Feature: Fired Up in Albuquerque -- The 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference

Jazzed by the sense that the tide is finally turning their way, more than a thousand people interested in changing drug policies flooded into Albuquerque, New Mexico, last weekend for the 2009 International Drug Policy Reform Conference, hosted by the Drug Policy Alliance. Police officers in suits mingled with aging hippies, politicians met with harm reductionists, research scientists chatted with attorneys, former prisoners huddled with state legislators, and marijuana legalizers mingled with drug treatment professionals -- all united by the belief that drug prohibition is a failed policy.

https://stopthedrugwar.org/files/vigildpa09.jpg
candlelight vigil outside the Albuquerque Convention Center (courtesy Drug Policy Alliance)
As DPA's Ethan Nadelmann said before and repeated at the conference's opening session: "We are the people who love drugs, we are the people who hate drugs, we are the people that don't care about drugs," but who do care about the Constitution and social justice. "The wind is at our backs," Nadelmann chortled, echoing and amplifying the sense of progress and optimism that pervaded the conference like never before.

For three days, conference-goers attended a veritable plethora of panels and breakout sessions, with topics ranging from the drug war in Mexico and South America to research on psychedelics, from implementing harm reduction policies in rural areas to legalizing marijuana, from how to organize for drug reform to what sort of treatment works, and from medical marijuana to prescription heroin.

It was almost too much. At any given moment, several fascinating panels were going on, ensuring that at least some of them would be missed even by the most interested. The Thursday afternoon time bloc, for example, had six panels: "Medical Marijuana Production and Distribution Systems," "After Vienna: Prospects for UN and International Reform," "Innovative Approaches to Sentencing Reform," "Examining Gender in Drug Policy Reform," "Artistic Interventions for Gang Involved Youth," and "The Message is the Medium: Communications and Outreach Without Borders."

The choices weren't any easier at the Friday morning breakout session, with panels including "Marijuana Messaging that Works," "Fundraising in a Tough Economy," "Congress, President Obama, and the Drug Czar," "Zoned Out" (about "drug-free zones"), "Psychedelic Research: Neuroscience and Ethnobotanical Roots," "Opioid Overdose Prevention Workshop," and "Border Perspectives: Alternatives to the 40-Year-Old War on Drugs."

People came from all over the United States -- predominantly from the East Coast -- as well as South Africa, Australia, Canada, Europe (Denmark, England, France, Hungary, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Scotland, and Switzerland), Latin America (Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico), and Asia (Cambodia and Thailand).

Medical marijuana was one of the hot topics, and New Mexico, which has just authorized four dispensaries, was held up as a model by some panelists. "If we had a system as clear as New Mexico's, we'd be in great shape," said Alex Kreit, chair of a San Diego task force charged with developing regulations for dispensaries there.

"Our process has been deliberate, which you can also read as 'slow,'" responded Steve Jenison, medical director of the state Department of Health's Infectious Disease Bureau. "But our process will be a very sustainable one. We build a lot of consensus before we do anything."

Jenison added that the New Mexico, which relies on state-regulated dispensaries, was less likely to result in diversion than more open models, such as California's. "A not-for-profit being regulated by the state would be less likely to be a source of diversion to the illicit market," Jenison said.

For ACLU Drug Policy Law Project attorney Allen Hopper, such tight regulation has an added benefit: it is less likely to excite the ire of the feds. "The greater the degree of state involvement, the more the federal government is going to leave the state alone," Hopper said.

At Friday's plenary session, "Global Drug Prohibition: Costs, Consequences and Alternatives," Australia's Dr. Alex Wodak amused the audience by likening the drug war to "political Viagra" in that it "increases potency in elections." But he also made the more serious point that the US has exported its failed drug policy around the world, with deleterious consequences, especially for producer or transit states like Afghanistan, Bolivia, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru.

At that same session, former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda warned that Latin American countries feel constrained from making drug policy reforms because of the glowering presence of the US. Drug reform is a "radioactive" political issue, he said, in explaining why it is either elder statesmen, such as former Brazilian President Cardoso or people like himself, "with no political future," who raise the issue. At a panel the following day, Castaneda made news by bluntly accusing the Mexican army of executing drug traffickers without trial. (See related story here).

It wasn't all listening to panels. In the basement of the Albuquerque Convention Center, dozens of vendors showed off their wares, made their sales, and distributed their materials as attendees wandered through between sessions. And for many attendees, it was as much a reunion as a conference, with many informal small group huddles taking place at the center and in local bars and restaurants and nearby hotels so activists could swap experiences and strategies and just say hello again.

The conference also saw at least two premieres. On the first day of the conference, reporters and other interested parties repaired to a Convention Center conference room to see the US unveiling of the British Transform Drug Policy Foundation publication, After the War on Drugs: A Blueprint for Legalization, a how-to manual on how to get to drug reform's promised land. Transform executive director Danny Kushlick was joined by Jack Cole of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Studies, Deborah Small of Break the Chains, and DPA's Nadelmann as he laid out the case for moving beyond "what would it look like."

"There's never been a clear vision of a post-prohibition world," said Kushlick. "With this, we've tried to reclaim drug policy from the drug warriors. We want to make drug policy boring," he said. "We want not only harm reduction, but drama reduction," he added, envisioning debates about restrictions on sales hours, zoning, and other dreary topics instead of bloody drug wars and mass incarceration.

"As a movement, we have failed to articulate the alternative," said Tree. "And that leaves us vulnerable to the fear of the unknown. This report restores order to the anarchy. Prohibition means we have given up on regulating drugs; this report outlines some of the options for regulation."

That wasn't the only unveiling Thursday. Later in the evening, Flex Your Rights held the first public showing of a near-final version of its new video, 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. The screening of the self-explanatory successor to Flex Your Right's 2003 "Busted" -- which enjoyed a larger budget and consequently higher production level -- played to a packed and enthusiastic house. This highly useful examination of how not to get yourself busted is bound to equal if not exceed the break-out success of "Busted." "10 Rules" was one of a range of productions screened during a two-night conference film festival.

The conference ended Saturday evening with a plenary address by former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who came out as a legalizer back in 2001, and was welcomed with waves of applause before he ever opened his mouth. "It makes no sense to spend the kind of money we spend as a society locking up people for using drugs and using the criminal justice system to solve the problem," he said, throwing red meat to the crowd.

We'll do it all again two years from now in Los Angeles. See you there!

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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