After 23 years at the helm of the Drug Policy Alliance, Ethan Nadelmann stepped down earlier this year. Following what she calls a “grueling process,” Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno was selected to succeed him as executive director. Born in Peru (her mother is Peruvian, her father is from the U.S.), she has a deep understanding of how the Drug War has affected Latin America. After 13 years at Human Rights Watch, she was ready to move over to a drug-policy organization. Sanchez-Moreno attended the University of Texas at Austin and New York University Law School, and clerked on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. She’s the author of There Are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia (Nation Books). Freedom Leaf interviewed her at the DPA offices in New York on Nov. 17.

What’s it like to replace Ethan Nadelmann?

It’s a thrill. I’m obviously not Ethan. I have to work out what space I’m going to fill and how I’m going to lead the organization. This is a great place to be. The movement is at a critical time. We have lot of opportunities. I’m excited to build on what Ethan put together over two decades.

What are your priorities?

Right now the biggest issue is the response to the opioid-overdose crisis. President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are using it as an excuse to ramp up the War on Drugs, and to put in place other draconian policies, like reinstating harsher sentencing at the federal level or pushing for harsher immigration policies. It’s all about a very old agenda of persecuting vulnerable communities in this country. So we have to be the people responding to that. We’re the loudest voice on drug policy in the country generally. We can hit back at that narrative and say, “Look, if you’re serious about addressing opioid overdoses, then here are some things you can do. But not what you’re proposing, which has been done many times and has been proven to be utterly ineffective.”

Do you think opioids can be replaced by marijuana?

There is some evidence that states that have legalized medical marijuana aren’t having the same problems with opioids that other states are having. It’s absolutely worth researching. There should be no ideological opposition to exploring those possibilities.

What’s another priority for you?

Marijuana should be legalized. We need to continue building on the gains we’ve made. But I want to make sure we legalize marijuana in a way that recognizes the harms that have been done through prohibition. Prop 64 in California is now the gold standard for marijuana legalization. We had a lot to do with that. It has provisions for record expungement, equity in licensing and reinvestment in the communities that have been most harmed. That’s what we’re trying to replicate in New York, New Jersey and New Mexico.

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno: “It’s so important that when we do marijuana legalization, we do it right.”

Trump’s election was a blow to the legalization cause. How do you plan to deal with this White House’s War on Drugs policies?

I have little hope that we’ll be able to influence the White House, but we have to keep up our work on Capitol Hill—to maintain the Rohrabacher-Blumenauer amendment, for example. We’re in a good place because of public opinion on marijuana. Members of Congress are going to face questions and criticism in many parts of the country if they start going with Trump and Sessions on marijuana.

Do you anticipate a round of raids in legal states to put a fear into the industry?

There could be. I think Sessions would like to do that. But politically it’s difficult for them to do it, because marijuana legalization is very popular in the country. For the Republican Party, which has always been strong on states’ rights, it puts them in a bind for the federal government to move in and change what states have done.

Which are the countries to watch internationally as far as drug policy is concerned?

It’s really disturbing to see what’s happening in the Philippines, in part because of Trump’s response to it. He’s been willing to visit with (President Rodrigo) Duterte and praise him, and talk about having a great relationship with somebody who’s pushing for the murder of thousands of people who use drugs. That demonization of populations is very worrying to me, because I see Trump doing something very similar here with stigmatizing whole populations like immigrants—saying that they’re the bad hombres bringing all the heroin and fentanyl into the country, and using that as an excuse. I worry about the parallels and I worry about Indonesia now imitating the Philippines. There are signs of that happening.

How about Latin America?

Latin America is a very interesting place to watch, because there is, in many countries, a great deal of public unhappiness and cynicism about the War on Drugs. There’s a growing recognition that U.S. policies on prohibition that have been exported in those countries have ultimately fed an illicit market that fuels organized crime and massive violence in Colombia and Mexico. Those are places to watch, where you can start to build on opposition to the War on Drugs. A few years ago the presidents of Mexico, Guatemala and Colombia called for alternatives to the War on Drugs. They’ve been a little quiet recently, but that underlying unhappiness with the War on Drugs remains.

What can be done about the cartels in Mexico?

The operations are very similar to Colombia. You have highly organized groups that are about profiting from the drug trade and possibly other illicit activities. They’re ruthless and will kill people who compete with them. They will buy off authorities. They operate with impunity, because there’s nobody around to hold them accountable. It’s impossible for the United States, no matter how much money it pours into fighting these groups, to prevail. Whenever you arrest one of their leaders, whether it’s El Chapo [Sinaloa Cartel boss Joaquin Guzman] or the paramilitary leaders in Colombia, somebody else is always waiting in the wings. No matter how much you try to block their shipments, they’re always going to find another way in. There’s just too much money to be made. As long as the illicit market is there, you’re going to have organized crime profiting off it.

How did you steer in this career direction?

I grew up in Peru in the ’80s during the left-wing insurgency the Shining Path. There was a lot of violence and the military response was brutal. It was also a very difficult time economically. In 1990, a new president got elected, Alberto Fujimori. He became a strongman and, in 1992, shut down Congress and took over complete power. It was terrible. I became very engaged with issues of social justice and wanting to fight for humanized democracy and justice. Eventually, I concluded that human rights were the most direct way to work on those sorts of issues.

What does Human Rights Watch do?

