We Heard from Sister Miriam, Doña Maria, and Rev. Barber. Now, Mr. President, We Need to Hear from You.

Juan Cartagena

America’s disastrous “War on Drugs,” which it skillfully exports to its global partners, gets an international opportunity for real reform at a special session of the United Nations this week for the first time in eighteen years. People of color in the U.S. and throughout the globe have been yearning for real reform in a drug war that everyone knows is targeted at us.

In the U.S. alone, where marijuana prohibitionist laws were passed intentionally to criminalize Mexicans and cocaine was curbed to supposedly neuter lascivious black men, it surprised no one of color to hear that President’s Nixon’s declaration of a war on drugs was actually intentional black repression in disguise.

That’s because the War on Drugs, our hippie culture notwithstanding, was always a racialized drug war. And it is far worse today.

President Obama knows. He’s working directly on these issues since he’s been president. Somehow, he didn’t hear our plea that it is his voice that is needed at the U.N. today.

Instead, this week New York brought together world leaders to debate international drug policy because they rightfully prioritized it — Presidents and Prime Ministers from countries run roughshod by America’s insatiable appetite for illicit drugs or from places where prescription opiates to relieve pain are criminalized and inaccessible.

But there was no on-the-ground leadership from the highest echelons of our government to match the urgency of our President’s peers.

The UNGASS brought together hundreds of black and Latino activists throughout the country — and all over the world — all of whom know well the dangers of America’s drug war and are doing something to stem it. These are people versed in harm reduction strategies — because they work. People who somehow survived the latest form of American exceptionalism: our addiction to mass incarceration. People who miraculously survived heroin or cocaine addictions back in the day when they were vilified as junkies, not treated with the compassion that meets today’s addicts of a paler complexion.

But there was no upper-leadership from Washington to signal a change in domestic drug policy that would match the urgency of their demands.

New York also received scores of drug experts and change agents from Central America, the Caribbean, South America and indeed the world. A Caravan for Peace, Life and Justice traveled 5,000 kilometers to arrive in time for the UNGASS. Mothers from Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador whose children have been murdered or disappeared came to bear witness to the seat of power, the place that could really create a global shift to stop the war on drugs.

But there was no occupant of the White House or the State Department in New York to hear their urgent lament for a change.

No visionary speech from President Obama, and he’s already given so many at home. One that would have completed the circle on the important work he has shepherded to address the worst aspects of our racialized criminal justice system by signaling an end to the root cause of punishment industry — the failed and racist war on drugs. Hell, even President Clinton personally addressed the last UNGASS on drug policy, albeit with the lock ‘em up rhetoric of the ‘80s and ‘90s!

Sadly, there was also no diplomatic speech from our Secretary of State. Secretary Kerry’s press statement at least starts with the right note by applauding the country’s new understanding of drug dependency as a “public health — rather than a strictly criminal justice — challenge.” But the Secretary’s insistence on the viability of prior international conventions on drugs that still promote excessive law enforcement modalities in an exclusively prohibitionist paradigm sounds a lot like the same ol’, same ol’ to people of color.

And there was no programmatic speech from any Cabinet member. Secretary Burwell of Health and Human Services, we know, is on board with health at the forefront. But hearing a shift away from law enforcement strategies directly from Attorney General Lynch would have been damn-near revolutionary from our perspective. And as the first black woman in that position, it would have been a history lesson as well. And while we have seen the U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Vivek Murthy, and U.S. Drug Czar Michael Botticelli present the shift to health-centered approaches in U.S. drug policy, this Special Session requires affirmation at the highest levels of government.

Indeed, these representatives won’t even say the words harm reduction, but they will parse out some of the interventions. Can the rest of the world’s leaders who are paving the way for a change away from the prohibitionist paradigm get support directly from the President of the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs?

Yes, the Obama administration is thinking small in response to this drug crisis as Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch and Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance blogged yesterday.

But that only highlights part of the problem here. The real issue is that you cannot have been part of the week’s community-based activities without being awed by the resiliency of African-American and Latino drug activists, drug users, experts and policy makers. We are the ones who suffer the first, and most, casualties in this war against people of color who may or may not even use or sell drugs!

Domestically, the power and the promise of the radical energy in the race dialogue sponsored by the Drug Policy Alliance last Sunday - some of the best race analysis of recent times - was exactly what President Obama needed to hear to have convinced him to make a personal trek to the UNGASS. Or the President could have witnessed the holy fury of Rev. William Barber at Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem on Monday evening to fully appreciate how black and Latino souls need his personal skin in the game towards a righteous end to this drug war. I heard it and it will forever inspire me to do more.

And internationally, where do we start? Our Afro-Latina sister Miriam Miranda of OFRANEH Garifuna in Honduras traveled 5,000 kilometers to tell the world that in the name of the drug war her country commits untold violence and repression against her Garifuna community in what she justifiably calls a fraudulent and hypocritical war on drugs. Couldn’t you Americans use those billions of dollars to fix your education and community development challenges instead, she asks?

Or María Herreda of Michoacan, Mexico, who also came in the Caravan and whose humility and pain is etched in her face and heard in her voice as she names each of the six (!) family members - four of them, her children - that she lost to the drug war. They didn’t disappear, she told us, they were disappeared by the State. At the UN plaza for Monday’s rally she continued: “I am here because this is where the real decisions are made. This is where change can happen that would affect my country. This is not about drugs, it’s about people.”

President Obama, someone should have told you that the real voices that cry out for change, or true drug policy reform, are within these amazing, resilient, resistance fighters from our people of color communities in urban America, throughout Central America, the Caribbean and on through the tip of South America.

This war is a racialized war. And the best voice to signal real change in America would have been from the first black President we’ve ever had.

President Obama, we needed you here. Con nosotros.

This article was published in the HuffingtonPost and you can read it here.

Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF. To read the rest of Juan's columns Click Here

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