By Phillip Smith
Led by Ethan Nadelmann since its formation 17 years ago, the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) has been the most influential drug reform organization in the country, with a hand in advancing the causes not only of medical marijuana and marijuana legalization, but of drug law reform more broadly, in all its manifestations and intersectionality.
Thanks in good part to Nadelmann’s vision and the efforts of DPA — and its campaign and lobbying arm, the Drug Policy Action Network — in state houses and court houses, in Congress and the executive branch, in media outreach and educational campaigns, the drug laws in America have changed for the better. Pot has gone mainstream, the mass incarceration mania of the Reaganite drug war (abetted by too many Democrats) has broken, sensible and life-saving harm reduction measures are spreading.
But now Nadelmann is gone — at least as director or staff — and DPA and the drug reform community face a Trump administration apparently intent on reviving and revitalizing the worst of drug war practices from the last century. Nadelmann’s successor not only has big shoes to fill, but also faces reactionary impulses in Washington.
That successor is Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno, holder of a law degree from New York University School of Law and for the past 13 years Co-Director of the US Program for Human Rights Watch (HRW), where she picked up plenty of domestic drug policy experience. There, she managed a team that fights against racial discrimination in law enforcement, punitive sentencing, and deportation policies that tear families apart — all issues inextricably intertwined with the war on drugs.
The bilingual McFarland Sánchez-Moreno grew up in Peru and spent her early years at HRW researching Colombia, where drug profits helped fuel a decades-long civil war and corroded governmental legitimacy through corruption. That sharpened her awareness of the need for social justice and drug policy reform. She also pushed for the group to more directly take on the war on drugs as a human rights issue, and as a result, HRW became the first major international human rights organization to call for drug decriminalization and global drug reform. [Ed: McFarland’s help and advice made it possible for Human Rights Watch to endorse our UNGASS sign-on statement.]
She is regularly quoted and published in national and international media, has testified before Congress on multiple occasions and has extensive experience advocating with US congressional offices, the White House, and the Departments of State, Justice and Defense. She recently authored a non-fiction book, There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia, which will be published by Nation Books in February 2018.
Now, McFarland Sánchez-Moreno turns to drug reform as her primary remit, at the head of an organization with a $15 million budget; offices in California, Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, and Washington, DC; a considerable cadre of experienced and talented professionals; and a well-earned reputation for being able to make drug reform actually happen. Drug War Chronicle spoke with McFarland Sánchez-Moreno on Friday about what lies ahead.
Drug War Chronicle: You’re about to head the most powerful drug reform group on the planet. What is it about you and your experience that makes you the person for this job?
Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: I don’t know that I’m the right person to ask about that, but I will say I have been passionate about drug policy for a long time; it cuts across many of the social justice issues that I’ve been involved with throughout my career, starting in Colombia documenting atrocities committed by armed groups who were overwhelmingly financed by illicit drugs and for whom trafficking was their reason for existing. I came to realize that if you got rid of the illicit market, you could do serious damage to those groups.
And that continued in my work at HRW’s US Program, covering issues like criminal justice and immigration, where you see so many vast problems in this country that are strongly linked to the war on drugs. From mass incarceration to large-scale deportations, a lot of it is people getting convicted of low-level drug offenses. And this also connects to a fundamental matter of justice: People shouldn’t face prison time for choices about what they put in their bodies, absent harm to others.
Drug War Chronicle: Does your selection suggest that DPA is going to be even more internationally focused than it is now?
McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It’s too early to say whether we will invest more internationally, but our main focus has to be domestic. We’re a national organization with offices in many states, and we want to build on that strength. There’s plenty of work to do right here, so we will remain focused on the US. While there is an argument to be made for the importance of international work, you don’t need to worry about us shifting away from the home front.
Drug War Chronicle: What are some of the key global drug policy challenges? And where do you see opportunities for positive change?
McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: Both domestically and internationally, there’s real momentum around drug reform. After Colombia, Mexico, and Guatemala called for an international discussion of drug policy, which led to last year’s UN General Assembly Special Session (UNGASS) on Drugs, the nature of the debate around drugs began to change, and we’re seeing real openness to reform in many countries. At the same time, in places like the Philippines or Indonesia, you see serious backsliding, with large scale killings in the name of fighting the war on drugs in the former and use of the death penalty in the latter. And in places like Mexico and Central America, we’re seeing very serious violence related to drug prohibition.
