Drug war catharsis in the US capital

Flyer for Catharsis on the Mall

An interactive art installation, dedicated to the victims of the drug war, will be burned in Washington D.C. on Saturday. Prior to burning, the sculpture – Temple of Essence – will be placed on the National Mall, during a 48-hour vigil entitled Catharsis on the Mall: A Vigil for Healing the Drug War.

Event organiser, Robert Haferd, describes the vigil as “the first of its kind on the National Mall”, and emphasises that this will be a peaceful event that has been approved by local authorities. “Through art and peaceful expression”, Haferd explains, “we are demonstrating the transition to a more compassionate society”.

The location of this event is deeply poignant, as it is from Washington D.C. that the US government launched its repressive prohibitionist drug laws. It has been almost 45 years since President Richard Nixon stood at Capitol Hill, declaring the initiation of the “War on Drugs”.

The consequences of this war have been profound and ubiquitous – and the artists behind Catharsis on the Mall hope that their event will be too. Michael Verdon, one of the project’s artists, outlines his intention: “As the temple burns, we will turn our individual experiences into a collective memory and heal as a community.”

The event will offer artistic inspiration and intellectual stimulation for attendees. Music, dance, and exhibits will be featured, and the public will be encouraged to share stories of their experiences during open mic sessions. Speeches will be delivered by drug policy experts, as well as by individuals who have been personally affected by prohibitionist policies.

Anthony Papa’s self-portrait, ’15 to Life’

Among the speakers is Ifetayo Harvey, Executive Assistant at the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), who fell victim to the War on Drugs as a child – when her father was deported for a first-time drug offense. Harvey will be joined by the Drug Policy Alliance’s media relations manager, Anthony Papa. Papa spent twelve years in prison after a first-time drug offense, and became an esteemed artist during his incarceration, producing powerful paintings that depicted the harshness of prison life.

As the tide begins to turn in domestic and international drug policy, this event offers an opportunity for people to reflect upon the historic harms of the drug war, as well as to look forward positively about future reform. Natalie Lyla Ginsberg, event organiser and Policy and Advocacy Manager at MAPS, describes Catharsis on the Mall as a “time to come together to celebrate and heal”, as we transition “from the traumatic war on drugs, to policies grounded in public health and human rights”.


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