Tag Archives: Drug Policy Alliance


“Fighting Misinformation”: Comments on Drug Policy from the “Marijuana and Drug Policy Reform in New York” Symposium

On May 1st and 2nd, The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM)  hosted a symposium titled “Marijuana and Drug Policy Reform in New York: 70 Years After The LaGuardia Committee Report,” to look at the current state of drug policy. The goal of the conference was to foster a rich discussion of contemporary drug policy reform efforts nationally and in New York.

Over the next two days, JustPublics@365 will be posting some audio clips from the conference. Today’s post includes audio from City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Professor Richard Bonnie from the University of Virginia, Professor Samuel Roberts from Columbia University, and Deborah Small from Break the Chains.

“Elected officials need to be equipped with research and policy recommendations,” declared New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito at the start of a day long discussion on marijuana and drug policy reform in New York. She focused on ways to combat “misinformation campaigns based on myth not science” to make sure that drug policies are fair and just. Most arrests for marijuana are a corruption of the original intention of the law.

For her entire comments you can listen here:

Melissa Mark-Viverito on Drug Policy

Richard Bonnie then opened up the conversation with comments on the Shafer Commission (aka National Commission on Marihuana and Drug Abuse). He said that we have “over relied on prohibition and criminalization rather than using other tools to meet our objectives.” By looking at alcohol probation we can look at the regulatory practices that have already been put in place, he said.  There was a “tremendous success” in discussions of decriminalization during the Shafer Commission and between 1973 and 1977 twelve states decriminalized marijuana.

You can listen to his full comments here:

Richard Bonnie on Drug Policy

Following Richard Bonnie’s comments, Paul Theerman, from The New York Academy of Medicine led a panel discussion on “Drug Wars Past & Present.” Theerman opened the panel by refocusing the conversation on the “New York situation.”

The first speaker, Samuel Roberts from Columbia University, said that “as a historian of drug policy this is a very interesting moment in which we find ourselves.” He told the room that it was the role of the historian to remind people of their past and that there were some things we should think about as we talk about current issues in drug policy. There are many ways of thinking about drug policy and Roberts urged the room not to focus too heavily on medicalization because, like criminalization, there are problems with over medicalizing.

You can listen to his full comments here:

Samuel Roberts on Drug Policy

Deborah Small, J.D., Executive Director, Break the Chains, started by saying that it makes no sense to say we need more research to determine drug policy. The whole conversation around the need to protect children from drugs does not currently apply to other policies, like gun control and environmental hazards are much more dangerous than marijuana, she said. “The government is not protecting us from the right things,” she concluded. 

You can listen to her full comments here:

Deborah Small – Breaking the Chains on Drug Policy

Drug Policy Reform Symposium May 1-2

In his research, CUNY Professor Harry Levine documents the racial pattern in marijuana use and arrest rates. The data tell a story that whites use marijuana at higher rates, yet blacks and Latinos in neighborhoods like East Harlem are arrested for marijuana at much higher rates.

MJ Use and Arrests

 (Image source)

Marijuana policy is not a new issue to New York City nor to East Harlem.

In 1939—on the heels of the national 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, which established federal marijuana prohibition—New York City Mayor Fiorella LaGuardia called upon The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM) in East Harlem to produce a report about marijuana.

Mayor LaGuardia(Image source)

The La Guardia Committee Report: The Marihuana Problem in the City of New York was published in 1944 as one of the nation’s first systematic studies addressing many of the myths about marijuana, including: the alleged connection to “madness;” addictive potential; supposed role as a ‘gateway’ to other drug use; usage patterns; and potential relationship to crime and violence. The LaGuardia report concluded that “the sociological, psychological, and medical ills commonly attributed to marihuana have been found to be exaggerated.”

To mark the 70th anniversary of the LaGuardia Report, The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) and The New York Academy of Medicine (NYAM)  are hosting a symposium to look back on the LaGuardia Report in order to inform a rich discussion of contemporary drug policy reform efforts, both nationally and in New York. The symposium brings together scholars, activists, journalists and elected officials from East Harlem to explore the historical context and the ongoing public debates and actions about marijuana and drug policy reform.

