Tuesday, December 11, 2007

America, Intoxicated:

America, Intoxicated: Conference Tackles Disasters of
the Drug War
By Silja J.A. Talvi, AlterNet
Posted on December 11, 2007, Printed on December 11,

Kathryn Johnston paid the ultimate price in the name
of our country's perversely titled "war on drugs." She
wasn't a soldier, but she was most certainly another
innocent casualty on domestic soil.

It's quite likely that her murder would have gone with
little, if any, notice had it not been for the fact
that she was a 92-year-old black woman shot to death
when Atlanta narcotics officers burst through her door
using a "no-knock warrant." The officers had the wrong
house. When Johnston scrambled for an old gun stashed
in her house to try to save her life from people she
assumed were trying to rob or hurt her, she fired one
shot and missed. The plain clothed officers fired
back, over and over again. Johnston died in the blast
of gunfire, in which several officers were wounded in
what is euphemistically referred by the U.S. military
as "friendly fire."

Johnston's death at the hands of overzealous narcotics
officers shocked Atlanta and then made national
headlines when the officers involved were exposed for
having planted drugs in her house in an outrageous
attempt to try to cover up their deadly blunder.

Last month, on the anniversary of Johnston's death,
Atlanta Police Chief Richard Pennington proudly
announced that his department now had "the
best-trained narcotics unit in the Southeast," having
doubled its ranks and instituted new rules. No-knock
warrants were still acceptable but only if they were
"approved by a major" and if officers wore uniforms.

Akin to the expansion of the Atlanta narcotics unit in
the wake of a disgrace like this one, the drug war
keeps expanding its reach. As of year-end 2006, the
Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that
American jails and prisons held a record-breaking
2,258,983 men and women, and that one in 31 adults are
now under some form of correctional supervision.
Analysis of the report, released last week by The
Sentencing Project revealed that, since 1980, there
has been a 1,200 percent increase in the number of
people incarcerated for the possession or sale of
illicit substances, from 41,100 to at least 532,400
today. At nearly double the rate of men, the number of
women in prison has increased by 812 percent in that
same time period. In October, the Marijuana Policy
Project also reported that marijuana arrests exceeded
nearly 830,000 in the same year, resulting in one
pot-related arrest every 38 seconds.

What mainstream news coverage of the record-setting
incarceration rates existed all but faded within a few
days after the BJS report, but at the International
Drug Policy Reform Conference, held last week in New
Orleans, the numbers remained front-and-center.
Organized by the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), the
conference brought 1,200 participants together from
across the world to discuss the international ripple
effects of relentlessly aggressive drug policies.

AlterNet was honored with an Edward M. Brecher Award
for Achievement in the Field of Journalism for its
coverage on drug war policies in the United States and
other parts of the world. Accepting the award on
behalf of AlterNet was executive director Don Hazen,
who noted that individual, drug war-related stories
are attracting upwards of 100,000 readers.

Among dozens of other topics on the worldwide social
and economic repercussions of the drug war, panelists
addressed President Bush's latest proposed funding
package of $1.4 billion in drug war "aid" to Mexico,
now awaiting congressional approval. Panelists and
attendees arrived in New Orleans from across the
United States, the Netherlands, Poland, Columbia,
Bolivia, Argentina, Hungary, Brazil, Finland, Sweden
and the United Kingdom, but the gravity of police
abuse and corruption related to racism and the drug
war brought in local reformers as well. From needle
exchange to the bleak history of Louisiana's jails,
prisons and juvenile detention facilities,
participants emphasized that New Orleans, and the
state as a whole, has consistently grown more
regressive in policing and drug-related arrests of
low-income residents.

African-American residents have, by far, fared the
worst in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans. Evidence
of such is hardly anecdotal, backed by last week's
Justice Policy Institute (JPI) report, "The Vortex:
The Concentrated Racial Impact of Drug Imprisonment
and the Characteristics of Punitive Counties." JPI's
extensive research into regional drug use and arrest
disparities uncovered that Orleans County (in which
New Orleans is located) had the third-highest rate of
sentencing for drug offenses, followed closely by
Louisiana's Jefferson County. Respectively, the two
counties incarcerated African-Americans at four and
nine times the rate of Euro-Americans.

The local situation mirrors a disturbing, national
phenomenon that has resulted in nearly one million
black men and women doing time in American jails and
prisons. (African-American juveniles, and youth of
color in general, are also heavily overrepresented in
detention facilities.) Because many states do not
report the number of Native Americans, Alaska Natives,
Asian/Pacific Islanders -- and many others assign
incorrect ethnicities to Latinos and Native Americans
in particular, national figures are difficult to
ascertain. (Of the states that do keep these
statistics, Alaska, South Dakota, Montana and
Washington are known to lock up Native Americans at up
to four times their demographic representation,
largely on drug-related sentences.)

Although the disproportionate incarceration of
African-Americans and other people of color has long
since been a matter of grave consequence, previous DPA
conferences have been noticeably devoid of significant
participation by both former prisoners, low-income
community members and people of color, something that
the organization has worked diligently to remedy
through collaborative outreach campaigns. The efforts
appeared to have made a significant difference in both
attendance and the presentation of workshops and
large-scale plenaries, including "Black America: The
Debate Within," which centered on the absence of most
civil rights leaders organizations in the pursuit of
meaningful criminal justice reform.

"If [mainstream civil rights organizations] were to
come here, they would see what's possible and what
kind of constituents they truly have. There is such
tremendous energy, drive and passion here," said DPA
Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann at the close of the
conference. "People feel the suffering in their
communities, and they recognize that drug policy
reform is one of the key ways to go about changing
what they are seeing and experiencing."

Silja J.A. Talvi is an investigative journalist and
the author of Women Behind Bars: The Crisis of Women
in the U.S. Prison System (Seal Press: 2007). Her work
has already appeared in many book anthologies,
including It's So You (Seal Press, 2007), Prison
Nation (Routledge: 2005), Prison Profiteers (The New
Press: 2008) and Body Outlaws (Seal Press: 2004). She
is a senior editor at In These Times.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights

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