It was 6:30 on a Friday night on the University of Michigan Ann Arbor campus. Students savored the last breath of summer and lounged on porches, sipping beverages from plastic mugs. At one house on State Street, a trio of young men sparked up a joint in plain view and brazenly passed it around.
Although such indiscreet use of marijuana is not an uncommon sight in Ann Arbor, home of the annual Hash Bash, the men could have faced serious repercussions if busted. Like complete loss of all financial aid or, in a worst-case scenario, a long prison sentence.
The war on drugs has accumulated many horror stories, accounts like that of Chrissy Taylor, who at age 19 was sentenced to 20 years for conspiracy to manufacture methamphetamine, because her boyfriend coerced her into picking up a shipment of chemicals. Stories like that of Robert Booker, a first-time offender who was sentenced to life imprisonment for drug conspiracy.
The Journey for Justice is committed to spreading these very stories across the nation, heightening public awareness of the thousands of severe penalties doled out each year for nonviolent drug convictions. The combined effort of two national organizations, the November Coalition and Common Sense for Drug Policy, the Journey for Justice will tour the nation for four years, highlighting the injustices of current drug policy and calling for reform. The kickoff of the tour took place last weekend with a Friday lecture in Ann Arbor and a Saturday forum in Detroit.
Organizers say the drug war is a fallacy that has caused countless injustices, wasted tax dollars, invoked sexist and racist policies and resulted in thousands of draconian sentences for victimless crimes. The Journey for Justice is calling for a complete re-examination of the nation’s current war against drugs, and is attempting to organize a grassroots constituency through public education and discussion. Proponents are not interested in highlighting one particular drug or cause; instead, they want to draw attention to the drug war as a whole — especially the issues of incarceration vs. treatment and creating alternatives to current policy.
“War on people”
A group of varied ages and races, some clad in tie dye, others in crisp suits, filed into a U-M lecture hall. In a morose version of a family album, photos flipped by on an overhead screen, snapshots of men and women with their families, subtitled with such phrases as “marijuana conspiracy — 20 years” and “cocaine conspiracy — life imprisonment.”
Nora Callahan is executive director of the November Coalition. She initially became involved in drug policy reform when her brother was convicted on a drug charge 14 years ago. He has 13 years left to serve.
“The drug war is a fraud,” Callahan repeated again and again. “This isn’t a war on drugs, it’s a war on people.”
Callahan said one of the fundamental problems with the drug war is the focus on punishment and incarceration. She lamented that drug users are treated as criminals, not as people suffering from a disease. Callahan said the massive amount of government money used to jail offenders would be better spent if funneled into treatment programs for addicts.
“Treatment dollars in the U.S. were seven times more effective than money spent trying to eradicate drug use at the source,” she said, quoting a study from the RAND Corporation.
It’s no secret that the drug war is big business, on both sides of the equation. Callahan feels the enormous sums invested into the war on drugs are simply going up in smoke.
“Tax dollars are paying for a system that causes more harm than any illegal drugs ever did,” said Callahan.
Callahan would eventually like to see illegal drugs regulated in the same manner as prescription drugs, which she feels would make the illicit drug trade unprofitable.
“We need to take the profit out of the drug war, plain and simple.”
Callahan feels drug users are unfairly targeted and sentenced by race and gender. She says police use racial profiling when searching for drugs, causing an inordinate number of minorities to be imprisoned. Callahan says women are likely to face longer sentences than men, because the system is “informant based,” which she is against. In addition, she says women often hold lesser roles in the drug trade, and know little about bigger players in a network.
“When it comes time to barter for freedom by testifying against others, they don’t have any info,” she says. “That’s the only way to get a sentence reduction. Tell on three, go free.”
Another major problem: Drug offenders are sent en masse to prison, where drugs are widely accessible.
“The place you can easiest find drugs in America is in the prison system,” said U.S. Rep. John Conyers, D-Detroit, during day two of the conference in Detroit.
“I smoked pot all throughout prison,” said activist Chuck Armsbury of the November Coalition.
Support for reform
Historically, the state of Michigan has not placed an overwhelming priority on drug policy reform. Debra Wright, co-chair of the Drug Policy Forum of Michigan, said too few lawmakers are interested.
“There’s more support [for drug law reform] amongst the people than the legislators. They’re behind the eight ball,” she said. “There’s a lot of people in the city of Detroit that see and feel the damage caused by the war on drugs, so there is a lot of support behind it.”
U.S. Rep. Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, D-Detroit, spoke in favor of ending the drug war at the Detroit panel. Detroit Chief of Police Jerry Oliver was unable to attend, but criticized the drug war in a recent op-ed piece in the Detroit News.
Wayne County Sheriff Robert Ficano was not in attendance, and does not support legalization or regulation of any currently illegal drugs for any reason. And he believes incarceration is still an important factor in cracking down on drugs.
“Should there be more treatment? Sure,” he said during a phone interview. “What it really should be is a combination of prevention, treatment and enforcement. You don’t use punishment as the full arsenal. There’s a number of arrows in the quiver — incarceration is just one of them.”
Ficano believes legalizing or regulating drugs would not work.
“If you legalize drugs, you’ll see insurance rates go up, because you’ll see more people who need treatment. If you just let the market open up and say ‘here, it’s legal, try it,’ you’ll have more substance abuse problems,” he said.
“If you have someone on the street who can’t afford the drug and craves it, whether it’s on the street or they can go buy it at Rite-Aid, if they don’t have the money they’re still going to have to commit the crime to get it.”
Renee Emry-Wolfe is a criminal.
The 42-year-old mother of four mirthfully tells this to anyone, without a tinge of shame in her voice. Clad in a sunshine yellow top and flowered pants, Emry-Wolfe has a deep scratch on her nose and two blackened eyes. The Ann Arbor resident has multiple sclerosis, and the injuries were sustained in a fall. In addition to difficulty walking, Emry-Wolfe suffers from muscle spasms and pain. She is currently on probation for growing marijuana, a drug which she claims is the only satisfactory treatment for her symptoms.
Emry-Wolfe was diagnosed with MS at the age of 19, and quickly prescribed a cocktail of heavy medications, which she says made her physically ill and reduced her to a stupor.
“In ’85 I told them to put their drugs where the sun didn’t shine,” she said cheerfully.
Frustrated with the avenue of traditional medicine, she decided to try her friends’ suggestion of smoking marijuana, and has been steadily using to this day — and racking up a rap sheet in the process.
Emry-Wolfe has been busted several times for possession and growing her own personal supply of medical marijuana. She also garnered national attention in 1999 when she protested a congressman’s anti-medical marijuana initiative by lighting up a joint in his Washington, D.C., office. She was hauled off in handcuffs, but received only a slap on the wrist.
Emry-Wolfe is angry that her only source of treatment comes with criminal repercussions, but remains committed to spreading her message to lawmakers on a personal level.
“The only arrests or convictions I have are for growing my medicine,” she said.
At the Detroit discussion, she used both hands to lift her body from her seat so she could stand while addressing Conyers.
“If I have to talk to every one of you one at a time,” she told him, “I will.”
For more information on Journey for Justice, visit the November Coalition’s Web site at www.november.org.Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]