Three Questions for the Reform Conference

by Dominic Corva, Executive Director

This year, the International Drug Policy Reform Conference (Reform) will be taking place next week in Atlanta, Georgia. This post lets our readers know about CASP’s presence at the Conference and what I will be doing there, as a participant in a panel titled “How has the Drug War Reshaped Space, Place, and Relationships?”

There are three kinds of public events CASP gets invited to speak at. Industry events provide a platform for addressing cannabis policy and markets in a way that reflects our commitment to optimizing cannabis legalization as a strategy for ending the drug war. Academic events provide a platform for reflecting on and improving the models of the world I work with and encounter. And Policy events provide me with a platform for direct intervention into ongoing discussions of policy formation.

The Reform conference is a bit of a hybrid between Academic and Policy events. It’s an international NGO (nongovernmental organization) production, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance and the ACLU, which often partners with the DPA on domestic efforts. You can see from the title of the panel how academic the conversation is to be on my panel, which could be the title of a panel at the annual Association of American Geographers (AAG) Conference I presented at for most of my academic life.

As a result, it’s probably the sort of panel that I feel most comfortable in. I’m not industry, and in Policy conferences where bureaucrats and policymakers dominate I’m usually the most radical voice in the room, since my central concern is ending the drug war rather than doing politics. Or bureaucracy.

This panel is especially cool because it’s a conversation, rather than a group of individual presentations. The moderator for the panel recently reached out to prepare for the conversation by posing three or four questions with which we would like to engage. I offer the questions I sent back, and the reasons for doing so, here:

What is the relationship between legalizing cannabis in certain places and ending the drug war — in those places but more broadly?
This question places CASP’s mission into the context of an international drug policy framework. Cannabis legalization to this point has until recently been “sold” –and funded — on the assumption that cannabis legalization is an important step towards ending the drug war. These days, it seems that it’s now being sold as an engine for economic growth and associated tax revenue. As a result, the policies being called for, designed and implemented don’t seem to be all that interested in removing criminal penalties altogether for cannabis-related activity. On the other hand, there is no doubt that significant room for exception to criminal penalties is opening up, especially from the perspective of say, the Philippines, where drug war crimes and outright genocidal State policy continue with the support and funding of the U.S. government. There also doesn’t seem to be much carry-over from ending the war on cannabis to ending the war on drugs, full stop. Is cannabis being carved out as a militant particularism, an exception that allows the drug war to continue unopposed? If it is, and key voices and actors in the U.S. are “co-opted” by letting them have theirs, does cannabis legalization mean the continuation of the drug war? These are difficult questions, but they must be considered given the evidence so far.
What is the relationship between (neo)liberalizing space and demobilizing the drug war?
This is a question that has to do with the relationship between economic governance and prohibition. My interest in the relationship between the drug war and economic liberalization was sparked by trying to puzzle through the tension between the promotion of liberty, via “free market” governance, and the promotion of authoritarian control on certain populations, during the latest period of pretty intense economic globalization (since the 1970s). Whose liberty matters, politically, under conditions of intense economic inequality that is supposedly being remediated by neoliberal market governance? The hollowing out of State (this term refers approximately to governments at large, not just to Federal States) revenues under conditions of privatization absolutely blew up during the financial crisis of the last decade. U.S. federal States like Washington want and need cannabis tax revenue to replace budget shortfalls that used to be covered by income taxes and Federal transfers. As a result, policy discourse about cannabis legalization explicitly condone the punishment of informal sector markets and actors to protect State-designated monopolies. That’s how we lost medical cannabis in Washington State.
How are processes of creative destruction associated with drug war zones?

“Creative destruction” is a political economy term I learned about from studying Karl Polanyi, the Austro-Hungarian economic historian. It means that there’s a cost to market formation — that previous market and social orders are destroyed to make way for new engines of growth. It’s usually associated with urban gentrification or crisis profiteering. Under conditions of prohibition, the whole world is a drug war zone, as anthropologist Howard Campbell observes, but some spots are hotter than others: borders, inner cities and so forth. This is a broader question for which cannabis legalization provides some insight, particularly with respect to who can own the means of cannabis production in highly controlled markets with high barriers to entry. Headlines splash how many jobs are created by such markets, but what goes unsaid is to whom the gains accrue. The democratic aspect of informal cannabis markets was that everyone could be an owner or take a much better margin of the flows than they could as a $15/hour waged laborer. This spread the economic benefits of market development much wider than under conditions where you need half a million or a regulatory job to make much of a living. At the same time, however, there is a lot of truth to the claim that legal cannabis displaces the ability of highly organized crime to make much off of cannabis, any more. Cartel profits don’t accrue to the little people so much, and while I insist that cartel profits have been dwindling under conditions of medical cannabis (with a far more democratic and widely shared economy), I can’t ignore the truth that in general, we want to destroy the ability of those who use violence to manage risk to make anything.

So, that’s it. Those are my questions for the panel, and my preliminary thoughts about them. It will take place next week, Thursday, in Atlanta, Georgia. I am grateful to the Drug Policy Alliance for covering my flight and hotel room, for full disclosure.

How has the Drug War Reshaped Space, Place, and Relationships?

Thursday, October 12th4:30-6:00pm | Dogwood B Room, Floor M1

From prison towns to million dollar blocks (where more than a million dollars is spent to incarcerate men from one city block), drug policy is shaping what our communities and relationships look like. This session will explore: How has the drug war reshaped geography in the U.S.? What impact do these changes have on individuals and families? How does spatial shifts over time affect communities most impacted by the war on drugs? What are some current projects and solutions underway to address these shifts in geography?