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To “Break the Chains” of the Drug War

On Wednesday night in the Student Union, University of Massachusetts students welcomed Deborah Peterson Small, executive director of Break the Chains, “one of the only national organizations committed to educating and empowering communities of color to reverse the negative effects of punitive drug policies,” in her words.

Sponsored by the Cannabis Reform Coalition, the event featured a presentation by Ms. Small discussing the effects of the drug war on minorities across the country. A lifetime native of New York City, Small explained the context that moved her to dedicate more than ten years of her life to the cause of reforming drug policies in the United States.

A witness to the influx of heroin in the 70s and the crisis of crack in the 80s, Small described her exasperation in seeing the drug war still fueling police action against minorities in poverty stricken inner-city environments.

Examining both the economic causes of drug dealing in cities and the logic behind contemporary drug policy, Small took issue with the drug war by illustrating the disproportionate effects that drug policies have on minorities and the damage that legislation has brought in response to drug-related crimes.

“Breaking the chains,” she explained, does not describe “breaking the chains of addiction.” The criminal justice system in the United States, she elaborated, imposes what she called fear-based legislation that causes more harm than good by liberally meting out prison sentences to people charged with possession of small amounts of drugs.

As she detailed in her presentation, not only do harsh prison sentences treat these non-violent criminals more strictly than almost any other country in the world, the vast majority of people arrested for drug crimes are young males of African-American or Latino descent. In a section of her presentation titled “Futures Up In Smoke,” Small described some of the effects felt by young minorities who, once arrested with a small quantity of marijuana, lose many opportunities later in life due to post-conviction sanctions—statutes that in part keep convicted criminals from re-entering the work force. Post-conviction sanctions, along with mandatory minimum sentencing and other legislation, she argued, contribute to a form of “American apartheid.”

Small’s presentation, beginning by citing statistics to illustrate the situation of the underrepresented victims of the so-called War on Drugs, went on to describe the outcry that is being ignored by mainstream political discussion concerning victims who turn to drug use and sales. Small made use of multiple videos in her presentation, starting with the testimony of a woman who was “caught in the net,” a woman serving multiple decades for what she held were the crimes of her husband.

Small held back nothing when reprimanding a criminal justice system that punishes women as accessories when she claimed they are often the victims, nothing that 75 percent of incarcerated women have a history of abuse, whether physical, sexual or otherwise. Incarceration for involvement, she stressed, is senseless when it amounts to punishing victims, whether of abuse or addiction.

In the audience were many eager listeners, both students and members of the local community.

Dick Evans, a local policy advocate who authored a bill for full legalization and taxation of cannabis, House Bill 2929/Senate Bill 1801, said he saw the coming months as “more optimistic than ever.”

With a new generation of voters concerned with pragmatic politics, the dissipation of longstanding fear around the issue of drug policy is signaling “a wind at our backs” for the future of drug policy, Evans said.

A self proclaimed critical thinker, Deborah Small let the ensuing discussion delve into the philosophy that has justified American drug policy, with heavy prison sentencing derived from what she said is fear from people with no experience with drugs, legislators, and the economics behind the prison-industrial complex.

When asked, “How do we break the chains?” Small’s response was far ranging.

Advocacy needs to come from the people being oppressed, she stressed.

However, since the generation of young people emerging into civic power sees past the contradictory rhetoric of prohibition-era policy, Small feels, she concluded by reminding the audience that democratic participation is crucial to ending the war on drugs, letting punishment fit crimes and guaranteeing that, in the future, lawmakers will seek to address the causes of endemic problems instead of locking people behind bars.

Nelson Klein can be reached at

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