Marijuana & Drug Policy Reform
in New York—The LaGuardia Report at 70

May 1, 6-8 PM
May 2, 10 AM – 5 PM

A symposium hosted by
The New York Academy of Medicine and the Drug Policy Alliance

Program highlights include

Thursday, May 1

6:00 PM — The John K. Lattimer Lecture: Richard Bonnie, University of Virginia.

Friday, May 2

10:00 AM — Melissa Mark-Viverito, Speaker, New York City Council

Panel Discussion: Drug Wars Past & Present.

Moderator: Paul Theerman, Ph.D., The New York Academy of Medicine
Jeffrion Aubrey, Speaker Pro Tempore, New York State Assembly
Jason Glenn, Ph.D., University of Texas Medical Branch, Galveston
Sam Roberts, Ph.D., Columbia University
Deborah Small, J.D., Executive Director, Break the Chains
Bobby Tolbert, Community Leader and Board Member, VOCAL-NY

1:00 PM — Panel Discussion: The Contemporary Research Agenda for Drug Use & Abuse

Moderator: Julie Netherland, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance
Helena Hansen, Ph.D., M.D., New York University
Julie Holland, M.D., psychiatrist and author
Amanda Reiman, Ph.D., Drug Policy Alliance, San Francisco
Maia Szalavitz, journalist

3:00 PM — Panel Discussion: New York Marijuana Policy Reform in 2014

Moderator: Kassandra Frederique, M.S.W., Drug Policy Alliance
Richard Gottfried, New York State Assembly, 75th District
Hakeem Jeffries, United States Congress, 8th District
Harry Levine, Ph.D., Queens University
Art Way, J.D., Drug Policy Alliance, Denver

4:30 PM — Closing Presentation: Dr. David T. Courtwright, University of North Florida

5:00 PM – Final Remarks: gabriel sayegh, Drug Policy Alliance

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This event is FREE but registration is required for both days. To register for this event (required), click here (Thursday evening lecture) and here (Friday). The symposium takes place at the New York Academy of Medicine, located at 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.  You can also follow along on the hashtag #LGA70.

For more background on this important topic, see our “From Punishment to Public Health,” available as an eBook and a PDF.


Special Interview with gabriel sayegh on Municipal Drug Strategies

gabriel sayeghThis week I interviewed gabriel sayegh, the director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York policy office. In this interview, we talk about municipal drug strategies in Canada and Europe and explore opportunities for New York to implement these types of municipal-drug strategies.




What are municipal drug strategies?

Municipal drug strategy is simply a city-based strategy for approaching the problems of drugs and that when you have a situation of opening our drug market as an example or drug-related disorder, cities are often the first jurisdictions that have to address and deal with those problems. Of course, not every element of drug use is a problem. That’s not the case at all but there are instances particularly in cities when drug use can become deeply problematic, either because of overdose fatalities or the transmission of HIV and AIDS or drug related crime or disorder related to open drug markets or public drug consumption. Continue reading

Reform Conference 2013: Academic-Activist-Media Partnerships

JustPublics@365 was delighted to co-sponsor a reception for academics who want to influence policy at the International Drug Policy Reform Conference (‘Reform Conference 2013’) in Denver, Colorado. More than seventy-five academics and activists who are, or want to be, working together on the area of drug policy joined our reception on Thursday.

The Reform Conference brings together a wide range of  advocates, academics, and digital media activists from around the globe.  Among those attending the conference were representatives from the Hungarian Civil Liberties Union (HCLU).  They made this short video (3:51) about the conference which was screened at the closing plenary, and conveys some of what it was like to be there and some of the human cost of drug policy:

The Reform Conference addresses drug policy, which is a global issue  that brings together issues of race, criminal justice, public health,civil liberties. And, the Reform Conference is a place where academics, advocates and digital media activists are working for social change around.  The next Reform Conference will be held in 2015.

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This post is part of the Monthly Social Justice Topic Series on Stop-And-FriskIf you have any questions, research that you would like to share related to Stop-and-Frisk or are interested in being interviewed for the series, please contact Morgane Richardson at justpublics365@gmail.com with the subject line, “Stop-and-Frisk Series.”

