A formidable background in human rights advocacy and scholarship certainly qualifies Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno for her role as executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, America’s and arguably the world’s preeminent dedicated drug policy reform organization.
When she discloses how, in the year after taking the DPA reins in September 2017, she not only published a book and parented a three-year-old, but also underwent treatment for breast cancer, another key quality is apparent: grit.
McFarland, 42, comes across as dedicated and resolute when I visit her at DPA’s Manhattan offices—attitudes that reflect both her previous work amid horrific human rights abuses in Colombia and her current challenge of driving drug policy forward, as a Latina leader, in the Trump era. A gleaming smile occasionally surprises you.
As we rapidly run through a range of America’s drug issues, her enthusiasm for DPA’s big coming initiative to decriminalize all drugs is tangible.
“I’m really excited about designing an all-drug decrim campaign, and getting that off the ground,” she says. “I think it could be transformational. I don’t think we’re going to see results in the immediate future, but that’s where we need to go.”
“What’s right for marijuana is surely not what’s right for heroin.”
Such progress would evidently have a dramatic impact on mass criminalization and incarceration in the US. “The latest FBI data shows that you have over 1.4 million people a year in the US being arrested for simple drug use and possession. That’s the single most-arrested offense by far.”
Decriminalization versus legalization is a long-held area of DPA policy agnosticism (cannabis aside). “We haven’t taken a formal position on regulation of all drugs,” confirms McFarland. “I think the challenge is describing what that would even look like. If you regulate, you’ll have to take into account the specific characteristics of different drugs, and the risks associated with that. What’s right for marijuana is surely not what’s right for heroin. What about meth? And where does cocaine fall? They’re all different, and the challenge would be to find a system that protected human rights, reduced the abuses related to prohibition, but also didn’t create a whole bunch of new problems. We haven’t come out and said, ‘This is what you should do.’ But we do think it’s important to have a healthy debate and not close off possibilities.”
The focus includes the criminalization of people who sell drugs. “We’ve been having a conversation about low-level drug sellers, because it really doesn’t make any sense to lock people up for minor distribution offenses when the reality is, they’re probably just a person who uses drugs, and who is selling small quantities to support their habit.”
The current spate of drug-induced homicide prosecutions—“An Overdose Death Is Not Murder,” DPA’s impactful report released in November 2017, helped bring that issue to national attention—like so many other areas of drug criminalization, is loaded with racism. Innocent-white-victim narratives contrast with portrayals of dealers.
“That’s something we’ve been watching with concern,” says McFarland. “Reducing sentences is important, and defelonization initiatives are something to look at as well. You can talk about defelonizing just personal use and possession, which has already been done in a few states, and could be viewed as a step towards all-drug decrim, but you could also talk about defelonization for low-level sales or transportation—the mule, the driver of the car, and so on.”
“There are things that you can push for successfully in Congress.”
Broadly, McFarland sees opportunities for national drug policy reform alongside progress in individual states, despite the current federal landscape.
“We’re playing defense in some ways” at a federal level, she notes, citing DPA’s work to block the SITSA bill, which would have increased federal mandatory minimum sentences for synthetics. “But we’ve also managed to help shape the opioids legislation, so you have streams of funding going to medication-assisted treatment and other better things. There are things that you can push for successfully in Congress.”
Increasingly, marijuana legalization is one of them. “In a few years, I really think we could achieve federal legalization.”
Legalization in 10 states and counting has been DPA’s (and many allies’) most high-profile success to date. With Canada having fully legalized and major corporations getting into the business, McFarland’s thoughts about the future path of legalization focus on fighting for accompanying social and racial justice provisions.
“There needs to be a recognition that the War on Drugs has been an excuse for targeting Black and Brown communities.”
“We’ve been pushing hard for legalization measures to be modeled after Prop 64 in California [which DPA had a large role in crafting],” she says. “Legalize marijuana; but do it in a way that also attempts to repair the enormous harm that was done. It’s very important for measures to include record expungements. All these people who have criminal records who have to live with that hanging over their heads, they have trouble getting housing, employment, all sorts of other difficulties—they should not have to live with that.”
