The Drug Policy Reform Task Force, authorized by the 2014 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to educate the church and make recommendations to the 2016 General Assembly for reforming drug laws, met May 1-3, 2015, in El Paso, Texas, and the neighboring city of Juarez, Mexico. 

Hosted by Grace Presbyterian Church in El Paso, the task force hearing featured a range of experts addressing issues particular to the border region. In addition to the hearing, the team heard from U.S. Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement authorities, met with a drug court judge and his staff, spoke with high school probation and drug counselors, and spent an afternoon and evening in Juarez. From 2008-2012, the Mexican border town was an epicenter of conflict—experiencing thousands of deaths from drug cartel and military violence.

A key part of the task force’s mandate is to examine the impacts and effectiveness of the “war on drugs,” both in the U.S. and in countries affected by the U.S. market for narcotics along with U.S. policies intended to prevent their entry. To understand these issues better the team heard from Gilberto Gonzalez, a retired senior officer in the Drug Enforcement Agency and chief of the Texas Narcotics Officers Association, and Richard Newton, a long-time drug interdiction pilot now active with Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

The team stayed at Casa Vides, a shelter for asylum seekers from Central American countries and Mexico, and heard from Ruben Garcia, the long time director of Annunciation House, a related shelter. Garcia provided information gathered from his tracking of patterns of immigration related to drug trafficking and violence over the past two decades. The task force’s consultant, John Lindsay-Poland, who worked with the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee, gave a report on military responses to drug production and transport across the region.

Kathy Staudt, a political science professor at the University of Texas and elder at University Presbyterian Church in Austin, provided key assistance to the task force. Author or co-author of 18 books, many on cross-border dynamics and civic resistance to violence, Staudt has also worked with local political leaders, including U.S. Congressman Beto O’Rourke, D-Texas, to address issues of drug policies and drug-related violence.

Two other elders from University Presbyterian also spoke on the panel: Oscar Martinez, a professor of History at the University of Arizona, and Mark Lusk, a professor of Social Work at the University of Texas. Martinez outlined relevant economic history while Lusk, a former drug counselor, described migrant trauma related to the drug war and an approach to decriminalization that emphasized prevention and harm reduction for some addictive substances.

The task force heard from two additional academic resources at the even. Jeremy Stack, a political geographer at University of Texas, has coordinated research on migration with support from the Ford Foundation. Zulma Mendez, an anthropologist at The College of Chihuahua, Mexico, guided the team through central Juarez and convened members of a “grupo de articulacion” to discuss human rights, women’s rights, youth concerns and report on drug use in the city. All 15 participants in the grupo gave testimony to how they had been personally affected by the murders that transfixed Juarez and the extortion and kidnappings that caused many others to relocate.

Other panel members at Grace Presbyterian were: Alfredo Holguin, leader of Mexicanos en Exilio; Kelly Wells, director of Roman Catholic Diocesan Migrant and Refugee Services; and Susie Byrd, El Paso schools trustee and co-author of a book on redirecting drug war resources with Congressman O’Rourke.

Corrections and judicial resources also spoke to the task force including Roger Martinez and two associates from the El Paso Juvenile Probation department and Judge Patrick Garcia and associates, who administer a drug court along with other justice system duties. One of the task force members, Eleventh Circuit Court Judge James Rowe of W. Va., also serves as a drug court judge.

In addition to the El Paso meeting and hearing, the task force previously met at Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Calif., and will meet in Denver, Colo., June 18-20, and Charleston, W. Va., Sept. 17-19.

Those interested in upcoming hearings or contributing their expertise to the task force are asked to contact the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy. The current issue of the online journal www.JusticeUnbound.org addresses drug policy.