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What's drugs got to do with it

On May 14, two of the nation's leading experts on the War on Drugs will be visiting Wealthy Theatre for a free event to help our community have a conversation about the effects of the current drug policy- and how we can change it.

/Courtesy of Well House

Underwriting support from:

Well House and Grand Rapids Red Project are hosting "An Intimate Interview with Ethan Nadelmann and Neil Franklin" at Wealthy Theater on the evening of May 14. This event, free and open to the public so everyone in the city can be part of the conversation, will bring Nadelmann and Franklin, top leading drug policy experts, to our city.

But why does our city need to have a conversation about drug policy?

If you peruse the website of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) you will come across an interesting history of the drug war. For over over 100 years in this country anti drug laws have been used to keep a race of people down. Whether it was the anti-opium laws of the 1870s targeting Chinese immigrants or the early 1900s anti-cocaine laws in the South directed at black men, laws regulating drugs only end up controlling a limited group of citizens.

The current “War on Drugs” that we experience today was launched by President Nixon in 1971 and expanded drastically in the 80s under the Reagan administration. Drug hysteria increased during the 80s and 90s, which perpetuated reactionary methods of countering it. Over the last 44 years, policies have been implemented nationwide to combat drug use and sales. These countermeasures have not impeded nationwide drug use. What they have done is militarize police departments across the country and brought about an exponential growth in the U.S. prison population.

The DPA says annually on average there are 40,000 para-military style police raids across the country, many of them targeting at non-violent drug offenders. According to the US Department of Justice, there are 208,859 inmates incarcerated in Federal penitentiaries. Out of that number, 51 percent are there for drug violations. The Michigan Department of Corrections has a total of 43,704 inmates incarcerated in State prisons. Thirty percent of that total number are there because of drug offenses. Even with these unsettling statistics, our country is still resisting the shift of funding towards a health based approach to control drug use.

The City of Grand Rapids has adopted measures, such as a successful needle exchange and marijuana decriminalization, which address drug use in a more sensible way. This doesn’t mean that we do not have further to go. It is important to continue the community dialogue in order to find good solutions to drug control in this city. 

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. He has been described by Rolling Stone as "the point man" for drug policy reform efforts. He is widely known in the US and abroad as an outstanding proponent of drug policy reform. Nadelmann describes the "War on Drugs" as an utter failure.

“It’s America’s longest war, having persisted- in utter failure- for over 40 years. It has cost U.S. taxpayers over $1 trillion dollars; resulted in the arrests of tens of millions and the incarceration of many millions for non-violent drug law violations; driven the spread of HIV, hepatitis and other diseases; diverted law enforcement institutions from focusing on more harmful sorts of crimes; disproportionately targeted and hurt African Americans as well as other ethnic and racial minorities; undermined effective drug education; damaged foreign countries and our relations with them; and accomplished remarkably little in terms of preventing or reducing drug misuse in our society,” he says. 

In contrast, Nadelmann says that legalizing marijuana could improve state economic environments, including in Michigan.

“Legalizing marijuana in Michigan in a responsible way will save tens of millions of dollars in law enforcement expenditures, generate tens of thousands of new, legal jobs and bring in initially tens and ultimately hundreds of millions of dollars annually in tax revenue,” he says.

Major Neill Franklin’s distinguished 33-year career in law enforcement showed him how the “War on Drugs” endangered police officers and affected the community. He has operated as an undercover narcotics officer and head trainer for drug enforcement for the Maryland State Police, and was recruited by the Baltimore Police Department to reorganize its education and training division. Franklin is currently the Executive Director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP).

“There is no doubt that the "War on Drugs" has greatly strained the relationship between the police and the community, mainly communities of color and the poor. The citizens in these communities see the police as occupiers of their neighborhoods. They feel that their number one priority is to search people and homes for drugs," explains Franklin. "Even the police believe that most of their tasks revolve around finding drugs and those who use and sell them. Preventing and solving violent crime is no longer the demonstrated priority. Illegal searches and civil asset forfeiture have become the business of the day. Racial profiling sits squarely upon the 'Drug War' foundation. Police corruption (drug dealing, robbing drug dealers, planting evidence and protecting certain drug dealers) disrupts the relationship even more. I also believe that all of this leads to disrespect on both ends, ending with acts of police misconduct, citizen resistance and police brutality.”

Franklin says Grand Rapids residents could work with the local government in order to minimize arrest rates of petty drug crimes in the city by utilizing the Law Enformcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.

“Some other cities across the country have adopted the LEAD program. This is a program that addresses all forms of low-level drug possession and dealing for all drugs. When the police come in contact with someone in violation of one of these low-level drug laws, they are referred into a voluntary drug treatment program with wraparound services. The arrest paperwork is completed, but held back from formal processing as long as the arrestee enters the program. If they satisfy the requirements of the program, no arrest is recorded. The LEAD program is now accepting those addicted without police referrals," he says. "Residents should educate their representatives of the LEAD program currently up and running in Seattle, Wash. and Santa Fe, N.M.”

The Grand Rapids Red Project operates the syringe exchange program called Clean Works in the city. The program proactively addresses several health factors related to drug use. They have had a hand in significantly reducing the percentage of HIV infections from intravenous drug use and preventing overdose deaths in Kent County.

The Executive Director of the Red Project, Steve Alsum, says his organization chose to be part of bringing Franklin and Nadelmann to Grand Rapids.

Red Project addresses community health issues, many of them related to drug use and our drug policies," says Alsum. "In order to address a community issue, we need the community involved. We hope that inviting these two internationally renowned speakers to Grand Rapids will raise the profile of some of the issues we are dealing with in our community, so that we can encourage and achieve real, meaningful and lasting change, for the good of the people we serve, their friends and families”.

Well House is an organization that practices a Housing First model in order to provide a home and stability to those residents who are in need in Grand Rapids. Tami VandenBerg, Executive Director of Well House, says drug policies are in integral part of their work in solving homelessness. 

“At Well House, we not only want to get people off the street and into safe, permanent housing, we want to look at root causes and address policy issues that are leading to people becoming homeless and unnecessarily keeping them out of safe housing," she says. "Our drug policies have helped to create a group of second-class citizens that are primarily from very poor and/or minority communities. Our neighbors who end up with nonviolent drug felonies, often simple possession, are then locked out of most employment and housing opportunities- ensuring they stay in poverty and/or must locate work in the black market.”

During the DecriminalizeGR campaign, several city residents never could understand how the “War on Drugs” affected them. Many would say that they did not know anyone who used drugs.

But the truth is that every GR resident is feeling the effects of this failed war-whether they realize it or not.

It is important for us as a community to look at the resources being wasted because of current policies. That is why this conversation is so important and everyone is encouraged to attend. The event starts at 5:30 p.m., May 14 at Wealthy Theater. This event has been made possible thanks to many local organizations and individuals who want to see drug policy reform in West Michigan.

Disclosure: Michael Tuffelmire is one of the main organizers of the event, "An Intimate Interview with Ethan Nadelmann and Neil Franklin"

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