Sunday, December 09, 2007

Reflections on drug policy reform conference in NOLA

Thanks to Bill Piper from the Drug Policy Alliance for making a scholarship available so I could attend the International Drug Policy Reform conference in New Orleans this week. Though I took my laptop, I'm afraid once I got there I was in more of a socializing than a blogging mood. With the exception of a couple of the breakout sessions, for me anyway, the event was more of a networking opportunity and less informative than frankly I might have hoped. But then, DPA's greatest importance over the last few years, to my mind, has been less as a source of information than as a professional environment where different constituencies that support drug policy reform, for a variety for different reasons, backing a variety of different solutions, can all cross-pollinate, a point made by DPA's Ethan Nadelman (pictured at left with Graham Boyd of the national ACLU Drug Law Reform Project) in his opening address. There were quite a few Texans at the event, but with a single exception (Hi, Debbie!) I didn't see much of them.

Though it's been quite a few years since I've made the trek, I love the drive to New Orleans from Texas. After you get past Houston, even well before you get to the Sabine River marking the border with Louisiana, it's easy to forget how much water gushes down toward the Gulf of Mexico in the stretch of country between Harris County and Baton Rouge, where you finally cross the Mississippi. I took a book on CD - Bob Dylan's autobiography read by Sean Penn (a beautifully and vividly written piece of prose, but with disappointingly vapid content) - and enjoyed the scenic if uneventful drive by myself, about nine hours each direction.

Though I didn't do any blogging from N'awlins, Pete Guither over at Drug War Rant, with whom I was pleased to get to finally meet and shake hands after reading his online work for years, has been writing like a fiend from the event, publishing notes from darn near everything he attended, so I'd refer you to his coverage for a substantive overview of the conference. Here's a pic of Pete and his conference entries so far: Pete was one of the earliest and most prolific drug war bloggers who was already well established by the time I launched Grits, so it was great to to finally put a bushy, red-bearded face to the name, and actually learn how to correctly pronounce it (G-eye-ther). He was one of many folks I got to visit there who made the trip a fun, much needed diversion. I was especially pleased to get to spend time with my pals Katy Schwartzmann and especially Tory Pegram from the Lousiana ACLU affiliate (pictured at left), who made sure I got to visit a bit outside the French Quarter where the conference was held. As with Tory and Katy, I've got a lot of admiration for Nsombi Lambright, the E.D. of the Mississippi ACLU, pictured here with one of her staffers. Those three (among many others, of course - these are just folks who I got to catch up with while I was in NOLA) really stepped up after Hurricane Katrina to earn reputations as some of the most effective young civil liberties advocates in the South.

I was also pleased meet and visit with a local NOLA community activist, Norris Henderson, who appears to be doing important work with a group called Safe Streets, Strong Communities. Though this blog focuses on crime and punishment issues in Texas, you could spend a lifetime writing about what's wrong with the justice system in our neighbor to the East. Couple existing, well-documented jail and police problems with the mass destruction of records and evidence in the floodwaters, combined with the decline in tax base to support adequate police, prosecution and especially public defender services. Mix in a corruption-riddled state and local governments, spice with indifferent federal support, and you get an ill-flavored gumbo of a criminal justice system, only made nastier after the floodwalls broke. Hearing war stories from folks in NOLA about police misconduct and prison conditions reminded me that, despite Texas' reputation, there are quite a few states who would look just as bad underneath the intense daily spotlight I try to put on Texas' system. Louisiana, California, Illinois, Alabama, Georgia, Florida - many of the critiques of Texas justice could just as easily be made in other arenas, and Louisiana is a prime candidate.

I met several folks who I only ever knew online, including Jeannette Irwin who blogs over at the Drug Policy Alliance's D'Alliance blog (which has also been featuring updates from the conference, though less prolifically than Pete). David Borden of DRCNet (at right) is another fellow I got to meet in person whose web work I've read and linked to throughout Grits' three-year existence. His weekly compilation of drug-related law enforcement corruption frequently includes Texas cases that relate to topics covered on this blog. Loretta Nall from Alabama (pictured with yours truly at left) is somebody else I've been in contact with for several years online but had never met face to face.

Having just blogged about Jason Zeidenberg's latest research project from the Justice Policy Institute, it was good to run into him (pictured at left). He encouraged me to dig deeper into the data in JPI's latest report, declaring there were a lot more Texas-specfic goodies there for a student of drug policy.

