2013 International Drug Policy Reform Conference in celebratory mood following recent cannabis achievements

The dust has now settled on the Drug Policy Alliance’s International Drug Policy Reform Conference in Denver last month – attended by three Transform staff as well as a more than a 1,000 drug policy experts and activists from around the world. The conference is held every two years and chance had it that this year it would be in Denver, Colorado – one of the two states that had made history last year by becoming the first jurisdictions anywhere in the world to legalise and regulate cannabis.

There was understandably a sense of celebration in the air, a feeling that, as DPA Executive Director Ethan Nadelmann put it, a tipping point had been reached.  The sense that  at least with the US cannabis debate  the reform position was winning the day was solidified by polling earlier in the week of the conference that showed 58% of the US public now supported cannabis legalisation – a jump of 10% in a year.

But many were also keen to stress that celebrations should not be premature – as Ira Glasser, the DPA’s board president and a former head of the ACLU, made clear in his closing plenary speech“We haven’t won. Not only because it’s only two states out of fifty, but because it’s only one issue out of many. Marijuana legalization ain’t enough.”

Reflecting this, the conference was about much more than just US cannabis policy, with an impressive array of speakers, sessions, workshops and events covering a broad range of topics that encompassed treatment and harm reduction, international law, policing and issues for key affected populations in the US and around the world. Transform staff were involved in a number of sessions:

We hosted a training workshop for Latin American delegates built around our new publication ‘Terminando la guerra contra las drogas: cómo ganar el debate en América Latina’ (Ending the war on drugs: winning the debate in Latin America).

The Transform team: Aram Barra, Steve Rolles, and Lisa Sanchez – at the workshop of our publication ‘Terminando la guerra contra las drogas: cómo ganar el debate en América Latina’.

Steve Rolles, Transform’s senior policy analyst, spoke at a roundtable on developments in international cannabis policy, chaired by Graham Boyd, joining:

  • Congressman Julio Bango, Uruguay MP, Montevideo, Uruguay
  • Jorge Hernandez Tinajero, President, Collective for an Integral Drug Policy, Mexico City, Mexico
  • Sam Kamin, Director, Constitutional Rights & Remedies Program and Professor, Sturm College of Law, University  of Denver, Denver, CO
  • Beau Kilmer, Co-Director of RAND Drug Policy Research Center, Santa Monica, CA
  • Pat Oglesby, Founder and Director, The Center for New Revenue, Chapel Hill, NC
  • Dick Reinking, Senior Policy Advisor, Gemeente Utrecht, The Netherlands

Some of the issues Steve spoke about at this session are covered in this short interview from the conference by Tim Bigham:

Lisa Sanchez, Transform/MUCD Latin America Programme Coordinator, spoke at a session on wider reforms around the world, charied by Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch from the Open Society Global Drug Policy Program, New York. They joined:

  • Damon Barrett, Deputy Director, Harm Reduction International, London, England
  • Allan Clear, Executive Director, Harm Reduction Coalition (HRC), New York, NY
  • Donald Macpherson, Executive Director, Canadian  drug Policy Coalition, Vancouver, Canada
  • Rebeca  Lerer , Global Commission on Drug Policy, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • Mike Trace, Chair, International Drug Policy Consortium (IDPC), London, England

Following her presentation, Lisa was invited by the conference organisers to speak at to the packed closing plenary. Here’s her speech:


Meanwhile, Aram Barra, Latin American Programme Officer for MUCD/TDPF, spoke at a panel on young people and drug policy reform. During his participation, Aram summarised some of the key challenges for integrating young people into the reform movement in Latin America, as well as the particular problems that young people face in the region. At the panel, he was joined by:

  • Stacia Cosner, Interim Executive Director,  Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Washington, DC
  • Chino Hardin, Field Coordinator, Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions, Brooklyn, NY
  • Tanay Lynn Harris, Community Organizer, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, New York, NY
  • Eduardo “LaLo” Montoya, Independent Associate, LegalShield, Denver, CO
  • Jared Moffat, Director of Outreach and Planning, Protect Families First, Providence, RI
  • Missi Wooldridge, Board President and Denver Director, DanceSafe, Denver, CO

It was also fascinating to actually witness a legally regulated cannabis market first hand, with the conference organising tours of local facilities for delegates, and a host of visiting dignitaries and parliamentarians from Latin America. While not everything about Colorado’s legal cannabis model fits with Transform thinking (which will be explored in detail in our upcoming publication ‘How to Regulate Cannabis: A Practical Guide’), it was striking to see the contrast between the highly organised and heavily regulated business models of production and sale on show in Denver and chaotic criminal market we are all more familiar with on the streets of cities elsewhere in the world.  This is a legal grow facility for one of Colorado’s medical cannabis dispensaries: 

So huge congratulations to the Drug Policy Alliance team for organising such an impressive, diverse and wide ranging conference. It will be fascinating to see how much further down the road we are in 2015, when the next reform conference will be held in Washington DC.