On Saturday, March 19th, an unprecedented collection of community advocates, service providers, public safety personnel and public health professionals will come together at a day-long conference to chart a new course in drug policy that could serve as a model for the nation. The New Directions conference will examine the decades-old ramifications of President Nixon's declaration of the "war on drugs" in urban communities like Newark and African American communities in particular.
One of the unique themes of the conference will be how the war on drugs has increased prohibition-related violence, leading to declines in property values, the evaporation of local businesses, and an array of social ills in urban areas. Convened at Bethany Baptist Church, one of the oldest and largest African-American churches in Newark, the conference will speak to the unique concerns and viewpoints of communities of color as they look for new ways to reduce the harms of drug use and drug prohibition. The conference will serve as a model for cities across the nation looking for new directions and strategies for ending the war on drugs.
Drug policy experts from across the country and around the globe will discuss topics including: reducing crime and incarceration, effectively addressing addiction, treating drug use as a health issue, communities of color and the war on drugs, and drug policy lessons and models from abroad. The keynote address will be given by Michelle Alexander, whose book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, has sparked a national discussion about the drug war's disparate impact on communities of color.
When asked about the war on drugs by Rolling Stone in 2008, President Barack Obama said, "I believe in shifting the paradigm, shifting the model, so that we focus more on a public health approach [to drugs]." Polls show the American people agree. President Obama's drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, told the Wall Street Journal last year that he doesn't like the term "war on drugs" because "[w]e're not at war with people in this country." Yet for the tens of millions of Americans who have been arrested and incarcerated for a drug offense, U.S. drug policy is a war on them -- and their families. What exactly is a public health approach to drugs? What might truly ending the war on drugs look like?
"We see the impact of the 'drug war' first hand, where so many people are incarcerated for being economically disadvantaged by the disappearance of work," says Bethany Baptist Church pastor, Reverend William Howard. "Afterwards, they are virtually permanently barred from the legal workforce for the rest of their lives. We must take our stand against the destructive scourge of drug abuse and trafficking by developing new, sensible strategies that solve more problems than they create."
The conference will be guided by four principles:
Panel members and conference speakers include:
The Drug Policy Alliance is co-hosting the 2011 New Directions conference with the Bethany Baptist Church.
* Roseann Scotti Director of DPA NJ contributed to this piece
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