Tips for Academics Who Want to Engage Policymakers

Many academics want their research to have broader impact.  In fact, according to a recent study, an estimated 92% of social science scholars said they wanted to connect more with policymakers.  With the ever-increasing clamor for “evidence-based policy,” policymakers –  elected and appointed officials at the local, state and national level – really do want to hear from academics.  Here, I offer some ways academics can get involved, tips for effectively engaging policymakers, and some frequent challenges.

As someone who was trained as an academic researcher and has worked in policy for a number of years now, I’ve come to realize that academics have an important role to play in transforming policy.  Most recently, I’ve been working on the front lines of efforts to end the war on drugs and reduce mass incarceration.  In my view, academics not only have important knowledge that can shape policy, their voices often have enormous weight and credibility by virtue of the training and credentials they carry.

Simply put, academics have an easier time accessing policymakers and are more likely to be taken seriously than does the average citizen without an advanced degree. There’s a privilege and a power to holding a PhD or an MD that can and should be used to promote social justice.

Despite a long tradition of notable scholar activists, many academics are either reluctant to get involved in policy advocacy or simply aren’t sure exactly how to go about it.

Here’s the good news: for most issues, you should be able to find a policy, advocacy, or grassroots community organization that is willing to work with you to be your most effective.  There are lots of nuances to policy advocacy; in return for your help, most organizations will gladly walk you through those.


NYS Capitol Building(New York State Capitol – Image source.
One place to find policymakers)

How Can Academics help?

Quick policy activities. These are some ways to engage for those who are just dipping a toe into the waters of policy-making or only have a few minutes, including:

  • Signing up for and responding to email action alerts (yes, these really can have an impact);
  • Writing letters and making phone calls;
  • Attend conferences, receptions where academics and policymakers mingle.  My organization, Drug Policy Alliance, is teaming up with JustPublics@365 and the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy to host one of a reception that’ll do just that.  Stop by the Sheraton Downtown Thursday night (6:15pmMT, Plaza Court 3), if you’re in Denver. We’d love to see you there!

DPA JustPublics ICSDP Reception

If you have a little more time and energy, you might try engaging with media, both traditional and digital to get your research out to policy makers.

Get your work in legacy (broadcast) media outlets, such as:

  • Letters to the Editor (LTEs)
  • Op-Eds
  • Be a guest on a television news show

Broaden the reach of your own work by learning to use the tools of digital media, such as:

  • Blogging
  • Twitter
  • Storify

If you’re an academic that’s fresh out of skills in either legacy or digital media, then you might consider taking some of these Mediacamp Workshops.  They’re all completely free and designed especially for academics who want to reach a broader audience with their work.

Other ways to get involved include:

  • Create fact sheets, policy briefs or other highly accessible materials that summarize research about the issue;
  • Tell a compelling story to help personalize an issue and highlight the human costs (I’m talking to you, qualitative researchers and humanities scholars);
  • Organize your academic colleagues – at your institution, or in your professional association – for sign-on campaigns and other forms of advocacy;
  • Convince your professional association to sign on to a policy proposal;
  • Lobby at your state capitol or city council or meet with legislators in their district offices;
  • Flesh out the policy implications of your research (or, the research you’ve reviewed in your area of expertise) to influence policy proposals.

To get you started, here are a few “tips of the trade” that can you help you avoid some of the most common mistakes. My work lately has been mostly at the state level working in Albany, but these guidelines are useful whether you’re trying to reach city, county, state or national lawmakers.

Tips for Being More Effective

TIP #1: Identify an organization working on the issue you care about and find the most effective one.

On any given issue, there will be a few organizations that are working on the issue.  Your first step should be to familiarize yourself with the landscape of organizations and identify the one you think has been most effective.

TIP #2: Be sure to refer to your credentials when contacting policymakers – they matter.

When you reach out to elected officials, make sure that you mention your degrees and institutional affiliations. These sorts of credentials matter when you’re talking to policy makers.  Without your credentials, you’re just another person with an opinion.  And if you happen to be a constituent of the policymaker, be sure to mention that too.

TIP #3: Messaging really, really matters.

Most advocacy organizations have worked long and hard to develop effective messaging on their issues.  It’s worth your time to speak to folks who have given this a lot of thought. Some organizations will even help you craft and/or place your op-ed or Letter to the Editor in major news outlets.