It documents abuses by governments, generally, against people in 90 countries around the world. It tries to make change happen by creating public pressure and by doing advocacy with policy makers, international bodies and people who could have leverage over those who are committing the atrocities. It’s a 400-plus-person organization that was started in the U.S. I got really involved in drug policy at Human Rights Watch when I became codirector of the U.S. program working on domestic issues.

What was your domestic focus there?

We put together a report along with the American Civil Liberties Union last year called “Every 25 Seconds,” which documented the harms of criminalizing drugs in the United States. The numbers were dramatic when we processed them. It’s not only one drug arrest every 25 seconds, which means more than a million people are arrested every year for simple possession for personal use, but the racial disparities were through the roof. Black people are three times as likely to get arrested as white people for drugs, even though their use rates are the same. In Manhattan, we found a black person was 11 times more likely to be arrested for drug use than a white person.

“With marijuana, the lower-hanging fruit has already been picked. now We’re going to have battles in legislatures, not just ballot initiatives. That’s a different ballgame.”

Did your work at Human Rights Watch connect you with the DPA?

Yes. I was speaking with Ethan while I was working on drug policy at Human Rights Watch. I consulted with him.

How did it happen that you became the new executive director?

I was contacted by a headhunter, but I was already interested. It was a very serious hiring process. They had a recruitment firm managing it and it was incredibly professional. It was a huge amount of work for me, but it was also really enjoyable and thoughtful. I’m delighted it worked out the way it did.

The DPA has been at the forefront of diversity in drug-policy reform. How much progress has been made for women and minorities and how much still needs to be made?

Coming from the outside, the industry doesn’t look like it’s particularly diverse. This is what we’re trying to address in the push for equity in licensing. When it comes to the movement, I think people of color are absolutely becoming more and more engaged all the time on this issue, because they’ve been the most historically affected. There’s always more work that has to be done in our own organization and in others. Some are certainly more diverse than others. We emphasize racial justice, so that’s more attractive to certain people. In terms of women, there are a lot of women in senior leadership positions here. I think we may see more women rising elsewhere.

There’s a lot of female leadership in the movement—Betty Aldworth at Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Steph Sherer at Americans for Safe Access, Kristina Garcia at Women Grow, Monique Tula at the Harm Reduction Coalition and now you.

That’s a reflection of what’s happening in the broader world. Women have dominated the nonprofit sector in terms of staff for a long time. Leadership has always been more challenging. I think you’re starting to see that change.

What else can help minorities move ahead in drug policy reform?

As far as the industry goes, it’s just a question of who has capital in this country. The more we can reduce barriers to entry, the better. The more you can help disadvantaged groups step in, the better. This is why it’s so important that when we do marijuana legalization, we do it right. In terms of organizations, we need to make sure that when we hire at all levels, we make concerted efforts to recruit diverse candidates. You need to be very clear in your messaging that you welcome people of color. These are not simple issues. It’s going to take a long time to make large-scale changes happen and it’s going to require serious attention from leaders.

As a Latina, how are things going for Latinos in drug policy reform?

The Latino community has been harshly impacted by the War on Drugs. There’s a lot of room for growth, education and outreach. At the same time, there are also sectors of the Latino community that are very conservative and may not be easily persuadable. And with Trump and Sessions hammering away on immigrants, we need to reach out not just to Latinos, but immigrants generally, to raise awareness about how the War on Drugs is shaping these policies.

What else is on the DPA’s agenda?

We need to figure out how to start pushing the decriminalization of all drugs. That doesn’t mean we’re going to push for any ballot initiatives on that right away, but we need to lay the groundwork. We need to do a lot of work shaping public opinion. We have to figure out what states and jurisdictions might be more open to it. We need to do a really good job of sketching out what an alternative system would look like—not just pointing to Portugal, which is one model.

You’re talking about cocaine and heroin and other drugs. It’s a much harder sell to get someone to say, “Legalize coke!”

Absolutely. We need to be able to answer tough questions and do a very good job of strategically selecting locations where we want to move this forward. The first step is public education.

Maria McFarland Sánchez-Moreno speaks at the Drug Policy Alliance “Reform” conference in October.

What are the biggest obstacles for drug–policy reform in general and for marijuana-law reform in particular?

The biggest issue is lack of public knowledge. People have been kept in the dark in the United States for so long. Getting people to understand the magnitude of what the War on Drugs has meant in our society is really important. An additional obstacle is there’s a lot of fear-mongering and misinformation being spread around about what the opioid crisis is about and what the right solutions are. We have to counter all of that with better, stronger arguments. With marijuana,

the lower-hanging fruit has already been picked. Now we’re going to have battles in legislatures, not just ballot initiatives. That’s a different ballgame. Marijuana is still the drug for which the most arrests are made in this country, despite legalization in so many places. It’s not just about some people wanting to smoke marijuana. It’s about many, many issues that affect everybody, even if they don’t smoke.

There’s an effort to legalize marijuana legislatively in New York. Is the DPA involved?

Our New York State office is very actively involved. We’re going to need to do some groundwork here to build enough support in the state. New York is a very divided state. It has some very progressive sectors and some that are not. That’s going to take a little while to do more public education.

Is DPA behind the legalization effort in Michigan in 2018?

We’ll have to see how that campaign develops. We’re watching it closely.

Any other states?

There’s medical marijuana in Missouri and legalization legislation in New Jersey.

Last thoughts?

I’m so excited to be a part of this. It’s a tough time and it’s going to get tougher, because of what’s happening at the federal level and because of the way the opioid crisis is going to get manipulated. But I also think it’s a time of tremendous opportunity.

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