Activists Speak Out Against War on Drugs

Examining the Failures and Fatalities of the 40-Year-Old Global Battle Against Drugs

More than two dozen activists, moms, and concerned citizens gathered at the old adobe on East Carrillo Street Friday evening to speak out against drug prohibition and its effects on individuals with mental health and substance use disorders.

The teach-in event, hosted by Moms United to End the War on Drugs and Families ACT!, coincides with the 40th anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s declaration of the War on Drugs, as a part of a national day of action to “raise awareness about the failures and extraordinary costs of the war on drugs,” said Joanna Miller of Moms United in a written statement.

Seated on leather couches and creaky dining chairs, attendees watched a series of documentary clips critical of the war on drugs and a video produced by Families ACT!, featuring interviews with the families of individuals who have struggled with co-occuring disorders and drug addiction. The presentation highlighted support from groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP) and the Global Commission on Drug Policy, which recently released a report calling the War on Drugs a failure.

Suzanne Riordan
Paul Wellman

Suzanne Riordan, event spokesperson and executive director of Families ACT!, invited questions and discussion following the presentation. Many raised concern with crowding in the County Jail and the effect of the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that would result in the release thousands of nonviolent prisoners.

“Chances are that nonviolent drug offenders will no longer be going to prison, which is probably a very good thing,” Riordan said. But she believes the release of these prisoners will only fill up county jails and aggravate existing problems. “The sheriff is going to have a new argument for why he’s going to need a new jail, and maybe an even bigger one than before.”

In terms of changes to drug policy on a local level, Riordan and other activists at the event stressed the “need to shift money from incarceration to treatment.”

“Because the county is not equipped with the resources to really help these people, what they’re going to be tempted to do is put people in jail for even longer,” Riordan said. “It’s a costly intervention, but it’s a very costly treatment the way we’re doing it now. Running people through jail for drug charges just doesn’t work, they just come back, and they come back, and they come back again.”

Following the discussion, participants gathered on State Street for a brief vigil, holding banners facing the street and joining hands in a circle. Although the discussion was at times politically charged, Jodi Miller, a history student at Santa Barbara City College and member of Moms United, hopes people will take away a more personal message.

“The message … is that children who suffer from drug addiction need help. We want them to stop being drug addicts, get their life together, and receive compassion and treatment they need,” Miller said. “I like all that conspiracy stuff too, but it’s so radical it alienates people.”

Having lost her own son to drug use, Riordan believes that while prohibition is a controversial, unpleasant subject, it’s also one many people will confront at some point in their lives. “This is the kind of an issue that cuts across [political] lines, because anybody can have a family member, and almost everybody does have a family member, who is affected by anxiety, depression, or some kind of substance use,” Riordan said. “It’s very common in this country.”

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