Voices boomed and passions flared at Keystone Church last Friday night, but God had little to do with this spirited debate. It was drugs that drew over 100 people to the Wallingford church, or rather, the failure of America’s war against drugs and a chance to discuss the next step forward for narcotics policy in this country.
The event, orchestrated by Wallingford Neighbors for Peace and Justice, included the showing of a film and a panel discussion that featured several prominent drug policy reform advocates.
American Drug War: The Last White Hope is a scathing documentary chronicling the United State’s ill-fated battle against illegal drugs over the past 30 years. The audience made its presence known from the start of the film, with hisses at the mention of George Bush or Richard Nixon and applause for those who advocated complete legalization. Temperatures rose further after the movie ended and a conversation with five featured panelists began.
King County Councilmember Larry Gossett headlined the group, which also featured a criminal defense attorney who works medical marijuana cases and a former correctional officer turned legalization advocate.
Gossett spoke primarily of “the horrific impact that the race to incarcerate has had on African Americans.” Citing a local study showing that Blacks are 10 times more likely to be detained on drug-related charges than are whites, Gossett called for an end to the “irrational and insane” War on Drugs. The councilman also argued against assigning prisoners to manual labor, equating the modern-day chain gangs to slavery 200 years ago.
Matthew McCally offered a more radical solution to the drug problem. A former probation officer, McCally grew disillusioned with the way the criminal justice system was chewing up offenders and spitting them back onto the streets to repeat their past mistakes.
After six years with the Justice Department McCally quit his job and founded a local chapter of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), an organization of police officers who advocate legalization of all drugs. Safety and reality form the basis of LEAP’s argument. “We have to deal with the fact that people smoke too much, do too much. We need to take control from the gangsters and give it back to the government,” McCally said.
Explaining that most drug-related deaths are caused by an overdose or a drug laced with a toxic additive, McCally promised that if the government provided small prescriptions, ensured drug safety, and offered education and treatment options, most fatalities would be avoided.
Defense lawyer Douglas Hiatt spoke next, quietly but with words that betrayed his outrage at the current situation. “It is an absolute abomination,” Hiatt said of the drug war. “We could change the country overnight with the $100 billion that we spend on this thing each year.”
Working “one person at a time,” Hiatt also had experience with the devastation that many of these laws guarantee. The lawyer spoke of his worst moment in court, defending a woman “who was literally dying in the seat next to me” who eased her pain with doctor-prescribed cannabis. “It’s inhumanity,” Hiatt said.