It was great to see all these folks and many more at the conference, but part of the reason I'd prefer not to give a blow by blow is that some of what I heard was disheartening. As many people out there as are doing great work on drug policy, more than at any time in my adult lifetime, the movement still too often suffers from an odd tendency to embrace its fringe status rather than seriously try to change it. That's not universally true, by a longshot, and one of the reasons I have a lot of respect for DPA is that the group actually tries to win instead of reveling in a sense of moral superiority. They're out there trying to convince opponents and fence-sitters from across the ideological spectrum to support smarter, less expensive policies, a tactic that to me should be no-brainer. I often think that drug policy reformers frequently lose because they go into every battle assuming they'll lose, and more than a few of the folks I spoke to in New Orleans reinforced that sense.

Meanwhile, a lot of the professional class - public health officials, progressive DAs like Craig Watkins in Dallas, more than a few judges from both parties, and many from the defense bar - are pursuing ideas like drug courts and an array of other drug policy reforms. Those hands-on interests were underrepresented in a conference filled with breakout sessions on anti-racist organizing and drug policy reformers against the middle-east war. A disappointing breakout session on "snitching" treated as a great revelation that "snitch" is not a synonym for "witness," but offered no solutions to the problem, only complaints. How you could have such a panel without including any of the folks working on the issue from the Innocence Project angles who actually propose reforms to fix the problem is beyond me.

In any event, though I enjoyed visiting with a lot of folks and meeting some new people - I even enjoyed a few days' break from the blog - it was good to get home to see the missus and the dogs. Though I've enjoyed a few days respite, I'll get back into regular blogging habits, perhaps, beginning tomorrow.

UPDATE: See more on the conference from Thinking Outside the Cage, the Transform blog, and from Ethan Brown, whose new book "Snitch" I'll be reviewing on Grits soon. I'd hoped to get an interview with Ethan, but had an equipment malfunction then scheduling conflicts - his work was definitely the highlight of the panel on informant abuses, along with Regina Kelly who was a central victim of a mendacious informant in the scandal in Hearne, TX. I'm looking forward to reading Brown's new book.


Catonya said...

Welcome back! :)

Pamela Clifton and Christie Donner said...

I didn't know you were there, or I would have definitely looked for you!

RustyWhite said...


It was good to see you again, as was it great to see so many people standing up and refusing to support or accept this KNOWN FAILURE called the war on drugs!:)

Which " NEW " path we wind up taking has yet to be decided, " BUT " at least the forced and manipulated silencing of the truth IS NOLONGER ACCEPTABLE!:)

NONE who have the openness and heart to accept reality, truth, logic and common sense can continue to support this disgrace called the war on drugs!:)

We at nor I, have ever claimed to have all the answers. All we are asking for is an open and honest debate, one based on truth, facts, logic and common sense. " NOT " the usual unsupportable self serving agendas that have caused so much harm! We are more than willing to let the chips fall where they may, how come the supporters of this KNOWN FAILURE are afraid to do the same??:(

There Has To Be A Better Way!:)

Rusty White

Anonymous said...

Keep up the good work, Rusty!

I'm watching you now at,158.html

Deb said...

Yup. That's b/c I was matching you 1for1 as a social butterfly!

Great ARE the link king :)

Let's debrief in person soon over a beer or 2 (but no margaritas, thank you!)--was a LOT to digest. I came away with this incredible bug to reform the Travis DAs office; gonna need more of your sage input.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

I tell you, Debbie, the Travis DA is a lot more receptive to change than most of their big-city counterparts in TX (besides, recently, Dallas). But if Earle does retire, there will be an opportunity for changing how they do things, for good or ill, for sure, in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Hey Scott! I was so glad I got to meet you in NOLA. DPA's conferences are indeed a great place to put faces to names, and, maybe more importantly, make the acquaintance of people with whom I would never normally cross paths. I was so impressed with the variety and volume of new folks at the conference this year. We've definitely expanded our reach into the direct service, treatment, community activism and legal spheres.

Thanks for coming this year, and tracking me down at the booth! Let's definitely keep in touch!!!

Anonymous said...

We have estimated the economic impact of the conference on New Orleans at $1.4 million. Read the story here.