A Trip to #Reform2023 – The Drug Policy Alliance International Conference

By |Published On: November 21st, 2023|

This international conference is a big deal in Drug Policy circles, and we were beyond excited to attend for the first time this year.

Usually a biennial event, this was the first Drug Policy Alliance International Conference since 2019, hosted by the Gila River Indian Community on the outskirts of Phoenix, Arizona. The management of the land and facilities is a “unique partnership of two distinct indigenous people, the O’Odham (People of the River) and the Pipaash (Maricopa)”. Located on 372 000 acres in south central Arizona, the community makes up the largest indigenous population in the Phoenix metro Valley area.

Ami Heystek – our Youth and Diversity Director – and I were honoured to be awarded scholarships to cover our basic expenses to join 1 400 Drug Policy colleagues from around the world at this auspicious event. We are grateful for the continued support from our Affiliates, members of The Green Network, and our Dagga Private Clubs project for helping cover the shortfall caused by the crash of the Rand in the last few months.

Phew! R234 for 2 coffees in Phoenix!

We promise to make everyone proud – this highly educational adventure was really good fuel for our fight here at home.


We packed so much into those days in the desert that it would be impossible to summarise it all in just one post.

“Over the next three days, let us recommit to our work. Learn from each other, get inspired and meet new allies. Let us stand in our collective power, knowing that our calling is a moral imperative. And savor the moments of joy that we always find whenever drug policy reformers get together.”

– Kassandra Frederique, Executive Director, DPA – Opening Plenary #Reform2023

Watch an excerpt from her speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fqBv-olHk0Q

Each of the many interactions we have in this fight enriches our offering to realise our mission for Human Rights, Harm Reduction, and Evidence Based Drug Policy. In our world, we have always stressed the importance of Cannabis leading the way – a gateway drug to more effective Drug Policy.

Here is a summary of the sessions we attended. There was so much informative and useful content on offer, it was difficult to choose! Our experience was an opportunity to discuss big issues that we rarely get to look into in any depth in our day-to-day lives. Identifying as Drug Users remains a challenge for us, for the majority of the attendees at #Reform2023, and for society as a whole.

However, we will never stop demanding: Stop locking us up in cages (physically and mentally). No More Drug War!

Illness and Wellness: The Tradeoffs Between Medicalization and Pleasure in Drug Policy Reform.

While “health arguments” are an entryway that helps to demystify the use of drugs, this approach is largely exclusionary when it comes to access points for care. Keeping drugs within the realm of “medicine” places the issue inside the medical / industrial complex and creates the illusion of legitimacy. Think of Charlotte’s Web – the poignant story of a young girl who was helped with Cannabis treatment. This was “the mechanics of creating the ideal patient” – catering to the fact that the prohibitionists could not deny this child her treatment.

Jules’ words come to mind with this dilemma: “I’m not sick, I don’t want to make socks, I just want to get high.” We received so much flack for this over the years and I’m sure there is more to come.

Unlearning the Drug War: An Exit Strategy for School-Based Drug Policing

While this session was very “American”, the issues raised are universal. The most significant programme rolled out over many years in American schools is D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), started by the Los Angeles Police with undercover ‘’students’’ in 1983.

Lately, according to the preamble to this session it is noted that, “In the wake of students overdosing on campuses and parents calling for more interventions, including bringing back law enforcement on school campuses”, there are no clear cut solutions to this very serious issue. Low income students have always been targeted and widespread social media monitoring on school-issued devices raises privacy concerns. Some solutions offered were:

  • Working on together with students on Codes of Conduct
  • Harm Reduction on campuses
  • Engaging with educators
  • Bridging the gap between parents & teachers

In the light of the current debacle playing out in Soshanguve north of Pretoria where 90 schoolchildren were hospitalised after allegedly being sold “space cakes” by hawkers at the school gates, drug war rhetoric is alive and well in South Africa. “What about the children?” has long been the battle cry of the prohibitionists, largely ignoring the evidence and well-documented “Scale of Harms” research.

Recommended reading from the session: DARE to Say No: Policing and the War on DRugs in Schools (Justice, Power, Politics) by Max Felker-Kantor (available on pre-order, publication due April 2024).

Psychedelic Decriminalization: Gateway or Hurdle to All-Drug Decriminalization?

Legislation to “decriminalise” possession, and sometimes cultivation, of some psychedelics is happening in various parts of the world. In South Africa we have our very own Paul-Michael Keichel of Cullinan & Associates spearheading the Psilocybin case.

The questions posed during this session do not have immediate answers but will be at the forefront of discussions, research, court cases, political games, and everything in between for the next 20 years at least – mark my words!

Whose Body? My Body! The Fight for Bodily Autonomy – When the Drug War, Reproductive Justice, and Family Regulation Collide

This was a truly fascinating discussion on the current situation regarding addiction and lack of support for mothers in active addiction.

