By April Pederson

On Tuesday, busloads of people with family members incarcerated for non-violent drug offenses arrived in Philadelphia for the largest-ever gathering, of Americans protesting the drug war. But the crowds' numbers won't even approach the nearly 500,000 non-violent drug offenders living behind bars in the United States, according to the Lindesmith Center -- a number that has increased tenfold in just two decades.

As part of the "Shadow Convention," which aims to address key issues largely ignored by the major political parties during their national conventions, the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, a group pushing for alternative drug policies and expanding drug treatment, is organizing Shadow proceedings on the drug war.

What they're calling the "failed drug war" is one of three topics to be addressed during the Shadow Convention. Campaign finance reform and the growing wealth gap are also on the agenda.

"Millions of Americans now have a family member behind bars for violating the drug laws," says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation. "This gathering is about giving a voice to those family members and others who have been victimized by a war on drugs that is doing far more harm than good."

As Republicans gather in the city that gave birth to the penitentiary, here is something to muse: Nearly one in four people in prison in the United States is there for a drug offense -- and, according to a recent report, the number of drug offenders locked up today is roughly the same as the entire prison population in 1980. Some prominent Republican officials descending upon Philadelphia this week are beginning to ask the hard questions about the drug war.

Outspoken critics like New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson, the first U.S. governor to call for marijuana legalization and other major drug policy reforms, and Representative Tom Campbell, the first major party politician to run for statewide office on a platform that includes significant drug policy reform, are both on the bill. The Rev. Jesse Jackson is also scheduled to deliver an address criticizing the way current drug policies unfairly target minorities. Most notoriously, stiffer laws instituted in the 1980s against the cheaper crack form of cocaine continue to put drug-abusing African Americans and Latinos in jail for far longer sentences than white Americans.

A report released last week, "Poor Prescription: the Costs of Imprisoning Drug Offenders in the United States," published by the Justice Policy Institute, reveals the consequences of the bipartisan, two-decade obsession with mandatory sentences and harsh drug policies.

The nation's prison population now stands at 2 million, but according to the report, this has less to do with making streets safer than with locking up nonviolent drug users. According to the study, while the number of people in state prisons for violent crime has doubled since 1980, the number of nonviolent offenders behind bars has tripled -- and the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses has gone up more than elevenfold.

Since President Ronald Reagan initiated an all-out "war on drugs" in 1982, the United States has been spending tens of billions of dollars a year in an attempt to control the trafficking and use of illicit drugs.

The activists, researchers and officials at the drug policy reform proceedings at the Shadow Convention will work hard to get the message out that current drug policies are doing more harm than good.

Current U.S. drug policy is based on the logic of deterrence, which assumes that targeting the drug supply through aggressive law enforcement will deter drug use by making drugs scarcer, more expensive and more difficult to buy. Drug enforcement, interdiction and overseas programs to halt foreign drug supplies continue to dominate spending, accounting for two-thirds of the federal drug budget. Less punitive demand-side measures such as treatment, prevention and education play a secondary role.

The Lindesmith Center and other groups holding the Shadow meetings contend that laws that focus largely on criminalization and punishment are simply not working. And scarce resources better expended on health, education and economic development are squandered on ever more expensive interdiction efforts. Persisting with current policies of busting and squeezing drug users through overburdened courts and prisons, but not treating most of them, will only result in more drug abuse, more empowerment of drug markets and criminals, and more disease, they say.

Drug abuse can certainly cause enormous damage, and needs to be reduced, says Nadelmann, but "drug prohibition, like alcohol Prohibition decades ago, generates extraordinary harms as well. It, not drugs per se, is responsible for creating vast underground markets, criminalizing millions of otherwise law-abiding citizens and corrupting both governments and societies at large."

Since no society is -- or can ever be -- drug free, the proper goal, these groups insist, should be to reduce the harms associated with both drug use and prohibitionist policies. "Drug policy reform is rapidly emerging as a new movement for political and social justice in the United States," Nadelmann says, "one that calls for drug policies based upon common sense, science, public health and human rights.

"Most thoughtful Americans know that the drug war has failed, and that it cannot succeed," Nadelmann continues. "Sorely lacking, however, is the political courage required to open this debate."

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Sat., Sept. 19, 11 a.m.-7 p.m. and Sun., Sept. 20, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
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