DEPC cohosts conference to examine past and future of the Controlled Substances Act

By Drug Enforcement and Policy Center Staff  |  Spring 2020 in Review

The “Marijuana in 2020: Legalization and Regulation” town hall was moderated by Douglas A. Berman (far right) with panelists (left to right) Ethan Nadelmann, Cat Packer and Beau Kilmer.

In February 2020, the Drug Enforcement and Policy Center (DEPC) at The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law and the Academy for Justice at the Arizona State University Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law co-sponsored a conference in Phoenix, Arizona to mark a half-century of drug policy under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA). The Controlled Substances Act at 50 Years featured over 50 speakers across law, health, and policy. Attendees evaluated the ways in which the CSA has helped shape modern American drug laws and policies, and how these laws could change in the future. According to DEPC Executive Director Douglas A. Berman, the collaboration allowed the two centers to convene a truly impressive group of experts.

The keynote address by drug policy experts Keith Humphreys and Peter Reuter, focused on the dual nature of drugs. Humphreys, the Esther Ting Memorial Professor at Stanford University and former drug policy advisor in the Bush and Obama administrations, highlighted the contradictions at work in U.S. drug policy. In particular, he noted that two of the most dangerous drugs—alcohol and tobacco—are not included in the CSA. “Introduce a bill in Congress to schedule the deadliest drug of all: cigarettes. It will never pass,” he said.

Final result of live-drawing during the conference by 26 Letters Studio.

Day two started with panels on the history of the CSA and public health responses adopted by police and prosecutors. Daniel Satterburg, prosecutor for King County, Washington, pressed for the adoption of a ‘do no harm’ approach when it comes to prosecutors’ engagement with drug policy. “The ‘war on drugs’ has been a war on drug users,” declared Satterberg.

Deborah Small, executive director and founder of Break the Chains, added, “We are not controlling substances, we are controlling people.” Author Matt Pembleton noted that the user often dictates the policy response. As drug use moves down the socioeconomic strata, it is subject to increased sanctions. That’s why, said Pembleton, “drug policy is never just about drugs.”

“Strategies for Addressing Substance Use in Prisons and Reentry” was moderated by Valena Beety (far right) with panelists (left to right) Richard Van Wickler, Jeffrey Singer, Annie Ramniceanu, Jennifer D. Oliva, Betsy Jividen, and Leo Beletsky.

The next panel focused on strategies for addressing substance use in prisons and reentry. Moderated by Valena Beety, deputy director of the Academy for Justice, the panel featured academics and correctional leaders revolutionizing reentry efforts. Betsy Jividen, commissioner of the West Virginia Division of Corrections, shared her belief that ignorance is a barrier to reform.

“If everyone from police to prosecutors could see what people experience the day after they are sentenced, their approach may be very different,” Jividen said.

Jennifer Oliva, associate professor of law at Seton Hall University, questioned the disparities between requirements of prisons and hospitals when releasing those with substance use disorder. She noted that correctional facilities have faced criticism for releasing inmates without drugs to treat opioid use disorder, when “hospitals routinely send people home after an opioid overdose with nothing.”

The lunch plenary was moderated by Miriam Krinsky (far right) with panelists (left to right) Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, Barbara Marshall, Andrea Harrington, and Wesley Bell.

Miriam Krinsky of Fair and Just Prosecution, led the day’s lunch plenary. Her panelists included representatives of a new generation of reform-focused prosecutors. Krinsky called the push for more progressive prosecutors not just a moment, but a growing movement. “We need to wake up and have a conversation about whether criminalization is the solution,” said Krinsky.

Through the efforts of progressive prosecutors, policy is beginning to catch up with public sentiment. Under the leadership of Wesley Bell, prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, Missouri, prosecution of simple drug possession has been suspended. According to Bell, the two most powerful words in the criminal justice system are “charges refused.”

The day also included a town hall titled “Marijuana in 2020: Legalization and Regulation.” Panelists included Beau Kilmer, director of the Research and Development Corporation Drug Policy Research Center, Ethan Nadelmann, founder of the Drug Policy Alliance and Cat Packer (’15), executive director of the Department of Cannabis Regulation for the City of Los Angeles. Moderated by Professor Berman, the three shared their varied perspectives on the past and future of marijuana regulation. Nadelmann shared his disappointment that legalization has not done more to reduce marijuana arrests or mitigate the disproportionate harms to communities of color. Packer, who is part of the new generation of drug policy leaders, continues to see the inequities firsthand. She made it clear that equity in cannabis reform is a group effort. “We need collective leadership in order to move this conversation forward.”

Session participants (left to right) Roz McCarthy, Marisa Rodriguez, Wanda James, Leslie Herod, Toi Hutchinson, Maritza Perez, Cat Packer, Sue Sisely, Imani Brown, and Shanita Penny. Not pictured: Deborah Small and Jelani Jefferson Exum. Photograph by Rayna Plummer.

The third day included a session titled “Women of Color Leading Cannabis Reform.” The participants were assembled by Cat Packer and featured women leading various aspects of the marijuana reform movement. The group’s discussion focused predominantly on equity. “It’s important for us, as regulators, advocates, and policymakers in the space, to ensure that when we’re using the term ‘equity’, were using it in a holistic manner,” said Packer. “Equity has to be at the epicenter of conversations from the start.” A series of interviews with the women were recorded in collaboration with the Los Angeles Department of Cannabis Regulation and the Academy for Justice and will be released later this year.

The conference aimed to present tangible next steps in the push for reform. To that end, conference organizers asked Leo Beletsky, professor of law and faculty director of the Health in Justice Action Lab at Northeastern University, to author a proposal for revisioning of U.S. drug policy.

Controlled Substances Act at 50: A Blueprint for Reform, was coupled with responses from center leaders Berman and Beety. “In the heart of the national overdose crisis we are losing a generation of people, driven to substance abuse by lack of happiness and purpose, and leading to loss of liberty or loss of life,” said Beety in her response. “Given the failure of the CSA, we have the freedom and responsibility to recreate our vision of what constitutes an effective drug policy.”