The international situation is complex: There are some openings, some room for progress — and when you have countries like Portugal and Uruguay moving toward reform and potentially setting good examples, that’s something to point to here at home — but we still have very, very serious problems associated with the war on drugs that we need to monitor and speak up about.
Drug War Chronicle: Here in the U.S., it’s sort of a paradoxical situation. On the one hand, we have medical marijuana in 29 states, pot decriminalization in 13 or 14, and legalization in eight, with more likely to come in the next year or so. We have state legislatures enacting sentencing reforms and asset forfeiture reforms. At the same time, we have the Trump administration apparently leading federal drug policy down a retrograde prohibitionist path. How do you assess the overall situation?
McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It’s similar to the international situation in that there are enormous opportunities for progress around marijuana law reform and harm reduction measures in some places, but we have a federal Justice Department that seems to be intent on doubling down on the war on drugs and using the most draconian measures possible.
All the horrors we’re seeing with overdoses is leading many people to do some serious soul-searching about what’s the best way to address this problem, so we’re seeing some progress on harm reduction measures like access to naloxone, for example. Now, there’s room to have some conversations where there wasn’t before, such as decriminalizing the possession of all drugs. A few years ago, that would have been a hard conversation to have, but HRW released a report last year calling for it and DPA has just released its own report echoing that call, and there is a real receptiveness in the public to talking about that. We’re in a different place now and can make progress at the state and local level.
But that fairly heated rhetoric coming from the attorney general, appealing to people’s worst fears and often distorting reality, is a real problem. It’s not just about what Sessions says and what policies he adopts at Justice; it’s also about that dark narrative starting to take hold, people in other parts of the government thinking its more acceptable to return to those failed policies. It’s disturbing to see bills filed that are headed in the wrong direction, like Sen. John Cornyn’s (R-TX) Back the Blue Act (Senate Bill 1134). A year ago, he was part of bipartisan sentencing reform. Why is he going the other way now?
And then there’s Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s Stop the Importation and Trafficking of Synthetic Analogues (SITSA) Act (Senate Bill 1237), which would give Sessions the power to schedule new synthetic drugs without any scientific basis. I think having someone who is so extreme in his views at the Department of Justice is a green light for people in other parts of the government to take us in the wrong direction. This is a major challenge for DPA and the drug reform movement in general, and we will be focusing on that right off the bat.
Drug War Chronicle: Let’s talk about racial equity. How do we advance that? Whether it’s participation in the legal marijuana industry or sentencing policy or consent decrees to rein in police departments, race is implicated.
McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: It’s all bound up with what’s coming out of Washington and the broader policies we’re talking about. It’s hard to disentangle racial justice issues from some of these other issues. We’ve been working on drug reforms in New Jersey and New York, and one of our biggest concerns has been to ensure that new reforms have a strong focus on empowering the very communities most damaged by the war on drugs. Making sure drug reforms takes that perspective into account and creates new opportunities for those communities is a critical part of our work.
Sessions backing away from consent decrees, the demonization of Black Lives Matter, and all that is very clearly tied to rhetoric coming from the White House and the Justice Department that is designed to stigmatize groups and lump people who use drugs in with drug dealers, with communities of color, with immigrants. They use that demonizing combination to justify very harsh policies that will be devastating to some of the most vulnerable communities in the country. We have to fight back against that; it’s a big part of the story here.
And then there’s the impact of the drug war on immigration policy. My colleagues at Human Rights Watch documented how a very large number of immigrants — and not just undocumented ones — ended up deported because they had a drug conviction, in many cases from many years back. They are torn apart from their families and often sent to places with which they have little connection, countries where they don’t even speak the language. It’s not just the deported — their kids, parents, spouses, sibling, all of them suffer serious consequences. It’s cruel and senseless.
It’s very clear this administration has made immigration enforcement a top priority. Some very extreme portion of its base really views this as a priority. It’s hard to talk to them, but most of the country favors immigration reform, and a very large and increasing number of people understand that using the criminal law when talking about drug use is harmful and makes no sense. If we can make progress on drug reform, we also make progress on immigration by reducing the number of people convicted and exposed to deportation. We have to talk about these issues together and work with immigration reform groups and take them on board in our joint fight.