Forbes: Bigger Than Cannabis: Lessons From The Drug Policy Alliance Biennial Conference

Summary: “There are few organizations as important to the drug-policy reform movement as the Drug Policy Alliance,” explains author Kris Krane, in an article highlighting key takeaways from the 2019 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, a biennial event hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance.

Originally appearing here.

Depending on what brings you to my column, you may or not be aware of my roots in advocacy. Since college, my career has been dedicated to reforming the nation’s drug policies. I was part of the earliest student cohort that became Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), now the world’s largest single-issue student advocacy organization. After college, I joined the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), eventually serving as its associate director from 2000-2005, and then led SSDP as its executive director from 2006-2009. At that point, I ventured into the “cannabis industry,” but have never abandoned my advocacy roots.

To me, it’s abundantly clear the acute role activists have played in getting the cannabis industry off the ground. Cannabis, once a highly stigmatized drug, has shifted into a multi-billion-dollar industry and it’s imperative we remember that the progressive policies that got us here didn’t change themselves. With cannabis well on its way to eventually reach federal legalization, it’s time to recognize that the efforts to change cannabis policies are just one piece of a much larger movement to reform our nation’s misguided drug laws. If we want drug policies that are rooted in common sense and public health, and which don’t stigmatize and marginalize some of our nation’s most vulnerable populations, we need to see the same level of advocacy on other areas that we’ve seen on cannabis.

To that end, the Drug Policy Alliance recently held its biennial conference in St. Louis. Activists from across the globe gathered to discuss alternatives to the country’s often-draconian approaches to drugs and drug policy. Sadly, I was unable to attend the conference for the first time in a decade, so I asked Amy Hildebrand, current chair of SSDP’s board (who also happens to be my assistant at 4Front), to guest-write a column on the important insights, observations, and lessons learned at this important event.  

There are few organizations as important to the drug-policy reform movement as the Drug Policy Alliance. Founded by Ethan Nadelmann in 2000, DPA has ushered two decades of activists into the folds of the reform movement, often funneling them into smaller ponds such as SSDP, NORML, Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), among others.  

We wouldn’t have a multi-billion-dollar cannabis industry if it wasn’t for organizations like DPA and the activists it’s spawned and encouraged. The community that recently gathered in St. Louis for DPA’s biennial International Drug Policy Reform Conference is pushing its way into every policy-change conversation from sexual assault to environmental degradation with a demand for immediate shifts.  

There has not been a single recorded overdose death attributed to cannabis. However, flip on any local news station and you’ll be bombarded by information surrounding the opioid crisis, which killed 70,000+ Americans in 2017. As was discussed in the panel The Overdoses Crisis in Our Backyards, the medical field treats drug abuse as a “behavioral” issue but doesn’t do the same for diabetes or heart disease, both of which can be attributed at times to sedentary lifestyle and poor diet, lifestyle choices that may exasperate a genetic predisposition. Addiction is also genetic, involuntary, and can happen to anyone.  

And as the overdose crisis rages on, we must prioritize saving lives. We must push back on the rhetoric that equipping first responders with the opioid overdose reversal drug Naloxone enables drug use. Stigma against drug users, even those who only consume cannabis, has killed thousands in the Philippines under President Duterte who has vowed to continue the killings, saying “it will be as relentless and chilling as on the day it began.” 

It’s what the United Nations recommends. The UN and World Health Organization officially support all-drug decriminalization, under the “UN system common position” adopted earlier this year. This might read as radical but it’s the common stance of those attending the DPA conference. A public health, science and safety-first approach is demanded. This means housing the chronically homeless (it’s cheaper than incarcerating them), opening more safe-consumption sites, and widespread drug checking. U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) recently introduced a bill calling for many of these things, including “decriminalizing addiction, homelessness, poverty, HIV status, and disabilities, including mental health diagnosis, by legalizing marijuana and overdose prevention sites.” This is a huge step in the right direction.  

It is a simple fact that more people of color are arrested and incarcerated for drug possession than their white counterparts despite almost identical use rates. The war on drugs has ravished the foundations of family and fortune in communities of color and we have an opportunity in front of us to begin to atone for these atrocities – with policy change and direct action, not just empty words. What most people don’t know, or perhaps conveniently choose to forget, is that most of our draconian drug laws were steeped in racial bias from the beginning. From the first anti-narcotics laws of the late 19th century outlawing “Chinese opium dens” in California to early cannabis laws targeting Mexican laborers in the Southwest to the 100-to-1 crack-cocaine sentencing disparity of the 1980s that resulted in the incarceration of a generation of young African American men. We can’t forget it, or the effects racism and colonialism have had on our society. And while the legal cannabis industry is flourishing in those U.S. states where the product has been legalized, there were still 663,367 people arrested in 2018 for the same product, according to the FBI, with a majority of those arrests falling on people of color. We must reckon with these disparities and promote policy solutions designed to rectify them.  

