Sunday, June 26, 2016

The Sixteenth International Conference on Penal Abolition


Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar, Quito, Ecuador, June 16-18, 2016


Hal Pepinsky,, “peacemaking” at



                A major gift I have received at every ICOPA in which I have participated[i] is for local activists to present the rest of us with the primary problems of violence and punishment generally and state violence and incarceration particularly which they face, and seek to transform.

                The most profound knowledge I bring home to the US from ICOPA 16 comes from the testimony of mothers trapped into serving as mules or couriers for drug cartels, alongside testimony from their families, activists and human rights lawyers, as ultimate victims of warriors trained, sponsored and corrupted by US wars on drugs.  The mothers initially agree to carry a drug shipment, most commonly to Europe, out of a desperate need to feed their families.  They represent an ethnic rainbow of those who live in poverty, but are primarily indigenous.  They are forced to continue serving as couriers by cartels who threaten otherwise to kill their families.  As in all wars, women and children are the ultimate victims of drug wars—fought by police, (para-)military forces and judges trained and funded by the School of the Americas and its successors in the US, often in US-based privatized prisons, stirred on by US drug enforcement agents (with some exceptions, as in Bolivia where President Evo Morales expelled them).

                 I came to ICOPA 16 well aware of the racist depictions of Chinese and Latin American immigrants that led heroin, cocaine and marijuana to become the basic targets of US drug enforcement.  I had known in theory that underclass young people of color pay by far the largest price for inherently counterproductive drug wars.  I owe it to the organizers of ICOPA 16 to know for real and personally that once again, as in all patriarchal, militarized worlds, it is the mothers who are enslaved into trafficking and their children whom our US-sponsored drug warriors supply to fill beds in US-built and operated prisons.

                At one of the conference sessions featuring the plight of mothers in prison, on “prison and drug use,” I asked the panelists whether they shared a vision of legalizing heroin, cocaine, and marijuana.  I mentioned several examples: heroin maintenance first introduced in Switzerland in 1994 after methadone “treatment” had failed, cocaine use as when I chewed coca leaves in Bolivia to climb hills without getting winded, or as extracted from the leaves (which are sent to Coca Cola to be blended with caffeine, and still, extract of the kola nut which has never been criminalized) for dental and medical use in the US, or marijuana as now legalized in several US states.  Ecuadoran human rights attorney Ernesto Pazmiño responded that an effort was being made to legalize marijuana possession and growth for personal use.  I had lunch with a family member and an activist from the region who were quite interested in how various West European countries had decriminalized and legalized drug use and possession.

                Throughout the world, the largest single contributor to incarceration is the detention of underclass people of color for drug possession and trafficking.   As drug wars have expanded, in the US as now I see in Latin America, young mothers of color have become those whose incarceration rate has climbed fastest, have become the leading bounty of our drug wars.  It is so obviously, uncontrovertibly the leading product of all our drug wars as to legally constitute the intended, primary product of our drug wars, to constitute the war crime of racially, primarily, targeting innocent underclass children and their de facto enslaved mothers, to fill prison beds in wars where failure to control drugs justifies escalation.  You might well say that this is drug warriors’ primary accomplishment.

                Because drug wars are the single greatest contributor to incarceration, understanding the history of drug wars and the effects of drug use have been a primary interest of mine since I entered criminology.  In our article on “Controlling Drug Use” (Criminal Justice Policy Review 13, no. 1, 21-31, March 2002; pdf available on request), I join Kevin Whiteacre in taking a public health or “peacemaking” approach to drug control, where drug users become one another’s primary source of information on good and ill effects of ways drugs are used, alongside information “authoritative sources” have to offer, where treatment for ill effects is available—all in all, efforts at harm reduction instead of prohibition.  Opiates including heroin, coca(ine) and marijuana and its derivatives are not inherently good or bad. As with all substances we eat, drink and inhale, it is the preparation, amount and administration of these drugs that makes the difference.  Unlike many pharmaceuticals and other things we consume, heroin and marijuana are not even inherently toxic; it is only when they are contaminated for illicit distribution that they may become poisonous—another argument for legalization.

                As a US citizen, a criminologist, and an educator, I feel a special responsibility to offer Latin Americans whatever testimony, consultation or assistance I might in drug cases, in political discussions, and in educational settings, regarding the neo-colonial history, politics and counterproductivity of drug prohibition, and positive ways to prevent and treat adverse effects of drug use as public health policy; just as I have long felt a special obligation to raise awareness in the violence and human destruction of the drug wars we launch and sponsor, which fall most heavily on economically desperate mothers and children of color everywhere.  I am especially grateful to the organizers and Latin American participants at ICOPA 16 for featuring this as the most egregious problem of “criminal justice” they face, for which we of the US are primarily responsible.  The first political step to making peace with drug use is noticing and recognizing the harm done by US-led wars on drugs; the challenge is to change course.  Criminologists are fond of ranking the seriousness of crime and violence.  As far as I’m concerned, the violence done to women in Latin America for drug trafficking, and their children, is as serious as organized violence and crime can get.  Special thanks to ICOPA 16 organizers and participants for making this reality so plain and personal.  Love and peace, hal


[i] I have participated in every prior ICOPA from ICOPA 3 in 1987 to ICOPA 14, missing ICOPA 15 in Ottawa due to family obligations.  I organized ICOPA 5 in Bloomington, Indiana, USA, in 1991, where the conference program was grounded in the healing traditions, and experience particularly of incarceration, of indigenous peoples of North America.

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