Drug education week advocates sensible drug policies
April 2002

Dorothy Gaines, of Mobile, Alabama was freed from prison just before Christmas, 2000. She had been serving her sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Tallahassee. Although the government had no physical proof of her guilt, Dorothy had been convicted on two counts of conspiracy to possess and distribute over one and a half kilograms of crack cocaine, and was sentenced to 19 years & seven months. Gaines' 16-year-old son Phillip wrote to then-president Bill Clinton seeking a pardon for his mother. "I said the greatest gift you could send me was to send me my mom. And he did it."

All the government had was the testimony of others - some of whom were defendants from the same busted drug ring and who faced long prison terms unless they cooperated with the prosecution to build cases against other suspects. The defendants knew her name because she was an acquaintance of one of their friends. But because she didn't name names, she did not have her sentence reduced. One witness, who was already serving time for prior felony convictions on gun and drug charges, was released early. The ringleader was facing a possible life sentence, but he helped the government build cases against others - including Dorothy, and was sentenced to less time than Dorothy was.

The absurdity of drug policies that put people like Dorothy behind bars is becoming more and more apparent as we hear of increasing numbers of wrongful arrests, improper or illegal searches, and raids on innocent people's homes that sometimes kill or wound innocent people in the process.

Florida Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has put together a week-long series of speakers and events designed to educate students and the public on the unintended consequences of the War on Drugs. The event begins on Monday, April 8th and runs through Friday the 12th, and will end with a free speech and concert event on the Gainesville Community Plaza on Saturday, April 13.

Drug Education Week (DEW) 2002 will feature over a dozen speakers representing various organizations, and will be held in the J. Wayne Reitz Union at the University of Florida (UF). Featured topics include: the Drug-Free student loan provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA), medical marijuana, ecstasy harm reduction, criminal justice and drug policy, effective drug education, first and fourth amendment rights as well as Plan Colombia and international drug policy.

Heath Wintz, president of Florida SSDP, was active in Drug Policy Reform efforts well before his arrival at the University of Florida. While a student at Columbus State Community College, Wintz began working for reform of HEA, which prohibits students convicted of drug offenses from receiving financial aid (the Act makes does not similarly withhold aid for students who may have been convicted of rape or murder). Wintz also organized a Hempfest at Ohio State University and took part in an action on campus that saw the Financial Aid Offices blockaded by SSDP members and supporters. Just last year at Jacksonville's Hempfest, Wintz set up an asset forfeiture "funhouse" where people could raid a home like a DEA agent, send a medical marijuana patient to jail, "seize their home, send their spouse to jail on conspiracy charges, seize their car, and then send their children to foster homes as they empty their bank accounts." Wintz says it "sickens me to know that people are spending part of their lives in a cell for doing things that affected no one but themselves."

Speakers at DEW 2002 include Steve Heath, a long-time resident of Dallas/Ft Worth who came to Florida in 1997. Heath was directed to drug policy reform by his late mentor, Peter McWilliams (the author of several NY Times best-selling books, including Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do). It was through McWilliams and an acquaintance of his that Heath learned of Drugsense and Media Awareness Project (MAP). The primary purpose of MAP is to promote education of the public about drug policy through the use of letter writing to newspapers. According to Heath, the six-year campaign to increase column inches devoted to drug policy and drug policy reform has been a "huge success. In 1997, the overall media attitude towards the Drug War could reasonably be stated as about 10% against it or in favor of some reform. The remaining 90% either supported the War or were ambivalent in their coverage. At present, it is likewise reasonable to say that over 2/3 of newspapers actively run editorials or opinions [promoting] some or all aspects of drug policy reform. The remaining third are either ambivalent (smaller town papers) or remain Prohibitionist in nature."

Through his work at MAP, Heath came to know John Chase of Palm Harbor. Chase will also be speaking at DEW 2002 on the topic of "Justice in the War on Drugs: Feeding the Prison Industry." Chase, a lifelong Republican and civil libertarian, says, "after years of discomfort with our anti-drug policies, I finally came off the sidelines in early 1998 to try to make a difference. I speak at various civic organizations in Florida and have had 30 letters on anti-drug policy published in newspapers. I am also an active volunteer in The November Coalition, a national nonprofit organization of the families of drug felons and their friends.

The mission of The November Coalition is to open a dialogue on the unintended consequences: prisons filling with nonviolent drug offenders; official corruption; neighborhoods destroyed by turf battles; lack of funds for treatment; hypocrisy of racist anti-drug laws; abandonment of certain cherished legal traditions; losses in individual freedoms and privacy. Two case histories offer guidance, says Chase. "First is the experience of my grandparents' generation with alcohol prohibition. Second is Switzerland's evolution of drug control policy. Alcohol prohibition failed because it defined the problem as the presence of the drug, alcohol, in society. The Swiss are making headway because they define the problem as the societal damage caused by the abuse of drugs. They have attacked just that problem and have favorable results to show."

The Friday keynote speaker, Sanho Tree, is the Director of the Drug Policy Project, of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. Mr.Tree was quoted as saying: "Until we admit the drug economy is driven by three problems we refuse to seriously address - poverty in drug producing countries, demand in rich countries, and the "value added" to these relatively worthless crops by prohibition policies - we will never get a handle on the problem."

The culmination of Drug Education Week will be a free speech and concert set to take place Saturday, April 13th, from 1:00-5:00pm, at the Gainesville community plaza. Featured musical acts include the live electronic sounds of Freightliner, funky jazz by Deans on Bass and urban jazz from SwayBack.

For more information on DEW 2002: http://grove.ufl.edu/~ssdp

For more information on Drug Policy Reform:
Media Awareness Project
Drug Policy Foundation of Florida
Florida Cannabis Action Network

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