No, not looking at us to solve their problems, but rather looking at us to really dig into solving our own. The drastic pivots from decades of prescription drug normalization and cannabis prohibition have left those who need prescriptions to survive feeling like their path to normal is lesser—and that cannabis is a drug that can be consumed without boundary. The work being done by the representatives from the 50+ countries who were in attendance in St. Louis all have uniquely important perspectives on the U.S. manufactured war on drugs. They know, certainly better than most Americans, how important the United States’ role is in defining global policy trends—as we see in India, where Prime Minister Modi passed a ban on vaping with penalties of up to one year in prison, spurred by the American political climate.  

There is amazing work being done across the globe and in many cases they are leaps and bounds ahead of us—like in Vancouver where Good Night Out offers widespread drug checking and sexual assault prevention services in nightlife spaces and inSite, the first safe consumption site in North America. Or, those on the Mexican side of our Southern border, asking questions about how to sustainably grow psychoactive substances that have been sacrament for millennia but have recently found mainstream popularity.  

People across all races, classes and geographic boundaries love to experiment with drugs. We turn to a variety of substances for a variety of reasons—the morning cup of caffeine, champagne toasts at weddings, and sunset joints are just a few of the many ways people partake. The commonality amongst consumers is their search for something that sobriety doesn’t give them—solace after a long day at work or liquid courage on the dance floor are valid reasons. Even Kamala Harris, until recently a presidential candidate, cited the joy cannabis brings as a reason to legalize. It’s the divisions over what substances are acceptable, who is allowed to use them and at what time it’s appropriate that stoke tensions. The thread that binds those in the drug-policy reform movement together, and to their work, is their ability to recognize the spectrum of reasons why one may use drugs and the common goal of keeping all of those drug users safe, prosperous and living a life they are proud of. These principles of harm reduction encourage us to be less judgmental and more willing to meet someone where they are at. We should focus on legalizing the drugs that pose the highest risk for public health, not just the drugs we like to do.  

No longer the stuff of ‘60s legend, the psychedelic renaissance is alive and well. There is a palpable buzz around the push to further the use of LSD and psilocybin, as well as substances that fall outside of the psychedelic category—like ketamine and MDMA—both of which are gaining traction as reputable therapeutic options to treat ailments like PTSD and depression. Organizations like SSDP, in partnership with the newly formed Sana Collective, are solidifying the path to practice psychedelic-assisted therapy by guiding students from interest to impact, while MAPS is close to receiving FDA approval for prescription MDMA for the treatment of PTSD. The community at DPA is also thinking outside of the realm of clinical care and talking about spiritual and socially reparative possibilities of these substances. Pulling from powerful personal anecdotal experiences, the tangible excitement of this new era is felt tenfold in spaces like DPA where advocacy, policy and industry come to play.  

Many in the activist community have expressed concern that the nationwide vape scare may wipe away decades-long efforts to loosen government control of personal consumption habits. Driven by fear and a desire to “save the children,” municipalities across the country are toying with all out vape bans and outlawing desirable flavor options left and right. Have we learned nothing? The parallels between the vape scare and reefer madness days of old are numerous. We see how quickly politicians move when hysteria sweeps their communities, no matter how unfounded the claims. The vape scare reminds us to push for regulation and demand a safe supply of the drugs we like to use. Whether it’s fentanyl in cocaine or vitamin E acetate in illicit market THC cartridges, the problem is prohibition.  

“Cops Say Legalize Heroin, Ask Me Why” is a shirt that’s a common site at the DPA conference. (It’s from LEAP (Law Enforcement Action Partnership), which engages former law enforcement officers to speak out against the war on drugs). The perspectives shared amongst many drug-policy reformers is that of anger and disgust at the way police have handled the overdose crisis and drug war enforcement for decades. We also know that in many municipalities we need to win over the cops—or at least work alongside them—to save lives. If the chief of police won’t equip the community’s taxpayer-funded first responders with Naloxone, the job of volunteer overdose prevention specialists could be much harder. And of course, enforcing the drug war isn’t just in the hands of police officers. Judges and prosecutors are as much tools of oppression as they can be instruments of change. The debate over whether such a thing as a “progressive prosecutor” may continue on, but it is undeniable that reform-minded prosecutors, such as St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, can play an important role in dismantling mass incarceration. A former public defender, Bell spoke on a conference plenary and stated that he never thought he would become a prosecutor but had come to realize that as long as the current power structure is in place, reform-minded prosecutors can be the difference between freedom and incarceration for many individuals. 

Change is often uncomfortable and history, even more often, forgotten before being repeated. The past decade of drug-policy reform has moved quite fast, and our societal stance on drugs, especially cannabis, has shifted dramatically in a short period of time. Being in an environment like that of the DPA conference serves as a reminder of the mountains that have been climbed and those whose summits linger in the distance, seemingly insurmountable and unfathomably far. Movements are built and policy changes won on common ground. The more we can help each other and, more importantly, those who have been most impacted by the failed war on drugs, the more we help inch closer to existing in a society we can all be proud of.