The Drug War Prisoner's Conference at York

By Dr. John Beresford

In the summer I was visiting friends and family in Toronto and had the good fortune to be introduced to Harvey Briggs on the campus of York University. York is one of the two university systems in Toronto, and by reputation the less stuffy and more progressive. Harvey teaches in the Sociology Department at York. He told me that in sociology circles in North America York University's Department of Sociology ranks near the top. It is known for its promotion of "narrative theory," in contrast to what is called analysis. "You don't see many analysts around here," Harvey remarked, glancing up from his coffee.

It wasn't long before I touched on the subject of greatest importance to me, the fate of millions of people world-wide unjustly sentenced to prison for their use of "drugs." People who use drugs­­outside of "drug store" and "drug company" the word has the sense of illegal drugs­­are subject to all sorts of nefarious labeling that social scientists are familiar with. People use drugs for reasons as various as the reasons for most forms of human behavior, yet are liable to be lumped together under the basket-term "addict." As a group they are singled out for censure and punishment on a par with the treatment accorded alienated minorities by majority groups we rightly condemn as barbaric. They fill the world's prisons, in some jurisdictions for terms exceeding in length terms set for murder and other violent crimes.

It might be thought that the experience of such people would attract the interest of sociologists. But no. As a rule, sociologists gloss over the existence of Drug War prisoners as readily as the man next door. I wondered why, and suggested to Harvey that we convene a conference to find out. I wondered what we might hear if academics told their views on the problems facing Drug War prisoners. Why were users subject to imprisonment in the first place? What justification could be advanced for the incarceration of those for the most part guilty of a consensual offense? What political and other considerations lay behind the time and money put into locking people up for the offense of using drugs? Getting closer to the prison gate, what accounts of their experience would Drug War prisoners give, given an opportunity to express them? How rich would be the flow of narrative, coming from those souls immediately affected?

My heart leapt at Harvey's ready assent. The conference was a natural, it seemed, for a faculty like York's. Harvey said he'd tackle the Curriculum Committee, on which he was assured a seat in upcoming elections. In the next few weeks some pieces fell into place. Harvey spoke with key people, and it was evident that obstacles to holding the conference were few. We picked a date, compatible with the University calendar. We checked out a hall in the well-equipped facilities of York. We ran through names of people who might attend. By the time I was ready to return to Los Angeles it looked as if an idea that had been cooking for a year would turn into reality.

What about a mix of academics, activists, and Drug War prisoners? A conference missing any of these components would lack the punch of one that drew the strands together. Lacking the academic component, the conference would amount to another exercise where the converted preach to the converted. Lacking the activist component, it would miss the perils and commitment that define the activist experience, knowledge hard won in the trenches. Without stories told by POWs themselves, the conference would be vacant of significance. Woven into a unity, the conference could blaze a trail into the minds of people everywhere whose tolerance of injustice is the result of ignorance. The War on Drugs fought by government elites is, surprisingly, in view of its scope and magnitude, the best kept secret in today's society. With luck, I thought, the conference will let in some light on that dark secret.

Why Canada? The attitude of people north of the border to drug use differs from the fearful attitude habitual to people here at home. It would be folly to generalize, but in some respects a member of a Canadian university faculty is apt to be more critical of policies the government engages in. I asked Harvey what he thought would be the response to a complaint from an MP [Member of Parliament in Ottawa] that a conference on Drug War prisoners was backed by a department of the university. Harvey replied with an expletive. The response would be an increase in the determination of the department to make the conference a success. That was encouraging.

But again, why a Canadian venue for a Drug War prisoner conference? Canada occupies a unique position, geographically and politically. Adjacent to the United States along a 3000 mile border, powerless to resist an armed assault if ever one were launched, the economy dominated by US corporate concerns, Canadians nevertheless display a reverence for freedom absent from some quarters in the United States. In particular, the take on drug use and drug users is more flexible than corresponding attitudes in the US. Nevertheless, drug legislation enacted in Canada recently mimics legislation in the United States. It does not strain the imagination to suggest a bit of arm-twisting from south of the border. In short, Canadians, though more relaxed in their attitude to drugs and drug users, are in line for a shock if they do not take note of the state the Drug War has reduced us to in America. "Look out!" might be the message Canadians take from the conference, and citizens of other countries too.

While a majority of presenters will, time and financial constraints being what they are, speak from a North American perspective, the hope is to attract some presenters from more distant parts. In any case, the attempt will be to maintain an international flavor in discussions of what is without doubt an international problem of enormous and tragic scope.