It was ironic that Smart Approaches to Marijuana scheduled their first independent conference for 4/20, the date revered by cannabis aficionados. The significant date aside, this first independent meeting—and the first melded with the new group, the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions—was positive in every possible way.
The event was held at the intimate (and touchingly named) Miracle Theater on Barracks Row in Southeast Washington, D.C. On the next block, a row of beautifully maintained brick buildings house the Marine Barracks, home of the Marine Drum and Bugle Corps and other units. Surrounding the theater on all other sides were shops and restaurants.
Each of the conference presenters had something valuable to add to the agenda, either facts and figures or compelling arguments and viewpoints. Because of the combination of causes—cannabis and drug policy—their offerings covered a significant range of topics.
Here are just a few of the highlights.
Kevin Sabet, co-founder of SAM and FDPS: He offered a phrase that I learned has been around for a while but which I had never heard before. It relates very clearly to drug abuse and recovery. “Meet them where they are but don’t leave them there.” He discussed some locales that have voted for drug legalization but made the point that “we want science to lead, not the popular vote.”
When the morning session ran long, Kevin walked the audience, handing out peanut butter cups.
Pete Ricketts, U.S. Senator for Nebraska: Sen. Ricketts was very clear on the point that America does not distribute medical substances willy-nilly. A proper medical substance is a purified, standardized, legally distributed product which does not describe smoked cannabis that is offered to anyone who has $150 to pay a pot doctor and more cash to pay a dispensary.
Dr. Drew Pinsky and his daughter Paulina: This team offered compelling evidence that marijuana is indeed addictive. Paulina talked about her own addiction and recovery from cannabis use disorder. Dr. Pinsky mentioned Delta-8, a hemp product. Legalization of hemp as an agricultural product created a loophole that enabled a new cannabis product to arrive on the market and be presented as a legal drug. Hemp produces small amounts of Delta-8 THC which can be refined out and sold as a new drug. (The usual intoxicant pot smokers are looking for is Delta-9 THC.) Use of Delta-8 is resulting in suicides and irreversible psychosis but, because of the loophole, it is, for the moment, a legal drug.
Doug Simon, Director of the Office of Drug Control for the State of Florida: Mr. Simon brought very welcome and interesting news from Florida. He described new Addiction Stabilization Units that are being piloted in 12 locations in the state. I have read so many times how frustrating it is for emergency room doctors to reverse an opioid epidemic, only to send the person back out on the street after they are stably conscious. That person may come back the same night or later in the week with another overdose. In this new pilot program, the overdosing person will be stabilized and then interviewed to convince them to go to rehab. If they agree, they are walked immediately into rehab. I was encouraged by this common-sense approach to breaking the cycle of addiction using ER visits.
Paul Demko, Politico writer: He made a very important point about a shift in our national drug situation. He said that Chinese nationals are increasingly being found on marijuana farms in Oklahoma. I asked him if this reveals a greater involvement by China in illicit drug manufacturing in the U.S. After all, China is already neck-deep in the manufacturing of fentanyl as has been amply covered by the media. He referred me to this Politico article on the topic.
Dr. Wilson Compton, NIDA Deputy Director: Dr. Wilson provided a very rapid-fire presentation of a variety of important statistics. I have just received the email that contains his slides showing these statistics because they were valuable but went by very quickly. I’m looking forward to being able to give them more detailed study.
Chuck Marting, Impairment Detection Agency: Mr. Marting brought us news about how people pass drug tests despite being impaired by drugs. He even displayed some of the devices used to fool the staff administering the tests. He said that he busted one driver for testing positive and the driver said, “You’re the best I’ve ever seen. I’ve been doing this for ten years.” Mr. Marting reported that many staff administering the test and even the labs analyzing the results are not well-trained enough to detect fraud. He advised us that the next wave of workplace drugs is going to be psychedelics and noted that employers—note that’s EMPLOYERS not EMPLOYEES—are being bullied on this subject.
Tanya Gouveia, Addiction Recovery Counseling: A brief conversation with Tanya revealed an important trend in marijuana use and addiction. I have previously found it difficult to locate individuals who had gone to rehab for marijuana only. There’s evidence that this is now changing. Tanya has 50 clients at any particular time. She estimated that 25% to 45% of her clients are in recovery for marijuana only. From the stage, she noted that this trend has been changing since 2016. Previously, many cannabis users would move on to other drugs but now they may stay with—and become addicted to—marijuana.
