Drug War Prisoners


The Second International Conference on Drug War Prisoners is set for March 20-21 at York University in Toronto. For people who did not know there was a First International Conference on Drug War Prisoners, or the reason for a second, some notes may be in order.

The setting for the first conference was an arts center in Heidelberg. In 1996, the European Society for the Study of Consciousness held its biennial meeting in that city, and a group known as the Committee on Unjust Sentencing in Los Angeles decided to splice a prisoners conference on to the end of that academic body's meeting. Not all, but some of the agenda of the ESSC conference dealt with the effects of certain plant and chemical substances on consciousness. The agenda stopped there; it did not cover penalties for the use of these substances, including harsh and prolonged incarceration. A part of the total picture was missing, and an add-on conference was required to fill the gap

About 200 people attended, a few from the conference downtown, many from the community of university students and other German youth. A version of the Human Rights '95 exhibit (as it was then known), displaying the skewed penalties imposed on drug users in the United States, was installed by Adriaan Brankhorst from Amsterdam. Papers were read in English and German, detailing the hazards Drug War prisoners face. The "Heidelberg Declaration," a statement questioning the place of the criminal justice model in addressing the problems of drug use vs. a public health model or a social justice model, won general approval. To judge from the audience response and the local press write-up, the conference was a success. It opened questions for discussion not often heard in public.

The focus of the conference in March is the continuing centrality of the Drug War prisoner issue. Drug War critics mostly settle for the harm reduction model. Harm reduction accepts as fact that drug use is not possible - and may not even be desirable - to eliminate from society; it is best handled through a policy that avoids the most damaging results of drug use. The humanitarian concerns of harm reduction make it hard to disagree with. The respect shown for human dignity in contrast to the demonic slant placed on users by those who champion the Drug War gives harm reduction a potentially wide appeal. Harm reduction is the basis of much anti-Drug War sentiment. It is the issue around which conferences critical of the Drug War tend to form. The weakness of the argument, and of a conference based on harm reduction principles alone, is neglect of the suffering of Drug War prisoners and their families.




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