Tax revenues, she urges, should be reinvested in programs to help communities most harmed by prohibition—disproportionately communities of color. “There needs to be a recognition that the War on Drugs has been an excuse for targeting Black and Brown communities, and so you need to do something to make amends, right?”
Access to the cannabis industry is a related point. “You don’t want a situation where the only people who can be in that market are wealthy corporations that already have a huge advantage, and you exclude the people most harmed or who previously were in the market illicitly. So we need provisions to allow for market access for low-income people, and those most affected. Those are all part of the Marijuana Justice Act, which Senator Cory Booker has introduced, and there’s a version of it in the House as well. And they’re part of what we’re pushing for in New York and New Jersey.”
“I think we’ve made tremendous progress at the federal level,” she concludes, “with three bills in the Senate this year that would either legalize or decriminalize marijuana. Who would’ve thought that, even two years ago?”
Another area of interest for McFarland is psychedelics, including their medical uses. Praising the work of MAPS in this area, she notes that allowing medical use of these drugs, while valuable in its own right, can also “open the door to decriminalization, as it has with marijuana.”
“I think the crisis is sensitizing some people to the fact that existing drug war policies don’t work.”
The dominant drug policy narrative right now is of course opioids and overdose, and the situation presents a mixed picture to McFarland. “The overdose crisis is a big opportunity and challenge at the same time.”
The negatives are daunting. “It’s terrible that you have over 70,000 dead just last year from overdose, and really problematic that the narrative has focused so heavily on white victims, and the pharmaceutical companies’ role. The rise in overdose also lends itself to politicians spreading fear, to blaming migrants for overdose. It lends itself to Trump saying that he wants the death penalty for drug sellers.’
On the other hand, “I think the crisis is sensitizing some people to the fact that existing drug war policies focused on cutting off supply don’t work—and, in fact, got us to this place. We’ve invested all our resources in criminal justice, instead of access to effective treatment and harm reduction measures that would save lives. It is because of the drug war that you have massive misinformation, and very little information about the real risks of drugs and how you can minimize them.”
She’s also acutely aware of how restricting the medical supply of opioids creates risks in terms of pain patients turning to the illicit market, and suffering. “It is inhumane to cut off access. There have been stories about people committing suicide because they couldn’t deal with the pain after their supply was cut off. That’s unconscionable.”
McFarland senses an opportunity, in this context, to tell the story of the crisis—for example, through the powerful narratives of bereaved parents—in ways that deconstruct the current approach and prioritize harm reduction.
DPA’s Role in a Polarized Landscape
I’m curious about how Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno sees the role of her organization in the new political reality. A few years back, when I interviewed her predecessor, DPA’s founder and longtime leader Ethan Nadelmann, he described the breadth of drug policy reform despite its foundations in the civil rights movement and the left, and how it included people of diverse political persuasions united by a common cause.
But a lot has changed since. Powerful, identity-oriented movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, along with white nationalism on the right, challenge Americans to consider whether they’re with or against them. And Trump arrived at a time when polarization in US politics was already growing, and accelerated that.
Does McFarland, I ask, see DPA’s primary role as fortifying the barricades, or reaching across the political aisle?
She answers without hesitation. “I think we have to reach across the aisle.”
“Libertarians [for example] are very much a part of the movement,” she continues, noting that DPA has employed libertarians and would do so again, “as are people who care deeply about all sorts of social justice issues.”
“I mean, we want to make sure that people are committed to our values,” she continues, “and to us, the War on Drugs is a problem not only because it infringes on freedom, but also because of its dramatic impact on rights, of the serious harms that it’s caused. There are lots of different ways that people come to this work and to our movement, and some people care more about one piece than another. But as long as we have agreement about those basic values—grounding drug policies in science, compassion, health and human rights—that remains the core. Those are principles that people from very different backgrounds can agree to.”