TIP #4: Work closely with an organization that understands the political scene to help craft a realistic policy proposal.

After you’ve become more deeply involved on an issue, you may have an idea for a new policy that would address a seemingly intractable problem.  Crafting a policy and seeing it through the legislative process is definitely a long-term project, but it can be worth it to see lasting change.  Before you spend a lot of time on your own crafting what is no doubt a brilliant new policy, it’s a good idea to work closely with an organization that has a clear understanding of the current political scene and what kinds of proposals might just make it through and which ones are dead-on-arrival.

  • Scholar Strategy Network (SSN) – If you want your research to influence policy, but don’t know how to make those connections, you might consider applying to become part of the Scholar Strategy Network (SSN), which brings together leading scholars to address pressing public challenges at all levels. Scholars in the network prepare short, vividly written briefs highlighting their research findings and offering policy options about a wide range of issues. SSN scholars engage in consultations with policymakers in Washington DC and state capitals, and also work closely with advocates and leaders of citizen associations.

TIP #5: Ask what research needs to be done and do it. 

Typically, academic researchers have their scholarship done before they contact a policy organization, but it can also work the other way around. Sometimes, scholars will ask what kind of research needs to be done to address policy needs, and then set about to do that kind of research.  CUNY Professor Harry Levine had been doing important research on marijuana arrests. He got involved with the Drug Policy Alliance and then worked with them to produce a number of highly influential reports highlighting the racial disparities and fiscal waste of marijuana arrests.  Levine’s report on the fiscal waste of such arrests is here, and was picked up by Alternet;  Jim Dwyer of The New York Times then featured some of Levine’s research in an Op-Ed, “Whites Smoke Pot, but Blacks are Arrested.” (There’ll be more about Harry Levine’s work in a post to follow in this series.)

  • The Tobin Project – If you want to do research that fills a gap in policy-making, you might contact The Tobin Project, which emphasizes “transformative research in the social sciences” and facilitates policy-scholar connections.  The Tobin Project starts by identifying the gaps in research that might influence policy, and then finding scholars who want to engage policy by conducting original research that makes a contribution in this way. They recently received a MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Organizations, so it looks like they might be on to something.

Challenges for Academics Who Want to Influence Policy

Part of the reason I encourage academics to work with experienced policy organizations is because academia isn’t generally set up to train scholars to be effective policy advocates. In fact, many features of academia actually may make pose challenges for those who want to influence policy, such as:

  • Different metrics of success.  Even though changing a policy can impact thousands and thousands of lives, the kinds of activities above are rarely acknowledged or rewarded within academia. Books and/or peer-reviewed journal articles are likely the currency of your institution, but unfortunately, it’s the rare policymaker that looks to those sources to develop policy.
  • Different language. Most academics are concerned with precision and nuance, while most policymakers are looking for bullet points and sound bites.
  • Different forms of power and influence.  Just like the politics of academic institutions, each legislative body has its own set of (usually unwritten) rules about how power really works and who is really running show.  A good policy advocacy organization can help you uncover how policy is really made in your jurisdiction.
  • Different skills sets. Academics have lots of great skills that make them naturals at influencing policy, but some people may not know the first thing about how to conduct a lobby visit or neutralize an opponent’s argument.  Again, this can be taught.

The great news is that – for the most part – these are challenges that are easily overcome. More and more, I’m hearing from academics at all stages of their career that they wish their research could have more of a real-world impact.

It can.

I’ve worked with a number of extraordinarily talented scholar-activists who have re-shaped and profoundly influenced policy and in doing so, they have positively impacted the lives of thousands of people.  With a little investment of your time and talents and working with the right policy organization to gain the information and skills you need, so can you.


~ Guest blogger Julie Netherland, PhD (Sociology, CUNY, 2011), is Deputy Directory of the New York State Policy Office within the Drug Policy Alliance.  She works closely with Compassionate Care New York, a group of patients, providers and organizations working together to pass a bill that would relieve the suffering of thousands of seriously ill New Yorkers by establishing a carefully regulated medical marijuana program in New York. You can follow her on Twitter @jnetherland.