Kenner Wignall, Oklahoma Department of Health, attendee: Kenner reported some interesting information from his state. Marijuana sold in Oklahoma’s medical dispensaries are being laced with cough syrup (some cough syrup contains dextromethorphan, a dissociative intoxicant), extra THC, fentanyl or other opioids. Pre-rolled joints are sometimes dipped in DMT, LSD or formaldehyde. Illicit growers in the state provide product to licensed sellers so the quality is uncontrolled. There is a small, new unit established to monitor the quality of drugs sold but as there are 2,300 marijuana shops in a state of 4 million people, a small, unexperienced unit is going to be severely challenged to do enough monitoring. Oklahoma recently had a referendum on the legalization of recreational marijuana that failed. Kenner pointed out that it seems that the public is getting the idea that the free-wheeling legalization of this drug is not the best idea.
Michelle announces the model state drug law blueprint project.
Dr. Gregory Bunt, past president of International Society of Addiction Medicine: Dr. Bunt made several important points. 1. In the workplace, numbers of people to work and competence are declining. Marijuana is a big factor in this decline. 2. In some industries, almost half of those people who use marijuana have gone to work stoned. 3. Diversity and inclusion are being exploited by the cannabis industry. 4. High profile African-Americans are being used to promote marijuana, even though it’s known that increasing use of marijuana will adversely affect minorities.
Michelle Worobiec, Director, National Alliance for Model State Drug Laws: Michelle spoke about NAMSDL, now a division of FDPS, and the alliance’s creation of a blueprint for effective drug policy. They are bringing together experts to draft this blueprint and then will seek feedback from other experts. The intention is to base this blueprint on science. The internal form of this blueprint is due late 2023 with the final version scheduled for publication by September 2024.
Tom describes the street drug situation in San Francisco.
Tom Wolf, Pacific Alliance for Prevention & Recovery and a representative for FDPS on the West Coast: Tom was a fascinating speaker with a unique background. Tom spent six months as a homeless addicted person in San Francisco. He was arrested six times while living on the streets. He earned his drug supply by holding drugs for the dealers. In other words, dealers put their supplies in his pockets. The police monitored these transactions so he was arrested six times before he went to a Salvation Army abstinence-based therapeutic community that worked for him. Tom reported on the drug situation in San Francisco which is an encapsulation of how bad it can get in other areas. In LA and Seattle, he reported that police don’t address the drug problems. Ninety percent of the SF drug trade is being run by cartel-recruited and managed illegal immigrants from Honduras. There are between 500 and 700 of these drug dealers in the city at any particular time and they are not allowed to use the drugs they sell. This is an extreme shift in the pattern of drug dealing. He pointed out that a full continuum of care is the right solution to the drug problem and addiction.
A special note on Tom’s presentation: He made a few comments how drug abuse is handled in Portugal. Many people think Portugal legalized drugs. They didn’t. They decriminalized it. When someone in Portugal is found with drugs, their drug use is addressed as a health problem, not a criminal problem. The drugs are seized and destroyed and the person receives a citation to appear before a local commission assigned the job of dissuading individuals from using drugs. If it’s the person’s first appearance, there may be no further action taken. If it is not their first appearance, they can be fined or penalized in many ways. They may lose their privilege to visit certain people or places, lose professional licenses or be ordered to community service. Tom made a very, very important point about Portugal. He said that before Portugal implemented this plan, they built 63 therapeutic communities where these multiple-offenders could be sent immediately after their repeat visits to this commission. In other words, they built the infrastructure needed for recovery before they decriminalized drugs. This is what Oregon did not do when they legalized personal-use quantities of drugs. There is plenty of coverage of the worsening situation in Oregon. Hopefully this negative experience will convince other states not to follow suit.
Here is some media coverage on this subject:
Oregon’s Measure 110 needs more accountability for drug users
Oregon’s pioneering drug law raises more questions than answers in early months
Oregon’s Pioneering Drug Decriminalization Experiment Is Now Facing The Hard Test
Another comment from Kevin: He noted that 75% of those involved in the justice system who are NOT there for drug crimes have a drug problem. This statistic reveals the close association between drug problems and crime.
In closing: I have always found that being in a room of like-minded people, individuals with a similar purpose to yours, is a major relief. It alleviates that strain you feel when you are constantly trying to swim upstream against society’s resistance. This is one benefit of a conference like this one from SAM and FDPS. The other benefit is the compelling inspiration that comes from the information shared. I look forward to next year’s conference.