How Peru and Colombia Shaped a Mission
That message contrasts with the preferred emphases of some drug policy reformers, but it’s also true that resistance and reconciliation don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s likely, as McFarland sometimes hints, that the perspective of her background informs her level of political tolerance.
Her American father was a US Foreign Service Officer, working in many countries, who became a sculptor after retirement. He and McFarland’s Peruvian mother met during a posting. McFarland is a dual US-Peruvian citizen, and spent her formative years, between the ages of eight and 20, in Peru.
In more ways than one, her upbringing planted the seeds of her later mission. Her father was always “a fierce critic of the drug war, even though he had worked at the State Department. I grew up hearing that it was ridiculous, and that we should just legalize everything. Also in Peru, you heard about fumigation and the US trying to go after coca crops, and it just didn’t make sense to me.”
She was raised in a country of extreme inequalities that was also ravaged by war. “We had an internal armed conflict between the Maoist insurgency of the Shining Path and the military. So we had had bombs in my neighborhood frequently. But probably more striking was the massive influx of internally displaced refugees coming from the Andes, where they were being slaughtered by both sides. Lima, my city, was full of desperately poor people who didn’t speak Spanish; they spoke Indigenous languages. It was a striking thing to witness that damage from war.”
Another formative influence was seeing, in 1992, President Alberto Fujimori shutting down Peru’s congress and taking complete control of government. “That turned into nine years of autocracy and extreme corruption. He took over control of the media, effectively, by buying off the heads of news outlets. He took over the courts.”
McFarland avoids explicit comparisons—“I don’t want to sit here comparing what’s wrong here with what’s happening in other countries”—but her descriptions suggest differences between the repressive, racist and deadly consequences of the US War on Drugs and the outright massacres of a military war; and differences between the literal autocracies of the world and a US government that seems to want to become one.
Don’t mistake that perspective, however, for any downplaying of drug policy harms in the US. “There are a lot of things in the US that are horrible, a lot of injustices that are awful in their own right.” Attending law school in the US, she was already “figuring out, how do I work on these issues of social justice that I care about?’”
“Prohibition had so distorted what was already a war in Colombia, because it had created this profit motive.”
After clerking on the US Court of Appeals, for the Fifth Circuit, in Texas, and a teaching fellowship at Fordham Law School, McFarland worked for a spell at a law firm, “representing Argentina in these lawsuits by vulture funds trying to basically collect on debts after their economic crisis.” But she’d been in touch with Human Rights Watch and knew she wanted to work in that space. When that organization offered her a position as their Colombia researcher, it was an easy decision.
The six years she spent in Colombia cemented her commitment to drug policy reform. “I had always been skeptical of the War on Drugs, but I really got to see up close the very dramatic impact of it in that country.”
“Prohibition had so distorted what was already a war in Colombia—an internal war between left-wing guerrillas and the then-government—because it had created this profit motive,” she explains. “You had right-wing paramilitary groups claiming to be self-defense forces, in fact being drug-trafficking groups seeking to control territory, fighting over that territory with the FARC, which is also taxing growers and making money off the drug trade. Civilians were caught in the middle.”
Some of her experiences were hard to bear. “I documented so many massacres, I talked to so many survivors, relatives who had seen their family members dismembered alive in front of them, lost their children, really horrific stories of torture and rape and so on, and so much of it because of these turf battles, and also seeing how the money from the drug trade gave organized crime this immense power in the country, gave them the ability to buy off just about anyone they wanted.”
The police and military, she adds, heavily funded by the US, were guilty of much the same in terms of abuses and corruption, driven by the profit motive of the cocaine trade. “And so, to me, it became very clear that, if I wanted to really address the human rights abuses in Colombia, it’s essential to end the War on Drugs, and find a different way of dealing with all of this.”
“People should have control of what they do with their own bodies, and the decision to consume drugs fits within that space.”
Her work in this environment took its toll on McFarland personally. “It was an incredible experience. It changed my life, and I’m grateful for it. But I was kind of burned out and dealing with trauma, and I needed to do something different.”
