were popular seminar subjects.

The objective of harm reduction is to mitigate the potential dangers and health risks associated with risky behaviors such as drug use. Ideas on needle exchanges, a lower drinking age and prevention programs were bandied about.

Ethan Brown, a New Orleans author and expert on the "stop snitching" culture, said mandatory minimum prison sentences for c*****e convictions play a huge part in the explosion of prison populations, as well as an "extraordinary antipathy toward police."

The minimums were mostly established in the late 1980s during the "hysteria of the c***k war," he said.

The conference attracted attendees from across the world, including a few locals. Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Calvin Johnson spoke on a panel dedicated to local drug issues while a representative from the district attorney's office sat in the audience.

It was unclear whether any members of the New Orleans Police Department were on hand. The department's Public Information Office did not return requests for comment.

Source: Times-Picayune, The (New Orleans, LA)
Copyright: 2007 The Times-Picayune
Contact: letters@timespicayune.com
Website: NOLA.com: Everything New Orleans
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