Activists, scholars, researchers, politicians, and elected officials met at the Sheraton Hotel in downtown Denver, Colorado, for the Drug Policy Alliance conference. Slated for three full days, Day One featured an opening plenary session, numerous afternoon breakout sessions, a large exhibit / networking floor, a protest / celebration march, and an evening party.

Speaking to a ballroom filled with about 1,500 people, DPA’s executive director, Ethan Nadelmann, delivered a fiery opening keynote speech. Touching on the success of Washington and Colorado’s legalization, Nadelmann implored marijuana reformers to not forget about the greater war on drugs. He also apologized to Washington and Colorado for having to be the first test cases in legalization, thus suffering more restrictive legislation that future states might improve.

US Representative Jared Polis, Democrat of Colorado, also addressed the audience. Rep. Polis explained how politicians are now being forced to follow public opinion on marijuana reform issues. He noted how previous Congresses had a small cadre of reform supporters, such as Rep. Ron Paul on the right and Rep. Barney Frank on the left. With their retirements, Rep. Polis is excited to be a part of a new coalition of reformers in Congress that are getting more traction on pro-reform bills.  Rep. Polis highlighted the success in passing an amendment to the Farm Bill that allows universities to conduct much-needed research to improve hemp cultivation techniques.

Following the plenary session, reformers separated into breakout sessions. “The European Context” featured speakers from Portugal, The Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, and the Czech Republic.  “Stigma and Drug Use” looked at the concepts of addiction. “Crisis in the Criminal Justice System” included a district court judge, a district attorney, and activists from ACLU, Three Strikes Project, and Families Against Mandatory Minimums. “Models of Marijuana Regulation” examined drug law reforms in Mexico, Uruguay, The Netherlands, and Britain. “Young People Challenging the Drug War” featured the top young activists from SSDP, DanceSafe, NAACP Legal Defense, and others who face the difficulty of motivating 18-21-year-olds for policy reforms that may not include them. “Theorizing Drugs” attacked the philosophy behind drug use and included Paul Armentano from NORML, Marsha Rosenbaum from DPA, and Jacob Sullum from Reason.

During the lunch break, many activists gathered outside the Sheraton to form a march down the public 16th Street pedestrian mall to Skyline Park. Chanting “No More Drug War” and “War on Drugs is a War on People,” the conference attendees filled two city blocks of sidewalk, drawing attention from tourists and workers on the mall. Upon reaching the park, the crowd formed around a deejay playing classic soul tunes from James Brown and Stevie Wonder, and some of the women started dancing the Electric Slide. A joyous feeling of celebration was in the air, even as the reformers respected the law and didn’t publicly smoke marijuana.  Art Way from Colorado DPA introduced a few speakers who spoke via megaphone, including interim executive director of SSDP, Stacia Cosner.

After the reformers returned to the hotel, another set of breakout sessions took place. Reformers learned about “Supervised Injection Facilities in the US,” “Speaking the Language of Reform to Faith Leaders,” “Confronting Racially Biased Policing,” and “Fundraising Tips.”  On the topic of “Medical Marijuana: What Comes Next?”, Steve DeAngelo and Henry Wykowski represented California, the state with the most medical marijuana experience. Melissa Fults (Arkansas), Jodi James (Florida), (Perry Parks North Carolina), and Ben Pollara (Florida) represented states seeking to join California in the medical column. Dr. Carl Hart Ph.D. moderated a panel on “What do Politics Have to Do With Drug Research?” that tackled the problem of National Institutes on Drug Use funding 85% of the world’s drug research.

The final set of panels included “ACA for Advocates,” teaching how so-called Obamacare improves access to drug dependence treatment. “Which States Will Legalize Next” featured advocates from Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Maine. Other breakouts focused on “Mobilizing the Political Power of Formerly Incarcerated Persons,” “Increasing Access to the Overdose Silver Bullet (Naloxone),” “The War on Drugs: A War on Migrants,” and “What do Psychedelics Have to Do With Drug Policy Reform?”

After the smaller evening community sessions and a screening of the Eugene Jarecki documentary “The House I Live In,” many of the conference attendees headed out to Quixote’s for a party presented by Vicente Sederberg, the law firm that helped to get Amendment 64 passed in Colorado. It was wall-to-wall people inside with the band, bar and deejay, and just about as crowded outside where people enjoyed the constitutional freedom to consume cannabis.

You can enjoy some of the speeches and clips from the sessions on The Russ Belville Show this week at 6pm, 9pm, and Midnight Eastern.  Follow Russ on Twitter and @RBShow420 on Instagram for live updates from the International Reform Conference (#ReformConf).


"Radical" Russ Belville is the host of The Russ Belville Show, which airs live at 3pm Pacific.