Drug War forum organizers looking ahead, not happy about officials' absence
by David Crowder
Posted on September 23, 2009
Encouraged by the turn out of experts and the public at this week’s El Paso drug conference, organizers hope to see it replicated elsewhere and want to keep the momentum going locally with a series of mini-conferences around the city.
Organizers also said they were disappointed, though not surprised by the lack of federal and state officials, including members of the El Paso legislative delegation, at the conference.
“Conferences like this need to happen in other cities, and when they do, it’s really important for their elected representatives to be there,” said UTEP sociology Professor Kathleen Staudt, one of the events lead organizers.
She said invitations were sent months ago to various federal and state officials, including the U.S. Senators for Texas and New Mexico, Gov. Rick Perry’s office and legislators. A few officials, including U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes and state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, sent representatives but none of them took part in any of the discussion.
El Paso city Rep. Beto O’Rourke, also a conference organizer, said the poor showing by agency and elected officials “wasn’t for a lack of trying.”
Sparked by the cartel war and killings in Juarez, the two-day conference and its speakers focused heavily on failures of the 40-year-long War on Drugs and drug policies in the United States, which have cost hundreds of billions of dollars and put millions of Americans behind bars.
The consensus at the conference seemed to be that new policies and laws need to move toward decriminalization or legalization of marijuana along with its regulation and strong education efforts.
“If you’re a national policymaker, there’s a good chance that you’ve thought about this and that laws should change, but you just don’t have the guts to put your job at risk by saying it publicly,” O’Rourke said. “If the national and state policymakers know it’s safe to talk about this in earnest, that will be a significant development.”
Locally, he said, he has seen the views of Reyes, Sheriff Richard Wiles and Mayor John Cook change since questions about U.S. drug policy were raised by City Council in January.
“That gives me a lot of hope for the affect a conference like this can have” he said.
National and state officials knew that’s where the discussion would be headed at the El Paso conference, which included forum in Juarez with the former mayor of Medellin, Colombia, that attracted 2,000 people.
O’Rourke said the idea of participating in a forum focusing critically on the War on Drugs so close to the front of the cartel war in Juarez was “too hot for DC to touch.”
Among the officials that the conference organizers invited who did not attend was Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who did attend the border security conference in El Paso in August.
His office’s spokesman, Darren Bricoe, said Kerlikowske and other officials are in the process of drafting a new national drug that will not address the War on Drugs when it comes out in January.
“One of the first things he did upon confirmation is say the ‘War on Drugs is over and the term has outlived its usefulness,” he said. “What we have had is a drug control policy focused on the criminal aspect.
Without abandoning that, Briscoe said, a major aspect of the new policy will be approaching drug use as a public health issue that will include treating drug addiction as a disease and increasing the emphasis on drug treatment and prevention.
Nor will that policy address legalization or decriminalization.
“Legalization is not in their vocabulary, and I can tell you not to expect any thing like that in their vocabulary,” Briscoe said.
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To reach David Crowder, write to firstname.lastname@example.org or call (915) 351-0605, ext. 30, or 630-6622.
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