Know Your Heroes: Nora Callahan Of Drug War Prisoner Rights Group The November Coalition (TNC)

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PHOTO: Diane Fornbacher/Ladybud Magazine

The November Coalition (TNC), a charitable nonprofit education foundation that has worked to end drug war injustice since 1997. The following is a speech that TNC’s Executive Director Nora Callahan delivered in June of that same year at the First International Drug Peace Day Rally in San Francisco, California. It is as important as ever to heed her messages about ending the War on Drugs, reeling in the prison industry, and seeing our people as humans not margins of profit. 

Good afternoon. There is an anguished cry – a cry of sorrow and despair that screams across this nation – but no one can hear it. These cries of sorrow are coming from behind the walls and wire, then dissipate in corn fields and far off hillsides where our federal government is hiding the prisons! We are a country at war! I am here today to give voice to those cries and bring you a message from the prisoners of war in America.

The war on drugs is a hoax. It is a fraud inflicted on the American people. It is based on lies, deception, hypocrisy and propaganda. It is not about making America drug free. It is not a war against crime. It is a war against our freedom! It squanders precious resources and tax dollars while it fans flames of crime, corruption and violence. America is burning and our government is providing the fuel.

Nora and ZeKe

Nora and good friend Kevin Zeese, Co-director of It’s Our Economy as well as former Executive Director of Common Sense for Drug Policy and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) speaking at the Seattle Hempfest in the late 90’s.

For more than thirty years now we have been duped into pouring hundreds of billions of dollars down a dark crevasse that has fractured our society. There have been the arrests of over ten million citizens from all walks of life. Over ten million! This has destroyed millions of families and still the war goes on and on.

Homes and property have been seized without due process. In conventional war, this is called “disarming the enemy.” In the war on drugs, citizen property is seized through a practice called asset forfeiture. It is theft, plain and simple, for in most cases of asset forfeiture a criminal indictment is never made!

We now have millions of non-violent drug law violators behind bars or on supervised release. Millions. We have become the world’s leading jailer becoming what most despised about Soviet Russia during the Cold War. We pressure the countries of the world to adopt out failed policy or else.

Many of our federal prisons are holding twice their capacity. Our federal government alone operates 132 prisons and camps. Fifteen are under construction now with twelve more on the drawing board. When these are open, they will need 50 more, and then 70, and 90 after that . In effect, our federal government alone must build an 832 bed facility every two weeks just to keep up with the punishment of non-violent crime!

The cost in dollars is staggering, the cost in lives is immeasurable.

Prison in America is not a place of rehabilitation. It is a place of violence, humiliation, despair, and deprivation. All of this in the name of justice? All of this human destruction in a futile war against substances.

Inhuman lengths of incarceration have done nothing to stem the flow of drugs. A recent study proved that it only increases it. Yet we continue to build prisons instead of building schools.

Right now here in California you have five prisons under construction that will cost you more than 200 million dollars each – just to build! After construction the cost of warehousing one non-violent drug law violator will consume the entire tax bill of four families.

Can you afford this war? What are you getting for your money besides destruction? What must the rest of the world think when they see a country more committed to building prisons than building schools – where prison guards are paid more than teachers?

It is said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. We have tried this before. Alcohol prohibition was a disaster just as drug prohibition is now. Making criminals of consenting adults has always brought grief and damaged the delicate weave of social fabric.


Nora Callahan addresses the graduate class on Social Policy Western Michigan University at Kalamazoo/PHOTO: November Coalition

Recently our president promised Mexico that he would insure America’s appetite for drugs would be curbed. Who does he think he is kidding? We cannot curb it until we address it. A question we have failed to ask is not whether America has a drug problem, but why? Furthermore, a fundamental question that must be asked is not what you think of drugs and drug use – but do you want a Bill of Rights or not?

The stain of repression in the name of the War on Drugs is spreading like bad dye into the fabric of all our lives. It has tarnished our government as well. We no longer have a system of checks and balances within our distinct branches of government. Judicial, executive and legislative branches have merged to speak with one voice – and that voice is irrational!

We of the November Coalition are neither for or against drug use. We do support the right of the individual to make personal choices. Laws are futile and become oppressive when they place controls on consensual activity – especially when millions and millions of Americans are involved.

unheard voices

Nora with husband Chuck Armsbury. They’ve fought against the inhumane drug war for decades.

We must call for an immediate end to the hollow slogans, such as “No Use and “Zero Tolerance” – messages our government brings. Realistic education must be given to our children. We must offer drug treatment as opposed to incarceration. We must demand the immediate release of all non-violent drug law violators from our nation’s jails and prisons!

Students you must become active in opposing this war! This is your Vietnam, and you hold the keys of freedom. Parents, it could be your children next. In fifty years, if we keep this up – half of this country will be behind bars. This War on Drugs is another no-win war and it is time to stop it.