Our Cannabis Community in South Africa has travelled a long road with this issue and, should there be clear cut new policies as the laws change, we can only hope that this will filter through to broader Drug Policy in the country.

Of grave concern is the testing without consent when mothers attend primary health care facilities. Essentially, these tests translate into a measuring stick for how good a parent one is. Again, lower income families are most affected by these dated practices.

Solutions offered at the session centred around the need for substance use professionals within primary health care, particularly when it comes to the care of mothers and children. A good example given was the “Addiction Doula” to provide support in active addiction & perinatal Harm Reduction centres such as Elephant Circle.

Environmental Justice for ALL: An Equitable Approach to Sustainable Development and Climate Justice in Drug Policy Reform

Prohibition threatens the climate and challenges efforts to advance sustainable development. This was an in-depth and informative session where the panellists made clear the intersection of drug policy and climate issues. From the degradation of forest reserves in South America to the political turmoil at the forefront of poppy production in Afghanistan and Myanmar, drug policy and climate are intensely connected.

The session posed a guiding question: What types of regulations and environmental standards are needed to protect the environment and communities?

In South Africa we have to include all the “medical” Cannabis being grown under lights with our broken power supply, don’t we? Fields of Green for ALL looks forward to keeping you updated about this important issue.

Decriminalising Personal Liberties and Building Freedom Across Movements

There is an umbrella of criminalisation that covers all unnecessary limitations to our personal cognitive liberty. This session looked at the interlocking methods of social control and stigmatisation that plague all issues around all drugs.

In the Cannabis sector, we have noticed a certain air of “Cannabis exceptionalism” – Cannabis users thinking they are better for the “superior” drug of choice, often touted as “not a drug but a plant”.

It is only through dismantling these overlapping systems by working in collaboration with each other that we can hope to build systems that “respect communities’ rights and are rooted in health, safety, compassion and justice.”

Feature Plenary: Centering Indigenous Leadership and Innovation in Harm Reduction and Drug Policy

In this session we met indigenous leaders and community members on the conference main stage. In this context, the terms – Native American or “Indian” communities – seemed to be used interchangeably.

The irony that Cannabis is not legal on the Gila River Indian Community land was not lost on us. We did not find any concrete reasons for this but surmise that this was a community decision or it could be due to there being a number of casinos on the land.

In South Africa, we have (for all its good and bad points) the IKS Bill written into law in our country and members of the IKS (Indigenous Knowledge Systems) community at the forefront of policy negotiations. It remains to be seen where we will go with this and Fields of Green for ALL continues to stand for… Fields of Green for ALL!

Fundraising Tips, Strategies, and Wisdom from the Field

How can you ever get over your aversion to even asking people for money?

This, for us, was the central question that drew us to this session.
Fundraising, be it civil society or government grants (highly unlikely in SA) is a very niche & select strength.. The main takeaways from this session were:

  • Set your priorities out clearly and use the “pick a lane” strategy. “You can only get what you want if you know what you want”, as we always say
  • You cannot do everything, so capacity & team are essential
  • DO NOT SUGAR COAT things – Be honest about situation & needs
  • Know your funder: person & entity

Book suggestion: The Revolution Will Not be Funded – Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex

We have loads of homework to do on this one!

Beyond Commercialisation: How Regulation Can Create Legal Access and Safer Supply Without Big Business

It was not surprising to be in a room packed to overflowing for an esteemed panel comprising experts all well known to us at Fields of Green for ALL. Although not mentioned in the title, Cannabis took centre stage here and the Cannabis Social Club model was the shining light.

The preamble to the panel notes: “Addressing access for people who use drugs is a key decision involved in Drug Policy Reform, especially as governments continue to pass laws that decide who is legally allowed to produce and distribute drugs.”

Access is key in answering questions like:

“How do alternative access models address harm reduction? What are the limitations of alternative access models?”

The Cannabis Social Club model is a Harm Reduction model; it is challenging for us in South Africa to see this tried and tested way for people to access Cannabis go through many teething problems. There are many Dagga Private Clubs who support our work and provide amazing, safe, and educational experiences for their members. But then there are the tuckshops. You will be hearing from us on this subject in the coming months.

Drug Testing in Employment: Narrative Change and Policy Shift

At the outset of the war on drugs, Ronald Reagan introduced the belief that people who use drugs are not fit for employment, “despite the lack of Research connecting drug use to workplace performance.”

This panel drew our attention immediately, given that this is very close to our hearts with the ongoing case of Bernadette Enever vs Barloworld in the Labour Court of Appeal in South Africa.

We found the panel discussion to be particularly outcomes-based and for this we are grateful. The experts gave their views on what evidence-based, compassionate, and effective response to workplace drug use would look like and we look forward to developing our relationships with labour experts to solve our issues at home.

Thank you to our FGA Affiliates who help to make our ongoing content creation possible!

Thank you to our FGA Affiliates who help to make our ongoing content creation possible!


About the Author: Myrtle Clarke

Everyone here on TGN should know who I am!

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