This article was originally published in the International Digital Times here.
I’m packed inside a crowded elevator at the Sheraton Downtown Denver, Colorado’s largest hotel. As the car races down and settles onto the concourse level, someone in front of me remarks, “These drug guys are really serious.”
He’s referring to the attendees of the four-day Reform Conference that collects advocates from all corners of the globe to discuss sensible drug policy reform.
Speaking to thousands gathered in a cavernous conference hall, the opening speaker remarks, “Colorado was always the Mile-High City…even before marijuana reform.” The Centennial State, being on the forefront of recent marijuana legalization, is a fitting place to hold the summit. Beginning in January of next year, it will be legal to purchase marijuana in Colorado and Washington for recreational purposes as part of Amendment 64 and Initiative 502, respectively.
Ethan Nadelmann, Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) that organized the conference, takes the stage to deliver a rousing, passionate speech delivered with such conviction that cheers burst from the audience. “We’ve hit the tipping point on marijuana. Fifty-eight percent of our citizens say it’s time to legalize it,” he says, citing a recent Gallup poll that shows the plant has gained increasing widespread acceptance since 2001, when only a third supported legalization. Our relationship to cannabis has changed from even five years ago, as evidenced by the recent boon of medical marijuana.
“There are three types of people here,” says Nadelmann, referring to the assembly of people gathered for the speech. “There are those who use drugs responsibly. Then there are the people that hate drugs, who’ve seen the horrors of drug addiction firsthand. And then there are those who don’t give a damn about drugs, but don’t want a war permeated on racism and increasing prison populations.”
A conference based on advocacy groups and public outreach needs this kind of fire if it’s going to affect real change. The reform movement isn’t about legalizing drugs so we can sit zonked out on the couch unable to move. It’s about fewer incarcerations for minor drug offenses. It’s about providing information about illicit substances to partygoers so they can be taken more responsibly. It’s about providing clean needles to addicts so they are less at risk of contracting or spreading HIV.
One might think the conference is comprised of Burning Man burnouts and acid casualties left over from the nineties rave scene. Rather, the turnout has brought together professors from Ivy League institutions, law enforcement officials against drug prohibition, concerned mothers against the drug war, and libertarians and conservatives that maintain they should have the freedom to do what they want to their bodies. It’s an enormous cross-section of people, perhaps because the issue cuts across many lifestyles, at the center of it all being basic human rights, many of which have been eroded over time by the pointless slog of Nixon’s War on Drugs.
The conference addresses the complex issue of how we interact with illicit substances through intellectual discourse. Some of the varied topics discussed involve the politics of drug research, challenges in dealing with the United Nations, harm reduction, and how the legalization of psychedelics may be a very different journey than the one for marijuana. A vendor area outside the panel rooms hosts a plethora of advocacy groups, many of which have lengthy reports free for the taking. With staples of the scene such as the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) but also lesser-known groups like Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), the Harborside Health Center cannabis dispensary, and Good Chemistry, there is a lot of information to soak in. There are several film screenings as well as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) sessions provided in tandem with the conference.
I attended a similar conference in Oakland earlier this year organized by the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS), an organization at the forefront of developing legitimate experiments on various psychoactive compounds sanctioned by both the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). This conference is more research-oriented than Reform, and is centered on single speakers explaining recent findings in their clinical trials. One such study concerns MDMA, or Ecstasy, which has sparked recent concern in the news as the current party drug. Researchers at MAPS are finding the substance, which began as a therapeutic drug, has enormous value in a clinical setting for helping war veterans deal with post-traumatic stress disorder. LSD (“acid”) and Psilocybin (“magic mushrooms”) have been administered to terminally ill cancer patients to help ease their end-of-life anxiety. Ayahuasca and Ibogaine have been utilized to cease smoking in people inhaling over a pack a day, and most recently, concerned parents petitioned for permission to use a marijuana tincture to treat their five year-old son’s seizures.
These kinds of research seem to suggest drugs may have some uses given the appropriate context. Substances traditionally thought of as harmful could be thought of as potential tools for understanding ourselves as well as treating a range of maladies. Prohibiting alcohol during the 1920s and 30s led to an increase in mafia activity and an underground criminal market. It is no historical secret that alcohol continued to be consumed in large quantities. Similarly, drug prohibition has not been shown to cease usage. The lack of information and safety, compounded with an uncontrolled black market fueled by existent consumer demand, leads to more indirect victims of the drug war. This was most recently seen in the tragic deaths at the Electric Zoo Festival in New York City, deaths that might have been prevented if the users were informed of the composition of the substances they were taking. Decriminalization and regulation of scheduled substances points to a better way of interacting with narcotics. The Transform Drug Policy Foundation has helped launch this conversation by publishing an exhaustive report titled “After the War on Drugs: Blueprint for Regulation” which discusses five possible regulatory scenarios of varying restrictiveness that could provide better alternatives than the systems currently in place. These are modeled after regulatory systems for more societally acceptable substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, and prescription medications.
Though marijuana distribution will soon become a reality for the denizens of Colorado, there is still a lot of work for improving public policy and generating public awareness. During the conference, a victory march for Amendment 64 was organized through the 16th Street Mall, the main strip of retail stores and restaurants in downtown Denver. As conference attendees shouted for “No more drug war,” it reminded me that while there was progress, the battle was far from over. Still, the amendment is a testament to how social mores can change if the right message, coupled with accurate information, is put behind it. The comment the observer in the elevator made about “drug guys” being serious is true, because these are issues worth being serious about.
On the final day of the conference, Nadelmann again rallies his troops by showing a video shot by the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union covering the conference. I’m surprised by how quickly the film came together; it’s surreal to be watching an event I’m still attending.
The conference concludes with Ira Glasser, the Board President of the DPA and former Executive Director of the ACLU. As if echoing my sentiment from the march, he states that, “We haven’t won yet. This isn’t because it’s only two out of fifty states, but because it’s one issue of many.” Speaking in a slow, thoughtful voice, he continues, “This isn’t the beginning of the end, but it just may be the end of the beginning.”