Her experiences in Colombia inspired There Are No Dead Here, her award-winning book about an activist, a journalist and an investigator who risked their lives to reveal collusion between right-wing paramilitaries with cocaine-trade involvement and the Colombian military and political establishment. Six years in the writing, it was published in February 2018.
She switched to working for Human Rights Watch on US foreign policy—which, of course, “has such an influence in Latin America.” Her varied work took in the Middle East during the Arab Spring at the start of the decade, and many other countries.
She retained her commitment to drug policy reform, and it was substantially thanks to McFarland’s work and internal advocacy that in 2013, Human Rights Watch became the first major international human rights organization to call for drug decriminalization and broader, global drug policy reform.
She also worked on reviewing HRW and the ACLU’s important 2016 report, “Every 25 Seconds,” which laid out the vast extent of US drug criminalization and the grotesque racial disparities and abuses involved, and made the human rights case for decriminalization.
“The fundamental principle underlying all human rights is the notion of human autonomy,” she says. “People should have control of what they do with their own bodies, and the decision to consume drugs fits within that space.”
Taking Leadership of a Movement
McFarland’s predecessor, Ethan Nadelmann, led DPA for two decades. I ask her how it felt to step into his shoes after three rounds of interviews.
“I have my own shoes!” she laughs. “They’re prettier!”
“Look, I remember attending DPA conferences before, and just being blown away by how cutting-edge everyone was, and these fascinating conversations and diverse people from across the spectrum. And Ethan was such a powerful speaker, and so smart and inspiring. So yeah, I jumped at the opportunity of taking on this role. I have a totally different style, which is fine.”
Many of us might be intimidated to take over such a prominent organization from its founder, I venture, especially in a period of staff changes in several key DPA positions.
“That’s not intimidating!” she exclaims. “Intimidating is the stuff I did in Colombia, going off and talking to paramilitaries. You have to stretch yourself. I’ve always tried to keep stretching myself, otherwise, I get bored.”
“It’s been a very steep learning curve,” she concedes. “I have expertise in some areas of drug policy, but DPA covers a huge range, and so it’s been learning the issues and learning the organization itself, with all of its idiosyncrasies. It’s getting to know 70 staff members. It’s getting to know how to manage at this level, because previously, I had managed a team of 13 people. And also, the challenge of being a leader, the face of the organization, and how to speak, how to hold myself out. It’s all challenging, but it’s all exciting. I want to get better at it, and I’m looking forward to that.”
Courage and Optimism
It’s then that she shares a different kind of challenge she’s faced. “In February, right before I released my book, I was diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer. I released my book on February 27, and on March 1 I had surgery. Then I had almost four months of chemotherapy over the summer, and now I’m about to complete radiation. Then, it’s just hormone therapy.”
“It’s been quite the juggling act,” she says, with understatement. “But my prognosis is good, and I feel good. The summer was rough; I plowed through it. I wasn’t able to travel because I had to stay for the chemo, and because of my weakened immune system. With radiation, I’ve also had travel restrictions. But after chemo, I took vacation for the first time in over a year, and went and spoke at the 25th anniversary of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii.”
Was that really a proper vacation? “But I took 10 days off, and came back from that and did this amazing green smoothie diet that my integrative medicine doctor recommended, which gave me a whole lot of energy! So I feel very good right now.”
McFarland’s ability to travel for work once again allows her to schedule a trip to Mexico in the new year, where she plans to cross-fertilize with some exciting drug policy developments.
“I’m going to be watching Mexico very closely,” she enthuses, “because you have a president there talking about regulating all drugs. I doubt that that’s what’s going to happen, but you may see marijuana legalization. You may see something happening with poppy. You may see low-level offenders being released. So I think there’s movement.”
As she talks about many other examples of international policies that should inspire the US—as well as her plans to expand DPA’s national footprint, for example in the South—Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno displays more of the passion, expertise and optimism that she and her movement will need on the long road ahead.
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