Call for Proposals: “Challenging Punishment: Race, Public Health, and the War on Drugs”

Harry Anslinger, the Original Drug Czar, 1930-1962

Editor’s Note: last summer, Points ran a call for participants in a working group focused on “Challenging Punishment”; this conference is a related but separate event, with its own deadlines.

Friday 4 October and Saturday 5 October, 2013 will see the Challenging Punishment Conference, a two-day critical dialogue among scholars and researchers; health and legal workers; activists and advocates; artists and cultural producers to discuss the relevant issues about the War on Drugs, declared by President Richard Milhouse Nixon in 1971 and now in its fifth decade. The meetings will be held in New York City, on the campus of Columbia University and at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York Public Library). The institutional sponsor is the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), at Columbia University. Organizers Donna Murch, Associate Professor of History, Rutgers University and Samuel Roberts, Associate Professor of History (Columbia University) and Sociomedical Sciences (Mailman School of Public Health) invite interested parties to submit detailed abstracts of no more than 500 words, describing papers, projects, or panels to challengingpunishment [at] gmail [dot] com by 15 February 2013.

We are facing a moment of crisis and opportunity in the United States’ War(s) on Drugs (WoD). Official federal sanction against drug use is nearly a century old. For many decades since, there have been dissenting voices calling for the relaxation or abandonment of criminal penalties in favor of addiction treatment, mental health care provision, and other public health measures. More recently, even many law enforcement officials, former drug warriors, and conservative opinion makers have declared the War on Drugs a resounding failure. Punitive response continues nonetheless as the nation’s dominant domestic and international drug policy; and drug-related prosecutions since 1980 constitute the largest category of offenses contributing to the expansion of the prison system and — more generally — the carceral state. The War on Drugs is now a crisis of immense proportions.

This conference’s title, “Challenging Punishment,” has two meanings. On the one hand, it refers to the current state of substance abuse policy — which favors incarceration and social immobilization (punishment) over mental health care provision and community empowerment — that very literally challenges the realization of social justice, autonomy, and freedom. At the same time, the participants assembled for this conference will individually and collectively challenge this state of affairs within a wide range of academic/disciplinary research agendas, professional engagements, political mobilizations, and creative expressions.

Topics to be addressed will include (but are not limited to): the carceral state, criminal and juvenile justice policy; importance of race, class gender, sexuality, citizenship status and indigeneity in driving drug policy and mass incarceration; public health and therapeutic culture; punitive vs. redistributive social policy; informal, illicit and underground economies; licit drugs and pharmaceutical industry; culture wars and drug wars; and finally, mobilizing and building coalitions against the War on Drugs.