Drug War panelists talk harm reduction, policy implementation
By Meredith Dobes
Forty-four arrests are made every day for misdemeanor cannabis possession in the city of Chicago, and Chicago has the highest racial disparity in the nation in terms of these arrests.
These were just two of the issues discussed regarding the War on Drugs at Students for a Sensible Drug Policy’s Chicago and the Drug War Panel last Thursday in WB 317.
Panelists were Director of the Illinois Consortium on Drug Policy Kathie Kane-Willis, Heartland Alliance Mental Health Worker James Kowalsky, Assistant Director of Illinois NORML Ali Nagib and Chicago Reader Reporter Mick Dumke.
“Rating the drug war in Chicago in terms of doing an awesome job at creating disproportionality, putting people in prison and not treating this as a health problem, I would give it an A for that,” Kane-Willis said.
All panelists were asked to give the present state of the city’s drug war a grade, and all of them offered only Ds or Fs.
The panelists did assent that policies in Chicago are changing for the better, citing the passage of the Good Samaritan law, naloxone availability and training, marijuana decriminalization and the legalization of medical marijuana. They said that putting these policies into practice is where the city struggles.
“They didn’t make pot ticketing mandatory,” Dumke cited as an example. “They gave police an option to ticket. So marijuana has been decriminalized around middle-class and white parts of Chicago, but it’s still a crime in other parts.”
Kane-Willis added, “The way justice is dispensed is not just. It’s not equal.”
Though arrests for possession were reported as being down by 50 percent after the implementation of the decriminalization of marijuana, they are now only down by 25 percent.
According to Nagib, more than 90 percent of these cases get thrown out due to a lack of resources to take them to trial. That leaves many people with arrest records that make it difficult for them to obtain jobs.
The need for practices of harm reduction in the city, state and nation was the panel’s overarching message.
“The goal is to reduce the consequences of using drugs,” Kowalsky said. “Overdose death has surpassed car accidents as the number one cause of accidental death in recent years.”
Another point Kowalsky stressed was that the economic side of the drug war needs to be used to the benefit of policy reformists.
“A lot of us are driven by the human side of this issue, but I feel like a lot of the people who pull the strings are about money,” he said.
Kane-Willis added that she would like to see research done about moving people from drug market sales to other jobs.
“Being involved as a drug seller requires some skills and abilities,” she said. “There’s the selling, the not getting caught, an entrepreneurial spirit associated with it. These people are so expendable to us that there has never been an alternative program.”
The panelists agreed that once the rhetoric and laws begin to change, as they have, the implementation of policies will improve, too.