Drug Policy Reform Advocates Speak, Change Hearts in West Michigan

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Last week Thursday, I had the immense pleasure of hearing two inspirational world-changers speak at a local venue in my hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Major Neill Franklin (Ret.), the Executive Director for Law Enforcement Against Prohibition and Ethan Nadelmann from the Drug Policy Alliance spoke to a full house at the Wealthy Street Theatre about the War on Drugs and how prohibition policies are damaging our nation.

Ethan Nadelmann and Neill Franklin on the marquee at the Wealthy Theatre

The event was structured as an informal interview followed by a question and answer segment with the audience members. The event was hosted by Michigan State Representative Jeff Irwin, who announced at this year’s Hash Bash that he will be introducing legislation to legalize cannabis in Michigan in the near future. Sponsors included Well House, a local harm reduction/homeless advocacy organization, the Red Project (another harm reduction organization with a focus on reducing HIV infection among intravenous drug users), several local businesses and State Representative Brandon Dillon, among others.

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Neill Franklin
Photo: D.Fornbacher/Ladybud Magazine

Hearing Franklin and Nadelmann speak was both inspiring and heart-breaking. Franklin spoke about his years of service to Baltimore with a slight tinge of sorrow in his voice. Toward the end of the evening, he spoke specifically about how difficult it can be for officers who are devoted to making their communities a better place to realize and accept that enforcing drug prohibition often has the opposite effect on communities. It can be difficult for those who fight for drug policy reform to remember that not all police officers take joy in arresting people for non-violent crimes; hearing the impassioned words of a former law enforcement official surely reminded many present that police officers can also be a force for positive change in our culture.

A woman behind me audibly gasped when Major Franklin spoke about the death of a mother of seven and all her children in an arson-related house fire because she was working as a police informant. He also spoke about the problems within police culture, about the militarization of police and how that was in large part driven by the war on drugs. Franklin talked about how “…we ended up with the 1033 program, and it was Christmas for every police department, no matter what size.” Franklin highlighted how this is problematic for everyone, in no small part because of the military veterans, coming back from combat and taking jobs in law enforcement. “We have veterans coming home with PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). We are recruiting veterans, untreated, into departments that look like the military.” In other words, these officers are viewing the citizens they are meant to serve as enemy combatants, a dangerous mindset for people armed with semi-automatic weapons and near-complete legal impunity.

Nadelmann focused more on policy and less on personal experience, as that is his area of expertise. He spoke about the origins of prohibition, how deeply rooted in racism these policies truly are, and how our culture embraces certain ideas without thinking them fully through, addressing the “layers upon layers upon layers of misunderstanding and confusion” in our nation’s rhetoric about drugs that lead people to demonize drug users and accept the criminalization of what is truly a public health issue. He also spoke, quite passionately, about how the United States’ War on Drugs spread to other countries, and how many of those nations are watching us now as we end cannabis prohibition state by state, desperately waiting for the day they too can embrace better policies about drugs.

One of the most powerful points addressed by both speakers was the fact that the War on Drugs is actually a war on American citizens, a war on drug users. This fact, combined with the innate unwinnable nature of the War on Drugs, results in a toxic culture in law enforcement and a mistrust between citizens, policy makers and those expected to enforce policy (the police). While many in the audience were those already involved in efforts to reform state and local laws or those who work with harm reduction groups, I am sure some people  had their ideas about the War on Drugs completely changed by Nadelmann and Franklin, and I hope that many, many more people will hear these anti-prohibition activists’ message in the coming years, as our national slowly moves closer to rational drug policies.